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Eastern Illinois should play more up-tempo basketball.

…No really, stay with me here. Six times this year, EIU has had fewer than 60 possessions in a game. In those games, they’re 2-4. In the rest of their games, where they had more than 60 possessions in game, the Panthers are 8-2.

While that sounds good in theory, in reality, it may be more of a “chicken-and-egg” argument. Is Eastern Illinois playing better because they’re playing faster?

…or are they playing faster because they’re playing better?

For the past two years, tempo was about all I knew to talk about with head coach Jay Spoonhour, because it was their defining characteristic. They weren’t particularly great on either side of the ball, didn’t have a dynamic player, but managed to win just enough games to make it to the OVC Tournament each season. When we talked about it, he’d often laugh, but always came around to a simple point:

“We only play as fast as we’re capable of.”

Today, Spoonhour was kind enough to set aside 20 minutes of his day for me.

…and I didn’t have to talk about his team’s tempo once. That’s because this year’s Eastern Illinois team is defining themselves in a much different way. And it didn’t start with their win Saturday against Belmont.

That’s just the exclamation point.

Spoonhour’s club hadn’t had any success, relative or otherwise, in their short history against the Bruins. Heading into Saturday’s contest, EIU lost their previous two meetings by an average of 25 points, and the Bruins had a history of bucking the “it’s hard to win on the road,” mentality, going 12-4 away from the Curb against Ohio Valley Conference opponents.

Eastern Illinois didn’t just win — they led all but the opening minute.

“That’s a huge deal,” Spoonhour said of the win. “They’ve handled us so easy the last two years, and it was an uphill climb to get to be competitive with them.”

“But what was it really,” he immediately added. “It was a home conference win.”

The win over the Bruins made a lot of people take notice of the team in Charleston, but EIU has been quietly putting together one of their best seasons since Mike Miller led the Panthers to 19-wins on 2009-10. Here are a few numbers:

  • EIU is 6-1 at home, (their only defeat being a two-point loss to UC Davis) and well on pace for their first winning record at Lantz Arena since the ’09-10 campaign.
  • Eastern Illinois is ranked 139th in the RPI. If that holds, it would be their highest finish since winning the OVC title in 2000-01, and second best since moving to the OVC.
  • The Panthers are holding opponents to 60.1 PPG, the fewest allowed points in their Division I history. (A mark held by Jay Spoonhour’s team from two years ago…) That number is 14-points fewer per game than allowed last season.
  • In conference play, EIU is ranked second in defensive efficiency. The Panthers’ four opponents have shot a collective 21.2% from three-point range.
  • EIU has five wins over teams currently ranked in the RPI-top 200: Ball State, Northern Illinois, Indiana State, Cleveland State, and Belmont.
  • And as has been highly publicized, Eastern Illinois is 4-0 in the conference for the first time ever.

The one negative about that ’09-10 campaign is that is how fleeting it would prove for Miller; It would be his only winning season in seven years at the helm of Eastern Illinois.

Spoonhour, obviously, doesn’t want his Panthers to be a one-hit wonder, and the team’s progress, not just throughout the year but throughout his stay so far in Charleston dominated our discussion.

“We want to be over .500 in the league,” Spoonhour told me today. “From then on, you can start caring about bigger things.”

That goal seems almost assured, lest we forget history. Within the last decade, we’ve watched a Southeast Missouri team fall from a 6-0 OVC start all the way to 7-13, three games out of the OVC Tournament. Their fall wasn’t entirely unexpected: their defense ranked among the bottom-50 nationally that year, and SEMO committed more turnovers than anyone else in the league.

While Eastern Illinois has their concerns, (free-throw shooting chief among them) defense isn’t one of them.

As mentioned above, EIU is on well on-pace to hold opponents to the lowest scoring average in their Division I history, and unlike two years ago, this is actually about their defense. The Panthers are second in the OVC in defensive efficiency, their 0.987 DPPP only behind Eastern Kentucky. In their four conference games, Eastern Illinois has held their opponents under 23% from three-point range, and are sending them to the free-throw line least of any team.

For the year, the numbers are equally complementary. On a per-possession basis, the Panther are ranked in the top-100 in the league in opponent’s three-point shooting, opponents two-point shooting, blocks, and just outside the top-100 in steals.

“We haven’t always shot it great, we haven’t always scored,” Spoonhour said, “but our defense has allowed us to stay in games, so we’re not just blown out.”

Staying in games is part of what’s made Eastern Illinois so dangerous.

It began with the most improbable, down four points to Tennessee Tech with 17-seconds to play. The degree of difficulty actually lessened a bit when they fell behind 12 in the second half to Jacksonville State, only to surge late to force overtime, and dominate the extra five minutes at home. And then they went and did it again, falling behind by a dozen again, this time on the road against Tennessee State.

…and then they rallied. Again.

But that hasn’t been the case throughout the season. To open the season against Missouri State, Eastern Illinois led by nine on the road with just under 14-minutes to play, but suffered a long scoring drought before eventually falling to the Bears. In their first game against UC Davis, EIU had surged from an 11-point deficit to take a four-point lead with five minutes to do, before falling in their only loss at Lantz Arena this season.

But against Belmont, Eastern Illinois put together 40 minutes. To Spoonhour, it’s just proof of the progress his team has made.

“When you have a lot of new guys — and we only really have three or four new guys — but they’re new guys who are on the floor a lot, you’re going to get some of that,” Spoonhour said on his team’s inconsistency. “That’s because early in the year, if you’re someone new coming into the rotation, you’re not going to know exactly what you should be doing. You’re always going to have a little bit of doubt.”

“We’ve kind of let those guys to catch up, and get their feet underneath them.”

