IOWA CITY — The reality of trying to build a college basketball program in the middle of a pandemic isn’t going to be an excuse for Western Illinois.
“It will get better,” new coach Rob Jeter said after Thursday’s 99-58 loss to No. 3 Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
It wasn’t going to be easy.
It’s never easy for a first-year coach. Certainly not easy with a program that won just five games last season.And certainly not easy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But all of the difficulties don’t matter anymore for the Leathernecks. The season, no matter how unpredictable and disjointed it will be, is here.
“We have to figure out a way to make it work,” Jeter said.
Here’s the normal blueprint for a first season:
— Figure out which players to keep and which ones should go, and then recruit the replacements.
— Once your roster is built, work during the summer to build chemistry. Then, when fall workouts start, install your system.
— Schedule accordingly. Find games you can win, find games that you can learn hard lessons.
— Start recruiting the next class.
Now try doing that during a pandemic. This has been a year when every blueprint imaginable has found its way into the trash can.
Jeter’s recruiting was about finding players who fit his style, but also finding players who knew each other, either as teammates or college rivals. He found experienced transfers in Will Carius, Rob Johnson and Tamell Pearson — Carius has played at the Division II and III levels, and Johnson (Chattanooga) and Pearson (UAB) played at the Division I level.
But the Leathernecks couldn’t practice in the summer. Fall workouts were divided into groups because of the COVID-19 protocols.
Even the schedule has been difficult to put together. Exhibition games, usually a chance to get some game work in without it counting, weren’t going to happen because of the pandemic. Some games have been canceled — the season opener at DePaul was the first casualty because of positive tests within the Blue Demons’ program.
“It was kind of rough for the guys, getting amped up and then having that letdown,” Carius said. “But that’s the nature of the beast right now with all of the COVID setbacks.”
So here were the Leathernecks, in their first game, still getting to know each other — and then going against one of the best teams in the nation.
Actually, they didn’t seem to mind.
“I think we really needed it,” Carius said. “It was great to get in the gym and feel each other out. We’ve been going against each other, beating on each other for a while now. It was great to go out and do it against somebody else.”
It showed early. The Leathernecks missed 20 of their first 24 shots, going scoreless for six minutes in one first-half stretch.
“I think the first thing was we hadn’t played basketball for a long time, and it looked like it,” Jeter said. “It’s a work in progress. We have to be shot makers, not just shot takers.”
But Western Illinois started the second half strong. The Leathernecks got to within 61-46 with 12:57 to play.
“I think we had great sparks,” Carius said.
Those sparks, though, fizzled under a 22-2 run by the Hawkeyes.
“We have a fun team,” Carius said. “Obviously we have some things to figure out.”
“It’s really a reality check, at the end of the day, to show where we’re at right now,” Johnson said. “I saw a lot of good things.”
The Leathernecks will get four more games in the next eight days.
“I think as long as we get in a groove and figure out how we stack up against each other, I think it will be a good thing,” Carius said. “We’re getting what we asked for. We’re getting back in and getting to play.”
Jeter understands what he and his players face. Pandemic or not, this wasn’t going to be easy. There are just more challenges now.
Challenges can’t be excuses.
“It will get better,” he said. “And then it will be all right.”
John Bohnenkamp is an award-winning sports writer and contributes to Pen City Current. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org