Monday, September 20, 2010

Summit League Schedule Scrutinization: Western Illinois

For the next few weeks, we'll be scrutinizing over the schedules announced by the various Summit League schools. Generally, they'll appear in alphabetical order with an array of thoughts on the teams and their opponents. The general idea behind this comes from a similar feature on, where writer Zach Hayes kindly encouraged us to adopt some pieces of the format for use here, though you'll find plenty of Summit League flair in the words below.

Western Illinois University

General Theme: Jim Molinari enters his third season with the rebuilding Western Illinois program. His schedule for 2010-11 reflects the fact that he's still rebuilding, despite showing progress in each of his seasons with the Leathernecks. He has an all-conference performer coming back in Ceola Clark as well as several other players who should make further progress. With only one true freshman on the whole roster, one might have expected Molinari to come out with a tougher schedule, yet instead we find the team with three regular season games against non-Division I opponents and a few others against those just making the transition.

Travel At A Glance: The WIU team will actually travel internationally this season, to Cancun, Mexico for the Cancun Challenge. There they'll play Morgan State and either North Florida or Prairie View A&M. Morgan State will be a test for WIU, coming off of two straight NCAA Tournament appearances. The other positive aspect from this challenge is the fact the Leathernecks get two games against Missouri and Wyoming at their places. Missouri will be a loss, but Wyoming is an interesting match-up considering their recent history as a lackluster program. Outside of Mexico and Wyoming, most of the team's road games are concentrated in the Midwest.

Easiest Game: Three games against teams outside of Division I should mean three guaranteed wins for the Leathernecks. That's probably one too many by our standards, but we can't blame the coach for wanting to give his guys a chance to play at home, since very few other teams seem willing to make a trip to Macomb, Illinois.

Toughest Game: Missouri will be one heck of a battle for Western Illinois, especially early in the season when the team will not have played any schools of that caliber. The match-up with Creighton in Omaha will be difficult as well, even with a new coach leading the Bluejays.

Most Likely Upset: Wyoming. Even though the team plays in the Mountain West, they were the conference doormat last year. I figure Ceola Clark is good for at least one game where his defense and increasing offensive role due the departure of David Nurse will lead the Leathernecks to an improbable victory.

Most Challenging Non-Conference Stretch: From November 18th through November 24th, Western Illinois will log a ton of travel time between Wyoming, Missouri, and Cancun. It'll be difficult for the team to come out of that trip with a win.

Most Challenging Conference Stretch: If WIU wants to make any noise this year, it'll have to come during conference play. With this program, there are no guarantees; every game will be a test.

Best Individual Match-Up: Ceola Clark flew under my radar for much of last season, and after doing some more digging on him, I must say I am very excited to watch him in what will be his junior season. As a sophomore, he averaged 14.2 points, 5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.7 steals, and shot 47% from the field. That line is absolutely crazy, and he did it while winning Summit League Defensive Player of the Year. I'm looking forward to watching him lockdown opposing guards all season long.

Most Anticipated Home Game: If you're a Leatherneck fan, you're probably just glad to have home games, period. We all struggle at this level to secure marquee home matches, but it looks like WIU was hit hardest this season. When we interviewed the school's student section leader, he cited Oral Roberts and UMKC as two of the favorite opponents to taunt. Fortunately, these schools have no choice but to visit Macomb once a year.

Concluding Thoughts: Heading into the season, I have the expectation that Western Illinois will be a lock to make the field of eight for the conference tournament. This wasn't always true in the past, but Coach Molinari has shown a commitment to the school to make it a winner. This schedule should guarantee more wins, but at what cost? I sincerely hope there are enough challenging games in the non-conference to prepare them for conference competition, otherwise the momentum they had in February of last year will be all but halted.

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