Team preview: Western Illinois

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

Riding the wave of the top recruiting class in the conference and 29th-best in America, Derek Thomas had Western Illinois exactly where it needed to be by season's end: middle of the pack.

Considering the fact the Leathernecks tied for seventh nationally in wins' improvement (they won three games the season before), Thomas turned in a solid job in his second season in Macomb.

And he did it with a cast of newcomers -- eight, to be exact. Plus, the early schedule was brutal and the injury bug crept in.

"We had lots of new guys," Thomas said. "And we played Iowa, UCLA, Indiana [the first three games]. And we had some tough injuries that set us back a bit. But I think we gained confidence once we got everyone healthy and together."

This season should be even better as Western Illinois, which posted impressive home wins over both Oral Roberts and Valparaiso, makes a push to move higher up the MCC standings. The Leathernecks return plenty of talent, but a stud and two other key guys are gone.

All forward Eulis Baez (15.3 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 2.9 apg, 1.9 spg, 1.2 bpg) did in his only season was lead the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.

A crafty scorer, the Florida International transfer offered a dimension lacking throughout the roster.

"Eulis really gave us a presence because he could score from different places," Thomas said about the MCC Newcomer of the Year. "He'd get you 15-20 points a night. And that's just something we didn't have. You wonder who's going to get you that."