In our new series, we’re looking at why teams fared as well, or poorly, as they did. 2nd on the list is the Eastern Illinois Panthers.
Much of this post has been done for about a week now. So why hasn’t it been posted? I wanted to see what kind of coach the Panthers hired.
Because generally, when you fire a coach, you try to hire one to fix what you feel is the team’s biggest problem under the old coach. You feel the talent level isn’t up to par, you go out and get a young coach known for recruiting.
So what does it mean that they hired an experienced coach that has won…on a Non Division I level? And what about the schools statement Monday that they wanted someone to bring a “fun style of basketball” to Lantz, before mentioning they wanted a winner?
I think it sets their expectations. They want someone that could remain at EIU for years to come, and will consistently make the OVC tournament. But I’m not sold that they truly expect to win the conference regularly.
Because I think they feel they’re at rock bottom.
And given where things stand after this season, that may be the understatement of the year so far. Your coach is gone. Your two top returning scorers…aren’t returning. Yeah, I think it’s safe to say you had a bad season.
And it started so well, too. The Panthers started 6-2 through the first 8, with one of those losses on the road in double overtime. On December 7th, things looked good.
By February 7th, it was clear they weren’t going to end that way. But despite a 8-game losing streak during the heart of conference season, the Panthers went into the final week of the season with a chance to make the OVC Tournament.
Would it have saved their coaches job? Possibly.
But the bigger question, would fans have returned if it did?
Will they even return now?
Hollowell gets hurt, but…
In what almost appears to be coming a yearly tradition for the Panthers (one they’d rather not see) a player missed much of the season to injury. This year, is was 6’6″ junior James Hollowell, who went down in the final game of November, and didn’t return until late January.
But this isn’t like Terence Smith at UT Martin. Hollowell just missed 10 games, and was mostly a role player, not the star (or even a consistant starter before his injury) at Eastern Illinois. Don’t get me wrong, he was important to the team, and at full health provided a second talented rebounding threat to Alfonzo McKinnie, but his injury can hardly be to blame for the team’s woes this season.
And it’s not like the team didn’t have 3 other 6’6″ or taller players other than McKinnie and Hollowell that could step into the lineup, and played in all 29 games this year. In fact, it may have helped the team develop 6’8″ freshman Josh Piper who played extended minutes in the 10 games Hollowell missed.
Who do we play?
Eastern Illinois might have been the shallowest “deep” team in the OVC this season. 9 players played in every game this year they were available, and 2 others played in 22 and 27 respectively.
How many teams in college basketball do you see play 11 guys a night? There’s this one…and…
…very few others. And there’s a reason for that, generally. It’s becuase most teams aren’t 11 players deep. And Eastern Illinois wasn’t an exception to that rule. In fact, the “play everyone” mentality might have been one of their larger problems.
McKinnie, the team’s leading rebounder, was also one of the best in the conference, pulling down 7 a game. That’s despite playing under 24 minutes a game. In the tempo free “rebounding rate,” which determines the number of rebounds per minute, McKinnie led the OVC.
Why was one of the top rebounders in the conference playing 24 minutes a game? Yet guys like Nick McFarlin, Zeke Sanders and Piper, who didn’t combine for that many rebounds, taking away minutes from McKinnie. Sure, he needs spells to rest, but almost half of each game?
To be fair, some of that does go on McKinnie, who got into foul trouble on occassion, including fouling out in an absolutely staggering 7 minutes of playing time against Tennessee Martin on February 11th.
But I see no reason McKinnie shouldn’t have been on the floor 30+ minutes a game.
Next year, he won’t be on the floor any in Charleston.
Why Non-Conference Schedules Matter
Last summer, I ranked EIU’s non-conference schedule 9th out of 11 teams. And I think it ended up being a little bit stronger than predicted, with Northwestern being a borderline tournament team, and Stony Brook making a run in the America East conference.
But a few “solid” opponents don’t make for a great non-conference schedule. In fact, it proved to be the easiest non-conference slate played in the OVC, according to the RPI. EIU SOS for the season was 313th, and that included 2 games against top-50 Murray State boosting that number.
In the end, you had a team coming out of their non-conference slate looking like they could be a contender in the OVC.
Only they hadn’t tested themselves, and weren’t ready when the OVC tested them.
Starting off their conference slate with a 33 point loss to the Racers likely didn’t help bolster confidence as conference play began either.
The Coach, and the Coaches Son
I’d be more than remiss if I didn’t place any blame on the coach that was fired on the end of the season. And although it’s a sensitive topic to discuss, the fact of the matter remains that many fans expressed concern about the play of his son.
First, on coach Miller, it appears that the ’09-’10 year, which earned Miller a contract extension, proved to me an enigma more that a sign of his talent. Yes, I realize the harshness of that statement, but if you take that year out of the equation, Miller never won more than 12 games in a season. In 7 years.
Don’t get me wrong, I would never want to coach in Eastern Illinois. Although some fans have taken offense to me making this statement in the past, I still firmly believe that EIU is one of the hardest places to coach in the OVC. It’s not in or near a major city, it doesn’t have a winning tradition, and the facilities aren’t great. Most every other program (not named UT Martin) meets one of those 3 criteria, if not more. It’s not that it’s “impossible” to win there, but it would be a great challenge to win there consistently. And yes, I fully expect at least one of you to once again tell me why I’m wrong.
As for his son Joey, I was one of his defenders last season. He’s was a solid guard (though not outstanding) and simply put, every mistake he made was magnified. Since the team, and in hand its coach, was failing, I got the feeling that some fans wanted Miller the player to fail, to give more leverage to the opinion that the coach should go.
I don’t think that was the majority opinion on Joey. I’m not saying all, or most fans felt that way. But I do feel those detractors existed in the fan base, and made their opinion known. And I feel that if EIU was successful last season, the opinion on Miller would have changed.
I’m not saying he was an all-conference player, especially given his propensity to make bad shooting decision, finishing the season at just 33% from the field. But when he did pass the ball, he was an effective guard.
How can it be fixed?
Obviously, the school has taken the first step in hiring Jay Spoonhour as their new coach. It was a hire that surprised a few people, who expected the school to choose a less experienced but higher touted Division I assistant. As I said at the top, I’m not sold that the school expects Spoonhour to compete for a title year in and year out. But they expect him to compete, something previously teams didn’t always do.
His first job is going to be finding players. Miller is out. Alfonzo McKinnie is gone as well, meaning the top returning scorer averaged…6 points a game during an injury shortened season.
But this is where Spoonhour has a bit of an advantage. Being a former JUCO coach, he should, in theory at least, be able to find and recruit talented junior college players that can quickly fill the rather massive void on the Panther program right now.
While that’s great to get the team back into the OVC tournament in a hurry, can that be relied on as a long term solution? Of course not. But JUCO coaches do recruit high school players after all, so Spoonhour won’t exactly be in uncharted territory their either.
With a new coach, and the high player turnover, it’s not really worth looking at what the team did last season, because in all likelihood, the team will play a different style of ball, and will definitely do it with different players, this next year.
How Will They Finish?
I don’t have my sights set too high with EIU. There’s simply just too much to rebuild to do it in one season. Maybe the new coach will energize them, but making the tournament would be an amazing undertaking, in my mind. They’ll get a win or two, but maybe not many more.
What do you think. Vote in the poll below, and leave your thoughts in the comments