Getting to know your Western Illinois basketball coaches

David Koier, Courier Staff

For the past six years, the men’s and women’s basketball programs here at Western Illinois have been in good hands. Men’s basketball coach Billy Wright (entering his sixth season) and women’s coach JD Gravina (entering his eighth season) return to the helms of their respective teams, riding the momentum of successful seasons.

Starting with Gravina, the veteran coach and the women’s basketball team finished fifth in The Summit League regular season standings with an 8-8 conference record (12-18) overall. The young team made The Summit League tournament only to lose to the No. 4 seed, Oral Roberts Golden Eagles, in a 68-64 nail-biter.

While last season was not Gravina’s most successful at Western Illinois, that had a lot to do with the team’s lack of experience.

“Last year we didn’t have any experience, graduating six of our top seven, and it’s amazing the difference a year makes. Now we got seven or eight kids that are all experienced.” Gravina said.

The eight experienced players that the coach referenced take the place of the lone senior that graduated from Gravina’s squad. However, the lone senior happens to be the Western Illinois women’s basketball all-time leading scorer, Taylor Higginbotham. When asked on the Western Illinois Football Pregame Show what he was going to do to replace Higginbotham, Gravina responded, “We won’t be able to replace Taylor and I don’t think anyone will be able to step into her role.”

In her time at Western, Higginbotham amassed 248 three-pointers, 806 rebounds and a program high 1,806 total points.

“Her rebounding is something we’re going to miss the most,” Gravina said. And the way Taylor shot the ball, all-time leading scorer, her offense will be missed, but I think we plan, hopefully, as a team to pick that up more as a team than anything else.”

Gravina and the women’s team were picked to finish fifth in The Summit League preseason coaches’ poll.

Wright and the men’s team are looking to continue the success of last season. The Leathernecks went 4-12 in Summit League play and 10-21 overall. Don’t let those records fool you, though. Western Illinois earned a spot in The Summit League conference tournament and made history once there. Wright led his team to a 79-76 victory over top-seeded South Dakota State, making it the first time in Summit League tournament history that a No. 8 seeded team upset a No. 1 seed.

The Leathernecks lost their next game to the eventual tournament champions No. 4 North Dakota State by a close score of 76-73. Wright was proud of the team after the gam. Wright said in an interview with “It was a good college basketball game. Both teams played hard. I thought our guys did a really good job fighting back into the game. A lot of teams may have given up in that situation, but I am really proud of our guys. We had a chance to win and it came down to one or two possessions.”

Wright has been head coach at Western Illinois since 2014 but has many years of experience prior. He began his coaching career in 1996 after finishing up a Hall of Fame playing career at Bradley University. Wright came to Western Illinois in 2008 as an assistant coach under Jim Molinari. In 2010, he was promoted to associate head coach, a position he held for three years. Wright made the switch to Ball State University in 2013, accepting an assistant coach position there until 2014.

On April 15, 2014 Wright was announced as the 20th head coach in Western Illinois men’s basketball program history. Wright started his career off with a splash when in his second season at the helm, Wright led his Leathernecks squad to a victory over a nationally ranked team. The Leathernecks traveled to Madison, Wis. to play the No. 17 Wisconsin Badgers who were coming off a season that saw them make it to the Final Four. Western upset Wisconsin 69-67 in front of a sold out crowd at the Kohl’s Center.

Wright returns four seniors this season after losing four last season, including defensive powerhouse Brandon Gilbeck. The Leathernecks were voted to finish seventh out of 10 teams in The Summit League in the preseason coaches’ poll.