How much difference a year makes.
After posting 20 wins in the 2009-10 season, EKU had become the near definition of mediocrity. A .500 season the year after, and having to win in the final week of the next season to make the OVC Tournament, some were wondering if they would be able to return to the form that brought them to the NCAA tournament twice in three years in the mid 2000’s.
Heading into the season, expectations weren’t especially high for the young team, playing a soft opening schedule.
In the end, EKU proved a lot of us prognosticators very wrong, proving to be a true threat in a conference on the rise.
Now the Colonels look to make another leap, to go from a threat, to a champion.
Even after a 9-0 start to the season, there were quite a lot doubters. Who had they played? Had they really been tested?
But it was their tenth game, their first loss, that got a lot of people’s attention. The Colonels traveled to another surprising undefeated team, Illinois, falling on the road to the much larger, more physical Illini.
The 13-point loss, in a game much tighter than that throughout, wasn’t what many expected.
EKU showed they were a team to watch for in the OVC early, rolling off four straight wins to start the conference season.
But amongst all their success, including a school-record 25 wins, there was one roadblock the Colonels couldn’t get past: Belmont. The Colonels went 0-2 against the eventual OVC champion, but never lacked the confidence they could beat the Bruins. That confidence led to one of the quotes of the year, with head coach Jeff Neubauer proclaiming his team was the only ones that could top the Bruins.
They wouldn’t get that chance, falling in the OVC semifinals to a resurgent Racers.
Of the four teams in last year’s semifinals, EKU is in a different category. The other three — Belmont, Murray State, and Tennessee State — were senior led teams, and lost a significant chunk of their production to graduation.
The Colonels have lost just one player, Mike DiNunno. For the rest of the league, he was a love ’em or hate ’em kind of guy, (and it was more of the latter than the former) but he was a big scorer, accounting for one-fifth of EKU’s points.
EKU may very well have his replacement on the roster, as least in production terms.
If so, and if the frontcourt can do their part, the Colonels could be major players in the 2013-14 OVC title race.
How big of a concern is the frontcourt?
A fairly big one, but it’s not overwhelming. Eric Stutz played his best basketball of the year in Nashville, and there’s reason to believe he’ll continue to improve. But he still wasn’t a dominant rebounder, and I’m not sure there’s one on the roster. He’ll also need some help, perhaps from rising senior Jeff Johnson, or rising juniors Timmy Knipp and Deverin Muff.
Is the combination of Cosey / Walden the best backcourt in the OVC?
It very well could be. Many people forgot how good Glenn Cosey was this past year, after injury sidelined the JUCO transfer for a significant portion of the year. Corey Walden had an excellent season as a sophomore, and will get even more opportunities with DiNunno graduating. It’s also very encouraging that one of his best games last year came against Illinois. Walden does need to distribute the ball more, as the strength last year was that both DiNunno and Cosey were solid assist guys.
What are the chances of this team regressing?
There are a lot of things that could play into this, but I think it’s really low. Why? If Walden can fill DiNunno shoes, the identity of this team should be mostly unchanged. When you look at Murray State this year, for instance, their identity completely changed due to the loss of key role players. Having a target on their backs, and playing as the favorite instead of the underdog could have some impact, but it’s not something I forsee happening. And even if they’re picked as the “favorite,” all of the attention isn’t going to swing from Belmont and Murray State that easily.
G Glenn Cosey
G Willie Cruz (graduated, did not play due to injury before junior yr)
G Corey Walden
G Mike DiNunno (graduated)
G Tommy Matthews
G Jaylen Babb-Harrison
G Marcus Lewis
G Orlando Williams
G Robbie Stenzel
G Timmy Knipp
G Ryan Parsons
F Jeff Johnson
F Deverin Muff
G Tarius Johnson
F Eric Stutz
This is about as short of a roster breakdown as I’m going to have. In fact, I’m not 100% sure what I should even breakdown.
Isaac McGlone is a freshman. Four starters return. So, what’s there to talk about?
