Don’t let the final score fool you: Eastern Illinois pulled to within 15 points at the end, but they were out classed for the 2nd time this season against Murray State, falling in front of 8,673 fans at the CFSB Center 73-68.
For Racers forward Ivan Aska, it was like coming full circle: returning from an injury that occurred against these very Panthers earlier in the season. Aska played 21 minutes off the bench, finishing with 8 points and 3 rebounds. Aska hardly looked any worse for the wear, even dunking with his previously injured hand in the second half. In a rare admission, both from coach and Aska himself, the forward admitted to being nervous before checking in, but was welcomed from the loudest roar of the night by the 8 thousand plus that filled the sold out “Bank.”
Tonight likely did nothing to cool the seat of EIU head coach Mike Miller, who in all likelihood needs to make the OVC tournament at a minimum if he hopes to helm the Panthers next season. Miller was not shy about using early timeouts, taking one in the first 6 minutes of the first, and the first 3 minutes of the second half. With over 14 minutes left, Miller had used all of his timeouts, and was even essentially granted a bonus one when the officials needed 2 monitors and almost 5 minutes to decide if a shot was from behind that arc. Miller didn’t appear to hold back on his players, clearly frustrated with the Panthers defense that allowed the Racers to shoot open 3’s from the same area of the court play after play on multiple occasions.
Miller, Not Granger, leads EIU: Joey Miller has gotten a lot of flak for being the coaches son, but tonight he showed again why he’s earned a spot in the Panthers starting 5. Jeremy Granger picked up 2 very quick fouls, and was left in the game, but played very conservative as a result, finishing with just 7 points. Miller didn’t have a very good first half, but would score 13 points and dish out 5 assists in the final frame. The caveat: most of that production came when Eastern Illinois fell into a 20+ point hole. In fact, with the game still a contest at halftime, the Panthers scored just 4 points in the opening 8 minutes of the second half, allowing the Racers to easily seal their 21st win on the season.
Daniel’s Strongest Game Yet?: Ed Daniel‘s been asked to step up over the past month with Aska out of the Racers lineup, and it really appears that time has done wonders for Daniel’s game. The Racers big man pulled down a game high 12 rebounds, and dished out 5 assists in the win. Some 6’8″ players don’t get 5 assists all season. On the flip side, Isaiah Canann finished with 0, marking the first time this season he’s had less than 2. He wasn’t being a ball hog by any stretch; simply the defense made it easier for other players, including Daniel and Donte Poole to make passes. EIU took a page out of Jacksonville State’s playbook, having a player face guard Canaan for much of the game, starting with Granger. Canaan was still able to get open shots off of ball screen’s, (at times, I’m not sure if EIU knew whether they were supposed to switch or not on those) and tied with Poole with a game high 18 points.
Ball Control a bright spot for the Panthers: One of the way the Racers have made their name on defense this year is by forcing turnovers at a high rate. Tonight, the Panthers only had 10 turnovers. But as Murray State does, they made the most of them scoring 14 points off of those 10. Rebounding, on the other hand, was anything but bright. The Panthers lose the battle of the boards 40-24, pulling down just 6 offensive rebounds off of 31 missed shots. The Racers got 11 offensive rebounds, only missing 25 shots.
Setting the Stage: Racers vs Redhawks: SEMO’s road woes aside, they’re the next threat to end the Racers undefeated season on Thursday at the CFSB Center. (Although Steve Prohm would correctly argue with me that every team is a threat) The Redhawks have two of the most dynamic front court players in the league, but will face a Racers team at full strength. (Be honest: In the back of their minds, SEMO would have loved to play Murray State when Aska was out) The question to me comes down to two points: foul trouble, and guard play. Yes, Leon Powell and Tyler Stone are great players, but if one or both get into early foul trouble it could be hard for them to overcome. The Racers are deeper in the front court, and are much better equipped to whether a flurry of whistles. In the back court, can Nick Niemczyk or Marcus Brister be effective against Canaan, Poole, or Jewuan Long, and better yet, can they even manage to hold onto the basketball, something that has plagued this team all season long. On the flip side, the Redhawks can score, so if Murray goes through one of their patented scoring drought, the Redhawks have the weapons to make them pay. SEMO’s defense has been hit or miss this year, and will need a big effort just to keep the score manageable.
(Edit: As a commenter pointed out, Niemczyk has been out recently for SEMO. I’m not sure of his status on Thursday)
Is EIU an OVC tournament team?: With a Jacksonville State win over SIUE today, the Panthers are now 2 games behind in the win column for the 8th tournament seed. Miller said in post game that he’s been impressed with how his team has played except over the past two weeks, and that is problematic because those two weeks have been in conference play. Defensively, I seriously wonder if this team can get to 5 wins, which is the bare minimum they’ll need to be assured of a tournament spot at this point. Their schedule for the last 8 games don’t do them any favors any: They host SEMO on Monday, then a solid EKU and resurgent Morehead State squad, and then travel to Tennessee Tech before their first game they might be favored to win, at UT Martin. They then travel to Edwardsville and then finish the season on the Death Valley road swing. If they get to that last week, and need a win, that is a killer road trip to have to pick one up on. I don’t think they’re better than Jacksonville State, (in fact, I think the Gamecocks will likely earn a 6-seed or better) and I think it’s more likely they’ll need Tennessee State or EKU to falter if they hope to make it to Nashville. If they can sweep the 2 games against EKU, or at worst split and pick up another upset, I can see them getting to 6 wins, which should be just enough to squeak in.
Is this Mike Miller’s final season with the Panthers? In all likelihood, yes. They’ve been resistant to make the change previously, but with his contract up at the end of the year, they’re under no financial restrictions to let him go. A lot of fans think it’s time to make a change, enough in fact that it may be time to listen, even if he can turn this team around over these last 8 games. I think Miller’s return will cost the school some of its fans, and likely reduce ticket sales, hurting the team all around. He hasn’t made the NCAA tournament in his 7 seasons. Barring a near miracle this year, the Panthers will have finished under .500 in the OVC 4 times in the past 5 year. I don’t know if I necessarily agree that he should go, but I do think that the athletic director owes it to his school’s fans to take a long look at whether Miller is the guy going forward. If he returns next season, I would be surprised if he gets anything longer than a 1-year extension.