By John Bohnenkamp
The goal, Rob Jeter said, is to be playing on Tuesday night in the Summit League tournament championship game.
“It’s Tuesday, right?” the Western Illinois coach said on Sunday night, after the Leathernecks lost to Oral Roberts 80-68 in the quarterfinals of the tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D..
Then he laughed.
“My boss will tell you I lose track of days and who I’m playing,” Jeter said, still laughing. “And I just show up.”
The chronology of the Leathernecks has been a little messed up in Jeter’s first two seasons as the coach in Macomb.
Last season was a calendar jumble caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, because the Leathernecks couldn’t work out together in the spring and summer, didn’t have a lot of practice in the fall, and then had to cobble out a nonconference schedule to go along with the two-game weekend series schedule in the Summit League.
That’s why this season, Jeter said, felt like Year 1 because it was the first normal routine in the rebuilding of the Leathernecks.
They went 16-15, Western Illinois’ first winning season since the 2012-13 team shared the regular-season conference title. The Leathernecks went 9-3 in nonconference play, including a win at Nebraska, home wins over Miami (Ohio) and Ball State and a road win at Central Michigan.
These were milestones that were worth celebrating, Jeter said, but it’s only the beginning.
“When we’re going through it, you kind of bring it up, and then you move on, because that’s not the standard,” he said. “That’s not the goal. The goal is to be competing for championships, to be playing on Tuesday (in Sioux Falls).”
Summit League play, though, was different. Western Illinois went 7-11 to tie for sixth place. There were road wins over North Dakota State, which finished second in the conference, and at Oral Roberts, which finished third, but there were also some games the Leathernecks let get away.
The goal now, Jeter said, is to find a way to get into that top part of the league, to compete with teams like South Dakota State, North Dakota State and Oral Roberts, the traditional contenders that find their way to the NCAA tournament with the league’s automatic bid each season.
“The teams that have been together through all of this, they’re performing at a different level,” Jeter said. “You can really see that. They bounce back from tough losses, disruptions. We’re still trying to find our identity a little bit.”
The Leathernecks had two games postponed because of COVID-19 concerns, a January 6 home game against Kansas City and a January 20 home game against South Dakota. The second one came after Western Illinois had swept a road trip against North Dakota State and North Dakota and had momentum coming into a key home weekend against South Dakota and South Dakota State.
After the schedule shift, the Leathernecks lost to South Dakota State — everyone, though, did this season, as the Jackrabbits went undefeated in conference play — and then missed key chances late in the 75-72 loss to South Dakota in the rescheduled game the following Monday.
“Unfortunately for us, some of those disruptions affected us negatively,” Jeter said.
The disruptions won’t be a factor, Jeter said, as the stability within the core of the program grows.
“You have to have continuity, and we’re starting to get more of that,” Jeter said. “Year 3, we’ll have a little bit more. We’ll have some key pieces, and then we’ll have to fill some holes and some gaps. I think that’s key.”
“I think we learned a lot,” said guard Trenton Massner, a second-team all-conference pick this season after averaging 16.8 points per game. “Like Coach said, we had a lot of ups and downs this year, but we stayed together.”
“We found a way to still have fun,” Jeter said. “We found a way to come to practice every day, lace ‘em up and try to get better. That’s a testament to the guys we had in the locker room. It wasn’t pretty at times, but they showed up and worked.”
Sunday’s loss hurt the Leathernecks.
“I know we have a bunch of guys who were disappointed tonight,” Jeter said. “That’s a great sign. It’s not just, ‘Let’s move on.’ They were disappointed. They felt like we could have done better. That’s something we can build on.”
Jeter’s mental calendar already has a date circled for the future.
“We’ve accomplished some things,” he said. “But there’s so much more. We’re going to keep pushing to get into that next group, to get into Tuesday night. That’s our goal. Those are the standards.”
Photo: Western Illinois guard Colton Sandage (15) defends Oral Roberts’ Issac McBride in the first half of Sunday’s Summit League tournament quarterfinal. (Richard Carlson/Inertia)