The Car Sans Its Engine

The Leathernecks started the season strong, but they aren’t the same without their star point guard.

Attending the Western Illinois-DePaul game started getting me nostalgic. Watching the purple and gold of WIU run the floor in a fairly competitive matchup took me back to being inside of Western Hall in the early-to-mid-teens witnessing Ceola Clark and Garret Covington putting up buckets.

Those pleasant memories motivated me to check back in with the Leathernecks and the first four games of their 2022-23 campaign. Upon review, this opening stretch has a “best of times, worst of times” vibe.

On the bright side, Western started the season with the 71-68 road win over Illinois State. Trenton Massner came away with a triple-double (12 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds) while Alec Rosner scorched the nets for 25 points. The Leathernecks capitalized on a Redbirds team helmed by a first-year head coach with only one returning starter, marching back from down 13 to win the game.

That was followed up by a 57-point dismantling of D-III Rockford University at home in Macomb. It’s the third-largest margin of victory for the Leathernecks since at least 2010. It’s the type of game a good team is supposed to win decisively.

Then the tables turned. Western went up to Chicago to play DePaul and came back home losing the game, 86-74, as well as Trenton Massner. Massner fell victim to a hard screen and has been in concussion protocol ever since. WIU gave a game effort, barely being outscored 46-44 the rest of the way after losing Massner, but it was an absence that couldn’t be hidden in their latest game at UCF.

You see, Trenton Massner has been the engine that drives the Leathernecks. Last season he led the team in every major statistical category. Points. Rebounds. Assists. Steals. Blocks. Minutes. All of them.

The 2021-22 Leathernecks: Written, Directed, Produced by, and starring Trenton Massner!

This year, Massner once again has Doncic-ian control of the offense. He has logged a 53.8 assist percentage through his first three games. Jesiah West’s 19.1 percent is the only other number over 15.0 percent, the normal threshold to designate playmakers, but his five assists against DePaul are doing a lot of the heavy lifting.

Nevertheless, Western soldiered down to Orlando to take on UCF on Monday. They lost handily 70-37. They only made 15 field goals and doled out just five assists while conceding 18 turnovers. Quinlan Bennett and K.J. Lee were the ones tasked most with bringing the ball up the floor, but they combined for two assists and five turnovers.

Alec Rosner paced the team with two assists, but was held to one point. He went 0-for-4 from the field after scoring double-digits in the previous three games. It had to be a sobering moment for the D-II transfer. If it’s any consolation, at least D-I competition is already recognizing him as a threat this early in the campaign.

Even beyond the playmaking, the team just looked like a shell of itself. The UCF game was their third road game, and head coach Rob Jeter only ran an eight-man rotation against the Knights’ bigger and more athletic 10-deep.

I think the size mismatch is most noticeable at the power forward slot. 6’5″, 200-pound Jesiah West has some exciting hops, but he has been outmatched at times on the defensive end. West has racked up 13 fouls in WIU’s three games versus D-I opponents, fouling out twice. I disagreed with some of the whistles that got him his five in the Illinois State game, but it became an unavoidable pattern when he logged three versus DePaul and fouled out at UCF.

His athleticism justifies his spot at forward. It’s reminiscent of the roles Derrick Jones and Juan Toscano-Anderson serve in the NBA. However, it’s clear that some of the bigger bodies he’s dealt with have been getting the best of him in the early stages of this season.

Johnny Dawkins is also a defensive-minded coach, so his UCF squad did not let up on that end of the floor. I specifically noticed how sharp they looked defending in passing lanes and in help situations.

The hounding defense from bigger bodies coupled with jetlag made the fatigue more apparent as the game progressed. The 18 turnovers, seven steals conceded, six rejections faced, and the 2-for-21 mark (9.5 percent) from three-point range were big indicators of their exhaustion.

Defeating UCF would have been a tall task even with Massner playing, but Western couldn’t get anything going at all without him.

Even when Massner returns, whenever that may be, this team needs to learn how to generate offense without him at the helm. I mean, he can’t play 40 minutes every night, right? Right?

The biggest question for me is “who will be Western Illinois’ secondary playmaker”? I don’t think they can truly ascend in the Summit League without an answer to that query. I suppose it’s better for the Leathernecks to have the question posed to them a few games into the season instead of in February and March. We’ll see if anybody steps up and answers the call.


