Men’s Basketball Season Preview

Bradley Piros, Courier Staff

Well, it’s certainly going to be a season to remember when all is said and done. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it was doubtful that college sports would get to be played. Some conferences have begun to allow interconference play in some sports including football and basketball this winter.

With that being said, the Western Illinois University men’s basketball team released their Summit League schedule and will later on release any non-conference matchups. As of now, they will play a 16-game schedule, playing each team in The Summit twice. The matchups will be set up back-to-back days in a single-cite format.

Western has arguably the toughest start to the season as they’ll kick things off against the North Dakota State University Bison on Jan. 2. NDSU were expected to come in third in this year’s league preseason poll. The Leathernecks, on the other hand, are expected to finish last.

After NDSU, they’ll hit the road to take on the South Dakota State University Jackrabbits with both games being played in Brookings, S.D. The Jackrabbits, like many years past, are expected to win the league. The last time the two teams met was in Macomb when SDSU beat the Leathernecks by a score of 71-61. The last time Western beat SDSU was the iconic upset two years ago in The Summit League Tournament when Western came out on top and beat the No. 1 seed 79-76 in an absolute nail biter.

When Western returns from probably their two toughest games of the season, they’ll open up a four-game homestand against The Summit’s newest addition University Missouri-Kansas City Kangaroos and then the South Dakota University Coyotes. Both these teams were picked preseason to finish middle of the pack, so they should all be a good test for the Leathernecks. They’ll go into this homestand looking to take at least three of the four games.

History isn’t on the Leathernecks’ side in their next two matchups. They’ll first take on the North Dakota University Fighting Hawks who they’ve played four times and never beat. Last time out, Western took the Hawks to overtime but came up short 86-83 back on Feb. 15. After these two games, the Leathernecks will head to Nebraska to take on the University of Omaha Mavericks. These teams have played 18 times since 2012, Western only winning seven of those matchups. Even worse, Omaha is currently holding an eight-game winning streak in the all-time series with the last Leatherneck win coming back in 2016.

Western will come home for their final home games against the University of Denver Pioneers. Last season, each team won a game with Western winning 86-80 on Jan. 11 and Denver besting the Leathernecks 69-63. Each team won their home game. This time, both games will be played in Macomb. It’ll be interesting to see how that one shakes out.

Finally, Western will conclude their regular season on the road against the Oral Roberts University Golden Eagles. The last matchup between these two saw Western get blown out 113-70, their worst defeat of the season.

Last season, the Leathernecks went 5-21 but more importantly 2-14 in conference action. This was at the time head coach Billy Wright’s last hoorah. He was let go from the program after that abysmal season.

Things are looking on the up and up, though, as he was shortly replaced by new head coach Rob Jeter. Jeter’s been in the coaching game for 25 years now and can boast his seven NCAA Tournament appearances on his resume. He’s won coach-of-the-year three times and has five seasons with at least 20 wins. He knows what he’s doing, so what about the players?

With the departure of Wright came the departure of some key players. Arguably Western’s best player in a decade, guard Kobe Webster transferred to the University of Indiana. Zion Young, Ben Pyle and Roderick Smith are no longer part of the program. CJ Duff, James Claar, Jeremiah Usiosefe and Keshon Montague have all graduated. On Western’s current roster, only two players are returning for Jeter’s debut season and they are senior guard Anthony Jones and senior forward Jake Weyhrich.

That means in Jeter’s first season at the helm, he’s taking on the task of rebuilding an entire program. There are currently six freshmen on the team and only the two seniors previously mentioned. It’s definitely going to be a younger team this season.

The NCAA declared that basketball games could be played starting the day before Thanksgiving, but The Summit is going to wait until 2021. Teams reported back in the middle of October to begin practices but can only have a maximum of 30 practices before the first tip-off.

Some states will be allowing a small number of fans into their arenas as long as they are wearing masks and social distancing. Illinois is not one of those states, however, meaning the Leathernecks will be playing their games inside Western Hall with the doors closed. No fans will be permitted to attend the games as of now because of state guidelines and if things change, the program will notify fans on ticket eligibility.

Because of this, fans are encouraged to follow both teams’ Twitter pages for in-game updates, listen on the radio and tune in to the ESPN3 productions that will air all home games on ESPN+. Games will also be free to watch on Leatherneck All-Access and to listen on MixIr.

It’s going to be an extraordinary season, but at least there’s going to be a season.