History can be made this week at the Gold Dome in Shreveport, Louisiana as the most important basketball game that almost nobody knows about will be taking place Thursday night. It is not a showdown of SEC powerhouses. It is not even a late BracketBuster game.
The game in question is the Western Illinois University Leathernecks taking on the Centenary College Gentlemen. Yes, a game between the bottom teams in the Summit league is the most important game of the week, and potentially of the year.
Why is this? It is realistically the last chance that Centenary has to win a game this season. The Gentlemen enter the tilt 0-28 (0-16 Summit) with only two games separating them from having the worst season record in D-I history, before moving to D-III. For more about Centenary's history and run in D-I, you can read "Centenary College Basketball: Saying Goodbye to the Gentlemen in Division I"
Their opponent, Western Illinois, comes in with a robust (by comparison) record of 7-20 (2-14 Summit) and their own 10-game losing streak. The Leathernecks performance is even worse when you consider that three of their wins came against non-Division I schools (St. Francis (ILL), Culver-Stockton, and Purdue-Calumet) and one of their wins was against Centenary 57-51, December 4th in Macomb.
Who will win the game?
Tale of the Tape
The is looking to be a low-scoring affair as both teams are in the bottom eight in D-I in scoring with WIU averaging 57.6 points per game (344th out of 345 teams) and the Gentlemen putting up 58.8 points per game (338th).
Other major statistical categories show similarities between the Summit League foes. The Leathernecks and Gentlemen are both in the bottom twenty teams in rebounds per game and bottom twenty-five in assists. Neither team shoots the lights out of the gym as WIU comes in with a .420 shooting percentage (264th) while Centenary is shooting at a .391 pace (329th).
Despite their difficulties this season, each team has players who have stepped up for their schools. The Leathernecks are led by guards Matt Lander (17.3 ppg, 2.6 apg) and Ceola Clark III (10.7 ppg, 5.0 apg). The young Gentlemen squad (only one senior and two juniors) are led by Maxx Nakwaasah (11.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and Jeron Trotman (9.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg).
The struggles of these two teams goes well beyond this season. Neither team has ever been to the NCAA tournament (though both have been one game away multiple times). Both teams have had a long stretches of losing as the Leathernecks have not had a winning season since 1998-1999 and the Gentlemen since 2003-2004. Additionally, 20-win seasons, a hallmark of basketball success have not taken place in almost a generation for these schools (WIU: 1994-1995; Centenary: 1989-1990)
Does man bite dog? Do the Gentlemen beat the Leathernecks, with their mascot Rocky the Bulldog? Centenary has not played since the 15th and with the extra time to rest up and game plan, in addition to the magnitude of the game, the Gentlemen will knock off the Leathernecks and give their faithful to smile about this season. For Western Illinois, it will be a long trip to Macomb to think about their place in history.