By John Bohnenkamp
Western Illinois opens the Summit League men’s basketball season tonight at Denver.
There’s nothing mysterious about the Leathernecks, off to a 9-2 start to the season.
“There’s a big folder on us,” coach Rob Jeter said, laughing.
The conference is back to a normal schedule this season. Last season, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, teams would play back-to-back weekend games at the same site. It’s a return to the home-and-home round-robin schedule this season.
“Any time we can get back to anything close to normal, it is really uplifting for the spirit in all of us,” Jeter said.
The Leathernecks are off to their best start since moving to NCAA Division I in the 1981-82 season. They’re undefeated at home, and their only two losses came at DePaul and Eastern Michigan by a total of eight points.
And they’ve done it against a schedule that features teams that look like what they’ll see in conference play. Western Illinois has played four Mid-American Conference teams (Eastern Michigan, Miami, Ball State and Central Michigan), two Ohio Valley Conference teams (UT-Martin and Eastern Illinois) and one Horizon League team (Northern Kentucky).
“Props to the coaches for setting up a schedule like that, to see some things that we’ll see during the (conference schedule),” said forward Will Carius, third in the Summit League in scoring at 18.1 points per game.
KenPom.com projects Western Illinois to finish at 12-6 in the conference, good for a tie for second place. But Jeter knows the difficulty of the league.
“Conference play gets a lot tighter,” Jeter said. “We’re going to need every weapon we have, and have every player provide their strength.”
It’s a roster with deep options. Carius, guard Colton Sandage (15.3 ppg) and guard Trenton Massner (13.6 ppg) are in the top 10 in the conference in scoring. Luka Barisic (13.4) is 12th.
“If (Carius) is having a tough stretch, then you have Colton,” Jeter said. “When Colton’s having a tough stretch, you have Trenton. And then you have Diesel (Luka Barisic), he’s just same pace, same speed, but he has his spurts.”
Tamell Pearson, the fifth starter, averages 8.8 points, but leads the team in rebounding at 6.3 per game. George Dixon, the first player off the bench, averages 5.1 points and five rebounds.
“We can’t forget the work that Tamell and George provide underneath,” Jeter said. “They do a lot of the dirty work — they keep possessions alive with offensive rebounds, and defensively making guys hit tough shots. It’s a collective effort.”
“It’s big to have so many options,” Carius said. “They can only take away so many people. You can’t face-guard five people on the floor. We’re taking what they’ve given us, and that’s how we’re going to roll the rest of the year.
“We don’t have a selfish kid on the team. Whoever is going to lead us to a win is going to do it.”
The Leathernecks have been tested by quick turnarounds during their nonconference schedule, and the back-to-back games last season were also good preparation for what’s ahead.
“It did prepare us, a little trial by fire,” Carius said. “We’ll have trips with a couple of road games. Now it will be easy for us.”
Western Illinois hasn’t won a conference title since the 2012-13 team shared the regular-season crown. This team has the depth to challenge in a conference that is top heavy with South Dakota State and Oral Roberts.
“We know every night is going to be a battle,” Jeter said. “It doesn’t matter who you’re playing. The coaches are very good, teams are very well-prepared. Throw in travel in there, and that changes the game.”
WIU WOMEN OPEN AT HOME
Western Illinois’ women’s team opens at home tonight against Denver on a four-game winning streak that included victories over Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois to win the Compass Challenge. The Leathernecks lost their opener at Notre Dame, but have won nine of their last 10
The Leathernecks (9-2) lead the Summit League in scoring offense at 82.1 points per game. They, too, have depth.
Danni Nichols is second in the league in scoring at 18.3 points per game. Jada Thorpe (13 ppg) is tied for eighth. Elizabeth Lutz (11.9 ppg) and Evan Zars (11.3) also average in double figures. Zars leads the league in rebounding at 8.5 per game. Nichols and Zars are 1-2 in field-goal percentage, while Lutz is third in the conference in assists at 4.7.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said before the season his team was fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
During the break for finals last week, the Hawkeyes all got their booster shots.
“We had an opportunity,” McCaffery said. “What we did was we spread it out over a couple of days because it was made available on Friday. We played Thursday (at Iowa State). It was made available on Friday. A bunch of guys did it. Some guys wanted to wait through the weekend because they had whatever they had exam-wise or whatever they were doing. So we gave them the flexibility.”
A total of 32 men’s basketball programs have had games canceled and are on pause because of COVID-19 outbreaks within their program.
“We’ve not had any issues,” McCaffery said. “We got our team vaccinated and obviously we’re in a great position to do that with the hospital right here and the accessibility. It’s been good for us so far. We’ll continue to operate that way.”
“I think it’s a wake-up for all of us,” Jeter said. “We’ve been getting a little lax on some things. We need to make sure to wash our hands, do all of the things — masks, social distancing. And we’re going into the holidays, which is even scarier. We have to tighten up — we all have to tighten up, as a country — on some things.”