How about the frontcourt? I mentioned this in the burning questions, but the Colonels need one of their (admittingly few) forwards to step up. 6’5″ Tarius Johnson was the second option last season alongside Eric Stutz, and he’s just not big enough to play the four-slot, or even the occasional center he was asked to last year. He makes a solid option at the three-slot, but most teams have at least a pair of 6’7″ or taller guys that will be on the floor at any given point.
Jeff Johnson is the most likely of the bunch: the 6’7″, 251-pound forward played in all 35 games last year, but averaged just a hair above 15 minutes a game. Deverin Muff played 32 games, but even fewer minutes. One needs a breakout summer, and to become a more consistent regular in the lineup.
Of course, Neubauer likes to play solid shooters, and neither of those seemingly fit the bill. Even Stutz, an outstanding shooter, could stand to be more physical underneath.
Predicted Starting Five
G Glenn Cosey
G Corey Walden
G Orlando Williams
G/F Tarius Johnson
F Eric Stutz
Unless one of those forwards does have a standout summer, I see Neubauer going with a similar lineup as last year, with three guards, and Johnson playing the four-slot. Why change the formula from last year, which clearly worked well.
You probably haven’t heard much of Orlando Williams. The Miami (OH) transfer became eligible last December, and then was injured in just his sixth game. He returned for the stretch run, and if healthy is another possible deep-ball threat in the backcourt.
By The Numbers
|Category||Rank (Nat'l out of 347)||Rank (OVC)|
|Field Goal %||46.7%||30th||3rd|
|3-Point Field Goal %||35.6%||91st||5th|
|Free Throw %||78.1%||3rd||1st|
|Points Per Possession||1.093||17th||2nd|
|Turnovers Rate (% of possessions with a turnover)||17.0||50th||1st|
|Assist / Turnover Ratio||1.305||28th||1st|
|Defensive Field Goal %||45.8%||293rd||6th|
|Defensive 3-point Field Goal %||31.5%||58th||1st|
|Defensive Points Per Possession||1.01||220th||5th|
|Forced Turnovers Rate||25.0%||3rd||1st|
|Fouls Per Game||19.3||282nd||9th|
As you would expect, EKU was among the best offensive teams in the conference. But there is a slight problem: high-powered offenses were a trend in the OVC last year. Sure, they were 17th in the nation in points per possession, but that was only good for 2nd in the conference. Third wasn’t far behind. Their offense was great, but it didn’t really distinguish themselves from the rest of the great offenses in the conference.
Their defensive numbers were a bit more mixed: stronger where the guards had more impact, (i.e. 3-point shooting defense) weaker where they didn’t. (i.e. rebounding.)
If their offense can stay in the “great” category, they might find even more success this next year. Again, that’s because this year’s similarly high powered offenses are losing much more talent to graduation than EKU. Mike DiNunno was a big part of that, though, and even with Corey Walden plus a healthy Glenn Cosey and Orlando Williams, keeping those lofty numbers across the board could be quite a challenge. Some small regression wouldn’t surprise me.
The bigger concern is how to fix the weaknesses, especially on defense, with the same core of players. The rebounding numbers, (and interior defense numbers, which were similarly poor) simply have to get better, or the Colonels could find themselves matching up against a more physical team (i.e. SEMO) and bounced from the OVC Tournament, especially in Nashville where the shooting isn’t always as good as teams find during the regular season.
I said this at the beginning of this preview, and I’ll say it again: The Colonels should be the prohibitive favorites to win the OVC in 2013-14. But the conference is often unpredictable, and over the past few years we’ve seen those early picks, Austin Peay two years ago, Murray State this past year, struggle.
Defense is the biggest area of concern for the Colonels, as it appears they will have plenty of shooters, a mark of Neubauer’s teams. If the Colonels have an off shooting night, which they will, do they have the defensive presence to win “ugly?”
Eric Stutz play in the OVC Tournament has him on my radar as a player on the rise, and Glenn Cosey could be the best deep ball threat in the conference. The pieces are assembled, but can they stick together through a long season?