By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
MOLINE, Ill. — Western Illinois University’s basketball doubleheader at Vibrant Arena on Friday was created out of necessity.
But playing at the arena close to the university’s Quad Cities campus was something athletic director Paul Bubb has been wanting to do for a while, and could be something that will become a part of the Leathernecks’ schedule in the future.
Western Illinois’ women’s basketball team will play St. Xavier (Ill.) University at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, followed by the men’s team playing Eureka College at 7:30.
Bubb, who took over as Western Illinois’ athletic director last summer, said he made it a priority to have an athletics presence in the Quad Cities.
“We want people from the Quad Cities to come down to our campus, but that has to work vice-versa as well,” Bubb said at a press conference on Monday to preview the games.
Both basketball teams had games scheduled this weekend as final nonconference matchups before Summit League play begins Monday, but Western Hall, on WIU’s Macomb campus, was unavailable because of graduation ceremonies for the fall semester.
WIU’s men’s team last played on Saturday at Eastern Illinois, while the women’s team played at home on Sunday against SIU-Edwardsville. The two opponents for Friday’s games had already been scheduled before there was going to be a conflict.
“Neither of our coaches were excited about going a week without playing a game,” Bubb said.
Bubb knew Vibrant Arena, which once was the site of the Mid-Continent Conference basketball tournaments when Western Illinois played in the league and is now the site of the Missouri Valley Conference women’s tournament, was a perfect choice.
“I’ve been driving up to this campus the past 4 ½ years, and every time I’ve come up from Macomb I’d drive by a beautiful-looking arena and realize what a great facility this was in the Quad Cities, and wondering why we didn’t have an opportunity to play up here a little more often,” Bubb said.
Bubb was able to secure a date that worked at the end of WIU’s finals week. The arena will have a WWE pro-wrestling event on Saturday, so Friday was the only available date.
“I guess we got a little bit lucky there,” Bubb said. “Things just kind of fell into place.”
“Maybe I can get one of the wrestlers to come body-slam me at mid-court,” Western Illinois women’s coach JD Gravina quipped.
“It’s just a really great experience for our players to get to play in a big, nice arena,” Gravina said. “We recruit this area. There’s a lot of really good girls basketball in this area. We’re excited to make this more a part of our WIU community. I know this has really grown in the last 8-10 years.”
St. Xavier is an NAIA school, while Eureka is an NCAA Division III school.
Bubb said he’s trying to secure future games against NCAA Division I teams. His preference for opponents would be men’s and women’s teams from the same school.
“I’ve already been reaching out,” he said. “I think it’s about finding the right opponent. I’m trying to find some opponents that are known, maybe even have a little more national appeal to it. I think we want to have a good matchup. Quad Cities sports fans are great fans. I think they would want to see good teams here. Regardless of who we’re playing, I want it to be a good show for the fans.
“I would like to make this an annual trip. I don’t know if it will be at this time of year, exactly. Might be a little bit earlier in the season.”
“It’s not a hundred percent my call,” Gravina said. “But we’ve thrown around some ideas. I think it’s something we’ll continue to look in on, and try to do some different things, whether it’s against a (Power 5) school or a Missouri Valley school. I think we’re definitely open to looking at it, at least from the women’s basketball side of things.”
While it will be considered a home game, Gravina said he’ll approach it a little differently with his team.
“Kind of treating it like a neutral (court) game, facility-wise, will be a good experience for us.” he said. “I think we’ll have a lot of fans come up from Macomb, but we’ll be playing in front of a little different fan base.”
Gravina said such games like this could help in recruiting.
“We want to think of ourselves as the Division I team that represents this area,” he said.
Photo: Western Illinois athletics director Paul Bubb speaks at Monday’s press conference as women’s basketball coach JD Gravina looks on.