BLOOMINGTON — The Illinois Wesleyan basketball team has stormed through its opening stretch of nonconference games with five wins in as many outings.
And four more non-league games remain later in December, two against nationally ranked foes.
Yet fiendishly tucked in the middle are three College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin contests that could prove crucial in determining the league champion in late February.
IWU faces defending CCIW co-champion Carthage in a 7 p.m. game Saturday at Shirk Center before road games at Wheaton on Wednesday and North Central on Dec. 9.
"All three teams would be considered contenders for the championship, and all three have a number of returning players," IWU coach Ron Rose said. "It's the new normal in the CCIW. You have to be ready to go the beginning of December."
The CCIW began scheduling league games in early December last season when the addition of Carroll increased the conference slate from 14 to 16 games.
"I know our guys are excited to get into conference play," said Rose. "Everybody is in the same boat. You try to get your team as ready as you can this early in the season."
Wesleyan is averaging a robust 96.2 points and has been held under 90 only once. Nine Titans are scoring 5.4 or more points per game led by Brady Rose (20.8), Zach Knobloch (13.4) and Colin Bonnett (11.6).
"We knew we had depth," Bonnett said, "but it's been a little eye opening as to how deep we really are."
A co-captain with Brady Rose, Bonnett missed preseason practice time with a concussion. The 6-foot-4 junior then turned an ankle in a Nov. 18 game but was able to return for the Titans' next contest a week later.
"A tip of the hat to the trainer's room. They helped me a ton," said Bonnett. "It was five or six days of rest, a lot of stretching, a lot of icing."
Carthage was picked third in the CCIW's preseason poll with IWU fourth.
"That definitely gives us a little bit of motivation there," Bonnett said.
The Red Men are 3-2 and led by the trio of junior guard Jordan Thomas, senior forward Brad Kruse and sophomore center Brad Perry.
Thomas is a Northern Illinois transfer averaging 17.8 points, Kruse adds 15.8 and the 6-11, 285-pound Perry contributes 10.6 and 6.4 rebounds.
"Thomas is a tremendous scorer who has been shooting the ball extremely well," said Ron Rose. "Kruse is one of the top competitors in our league. He really plays hard. Perry distorts the entire game with his size."
Rose has post depth to send at Perry in 6-9 Alex O'Neill, 6-9 Tyler Burdine and 6-6 Danny Baker.
Rhodes record: IWU set a school record with 77 shots attempted in last Sunday's 123-104 win over Rhodes. The point total was the fourth most in school history and the 35 free throws made are tied for third.