If you would have told me in August that in February, Eastern Illinois and SIU Edwardsville would be playing a game for second place in the West Division, I would have laughed you out of the room.
Heck, I might have done it if you told me it two weeks ago.
But that’s where we stand: the winner in second place in the division.
The loser? They could be on the wrong side of the OVC Tournament bubble. In the much maligned OVC West Division, the line between the two is just that thin.
Right now, no team in the division is hotter than Eastern Illinois. Winners of three straight, EIU has doubled their win total for the season in the last two weeks.
But there’s still a lot of doubt swirling around the Panthers throughout the OVC. Those three wins, against teams near the bottom of the West Division. And the game before it, a blowout loss to Murray State. But many forget that game was close at the half, and many forget some near misses that came before, like against Jacksonville State and Tennessee Tech. Even Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee State struggled to double-digit wins.
I’ve been saying it all season, but it’s finally showing up in the win column: Jay Spoonhour has this team heading in the right direction. And they’re doing it on the back of Sherman Blanford.
The JUCO transfer has come alive as of late: seven straight double-digit games, and is coming off a career high 21 points in the Panthers win over Southeast Missouri. He’s also managed two double-doubles in the past three games, including 16 rebounds just one week ago.
Being a young team, there’s likely still some growing pains to come. But right now, the Panthers are peaking. And with the state of the OVC, it couldn’t come at a better time.
The Cougars are the “what might have been’s” of the OVC this year. Close losses at Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky, a late lead blown at Murray State, and two highly questionable (and at least one outright wrong) call that contributed to a loss to UT Martin. A few breaks, and SIUE is rivaling the Racers atop the division.
Instead, they’re rivaling the rest of the division to keep their season alive at the end of the month.
The Cougars play at the guard position continues to be solid at both ends of the floor, as the Cougars are near the top of the league in three-point shooting, and leading the league in three-point defense. Turnovers continue to be a concern, but they force quite a few on the other end of the ball.
It’s their defense inside the arc that really proves to be their Achilles heel. SIUE isn’t a large team by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re not getting beat by post-ups and rebounds. They’re getting beat by backdoors and drives, which has more to do with being in position than being bigger than the other guy. Those issues are also leading to nearly 20 fouls a game, sending opponents to the line far too often.
Speaking of the line, that’s one place the Cougars don’t want to find themselves. Despite being a team with quality shooters, the Cougars are just 66% from the charity stripe this season.