Eastern building for success in 2018

Sean Hastings, Sports Editor

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EVANSVILLE, Ind.— The Eastern men’s basketball team has a core group of players returning for the 2017-2018 season.

Senior Muusa Dama is one of the Panthers that will be leading the way and coach Jay Spoonhour said he has seen growth in the Panthers’ big man.

When Dama showed up at Eastern last year he was only in his fourth year of playing basketball.

Dama is teaming up with fellow seniors Terrell Lewis, Ray Crossland and Montell Goodwin in hopes of getting the Panthers back to the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament after missing it last year.

Dama played an important role down low for the Panthers and if anything, that role has increased and he is making changes.

“He’s definitely bigger,” Spoonhour said. “He’s been in the weight room and we worked at it all summer. He’s already fast. Part of it might be because he’s more comfortable with where he’s supposed to go.”

He said Dama does not have to think as much as he did last year, which has helped him become quicker.

“In terms of just strictly running,jumping and those kinds of things, he’s an NBA-level guy,” Spoonhour said. “He’s got a ways to go on his game to get on that level, but he’s a smart guy, he works hard and I’m not putting anything past him.”

And a guy like Dama has no problem trying something new. Outside of basketball, he speaks six different languages and can play multiple instruments, Spoonhour said.

He joked that Dama was out at practice one day and working on a left hook that, ‘he did not have to be working on to master for the first game’, among other things. But Spoonhour would rather have players like that than not.

“I’ve had guys in my life that you had to try and start them up and make them go fast and those don’t work, nobody can coach those guys,” Spoonhour said. “Guys like Dama, every so often you’d wish you put a governor on him, but I’ll take that everyday.”

“All the guys are busting their tail,” Spoonhour added.

At the OVC Basketball Media Day, Eastern Kentucky coach Dan McHale even said that Eastern might be the team to beat in the OVC.

“I think they’re really good,” McHale said. “I think they’re the team no ones talking about. Muusa Dama is as good as any big man defensively in the conference. A slew of great guards.”

Eastern allowed 71.8 points-per-game on average in 2016-2017. Spoonhour has stressed the importance of players buying in and having a defensive mind when they have to.

McHale noticed the type of team that Eastern puts on the floor each night.

“You have to bring it,” McHale said. “(Eastern) wants to play a tough defensive style and you have to be able to put some points on the board against them. Points don’t come easy when you’re playing against a coach Spoonhour-type team.”

The Panthers were picked to finish eighth in the Media Poll and sixth in the OVC Coaches Poll.

Last year was the first time the Panthers did not make the tournament in four seasons.

Eastern had just one senior in Demetrius McReynolds last season and this year’s core guys, were in their first years of Division I basketball.

The Panthers started strong in non-conference games, but struggled a bit in the OVC matchups later in the season.

“Every team is going to hit a lull, but if you have guys who have been through the wars, your lulls don’t stretch out as long,” Spoonhour said. “We couldn’t quite figure out how to get it turned. We finally did at the end of the year and it was enough to get us back close to .500, but wasn’t enough to get us in the tournament.”

One “lull” the Panthers could not get over was getting fouled at the basket. Eastern had a plethora of shooters last year, which resulted in two things: If Eastern shot well it won. If it did not shoot well it lost.

And then Eastern could not get anything else, Spoonhour said. For the 2017-2018 season, the Panthers focused on signing guys who could do that.

“Everybody was doing what they were good at,” Spoonhour said. “It just happened that we had a whole team of guys that shot jumpers.”

He added that the problem was not having a lot of guys who shot jumpers, because that was their job, it was that there was not someone to complement them as a driver.

The Panthers added six players to their roster.

D’Angelo Jackson, a junior transfer guard, Mack Smith, a freshman guard, Michael Chavers, a junior transfer wing, Justice Green, a junior transfer wing, Shawn Wilson a redshirt sophomore transfer guard and Jajuan Starks, a junior transfer wing.

Eastern relied in on its transfers last season and this year’s have the same capability, Spoonhour said.

“They’re going to have games where they really play well and at times might be the best couple players on the floor, Spoonhour said. “But having Silk (Goodwin) back, having Dama back, or Ray, just guys that have won big games, you won’t have to rely on guys quite as much.”

His said with the talent that the new guys have and the experience from the core, guys can ease into the system and can be really good.

With the talent that the Panthers may posses heading into the season, Spoonhour is not as concerned with what his starting five is, but more how Eastern finishes the game.

“The thing we (the team) talked about the other day was, ‘how do you finish games,” Spoonhour said. “Everyone always thinks about starting, but the thing that guys have to figure out is ‘what do I have to do to be out there at the end.’”

Eastern opens its season with Southern Indiana at home Nov. 6.

Sean Hastings can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]