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.

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