Positives and negatives from the Panthers’ opener

Josiah+Wallace+tries+to+dribble+past+a+Eureka+College+defender+during+Eastern%E2%80%99s+79-44+exhibition+win+on+Nov.+2+in+Lantz+Arena.+Wallace+scored+a+game-high+23+points.

JJ Bullock

Josiah Wallace tries to dribble past a Eureka College defender during Eastern’s 79-44 exhibition win on Nov. 2 in Lantz Arena. Wallace scored a game-high 23 points.

Dillan Schorfheide, Assistant Sports Editor

Despite being down more than 20 points a few times during a 5-minute span in the second half, Eastern’s men’s basketball team can go into the weekend with some positive takeaways from Tuesday’s season-opener.

Facing the Texas Longhorns is not exactly a desirable opener, but the Panthers did a few things well that they could even expand upon in Saturday’s game against IUPUI.

The first thing Eastern did well was rebound the ball.

After letting a lot of rebounds hit the ground against Eureka College in an exhibition game,

head coach Jay Spoonhour said his team was going to have to rebound the ball really well against Texas.

The reason for that is Texas had a lot of size, including six players 6 feet 8 inches or taller, compared to Eastern’s three.

But the Panthers fared well against the Texas’ length. Eastern led Texas by one rebound at halftime (16-15) and ended the game with just one less rebound than the Longhorns (35-34).

Individually, Rade Kukobat led Eastern with seven rebounds, three of which were offensive, 

and Cam Burrell and Josiah Wallace each had five rebounds. Burrell also had three offensive rebounds. In fact, Kukobat led all players in rebounds Tuesday, and led Eastern with 12 points.

Another aspect of Tuesday’s season opener that Eastern did well was shoot free throws.

Last season, the team shot 68.4 percent, as a whole, from the free throw line; Tuesday, Eastern shot 72.2 percent for free throws, which was also better than Texas’ 55 percent.

Individually, Kukobat had the most free throws attempted Tuesday (6), and he made five of them. JaQualis Matlock and Braxton Shaw were both a perfect 2-2 each with their free throws, and Josiah Wallace converted two free throws as well, out of his four attempted.

Mack and Shareef Smith (no relation), each added one free throw to the team’s total.

Now looking at what can be improved from Tuesday, turnovers need to be cut down and the team needs more assists.

Both of these things will get better as the season goes along, no doubt, and that is why Saturday would be a good chance for the Panthers to work on both of them.

Eastern committed 19 turnovers Tuesday, a good portion of which came from Texas’ press.

To be fair, and to use Spoonhour’s own words, Texas is something different from what the team has seen and will see this season. Shaka Smart, Texas’ head coach, is well-known for his defensive prowess, which includes his suffocating press.

Turnovers will start to naturally appear less as the team gets more cohesion within it, and it helps that Texas-caliber teams are not on the schedule after Tuesday’s game.

Speaking of that cohesion, another thing from Tuesday that cohesion will help is the Panthers’ offense.

Spoonhour has said that because there are so many new faces on the team, and they are all still learning to play together, getting them to share the ball more and think for others is still in the works.

As a team Tuesday, Eastern had only five assists in the entire 40 minutes.

Mack and Shareef Smith each had two assists, and Wallace added one of his own. In contrast, Texas had 20 assists. Last season, Eastern had 12.6 assists per game as a team.   

But again, both the turnovers and assists will get better as the team plays together more and meshes. 

Moving the ball around and getting more assists may also help the team shoot better than it did Tuesday, when the Panthers shot 35.7 percent from the field (26.1 percent from three-point range).

But, despite Texas’ press and the resulting turnovers, Eastern was neck-and-neck with the Longhorns for the first 16 minutes of the first half.

Looking ahead, Eastern faces IUPUI at 12 p.m. Saturday. The Jaguars had a similar start to their season, facing a tough Xavier team on the road in its opener and losing 82-69.

Sophomore guard Jaylen Minnett led IUPUI in scoring with 21 points, including five threes, off the bench.

“We had a really hard-fought game with (IUPUI) last year,” Spoonhour said. “They’ve got a lot returning from that team, plus they had three or four players who were sitting out. They played Xavier to a 13-point game on Tuesday, they were right there for a long time.”

Dillan Schorfheide can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]