With tipoff just a couple of hours away, welcome to my team-focused preview of this year’s Western Illinois Leathernecks. If you haven’t yet to checked out my individual breakdowns of the seven newcomers I see making the biggest impact on this year’s roster the links can be found here:
The good news for Western Illinois? The Leathernecks return their leading scorer, leading rebounder, leading assist man, leading shot blocker, leading steals man, and leading minute-getter from a season ago. The bad news? That’s all the same person. Outside of Trenton Massner, Western Illinois loses their next seven leaders in minutes played. Removing Massner’s production from the equation, Western returns a staggeringly low 8% of their minutes, 3% of their scoring, 4% of their rebounds, and 4% of their assists. This team will need to develop and, for much of the roster, adjust to the Division 1 level fast. The 11-game non-conference slate that begins tonight might mean more for the Leathernecks than any other team in the Summit League.
Projected Starting Five:
#5 Trenton Massner: The blossoming star from a season ago returns for his last season of college basketball surrounded by an influx of new talent. Massner’s ability to score the basketball while providing impact in numerous other aspects makes him a likely All-Summit League first-teamer in my eyes. He could put up some ridiculous numbers this season. Can he do something none of the 5,110 Division 1 players last year accomplished and average 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists per game? I don’t think it’s completely out of the question; he should have the keys to this offense unlike any other player in the conference not named Max Abmas.
#2 Alec Rosner: The dynamic scoring guard from Winona St. (MN) is expected to start alongside Massner in the backcourt. As I alluded to in my backcourt newcomers preview, I project Rosner to be 2nd on the team in scoring.
#1 Quinlan Bennett: Likely the most important defender on this Western Illinois roster, Bennett will often be tasked with stopping the conference’s premier scorers while providing leadership for a roster that while experienced overall, has very little experience at the Division 1 level.
#4 Jesiah West: One of the bounciest, most fun athletes in a conference that is becoming more athletic by the minute calls Macomb home. West will be tasked with providing much-needed rim protection and rebounding help to this year’s roster while creating some of the most exciting highlights in the Summit.
#12 Vuk Stevanic: The skilled big man from Serbia joins the Leathernecks after two seasons at St. Francis Brooklyn. His offensive (scoring both inside and out) and rebounding impacts will be major factors in determining this team’s success.
#15 Steph Gabriel: After scoring 16 PPG at the JUCO level last season, Gabriel provides the Leathernecks with another athletic scoring option. It will be interesting to see how well his versatility on both ends of the floor translates to the Division 1 level.
#22 Elijah Farr: About 20 months removed from playing in an official game, Farr was most recently a JUCO 2nd team All-American. With the upside to post double-doubles, Farr has a chance to become one of the most productive players on this roster.
#3 K.J. Lee: After a rollercoaster first season in the Western Illinois program, the 6’8 Lee returns with perhaps some of the most exciting long-term potential on the roster. If he can become efficient on the offensive end, his role post-Trenton-Massner may be quite large.
#10 J.J. Kalakon: Coming from a program of historically great success at the JUCO level in Triton, Kalakon could easily find himself being labeled as the “glue guy” of this squad. He has the ability to make an impact in just about every facet of the game.
From a play-style standpoint, there is no question this team is going to look very different than last year’s. After finishing 99th percentile offensively in post-up possessions a season ago, that number will likely flip to being well below average nationwide. All indications point towards this team running through Trenton Massner anytime he’s on the court; expect to see Massner in pick-and-rolls both scoring and facilitating early and often. The additions alongside him actually fit pretty ideally if all breaks right. There are some guys with upside on the defensive end of the floor and enough guys offensively that should be able to capitalize off of created opportunities from Massner. The Leathernecks won’t have the size advantages they had much of last season, likely playing a majority of their minutes without a guy over 6’8 on the floor (7’1 JUCO transfer Cody Collinsworth should see some minutes, but likely won’t be a key piece of the rotation to start the season).
From a future standpoint, three of my five projected starters are out of eligibility after this season (Massner, Rosner, Stevanic). The development of the other players on the roster will be crucial and we’ll see if a freshman can emerge to make an impact and bolster his place in this program’s future (my best guess would be De’Meiko Anderson, a do-it-all guard from Minneapolis, MN).
I won’t yet bother getting into specific matchups for the Summit League schedule as all conference games normally matter a good amount (of course none more than the ones in March), but there are some exciting non-conference games in the meantime.
Three games to circle in the non-conference schedule:
November 7th: @ Illinois State
Not only is it the season-opener, but it also happens to be against a very familiar face in Colton Sandage. You think Coach Jeter, Trent Massner, and co. won’t be fired up for this one? I don’t have any ground-breaking details, but there have been indications that last year’s team didn’t get along the best. Trenton Massner’s even hinted towards this on the Summit League Coaches Show stating, “I think we’re definitely a tighter group this year than I feel like we were last year. We just have really good chemistry and people just pulling for each other.” Anytime Massner and Sandage are matched-up it should be must-see TV.
November 11th: @ DePaul
The Leathernecks came so close to upsetting DePaul in what would’ve been back-to-back upsets over power conference programs a season ago. With no Nebraska on the schedule this time around, DePaul is the only shot to make it back-to-back seasons with a power conference upset for Rob Jeter and company. DePaul loses a lot from last year’s team that already struggled to compete in the Big East, it’s not inconceivable this DePaul team could sputter out of the gates and drop a game as a heavy favorite.
December 10th: @ Eastern Illinois
East-West rivalry game. After losing the matchup in Rob Jeter’s inaugural season, the 2021-22 Leathernecks avenged the loss with a convincing 71-54 win in Marty Simmons’ first season leading the Panthers program. Eastern Illinois has fairly significant roster turnover as well, perhaps the most notable addition is 6’10 center Kyle Thomas who chose Eastern Illinois over Illinois and Nebraska due to his father’s strong connection with coach Simmons.
There’s a decent chance Western Illinois will be underdogs in all three of these games (Eastern Illinois will be close), but that didn’t stop last year’s squad from winning three of the five games in the non-conference in which they were underdogs.
Analytical site projections:
|National Rank (out of 363)
|Summit Rank (out of 10)
As I’m sure many of you are aware Western Illinois came in the 7-spot in the Summit Preseason Poll. Ky McKeon from the Almanac projects WIU to finish 9th in the Summit.
I’ll conclude with my projected standings for the season:
- Oral Roberts
- South Dakota St.
- South Dakota
- North Dakota St.
- St. Thomas
- Western Illinois
- North Dakota