"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Eastern Illinois Preview, 2020-21

Eastern Illinois Panthers

November 27, Fiserv Forum


Head Coach: Jay Spoonhour (116-143)

Three-Year NCAA Ranking Average: 270.3

Three-Year kenpom Average: 267.3

Projected 2020-21 T-Rank: 158

Josiah Wallace leads 5 senior starters for the Panthers

Photo by EIU Athletics

Projected Starters: PG Deang Deang (6'4" Sr), SG Mack Smith (6'2" Sr), SF Josiah Wallace (6'4" Sr), PF George Dixon (6'5" Sr), C Sammy Friday IV (6'9" RS Sr)

Last year's Panthers were the definition of streaky. After opening 0-2, they went on a 7-2 stretch to get back to respectability. They then dropped 5 straight, including the first four of conference play, before a 4-game winning streak leveled their conference record. Another down streak saw them lose 5 of 6 before rattling off 5 wins in a row before a season-ending conference tournament loss. Their most impressive stretch included wins over Murray State and Austin Peay, showing they could play with the big boys in the OVC, even if a few bad losses saw their overall conference record a mediocre 9-9.

Their top-7 scorers are all back from last year's team and, along with grad transfer Friday, form an impressive 8-man senior rotation. The Panthers also boast three JUCO transfers, led by Junior Farquhar, to add depth and experience. While projections vary, the Panthers look like a leading candidate to crack the OVC top-3 if Murray State, Belmont, or Austin Peay falter. This projects to be Spoonhour's best ever team and if the senior-laden roster can find the consistency his team flashed numerous times last year, they could be the surprise package of the OVC.

Offensively, the Panthers run a motion offense with lots of off-ball cuts and screens. Wallace will lead the way but Smith and Deang are both efficient scoring options while Dixon is a bowling ball inside that can draw contact. Friday brings a similar ability to get to the line (and similar ability to miss free throws, Dixon and Friday were 57.0% and 56.5% from the line respectively) so look for the interior players on the Panthers to go after Theo John and the Marquette bigs. Off the bench, it will be interesting to see who gets minutes. Marvin Johnson was a spot starter and earned major bench minutes early last year, but his team-leading usage coupled with his inefficiency led to a decrease in minutes as Jordan Skipper-Brown and Kashawn Charles both ate into his minutes. Defensively, the Panthers often play small, which leads to a lot of ball pressure and forced turnovers along with the ability to use their quickness to chase teams off the three-point line. They are terrible at actually contesting threes (35.8 3PFG% against) so it's somewhat impressive that they stop teams from getting opportunities. With an undersized team, you would expect them to get beat up at the rim, but Spoonhour's teams actually excel at blocking shots, so expect to see that from the help side.

The Panthers look like a team that will turn things around in 2020-21. It isn't just the wealth of experience but the way the pieces fit. Last year they didn't have a true big in the middle and struggled to find efficiency off the bench. Friday fills the big man need while St. Louis transfer Madani Diarra gives them actual sizable depth at the position. Off the bench, the incoming JUCO transfers give Spoonhour a wealth of options. Further, I look at things that are uncontrollable and many of those went against EIU last year. The Panthers were sub-300 in defensive 3PFG%, defensive FT%, and Luck, according to Pomeroy. When it comes to threes, it's usually more important to limit opportunities because statistics show opponent three-point make percentage is less controllable, and the Panthers did excel with this roster last year at limiting 3-point attempts. If that, along with opponent free throw percentage and the random bounces of luck normalize, then EIU's 5-9 record in game decided by 5 points or less could easily turn around. I expect this to be the toughest of Marquette's buy-level games because early in the season, teams that have continuity and familiarity will likely be best prepared. Don't be surprised to see the Panthers hang in for much of the game, just like they did last year when they played at UW-Madison.

Marquette Connection: The name Eastern Illinois may bring up some nightmares for Marquette fans that remember the 86-83 overtime victory from just three years ago, but none of the players we expect to see for the Panthers this season played a role in that affair. There is someone else on their roster who was part of a near-upset of Marquette, however. EIU Assistant Coach Tone Boyle played for the UW-Milwaukee team that cut a 22-point deficit to just 2 in the final minute against Marquette in 2010 at the Mecca/Cell/Pantherena. Marquette's free throw shooting sealed the 73-70 victory as Jimmy Butler, Darius Johnson-Odom, and Jae Crowder combined for 7 free throws in the final minute of the game. Expect Boyle and EIU to use those narrow losses to try to motivate their team when they come to Milwaukee this season.

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