March Madness is just around the corner. It’s a time when college basketball heats up, though that has not meant much at Western Illinois University for most of the past 20 years.
But things have changed this year. The team has enjoyed a lot of success, and will play a special invitational game known as a “Bracketbuster” tomorrow night against Cleveland State.
Just a few years ago, you could go to Western Hall for a men’s basketball game and find a pretty quiet place. There might be just a couple hundred people there. One year, the team played several games with “Illinois” misspelled on its jerseys, and no one noticed.
But the atmosphere is different this year.
Chris Senn can tell the difference. He’s a lifelong Macomb resident and a Leathernecks fan. He says he is going to a lot more games this year.
“That kind of goes with the winning and losing. If you’re winning, people are going to show up and watch you,” Senn said during a recent game against the Universty of Nebraska-Omaha. “Yes, this is the best season I can remember in an awful long time. They are really enjoyable to watch.”
Senn is not alone. Twice this year, WIU has drawn home crowds of more than 4,000 – their highest attendance marks in nearly 10 years.
The Leathernecks are 19-6 this year, with a conference record of 11-3. That puts them in second place in the Summit League behind South Dakota State. And with three games left in the season, all of them at home, the team is hoping to be positioned to win the conference tournament and make its first appearance ever in the NCAA tournament.
“I know the goal at Western, obviously, is to build a program that can contend for the conference championship every year, and they are well on their way to doing that,” said Kevin Capie, who covers WIU basketball for the Peoria Journal Star. He says that even if Western doesn’t win the conference tournament, winning their last three games will give them a very good shot at one of the smaller postseason tournaments.
“If they can get to the NIT this year, its one of those things that helps build the program. And playing in the NIT in those games, you get on television, which also brings some more interest, helps recruiting and helps keep the program going,” Capie said. “And also, the deeper you go, that’s another two or three games to help your younger players develop that other Summit league teams don’t have.”
This weekend’s “Bracketbuster” game against Cleveland State is seen as a mixed blessing. On the one hand, Capie says Western should have been chosen to play a better and higher profile team, instead of Cleveland State, which has a losing record.
But players have a different perspective. “Any game on the schedule is worth playing. They are a great team. I think they just beat UIC a couple games ago. They are a great team,” said senior Ceola Clark. “And having the privilege to play in a Bracketbuster is great. So we want to keep working and show our love of game and competition.”
That hunger is what Coach Jim Molinari says he wants to see from his players. Last year was the first year WIU ever played in a post-season tournament, and there is unprecedented excitement about the team this year.
But Molinari will not say he’s happy.
“Coaches are never really happy. Sometimes I think to myself, ‘You gotta enjoy this. You gotta enjoy this.’ But then I learned coaching and playing, it’s not really about joy. It’s about satisfaction. And about sacrifice. And about suffering. And then at the end of the season you can enjoy it,” said Molinari. “So am I pleased? I am pleased the way our players have bought in. And I’m pleased the way they work. I’m pleased with that. But none of us are satisfied. We know the goals.”
And Molinari says the goal is to make the NCAA tournament. But he also says his other goal is to prepare his players for life. Molinari is just as quick to brag about one of his player’s chemistry grades or upcoming job interviews as he is to talk about points and rebounds. Molinari is in his fifth year at Western, and has coached in bigger programs including Bradley University and the University of Minnesota. But he says he likes where he is now.
“I always ask myself in coaching, ‘What are you looking for? A platform or impact?’ Sometimes you go back and forth. It’s nice when you are at a Minnesota and you have 18 managers and four secretaries. The reality of it is, it’s a little easier,” said Molinari, acknowledging the allure of being in a bigger program.
“But that said, you can always have impact. We’re trying to have great impact. Western is a great school. I want people to know that. My son has gone here. I want people to know, send your students here. And I want our young men to have options when they are done.”
Before any Western players are done, they have a season to finish, starting with Cleveland State tomorrow night at 7 at Western Hall.