“I think it’s silly to think you’re going to just disregard it,” Eastern Illinois head coach Jay Spoonhour said when asked about the magnitude of Thursday’s game. His Panthers are on their first-ever nine game winning streak in school history, they’re off to their first ever 6-0 Ohio Valley Conference start, and on national television, they host not only a stalwart of the OVC, but the only other undefeated team in conference play.
“This isn’t one of those things where you go out and say ‘this is just another game,’ because this is a big deal.”
Except, that’s exactly what Murray State, a team that’s no stranger to big games, says.
“This is a game you want to play in,” head coach Steve Prohm said during his weekly press conference. “But this is the sixth game in the conference, of a 16-game schedule.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the coaches come into Thursday night’s game with a differing point-of-view, especially given how different their head coaching career’s began. Prohm inherited an NBA-caliber point-guard, and helped lead a senior-led team to the best season in the program’s storied history. Spoonhour inherited a team coming off their tenth losing season in eleven years.
And, in a way, this game is more about the Panthers than the Racers, because this is where everyone expected Murray State to be this year. While EIU was poised for a stronger year, I’m not sure this is what anyone expected.
Perhaps even Spoonhour himself.
“We’re pretty tough minded, and I haven’t always thought that about our guys, but we are. So I was wrong. We’ve got a tough minded group of guys, and we’ve kind of grown into that.”
“I’ll tell you, if you try to go through the numbers on this little stretch of games and figure out how we won,” Spoonhour said, “it’s not going to add up. We’re getting out rebounded every game. We’re shooting about 59% from the free-throw line. We’re doing things we shouldn’t do and win games. But you can have a lot of deficiencies if you really defend, and right now we’re really defending.”
He’s not kidding. In conference play alone, EIU leads the league in defensive efficiency, opponents eFG%, his team send opponents to the free-throw line less than anyone, and they have the best three-point defense in the league. And one of the leaders of that defense…isn’t a name you probably know if you live outside of Charleston.
“What we’ve got is a couple of really good defenders,” Spoonhour said, “and one in particular; Dylan Chapman is a really good defensive player. [Corey] Walden made some buckets on him, but he guarded [Craig] Bradshaw and guarded [Angelo] Warner. Dylan’s a great defender, he takes pride in it, and he really, really works at it.”
“It’s not a philosophy as much as our guys are really, really working,” Spoonhour added. “And they’re serious about playing defense.
EIU’s run to 6-0 may be as improbable as the record itself, and the legend-like quality of it only seems to grow with each passing week. The Panthers were down four in the final minute to Jacksonville State, four in the final 20 seconds to Tennessee Tech, and escaped with wins. One the road, EIU found themselves down a dozen in the second half to Tennessee State, and endured a 19-point blitz over four minutes at Morehead State.
And against quite possibly the two best teams they faces, Eastern Illinois built big leads at home against Belmont and at Eastern Kentucky, and then had to hold on as both teams tried to launch a late flurry.
“It’s kind of surprising, because the whole winning games things is new to us,” Spoonhour said. “But it shows you, it doesn’t take long to gain confidence.”
…it doesn’t take long to lose it either.” Spoonhour immediately countered. “It’s a fleeting thing, and right now, we feel like, maybe to a fault, we think things are going to work out okay.”
“It’s not a bad fault.”
Murray State’s season hasn’t been without it’s challenges as well. The Racers left Nashville after the Thanksgiving weekend at 2-4, looked hopelessly out of sync at times, and had an upcoming slate that seemingly rivaled if not exceeded in difficulty the games they had just lost.
Only, it feels like someone flipped a proverbial switch. Since then, Murray isn’t just 13-0, but they’ve been dominant throughout, seemingly impervious in conference play on their road to Charleston.
“I think winning at Evansville was big for us,” Prohm said when asked if there was a turning point to his team’s season. “If I had to pick a game, a moment, I think that was big. I think it got us trusting each other.”
While their defense has been none-too-shabby, it’s their offense that’s really setting the Racers apart. This season, scoring has dropped more than five-points per game nationally, but you wouldn’t know it looking at Murray State. The Racers are averaging nearly 80-points a game on the season, while shooting close to 50% from the field, and better than 40% from three-point range.
The Racers are in the top-25 nationally in offensive efficiency, two and three-point shooting percentage, and in the top-100 in turnovers and offensive rebounding. In fact, the only thing their offense doesn’t do at an elite level this year is shoot free-throws.
But offense isn’t what Steve Prohm is looking for.
“Biggest stat we look at during as games is how often we can put three stops together,” Prohm says. “When we really get stops, we want our wings flying up the floor.”
