It is safe to say the Eastern men’s basketball team had no idea it would be in this position with March Madness just a few weeks away from taking over college basketball.
After being projected to finish second in their division to enter the season, the Panthers are not only eliminated from the OVC tournament but also suffered their worst loss of the season.
Now Eastern Coach Jay Spoonhour did say Southern Illinois Edwardsville was going to offer a difficult matchup despite them being winless in conference play.
But it is also safe to say that a 79-58 loss to the Cougars was not expected for a Panther team that fell just short of a playoff berth.
Eastern was on the cusp of pulling off a steep comeback in the standings after a devastating start to conference play.
After Tennessee State clinched that final eighth spot in the OVC standings, it seemed as if Eastern’s desire to do anything else was lost.
Despite the Panthers not being able to participate in the conference tournament, they did still have a shot at another postseason chance.
If Eastern would have earned a win Saturday against SIUE, their over .500 record would be enough to qualify for an outside postseason tourney.
But not many people can blame a team that gave its all to clinch its conference tourney to have the tires run out on a long exhausting season in the final game.
Southern Illinois Edwardsville just capitalized on a team that had suffered a devastating blow to its comeback attempt, and that pushed them to their first conference win of the season.
That does not go to say the Panthers are bad or that their players do not care though.
In fact, this team clearly had the chemistry and want to win throughout the season but things just did not come together the way they thought it would.
The transition of three transfers who only improved the lineup on both sides of the ball just seemed to fit perfectly into the plans of the Panthers coming in.
And it was still anything but.
We still saw the growth of many players on the team throughout the rollercoaster season, and that by itself may be worth more than a playoff berth.
Eastern is losing one starter in senior Demetrius McReynolds after this season, but this team is staying together for the most part.
If anything, this can serve as a great learning experience for a veteran team set to return under a head coach like Spoonhour who is the perfect man to guide the comeback for the Panthers.
It is a tough pill to swallow for Eastern not being in any postseason action, but the future could still be bright for the program.
Maher Kawash can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]