Within the first month of season, the men’s basketball team was down to 15 guys. A total of nine players made the decision to quit the team they had previously been so ready to commit to. Many reasons have been given for their departure, including issues with the coach, Kevin Walden. Senior captain Marko Protic believes the loss wasn’t extremely devastating, because the players that left weren’t key components to the program.
“A lot of the guys that left are younger, so it leaves a big hole for our coach recruiting-wise, but I guess what it taught us is that they didn’t really buy into us, so we kind of didn’t want somebody there that wasn’t 100 percent in it for us,” Protic said.
The Prairie Fire lost six freshman, including wing EJ Thompson. Thompson transferred to Southern Illinois University and he explained that there were general team camaraderie issues and things going on at home.
“I wasn’t really having as much fun as I thought it would be and that’s the reason I played in the first place, because it was fun,” Thompson said.
Junior Eric Pillath had different reasons for his departure. However, if a new coach was to be brought in, he would consider rejoining
“The game wasn’t as fun anymore, coach kind of took the fun out of it. I think if there was a new coach I would try and get back on the team,” Pillath said. “[Winning] seven games this year was definitely a step up, but I don’t think it’s enough for people to still want to be here. People want to be part of a winning program and it hasn’t shown, so maybe people would want to see what would happen with a new coach.”
As far as other players leaving, there have been some rumors Ñ but upon being asked, many players did not want to reveal their future plans.
Sophomore Bryce Wilkinson refused to comment when asked about the rumors of him leaving after this year, but added that he’s still “figuring things out.” However, he supports his teammates’ decisions and wants the best for them.
“Some of us may have lost a passion for basketball and are seeking out how to better their lives in different ways,” Wilkinson said. “As a teammate, they became my brothers, and if they feel basketball isn’t right for them, I’ll be sad that they leave but I want them to succeed in life and I want them to do what they want and what they feel is necessary for them to prolong their career.”
Another sophomore rumored to be leaving the program, Garrett Stone, posted on his personal Instagram on Feb. 17. The photo was him and his teammates on the bench, with the caption, “early retirement.” Stone was reached for comment but didn’t reply.
Sophomore Deryk Ruple says that the coaching is the reason for most of the team quitting.
“I feel that we could’ve had a better future together, but… [the] coaching and the past and not even reaching .500 as a record has a lot to do with people leaving,” Ruple said. “
When asked his plans for next year after rumored to be transferring to another school, Ruple replied that he wasn’t sure and still wanted to figure things out. He said that at the beginning of the season he was unhappy, but now needs to think things through.
Senior Tyre Dukes says their coach set the foundation for their success, but ultimately it was the players’ execution.
“He set the foundation, but it was all on us and it was just a mental thing,” Dukes said. “At the beginning of the season it was all about ‘me’ and what people could do individually instead of just getting the whole team involved.”
Similar to Dukes, Protic had a different take than many of his teammates, believing that the coach was a key component to their success.
“He’s put in a lot of work every day, pushing us, making us better and stronger. He’s told us from the very beginning, this is the most talented team he’s had in a couple years Ñ a long time, actually,” Protic said. “And we could do a lot of big things and we went in to meet our goals, but at the end of the day, it was the best season we had in awhile and he did a lot.”
Junior Jonathan Damota agrees with Protic, giving the coach credit for the team’s great season.
“He’s been struggling ever since he’s been here to get wins, but I think he comes in every day, prepares us the same way, and gets us in it when we’re out of it. He had a huge role, for sure,” Damota said.
However, when Damota was asked about his teammates’ opinion of the coach, his response was elusive.
“Everyone has their own opinion about people so that’s all I’ll say.” Damota said.
Senior DJ Lewis believes the coach was always keeping the team honest and on track.
“I think coach contributed a lot because he stayed honest, he didn’t let us slack off. Anyone can let you go through the motions, but he wasn’t letting us take days off when people weren’t feeling like playing. He helped out in that regard a lot,” Lewis said.
When asked about the various players leaving, coach Walden had a lot to say on the matter.
“It’s unfortunate, because we could have had a lot different look as far as our team goes. I will say it helped us. We had a shorter roster, a smaller roster then we’ve had in the past. Last year we had 21, [and] we had 23 to start this year. We were down to 15 at one point, at the end of the year, and it actually helped us,” Walden said.
“Having a smaller group helped us become a better team sooner once some guys started leaving. We had the right guys on the ship moving forward, and when that occurred, our roles were defined a lot easier, guys were counted on better, they competed daily, there wasn’t as much outside noise,” Walden said.
As far as next year goes, Walden will have his hands full with recruiting.
“We’re recruiting and trying to get some players because we know we have a really great core group of guys coming back and we’re a younger team,” Walden said. “We’ve played a lot of freshmen-sophomores and we need guys to go with them to build upon the success that we had this year.”
The hardest thing for Walden is replacing the seniors in Protic, Dukes and Lewis.
“They may not fill your stat sheets up, but they’re huge losses for us because of their work ethic, their positive attitudes Ñ you can count on them every day,” Walden said. “I tell our guys as well, if you want to do something in your life, be good quality people. I know those three in their core are good people, their intentions are all good. When all is said and done, I knew they were gonna give us everything they have and it’s going to be hard to replace them.”
Looking ahead, the team has been rumored to lose more players. Lewis thinks it will hurt the program but confirmed that a few more may depart.
“You know, I hope some guys do decide to stay because we have somewhat of a building block now,” Lewis said. “But if dudes did decide to leave [now], it would kind of hurt the team a lot for next year, because we have a good little mold put together right now and to build on that and get some more wins, I feel like the team could be really good next year.”
Pillath is confident that more players will decide to transfer before next season.
“It will definitely take a toll,” Pillath said. “The team loses a lot of experience, they’re going to be very young next year and won’t have a lot of experience from older guys, so it’ll be a learning experience but I don’t think it will hurt the team that much.”
Freshman Ikenna Ozor has a different approach to his teammates leaving. At the beginning of the season, during the second practice, Ozor broke his jaw. However, he was grateful to be able to contribute to his team in the second half of the season, when they needed him most.
“I missed half the season, I only played 15 games, and so even being able to have that impact later in the season where we’re winning games was really cool,” Ozor said.
However, Ozor disagrees with the claims of anyone else leaving the program.
“Now wouldn’t be the time to leave because we’re doing the best we’ve done and the future is looking pretty bright. You have some freshmen that are still committed and the ones that stayed that are still looking forward to playing. I wouldn’t see a reason for leaving now, things are going well,” Ozor said.
The men will begin off-season lifting and training until their regular season begins again around the beginning of the 2018-19 winter break.