Team preview: Western Illinois

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

Derek Thomas had one of those years, straight from the pit of college basketball hell.

"Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong,"
he said. "We had guys not with the team, injuries,

Western Illinois couldn't buy a break during its 3-13 MCC season in 2005-06.

Highly touted transfer Marlon Mahorn (5.3 ppg, 2.1 rpg), an underachieving swingman and nephew of former NBA player Rick Mahorn, was ruled academically ineligible at the semester break. Troy Okeson (8.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg), the team's top three-point threat, had a quadriceps injury that kept him out the final 13 games.

"I'll tell any coach, 'Take two of your top five scorers out, and see what you can do,'" Thomas said.

The third-year coach even benched senior starting forwards Fred Oguns (13.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.2 apg) and Eliz Cepeda (5.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg), along with starting guard Sammy Hunter (8.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.5 apg) on Jan. 19 at Southern Utah.

With the trio back in the starting lineup the next game, the Leathernecks almost won at Chicago State, losing on a buzzer-beater. Then they pulled off the upset of the year in the conference by defeating Oral Roberts, 70-65, at home on Jan. 24.

While Western Illinois managed only one more conference win (over first-year league member Centenary) the rest of the season, it suffered double-digit defeats only twice again.

And despite closing the conference season with a five-game losing streak, eighth-seeded Western Illinois wound up leading at halftime against eventual NCAA participant Oral Roberts in the Mid-Con Tournament.

"That was the toughest game we had," said Oral Roberts coach Scott Sutton, who after that game admitted he was dumbfounded when it came to Western Illinois' win total. "We were tight, we couldn't make any shots. They were getting more and more confident."

An 8-for-20 showing from the free-throw line crushed whatever hopes the Leathernecks had in pulling off what would have been one of the most memorable upsets in MCC Tournament history. Still, there was some cause to celebrate.

Both Oguns, a 6-foot-7, 230-pounder, and the 6-foot-9, 210-pound Cepeda were integral parts of Western Illinois transitioning from being a laughingstock on the Divison I level to gaining respect under Thomas.

"It wasn't OK to come to Western Illinois before they got here," Thomas said.

Guards Nathan Koster (3.5 ppg, 1.6 apg) and Sean Blalock (2.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg) also were seniors last year.