Picked to finish 3rd in the OVC before the season, expectations were high for Eastern Illinois. But the injury to Tyler Laser turned EIU’s season around, and not for the better. But even after his injury, Eastern Illinois was one of those teams that defy any real explanation: The Panthers only managed 4 conference wins, but 3 of those wins were against Murray, Morehead, and Tennessee State. The wins over Murray and Morehead even came after Laser’s injury. What is clear is this team went south the last half of the season, losing their last 10 conference games on their way to sliding out of the OVC Tournament.
Laser may be gone, but 9 players that started games last year will return for the Panthers, including leading scorer Jeremy Granger. Granger was the only Panther outside of Laser who averaged in double digit scoring; which isn’t a surprising stat given that Eastern Illinois averaged just over 60 points a game. He is also an outstanding ball handler, and clearly the offense will run through Granger. The question is who will join Granger in the backcourt. Taylor Jones started one game last season, L.C. Doss 6, and Isaac Smith 8. None averaged more than 5-points a game, or dished out 25 assists for the year. JUCO guard transfer Morris Woods might be the man to fill the gap.
James Hollowell returns to anchor the front court, but sophomore Shawn Pratl is leaving the team, presumably transferring. On paper, it doesn’t seem like a huge loss, but it’s another hole to fill for the Panthers. One thing their interior must do better is get to the FT line. As a team, EIU shot just under 17 free throw’s a game. That’s a big reason for the lack of scoring last year.
EIU’s defense proved to be the strength of the team last year. The Panthers finished 4th in the conference in scoring defense, allowing under 65 points a game. That’s thanks to keeping opponents to under 42% shooting. It kept them in games; 11 of their losses were by less than 10 points, 6 by less than 4.
As for a prediction for next year, well they could be just as unpredictable at this year. They have experience in their favor, but unless someone else can step up alongside Granger, it could be another long season for the Panthers.