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  • Writer's pictureJohn Bohnenkamp

Carius: A Leatherneck Leader

Colton Sandage couldn’t stop nodding.

It was during the post-game press conference in March after Western Illinois lost in the Summit League men’s basketball tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Will Carius, Sandage’s teammate, was asked if he was going to take advantage of a chance to play a sixth season.

As Carius started his answer about how he was considering a return, Sandage already had the answer.

“Yes,” Sandage said, and Carius started laughing.

Sandage wasn’t done.

“I think I started working on that in December,” he said. “Any time you’ve got a guy like Will, of course you’ve got to keep him. This guy’s incredible. I hope he stays another year, because we can do some special things.”

It would have been easy for Carius to move on. It’s been a journey through every level of NCAA basketball — he started his career at a Division II school, moved to a Division III school, and then went to a Division I school for his final year, not knowing that it would be disjointed, not knowing the twists and turns that would come from a season of playing in a pandemic.

And so, Carius said, that’s why he wanted to come back for that extra season granted by the NCAA because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He wanted to play a normal schedule, in front of fans. He wanted to play with teammates he had gotten to know in the previous season.

He wanted to come back because he sensed the Leathernecks would, as Sandage said, “do some special things.”

When the Leathernecks reached the Christmas break, they were 10-3 overall, the best start in the history of the program since it moved to Division I play in the 1981-82 season.

Carius leads the Leathernecks in scoring at 17.8 points per game, fourth best in the Summit League. He is third in the conference in 3-pointers with 44, fourth in the conference in 3-point percentage at .431.

“Will makes tough shots,” Western Illinois coach Rob Jeter said. “He’s just a winner, man. He just plays.”

Carius is glad he made the decision to return.

“It just feels,” he said after a win over Eastern Illinois in mid-December, “like everything is normal.”

Back and Better

Carius could have easily said he was done with college basketball last spring.

He was a second-team all-conference pick after averaging 14.7 points per game, and could have found a professional basketball job overseas.

But there was still that uncertainty that came with the pandemic.

“I wanted to go play professionally overseas, and COVID was still messing with schedules and seasons,” Carius said before the season. “It was a good option being able to come back and play another year.”

Sandage — and the rest of Carius’ teammates — got their wish. Carius was returning.

Jeter certainly didn’t mind: “He was the No. 1 recruit to our offseason.”

But the Leathernecks added other key players. Guard Trenton Massner transferred from Northwestern State. Forward Luka Barisic transferred from UTSA. Guard George Dixon transferred from Eastern Illinois.

All three have played a big part in the Leathernecks’ resurgence. The program won seven games in Jeter’s first season last year and Carius is one of four Leathernecks who average in double figures in scoring.

“It’s big to have so many options,” Carius said. “We don’t have a selfish kid on the team. Whoever is going to lead us to a win is going to do it.”

Carius has scored in double figures in 13 of the 14 games he’s played in this season. He had a season-high seven 3-pointers in the 71-54 win over Eastern Illinois.

“We want Will to learn from last season and to become more patient,” Jeter said before the season. “He had some good scoring nights for us, but there’s a lot of film out there now and people know what he can do. He’ll have to adjust to that, and part of that is having more patience.”

Midwest Roots

There’s another reason Carius came back, and it’s apparent every night the Leathernecks play at home at Western Hall. Carius is often delayed coming to post-game press conferences because he has so many family members at the games.

Carius grew up in Bettendorf, Iowa, which is a little more than an hour’s drive from the Western Illinois campus in Macomb.

Carius started his career at Northern Michigan, an NCAA Division II school. He averaged 10.6 points in 10 games in an injury-shortened 2016-17 season, then, after averaging 12.3 points as a sophomore, transferred to Monmouth (Ill.) College, a Division III school, to be closer to home.

There, Carius was a Division III All-American as a junior, averaging 25.5 points and 11 rebounds on his way to being the Midwest Conference player of the year. His senior season was cut short after six games because of a knee injury, giving him a medical redshirt season for 2020-21.

He thought, with that one season left, that Western Illinois, just about a half-hour drive down U.S. Highway 67 from Monmouth, would be a perfect place to play. The Leathernecks were rebuilding after Jeter was hired, and it was a chance to play Division I basketball.

“I felt like I was really at home when I got here,” Carius said.

But Carius transferred at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic so there was no chance to get to know his teammates because there were no summer workouts, and with practices limited in the fall, that process of getting acquainted was still a work in progress.

“It was definitely frustrating mentally,” Carius said.

Plus, because of the pandemic, the Leathernecks went everywhere by bus, to limit exposure.

“It was not a ton different from Division II, especially with the travel,” Carius said. “With COVID, we took a lot of long bus rides I was glad to be able to play at the level I always knew I could, with a great coaching staff and teammates. Obviously it was different — it wasn’t a normal year by any means. But I was still able to take a lot of positives from it.”

Carius started every game for the Leathernecks last season. He scored in double figures in 17 games, including a stretch of nine consecutive games in Summit League play. Included in that stretch was a 34-point night at North Dakota, in which he was 8-of-12 from the field, hitting 6-of-7 3-pointers.

“For him to come in from Division III, I know he was anxious to show what he was about and see if he could fit in at another level and he’s done that,’’ Jeter said.

He continues to show that this season. And it’s something his teammates appreciate.

When someone posted on Twitter that Carius is one of the more efficient shooters in Division I basketball, Sandage replied that “Any shot (Carius) takes is a good shot.”

The Leathernecks have finally established a bond after a season in which they scrambled to put everything together.

“We're a team that really meshes well,” Carius said. “We’re not a cliquey team, at all. I think that translates on the court. It’s one of the better teams I’ve been with in terms of getting along. There’s no locker room issues ever. It’s a really good environment, on the basketball court and off, and it made my decision to come back a lot easier.”

Go back to that press conference in Sioux Falls last March.

“Tough decision?” Jeter said after Sandage had made his feelings known. “Nah. It’s pretty easy.”

It was for Carius. And it’s worked out well.

“I wouldn’t change it,” he said before the season started. “For anything.”

(Photo credit: Stephen Mally.)

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