When I first started this site two years ago, one of my first bold predictions that proved true was about a team with a young coach that finished the season strong, with a lot of returning talent. I called them a “dark horse” for the next season, and even ranked them as high as second during my first ever ridiculously early previews.
Eastern Illinois finished last season strong, finishing the regular season 8-4. Their top four scorers are all back. Jay Spoonhour is in his second year at the helm.
This all seems very familiar.
That first team, Tennessee State, went all the way to the OVC title game that season. Will Eastern Illinois be able to match the feat?
Step one to understanding Eastern Illinois: ignore their overall record from last season. 11-21 isn’t good, but after a loss on January 17th at Murray State, a game the Panthers were blown out in, EIU was 3-16, and 0-6 in the conference. Their losses included a loss at home to NAIA Rochester (MI). It was their 11th straight loss, a streak spanning more than a month and a half.
A lot of teams would have folded up shop.
Not Eastern Illinois. The Panthers rolled off three straight wins, almost immediately putting themselves back in the race to make the OVC Tournament. When Murray State made the return trip to Eastern Illinois almost a month later, the Panthers knocked off the Racers. Three straight wins to finish the year capped off the regular season, as the Panthers returned to Nashville for the first time in three years.
The Panthers graduate three players from the backcourt, but keep a solid frontcourt in tact with Josh Piper and Sherman Blanford. Blanford was a big reason for the Panthers late season rise, with five double-digit rebounding games during the last month and a half of the regular season. One returning guard, Morris Woods, had 9 double-digit scoring performances in the last 11 games, versus just 7 in the first 21 games.
Next year’s point guard (likely UNLV transfer Reggie Smith, eligible next season) will have big shoes to fill: graduate Austin Akers led the OVC, and was fifth in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, with an amazing 3.1 assists per turnover.
Can the Panthers solve their scoring issues from last season?
Their scoring issues were as much a product of their half-court tempo as it was a problem with the offense. The Panthers were 7th in the OVC in points per possession, and as is the theme with this team, performed much better in the late part of the year. Piper faded a bit midway through the year, but Woods and Blandford have showed they can be consistent double-digit scorers, as can Alex Austin, who nearly averaged double-digits as a freshman.
Does this team speed up their tempo?
If it works, why fix it? I do think the slow tempo was partially Spoonhour crafting the offense to fit the players he inherited, but the Panthers tempo didn’t speed up when they were successful late in the year. As Spoonhour continues to fill the roster with players to fit his style, it could change, absolutely, but we’ve also seen that if a coach wants to play up tempo, they can regardless of what style their players were recruited for. (Looking at you, Sean Woods.)
Is there an All-OVC player on the roster?
Yes, I think Woods will easily make the all-conference team by the end of the year. Woods shot 51% from the floor last season, as a 6’3″ guard. He’s not much of a three-point threat, but he’s a very solid guard. Blanford is another possibility, as he will be a solid option inside again this year.
Don’t count out Alex Austin either. If his freshman year is any indication, he’s a rising star on the Panthers roster.
Over / Under: 200 made three’s on the year.
EIU actually shot 35% from 3-point range last season, which is solid. But I would take the under. Piper can step out and hit the long ball, as can Alex Austin. But, that’s about it, really.