The Blue Demons Within

My views from a non-conference battle with sentimental value.

I went down to Wintrust Arena with my girlfriend on Friday to check out Western Illinois-DePaul. It’s a matchup that holds sentimental value for me on both sides. Western is my alma mater and DePaul is one of four local Division I sides (along with Illinois, UIC, and Chicago State) that raised me throughout my basketball childhood.

It’s only the fourth meeting all-time between these programs, with three of them coming in the last three seasons. That “last three years” part is conterminous with Rob Jeter’s tenure as head coach in Macomb.

It’s not a coincidence, as he grew up in Chicago. I assume he uses the game to come back home, catch up with friends and family, and maybe even use it as a recruiting trip. One of his players – senior Quinlan Bennett – is already from the city, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Jeter trying to tap into Chicagoland’s deep player base.

The quirky thing about this game is its 9:00 PM tip-off time. Real “College Basketball After Dark” vibes. Shoutout to anyone that attended the game then seamlessly transitioned over to VU once the final buzzer sounded shortly after 11:00.

However, there was actually method to the madness. WIU-DePaul was the last leg of a Big East triple-header that aired on FS2. Boston U.-UConn at 5:00 PM Central, Montana-Xavier at 7:00, and Western Illinois-DePaul at 9:00 PM. I guess that’s the lumps you take when you’re one of the westernmost schools in the Big East Conference.

The game itself was a mid-tempo matchup of two athletic squads. Both teams had speedy, bouncy players that pulled off a bouquet of dunks and alley-oops throughout the night. Western’s Jesiah West was the standout. It seemed like he floated every time he leapt. However, it felt like DePaul had the bigger bodies.

Comparing the rosters doesn’t reveal a stark difference in size, but in my eyes the listed heights and weights of 6’10” Yor Anei, 6’8″ Da’Sean Nelson, and the 6’6″ duo of Javan Johnson and Eral Penn belie their true frames.

This matchup was energetic and fairly competitive. DePaul’s Umoja Gibson started off the game hot, hitting his first three shots and finishing the first half with 17 points. The Blue Demons led 32-18 with 7:36 left in the half, but the Leatherneck reeled off a 17-8 run to get the deficit down to five with 1:19 remaining. A couple of DePaul free throws gave the Demons a 42-35 lead at half.

Trenton Massner, WIU’s senior leader and offensive engine, didn’t have the best first half. He had eight points, six rebounds, two assists, and a steal. However, he accumulated those points while shooting 3-of-9 from the field (2-of-7 from 3-point range).

Then, with 2:12 in the first half, he ran into a hard screen by Da’Sean Nelson that left him on the ground for an extended amount of time. He was sidelined for the rest of the game.

His absence was apparent in the second half, even as Western’s other two senior leaders attempted to step-up for Massner. Quinlan Bennett operated the offense and served as the lead communicator on defense while Alec Rosner dropped 16 points in the second half.

WIU struggled from three-point range throughout the game – finishing 6-of-26 from distance – so there was a stretch in the second where they kept forcing the issue inside. As a result, Yor Anei came away with four of his five blocks in the second half. This helped the Blue Demons start the half on a 25-8 run, extending their advantage to 67-47 with 9:14 remaining.

Umoja Gibson tacked on seven points in the half, finishing the night with 24 points, eight assists. He went 4-of-5 on two-pointers, 4-of-5 on three-pointers, and 4-of-4 on free throws. Gibson was so comfortable operating the offense, using his speed and playmaking to terrorize the Leathernecks. He routinely beat Western players off the dribble, either getting downhill for a score or assist, or to step-back and create space for an open jumper. Truly impressive stuff.

After the big run, DePaul coasted to the finish for an 86-74 victory. It’s always an enjoyable experience, but it’s a bummer how quick it all feels sometimes. I got to the game about five minutes into the first half, and then once the buzzer sounded I was back out the door into the nippy, Chicago night. It’s a feeling I get with any basketball game. In the moment, the atmosphere is electric and the action is always exciting. Then, just like that, it’s over.

It is what it is, though. The game can’t last forever. It’s for this reason that you should cherish any game you watch or attend. This was my first live Western game since 2014 and my first live DePaul game ever. So I’m especially grateful that I got the chance to witness two teams that mean a lot to me facing off in a competitive clash.