Expectations are an interesting thing. While they can make for an exciting summer, and enjoyable start to the year, their sheer being can turn an otherwise alright year into a downright miserable one.
Case in point: Murray State, just one year ago.
It’s on reason so many coaches try to dampen those expectations this time of year. It’s not that they don’t have them, or share in them. In fact, often their expectations exceed those placed on teams by the media and their most loyal fans.
But that’s not the path Eastern Kentucky head coach Jeff Neubauer is taking. In fact, he’s doing as much to raise the stakes for his team as suppressing them.
“We have encouraged our players to embrace the expectations. It’s not something that we’re trying to dodge or run from. It’s fun to be picked to win the league. We’re trying to enjoy the experience and push ourselves at the same time.”
He’s even taking steps to make sure his players know just how lofty those expectations truly are.
“Every time one of the publications came out in the fall, I went and purchased a copy and put it in the locker room for the team to read,” Neubauer said. “I wanted them to see that we were picked to win the league and that we had high expectations. It’s not something we’re going to run from at all.”
His counterpart picked a top the West took a much different approach to media day. Southeast Missouri head coach Dickey Nutt was humble, saying he was worried his team might not be as good as everyone expects.
I’m not here to say one approach is right, and another isn’t. Each coach knows their own players much better than I, and I’m certain both are choosing what they think is best for their team. But the contrast is interesting, at the very least, as two talented coaches from two talented teams take such opposite paths.
It’s scenarios like this, stories about how each teams deals with where they are picked, whether it be to ignore to embrace what their fellow coaches and athletic directors think about their prospects each year, that makes this time of year so interesting.
Every team has hope in November. Few have expectations.
PUTTING TOGETHER A PUZZLE FOR A SECOND TIME
From a media prognosticators point of view, picking Eastern Kentucky to win the conference is a no-brainer, because there’s seemingly less risk of being wrong. Of last year’s OVC semifinalists, only EKU returns four starters. Only the Colonels return more than 50% of their points production from a season ago, more than 50% of their rebounding.
Teams like Belmont, Tennessee State, and Murray State are unknown commodities. Doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be good or bad, but Eastern Kentucky is the one team we know. It’s the one team who sportswriters won’t be memorizing new faces and jersey numbers for this season. We assume that the new faces we don’t know on these other teams about won’t be better than the one’s we do.
But there is one piece missing from last year’s EKU squad, and whether you love or hated the Marshall Henderson-like qualities of point guard Mike DiNunno, his talent isn’t something easily dismissed.
“Mike was really a special passer, Neubauer said. “Mike was able to dribble and get in the lane and create for others. Glenn [Cosey] has been doing that quite a bit. And when I say that, he’s been getting into the lane, and creating for others, but in a different way. He’s his own player.”
“It’s going to be a big challenge,” Cosey told the Courier-Journal. “That’s the scariest thing on my mind: How will I handle the pressure? As a point guard it’s a different mind-set, it’s a different game. I’m going from off the ball to handling the ball. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and mental toughness.”
The differences between the two players is something Neubauer is relishing.
“We’re going to play faster,” Neubauer added. “Mike was really good in the half-court, using ball screens, and creating for his teammates. I think Glenn’s speed is really going to help us in transition find more scoring opportunities.”
Like last year, the front court will be anchored by Eric Stutz and Tarius Johnson, the only two returning players to start every game last year.
“We hope Eric continues where he left off. He played with a lot of energy through those last six or seven games,” Neubauer said. “Eric is very important to our defense because of his size. He is one of our best rebounders and a very good passer and playmaker. He’s very important to our success.”
Of course, matching last season, a record year in wins for the program, isn’t what Neubauer hopes for, or what the expectations for his team are. This year’s team will need to be better to win a conference title, and make it to the NCAA tournament. That means the Colonels supporting staff will have to play better.
“I think the major change within our personnel, is that guys that were good last year, are now maybe within the second year in our program,” Neubauer said. “And so, when guys have been in their second year for us, they’ve really made big steps in the past.”