It didn’t take long for upsets to take place during the 2015-16 season.
One night, to be exact.
The Wisconsin Badgers came into the 2015-16 season as the 17th ranked team in the country, while the Western Illinois Leathernecks were coming off an 8-20 season in 2014-15.
On paper, Wisconsin was by far the stronger team. They had Nigel Hayes, who was in the conversation as a top contender for National Player of the Year, Bronson Koenig, and Zak Showalter, among others. The Badgers were coming off a loss in the National Championship, and were seen as a contender to win the Big Ten title and make a deep run in March.
The Badgers entered the game as 27-point favourites, but the Leathernecks weren’t about to back down.
Despite trailing by 7 points at halftime, Western Illinois continued to fight in the second half. They opened up an 8-point lead of their own with just over 6 minutes to play, and it appeared an upset was inevitable.
Two free throws from junior guard Garret Covington with 10 seconds left on the clock pushed Western Illinois ahead by 2, and the upset was complete soon thereafter.
Heading into the 2016-17 season, the Leathernecks are hoping to draw on their past experiences as they take on another power five opponent to open the campaign.
Can the Western Illinois Leathernecks pull off yet another program-defining upset to kick off the new season?
This time, they head on the road to take on the Kansas State Wildcats inside Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan, KS. While it’s not the Kohl Center, the Leathernecks will be in tough against the Wildcats.
Fortunately, the Leathernecks return two key contributors from a season ago. Both Covington and Jabari Sandifer are back for their senior seasons, and give Western Illinois arguably the best back court tandem in the Summit League.
Against the Badgers last season, Sandifer recorded 12 points and 7 rebounds, while Covington added 16 points of his own.
Covington led the team in scoring, averaging 17.9 points per game on the year, while Sandifer put together an impressive stat line of 8.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game.
J.C. Fuller and Tate Stensgaard have both graduated, leaving holes in the lineup for the Leathernecks. Senior forward Mike Miklusak and sophomore forward Jalen Morgan will take on bigger roles in 2016-17 to help fill the void.
While Kansas State wont have as much talent as the Badgers had last season, they will still be a tough test for Western Illinois. They return a trio of seniors, and a rising sophomore, all of whom are difference-makers.
Wesley Iwundu is the top returning scorer for the Wildcats this season. He averaged 11.9 points per game a year ago. D.J. Johnson (9.3 ppg) and Carlbe Ervin II (3.1 ppg) are also back for their final seasons in Manhattan.
Sophomore Dean Wade averaged 9.9 points and 5.5 rebounds as a freshman n 2015-16.
Over the summer, the Wildcats went on an exhibition tour of Europe, which provided their incoming freshmen with valuable playing experience.
The freshman that stood out above the rest was Xavier Sneed. He led the team in scoring over the five games, averaging 10.4 points per contest.
Wade also picked up where he left off at the end of 2015-16, averaging a team-best 6.2 rebounds per game despite suffering a head injury in the Wildcats’ third game of the trip.
Kansas State went 3-2 over their exhibition tour.
In order for Western Illinois to come away victorious, they need to find a way to force Kansas State to beat them from outside. In the paint, the Wildcats have a big advantage with Wade (6’10”) and Johnson (6’7”). The forwards for the Leathernecks haven’t seen much playing time over their careers so far, which is a plus in favour of the Wildcats.
Last year against Wisconsin, the Leathernecks held the Badgers to 35.5% shooting (22-of-62) from the floor. They will need a similar performance against Kansas State this season, limiting their open looks at the basket and forcing them to take lower percentage shots away from the basket.
The Leathernecks have the better back court group, led by Sandifer and Covington. Both will need to be on their game early on, both on offense and defense, if they want to pull off another upset.
Covington and Sandifer combined to shoot 10-of-20 against Wisconsin, and the Leathernecks shot 54% as a team over the course of the game.
Ball movement will be critical for Western Illinois against Kansas State, as finding open looks will lead to better opportunities and higher percentage looks at the basket.
The guards will receive a lot of attention from the Wildcats’ defense, which means others need to step up for Western Illinois. Miklusak and Morgan will need to make the most of their opportunities, as the attention given to Covington and Sandifer will surely open up more opportunities for the forwards. Whether it’s getting to the free throw line, or getting good looks at the rim in the paint, they need to convert their opportunities and put points on the board.
There’s no question which team has more talent and experience. On paper, Kansas State should win the game by at least 10 points. However, Western Illinois has been in this position before, and came away a winner.
The Leathernecks will be double-digit underdogs once again to open up the season, but if history is any indication, think twice before you bet against them.
So, we ask again. Can the Western Illinois Leathernecks pull off yet another program-defining upset to kick off the new season?
– T. Bennett