Preview of Western Illinois

Western Illinois comes to town tonight for the first matchup ever with UCLA. The Leathernecks had a horrendous 3-25 season a year ago, but could they actually be that bag again?

The Western Illinois Leathernecks could be the weakest team UCLA faces all season.

They were 3-25 last season, and they lost three starters from that team.

That actually might be an indication that they'll be better. It probably is, actually, because second-year head coach Derek Thomas brought in what was considered a strong group of newcomers, and a few have already stepped up to be among the best players on the squad.

Senior forward Eulis Baez (6-8, 225) is now eligible after transferring from Florida International, where he averaged 12.7 points and 8.2 rebounds. In the Leathernecks' 85-62 loss to Iowa last Friday, Baez was their leading scorer and rebounder with 15 and 8.

Baez, who is originally from the Dominican Republic, is joined on the frontline by two other foreign newcomers. JC transfer, junior Eliz Cepeda (6-9, 200), originally from Puerto Rico, is similar to Baez, both being pretty skilled, able to step out and shoot as well as score around the basket. Another JC transfer, a junior forward from Nigeria, Fred Oguns (6-7, 225), also started against Iowa. He's not nearly as skilled, more of the bigger-body type who does some of the inside dirty work.

The Leathernecks' four-forward lineup is filled out by 6-6 senior forward Will Lewis, a returning starter, who can shoot the ball pretty well. He looked good in the team's exhibitions where he averaged over 19 points. In their first game, Baez and Cepeda dominated the ball and Lewis didn't get near as many touches.

The lone guard in the lineup is sophomore point guard Nathan Koster (6-0), who doesn't shoot the ball much but tries to get it in the hands of his frontcourt scorers.

A former starter, diminutive (5-9) sophomore guard T.J. Gray has been pushed out of the starting lineup, but is getting over 20 minutes a game, either playing alongside Koster or subbing for him. Gray isn't afraid to put the ball up, from just about anywhere on the court, and has a problem with shot selection. He might be used more against the Bruins, trying to use some quickness to offset UCLA's perimeter size.

Western Illinois' recruiting class was considered pretty good, with Baez, Cepeda, Oguns and freshman guard David Jackson (6-4), who has performed well in his first three games. Jackson started Western Illinois's two exhibition games before they went big for the Iowa opener. He's pretty athletic and aggressive.

They also brought in 6-10 freshman Kyle Lasek, who doesn't look like he'll see much action this year.

The other player who gets any significant time off the bench is sophomore guard Troy Okeson, who is a designated three-point marksman who hasn't hit many in their three games (3 for 11). Western Illinois, with their personnel, has some options. They could go with their big, four-forward lineup to try to match up with UCLA's two towers in Ryan Hollins and Mike Fey. Or they could go smaller, and use Gray more, and try to take advantage of the weakness UCLA showed in its first game against Chicago State in guarding off the dribble.

UCLA matches up extremely well against the Leathernecks. Its perimeter talent should be able to dominate, getting open looks with their size and strength. The solid interior defense of Fey and Hollins should be able to at least somewhat limit Baez and Cepeda.

Western Illinois has been projected to finish last in the Mid-Continent Conference by many prognosticators, while UCLA's first opponent, Chicago State, was generally a middle-of-the-pack to upper-echelon pre-season pick in the Mid-Con conference. So, it would stand to reason that UCLA should have quite an easier time with Western Illinois, which is probably true. But WI might have been under-appreciated because so many of its incoming players were fairly unknown, and they could be better than anticipated. But the under-appreciation still shouldn't be enough to give UCLA a game. Watch for UCLA's freshmen and perimeter players to shoot the ball quite a bit better as they get quite a few open looks.

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