Projected Conference Wins: 5 to 8
Projected Regular Season Finish: 5th to 7th
Key returning players: CJ Duff (Sr), Ben Pyle (So), Kobe Webster (Jr)
“I kind of like this Western Illinois team” is something I have never said or heard another human being say, but I kind of like this Western Illinois team.
Now, Western Illinois hasn’t finished better than 7th in the Summit League since 2013-2014. They finished 2nd in the league in 2012-2013.
The Leathernecks graduated Gilbeck, Summit League Defensive Player of the Year, but does that even really matter? They’re going to lose some rim protection without Gilbeck, but their offense should flow much better without Gilbeck.
Gilbeck slowed down the offense, and he had the 3rd most turnovers in the league. He had the most for any forward/centers in the conference. How effective of an offense can you run if every time you throw the ball in down low you main post presence gives the ball to the other team?
The Leathernecks also lost Isaac Johnson, who transferred to Nicholls State. Johnson was the 3rd leading scorer for the Leathernecks last season, and their 2nd leading rebounder, behind Gilbeck.
Anyway, now that I’ve said a few hurtful things, I’ll try to explain why they’re 6th.
For starters, their schedule is somewhat easy. They’re one of three conference schools to never have three consecutive away games in the conference. They at one point have a entire week of rest in between home games against Oral Roberts and Omaha. Oral Roberts has lost 3 years in a row in Macomb, by the way. At another point they have a week of rest in between playing at Fort Wayne and then playing at South Dakota. Even after that South Dakota game, they go home to face Omaha who will be coming off an away game at Fort Wayne and one less day of rest. After playing Omaha, they get another week of rest to play at home against North Dakota, but North Dakota will also have a week of rest for that game. So that’s neat. The toughest part of their schedule is when they’ll have to travel to Tulsa for a Thursday night game against Oral Roberts, and then fly to Denver for an away game on a Saturday…and that’s the last week of the regular season.
Summit League teams like to go on the road and play multiple big conference schools in the non-conference season. They say it tests them and they want to play the best competition to be the best, but they really just want money.
The Leathernecks will start the season at Indiana, but they won’t play another larger conference school the rest of the way. After Indiana, they’ll play 4 consecutive home games. Their non-conference schedule won’t test them like other conference teams’ schedules but they should be able to pick up confidence as the season goes, and hopefully not get beat up and be healthy when the conference season starts.
Even with the losses of Johnson and Gilbeck, the Leathernecks return 67% of their scoring from last season, which is the 5th most in the conference.
Losing their two leading rebounders, the Leathernecks appear to lack some size, but they do bring in some post players with a collection of interesting resumes. They don’t need an all conference center, but they do need post players to rebound and not turn the ball over on offense. Billy Wright added 6’10” junior college transfer Kyle Addington, who played on the same NJCAA Championship team as South Dakota State’s Douglas Wilson.
We’re not really going to go too far into depth about what Western Illinois is returning, because, well, even if they’re returning a lot, they were still plain bad last year.
However, they were a young team last season, and they will be returning a Big 3 of their own in Kobe Webster, CJ Duff, and Ben Pyle. Webster and Duff make up for one of the better and most experienced starting back courts in league, and Pyle apparently added a good amount of muscle, according to Wright. This team is probably the deepest team we’ve seen the Leathernecks have under Wright, but that really isn’t saying a lot. The Leathernecks are 2 players deep at every position, which hasn’t really happened under Wright.
Even though its been bad experience for the Leathernecks, there are over 8000 division one minutes on the roster, which is the 4th most in the conference. This will be the third straight year for the Leathernecks having Duff and Webster as their starting back court. That is the most games started together by any Summit League back court at 118 games. The next closest is Omaha’s back court of JT Gibson and KJ Robinson starting 99 games together in the last 2 seasons.
At 6’7″, Pyle can play like a shooting guard playing at the 4. He stretches the floor, and honestly, looking back at it I literally cannot remember when Western Illinois had a weapon like that.
Pyle definitely showed potential last season as a true freshman and certainly is an x-factor for the Leathernecks. In conference wins last season, including the conference tournament, Pyle averaged 12.6 points per game, 6.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, he shot 45% from the field and 37% on threes. In conference losses, he scored 6.7 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists, shot 33% from the field, and 29% on threes. In a 29 point win over Fort Wayne, Pyle was just short of a triple-double when he scored 9 points, grabbed 8 rebounds, and had 9 assists. If Pyle has put on more muscle like Wright stated (the Western Illinois website lists him as the same weight as last season) and he can be a more consistent player, the Leathernecks should be able to improve on their 4-12 season.
Their conference tournament win over South Dakota State appears to giving the team a lot of confidence. They just look together as opposed to past seasons, they look like they actually give a shit in the team’s social media posts.
Expectations are never high for the Leathernecks, and 6th place would be considered an outstanding year for Western Illinois. They have a good and experienced core, and quality role players to go around them. They’ll probably never surprise us again as they did in the 2019 Summit League Tournament, but they are capable of giving everyone in the league a fight this season.
With the high team chemistry, confidence building schedule, and playing experience, the Leathernecks might finally finish better than 7th in the conference.
My trivial Preseason Summit League rankings
6th Western Illinois
7th Fort Wayne