Caught up they have. Guys like 5’7 Cornell Johnston, with a 2.85 assist-to-turnover ratio in conference play, have become an integral part of the Panthers success this season. JUCO transfer LeTrell Viser has provided a three-point spark, hitting 22-51 (43.1%) from deep since the first of December, and Trae Anderson, who missed the Panthers’ games against Tennessee Tech and Jacksonville State, has eight double-digit scoring performances this season.

“These things take time,” Spoonhour said of his team’s growth. “You can want it to happen sooner, but it’s got it’s own lifespan, where you’re competitive first, then challenging for the league. And you have to go through all the steps.”

But you can’t have a discussion about the Panthers success without talking heavily about Northern Iowa transfer Chris Olivier.

His rise this year has been rather unique. After starting five of the first six games, Olivier has come off the bench in each of the last six games, but I wouldn’t call him a bench player. He takes nearly a third of all of EIU’s shots, and leads the team in scoring, shooting percentage, (among stat-eligible players) and rebounding.

In his four conference games, Olivier is averaging 18.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, and is shooting 59% from the floor, very un-bench like.

“Sometimes, when you get a great player like that, you’re able to skip a step.” Spoonhour said. “And maybe — you know Chris is getting close to a double-double a game. As long as that’s consistent, you can kind of skip steps.”

So will Olivier keep coming off the bench, two minutes or so in? “Well, we’re winning games. I’m not changing anything.”

Even with their recent success, it’s easy to get distracted by one number: Eastern Illinois is averaging just 61-points a game. But EIU’s offense isn’t as bad as their scoring total would suggest. They’re 166th nationally in three-point shooting percentage, (34.4%) and 160th two-point shooting percentage, (48.0%) which are both just a notch above the national average. It’s good that their first shot offense is solid, because their offensive rebounding doesn’t give them a lot of second chances.

Combine that with their free-throw woes, though, and a slightly above average turnover rate, and their overall offensive efficiency rank drops all the way to 274th nationally. But even that sounds worse than it is: Their 0.960 OPPP (Offensive points per possession) manages to be sixth in what’s proving to be an offensively-challenged league.

And while they’re not challenging the shot clock on every possession, Eastern Illinois still plays at a methodical tempo.

The truth is: you only need to score 60 points if you hold your opponents to 59, and EIU has held seven of their last ten opponents to 59 or fewer.

If the only reason you’re not buying the Panthers 4-0 start is their scoring, you’re missing the much larger point. It’s also easy to predict future doom on Eastern Illinois when you see their next three games are at EKU, at Morehead, and hosting a seemingly invincible-at-the-moment Murray State team.

“We’re 4-0, but three of those games came at home,” Spoonhour said. “We understand that. There are going to be losses, there are going to be hard games. We get that.”

Spoonhour may have only been in Charleston for three years, but he’s been through a few hard times on the court. Just two seasons ago, EIU lost to a non-Division I team at home in November, and then started conference play 0-6. But despite being only being in his third year in Charleston, a surprising few of his players or staff were around for the very rocky beginning.

The hard times hardly lasted. EIU rallied to make the OVC Tournament in Spoonhour’s first year, netting a victory over SIUE on the regular season’s final day to earn a spot. Last year, the Panthers got off to a 1-3 start, and was over .500 in the OVC just once, at 6-5, and punched a second straight March trip to Nashville.

This year? They’re off to their best start in conference history, and have a realistic chance — thanks in part to their win over Belmont, giving EIU a potential tiebreaker over the Bruins — of earning a bye to the OVC Tournament.

Spoonhour talked a lot today about progress, about getting better as a team and program. I can say I’ve been around since the beginning, even if just as a spectator.

…And I’m for one, glad I’ve found something new to talk about.

 

Murray State continues their dominance: Eastern Illinois is a game up in the win column in the standings, but Murray State is on a tear. The Racers won their 11th straight game on Sunday, destroying Jacksonville State on their home floor. The Racers look stronger every game, and get to return home Thursday to host what I can only imagine will be a highly-motivated Belmont team.

There is a column coming focusing on Murray soon.

 

Stop me before I shoot again: One of the more interesting numbers from Belmont’s loss at Eastern Illinois? The Bruins shot 43 three’s. While the Bruins going into desperation mode didn’t help this total, Belmont took 23 of those three’s in the first half. The last time Belmont shot 40-three’s in a game? We could only find game-by-game statistics dating back to 2009-10, and there were no other 40+ attempt games.

 

Old SIUE makes an appearance: For about 37 minutes, it really looked like SIUE might lose, at home, to Tennessee State. The Cougars shot just 33% for the game, saved only by holding TSU to 27% shooting from the field. The game was every bit as ugly as those numbers suggest. But for the Cougars, sometimes a win is a win, and they’re 3-1 in the league.

 

UT Martin, TTU get much needed home wins. Southeast Missouri…well… : If you’re going to compete in the conference, you have to hold home court. Tennessee Tech did their part Saturday hosting Austin Peay for their first conference win, and UT Martin held off a tough challenge from Morehead State. Southeast Missouri? The offense simply isn’t there right now, and while 1-3 is far from worrying, the West Division isn’t going to lie down for the Redhawks.


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OVC Ball
Predicting the OVC race…in mid-December

2016-17 Basketball Standings

OVCOverall

EAST

Belmont8-014-4
Morehead State6-310-12
Tennessee Tech5-39-14
Jacksonville State5-413-11
Tennessee State4-413-8
Eastern Kentucky2-69-14

WEST

UT Martin5-315-8
Murray State5-311-11
SEMO5-310-13
Austin Peay3-57-15
Eastern Illinois1-79-12
SIUE0-85-17
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