By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
Trenton Massner is glad his roommate is going to get to play this season, for a lot of reasons.
While Massner was leading Western Illinois in every major statistical category — points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks — his roommate, Quinlan Bennett, was sitting out as he was recovering from two ankle surgeries.
Massner knew Bennett could have helped the Leathernecks with their defense. And he probably could have given Massner a break, too.
“I don’t like chasing around (Oral Roberts’) Max Abmas all game,” Massner said, laughing. “So hopefully he can help me out now, and he’s willing to do it.”
Massner and Bennett will be the anchors of experience for the Leathernecks, who open their season on Monday night at Illinois State. It’s a roster with few returning players and Massner, in his fifth season of college basketball and Bennett, a fourth-year junior, will provide the experience.
But they will also be the defensive catalysts for a team that wants to lock down opponents this season.
“Last year, we were wanting to put points on the board,” Western Illinois coach Rob Jeter said. “This year, our expectation is to take points off the board for the other team. That’s the expectation. Now we have to live up to those expectations.”
Massner, at 6-foot-2, was a second-team All-Summit League pick last season and was also named to the conference’s all-defensive and all-newcomer teams after averaging 16.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4 assists, 1.8 steals and 0.6 blocks. What impressed Jeter was he put up those numbers while also averaging 36 minutes per game and while guarding the opponents’ best player.
“I think it would have been good to give Trenton a rest at times last year,” Jeter said. “We’re asking him to guard one of the top offensive players in the league, and then be one of the top offensive players. And that’s very difficult to do when you’re playing 34, 35 minutes a game.”
Massner appreciated the way Jeter allowed him to grow as a player.
“I think the coaching staff gets the credit for that, giving me the freedom I never really had,” he said. “I think everybody asks me how I’ve improved so much, but I think it’s just I’ve always felt like I’ve been the same player, but I just had coaches who have given me the opportunity to be more who I was.”
“We really expected him on the offensive side of the ball to do what he did — a player we can count on to put some points on the board,” Jeter said. “
“We tried to live up to what we said when we recruited him. We could see that was the next stage in his development — put the ball in his hands, have him lead the team. Not just score, but lead the team.”
But Jeter just didn’t let Massner do everything he wanted. The coach wanted to make sure Massner also defended.
“I think it was just Coach getting on me about it every day,” said Massner, who grew up in Wapello, Iowa. “Obviously he thought I had the athletic ability to guard. He kept harping on me. I feel like the offensive side is a selfish mentality. He made me buy into just the whole team aspect of playing defense, and I appreciate him doing that.”
“The defensive side is where I think he’s done the most improvement,” Jeter said. “You watch games, he’s getting his hands on basketballs, he’s deflecting them, he’s getting steals, rebounding the ball.”
He’s going to have help this season from Bennett, who said his ankle is “100 percent.”
Bennett, a Chicago native, played two seasons of junior college basketball at Triton (Ill.) College, then transferred to Lamar, where he played in 15 games in the 2020-21 season before suffering his ankle injury.
Bennett sat out last season, and knew he could have helped the Leathernecks, who went 16-16.
“Last year’s team, we were lacking defensively,” Bennett said. “I know I can get out there and help defensively.”
“His energy is off the charts,” Jeter said. “He’s constantly moving.
“The best part about it is he’s a little bit of a character. He makes you smile. But that’s good. There’s going to be some rough times. And you need to have guys around you who you can laugh with, and also have a sense of humor, not take it so seriously.”
Bennett is happy to be playing.
“My biggest goal is to win,” he said. “Win, and have fun. Last year I was really thirsty to play, but I couldn’t play. This year, I want to have fun.”
Massner said the same thing. He was a preseason all-conference pick, and the numbers he had last season only add to the attention he will get.
“The attention, I don’t really care that much about that, to be completely honest,” Massner said. “I just want to have fun playing the game. That’s why I play.”
Photo: Trenton Massner talks to Western Illinois coach Rob Jeter during last season’s game at Iowa. (Keith Gillett/Icon SportsWire)