They’ll need to against EIU. The Panthers have come into their own offensively as well, shooting better than 50% from the floor in each their last three
“You have to guard them,” Prohm said, “because they are shooting the ball extremelly well from three, and they have a legitimate post presence in [Chris] Olivier, [Dylan] Piper spaces the floor; They can play small, [Cornell] Johnston was really good against Morehead hitting threes.”
When you look at the numbers, there is one area where the two teams are miles apart: Offensive rebounding. The Racers are second in league play in offensive rebounding, the Panthers 11th. But Spoonhour isn’t worried about his own offensive rebounding as much as he’s worried about the other team’s.
“The offensive rebounding stuff for us — a lot of time we’re playing three guards,” Spoonhour said. “Most of the time we are. So our offensive rebound numbers are never going to be as good as other folks in the league. That kind of goes hand-in-hand with not giving up layups. We’re not going to get as many, but we’re not going to give as many up.”
“The defensive rebounding numbers is the scary thing. We did a good job — I don’t think EKU had an offensive rebound in the first half, (Note: neither team did) in the second half they got quite a few. (7) That’s what worries me more than anything.”
Inside, much of Murray’s success on the board has come as Jonathan Fairell‘s gotten more healthy. Fairell missed significant time this summer, and as a result wasn’t in full game shape when the season began. Over the past few weeks, it’s clear that Fairell is back, if not at 100%, very close to being there.
“Fairell was out of shape, and hurt,” Prohm said of his big man, “and that hurt our rebounding. No one really knows that.”
Rightfully so, much has been said about Cameron Payne‘s performance over the past two years, even if he’s not getting mentioned on ESPN as much as his head coach would like. There’s little, if any, doubt that the sophomore is among not only the best guards in the league, but among the best in the nation.
EIU’s Cornell Johnston isn’t Payne, but it’s hard not to draw a few comparisons. The 5’7 guard is easy to spot on the floor, and not only because he’s running the Panthers offense. But much like Payne, he’s taken over EIU’s backcourt as a freshman, and the speedy Johnston is just as capable at hitting a runner in the lane as pulling up from three.
“He’s been a real big deal for us, Spoonhour said. “He controls the game, and we haven’t had that the last couple years. He’s had some turnovers, but his energy and his spirit, for a freshman, he’s kind of the thing that makes everything go.”
Right now, he’s also playing the best basketball of his young career. Johnston is coming off a career high 22-point performance on 7-8 shooting from the field at Morehead State in yet another Panthers comeback, and the scrappy freshman has reached double-digit scoring in three of his last four games.
He’s an assist machine, as well. dishing out five or more assists on six occasions this year. The one knock: he has struggled with turnovers at times, especially against pressure.
“[Morehead State] pressured him, and he had a hard time,” Spoonhour admitted, “but some of that’s freshman stuff.”
On the Racers side, Payne has not only avoided a sophomore slump, he’s seemingly found yet another level to play at. In this current 13-game winning streak, Payne has scored in double-figures 12 times, and dished out five or more assists 12 times. He’s third in the league in scoring, second in the league in assists per game, second in the OVC in steals, and third in assist-to-turnover ratio.
“it’s still going to come down to — you’re going to have to block out Fairell, or try to do your best on Payne,” Spoonhour said, “and understand that he’s going to make shots even if you guard him.”
“It’s a completely new thing to us,” Spoonhour admits. “And it’s not to Murray. They’ve done this for years and years. So, we’ll be excited, and maybe a bit too excited at times.”
“We’ve just got to get better this week,” Prohm said. “Not much else to say.”
There’s little doubt this game means different things to each team, which from a narrative point of view, is part of what makes it so compelling. Both teams have proven themselves in two different ways, and regardless of which team comes out on top Thursday, both are sitting on a major win-streak, an accomplishment, at different points, few expected from either.
“Murray has a way of taking your confidence, wadding it up, and throwing it in the trash can,” Spoonhour said. “For right now, for us to see that ‘hey, we can be above .500 in this league,’ which is what we want at the beginning, now let’s get to .500 and let’s get above it. ”
“Winning is contagious,” Prohm admits. “Watching them, they’ve been more impressive against some of the top teams.”
There may have never been a bigger meeting between the two. In the years Eastern Illinois was great, Murray sometimes wasn’t, or the first game was so early in the year that it didn’t have the gravitas this one holds.
There’s no other way to put it: This one’s big.
“Will it be a be a great atmosphere?” Prohm added. “That’s a small gym, they’ll pack it out. School’s in, I’m sure. So it will be fun.”