While I could easily go into detail about last year’s Eastern Illinois team, a story head coach Jay Spoohour told me at OVC Media Day probably does it better, and more comically, than I could ever hope for.
We were talking about Eastern Illinois tempo from a season ago, which in Spoonhour words, could only have been slower if the team curled up with the ball and took a nap. The conversation only got funnier from there.
“Since you’re a numbers guy,” Spoonhour said, “if you will go back and check the record for the shot clock going off on a single team, when the team didn’t even know it was running down. Alright? That is your assignment.”
I still have to get back to him on that, by the way.
“…it goes off, and no even knows.”
Newly minted EIU’s women’s coach, Debbie Black, who was sitting at the same table and had been apart of our entire conversation, chimed in. “Drives you crazy, right?”
“No, it was great,” Spoonhour responded. “Okay, so we have a practice in December. No, November. And I said, fellas — it was really a fun team to coach, because they really listened to everything you said. You had to be really careful what you told them. ”
“That’s like women, that’s not like guys,” Black said, laughing.
“We’re having practice. And the horn goes off, and the guys all start yelling at each other, and I said ‘Wait a minute. You guys are way more worried about this shot clock than I am. Fellas, that shot clock going off is a much better deal then you shooting a shot that you know and I know you’re not going to make.”
Black and I both nodded in agreement.
“At least if the horn goes off,” Spoonhour continued, “We drop the ball, we run back, we clap our hands and we guard. The next day, we’re playing against somebody. The third possession of the game.” Spoonhour then makes a buzzer sound. “They drop the ball, run down the court, and they clap their hands, and I turned to someone and I said ‘We look like a bunch of fools.’
Through Black’s and my laughter, Spoonhour wrapped up his story by summing up his team in one sentence:
“Okay, here’s the thing. Every team has to have an identity. That was ours, and it worked.”
“YEAH, WE HAVE TO PLAY FASTER. IT’LL BE MANDATED”
The general reaction throughout college basketball is to look at how many points a team scores, and from that number alone determine whether it’s a good basketball team. Too many people saw Eastern Illinois scored 60-points a game last season, and decided they couldn’t have been very good.
Except that was from from the full picture. As alluded to in the story above, Eastern Illinois played as slow as nearly anyone. In fact, an average EIU game had 61 possessions; only eight teams in the nation, and no one in the OVC, had fewer.
The benefit of that style of game is, generally, two-fold: One, it also allows your opponents fewer possessions, which can keep games closer, giving you more opportunites to win. Also, it can disrupt momentum and rhythym for teams not used to playing it.
It also has the side effect of being rather boring to the average fan. When other teams are running up and down the floor, slamming home breakaways, you’re dribbling it. And passing. Then more dribbling. And another pass. Then we call a new play. And we dribble it some more. You get the point.
Fans would rather see up-tempo basketball. And so would coach Spoonhour, to a point.
“Every coach wants to go as fast as you can go while still being productive,” Spoonhour says. “The whole thing is, everyone wants to go as fast at they can. We’re trying to go faster.”
But Spoonhour was also cautious about his team playing too fast.
“It’s all code. When players say ‘we’re going to run,’ to them, that’s code for ‘I get to shoot it whenever I want.’ And that’s not the way it works. You can do that, but you’re not going to beat anybody. The right guys better shoot.”
“Players don’t really want to run,” Spoonhour added. “You watch guys when they do sprints, they don’t want to run. They just say — they want to shoot when they want to shoot. And so, when you try to get guys to go really fast, that’s out of their comfort zone, they’re going to make mistakes. We’re making a ton of mistakes right now. But you’ve got to do that, figure out what your level is, back it off. We never could find the bottom, in terms of pace last year. We just couldn’t. ”
We’re already seeing the change. EIU had 70 possessions in their 73-64 exhibition win over Oakland City Saturday night. Morehead State led the OVC in possessions a game last season with 71.
“There’s a limit to how much you’re going to win when you can only score 55 a game,” Spoonhour said. “But we won what we could win. And this year, if we can get to where we can score 75 a game, and continue to guard, we’ll win more”