It’s not just the losses but the circumstances behind the losses that lead Illinois Wesleyan basketball coach Ron Rose to declare his team’s 2-6 record over the past eight games the toughest stretch in his 13 years on the job.
“It’s been challenging emotionally,” he said. “It’s been challenging in the sense of wracking your brain trying to figure out what we need to do as a coaching staff and team to turn this around.”
The Titans travel to Decatur on Saturday for a 4 p.m. College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin game against Millikin at Griswold Center.
Since a 7-0 start, IWU has dropped six games by seven points or less. Other than a head-scratching home defeat to Carroll, the other five teams to down the Titans over that span have a combined record of 60-14.
“As a coach, you don’t want to be the guy who buries your team, especially when we’re competing hard and have done so many good things,” said Rose. “At the same time, you can’t be satisfied and go status quo.”
With that in mind, Rose will give sophomore Doug Wallen and senior Danny Baker their first career starts Saturday with Alex O’Neill and Charlie Bair coming off the bench.
“I felt those two guys earned the opportunity,” said Rose, whose team stands at 9-6 overall and 2-4 in the CCIW. “How that effects minutes played is yet to be determined. In the end, the guys who give us the best chance to win are going to play the most minutes.”
The 6-foot-5 Wallen entered Wednesday’s loss to North Central early on when Bair got poked in the eye. Wallen scored IWU’s first six points and finished with 16 points and six rebounds.
Rose felt Baker provided needed defense in his 19 minutes while grabbing five rebounds.
“Every single person in our locker room knows what we have on our team,” Wallen said. “We’ve still got a lot of season left and we’re still putting pieces together. But I promise you we didn’t lose any faith in our team. We’ve got to lock down and be the players we know we are.”
The 6-6, 220-pound Baker has recovered from knee soreness earlier in the season.
“Obviously, it’s pretty tough. But we’re still feeling good about our team,” said Baker. “We’re going to work harder and play tougher. That’s all we can do. We still think we’re going to have a successful season. It’s a mental battle, but we have a lot of leadership on this team.”
Rose was pleased with his team’s demeanor Thursday after squandering an eight-point lead in the final two minutes to North Central in an 85-83 defeat.
“Their resiliency is amazing. We had a great practice. I’m impressed and proud of these guys,” the IWU coach said. “There’s no quit in them. I don’t know how Saturday is going to go, but I’m confident our guys are going to come ready to play.”
Millikin is 8-6 overall and 2-4 in the CCIW. The Big Blue are coached by former Elmhurst mentor Mark Scherer, who played at Roanoke-Benson High School and Eureka College.
With a starting lineup of four players 6-6 or taller, Millikin has a plus 10.3 rebounding margin but is committing 17.5 turnovers per contest.
“They have length and athleticism,” said Rose. “They go to the boards as hard as anybody we’ve played.”
The Big Blue’s top player is 6-7 senior Elijah Henry, who averages 14.4 points and 8.1 rebounds.