Men’s basketball team set for home opener against Western Illinois

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JJ Bullock

Eastern sophomore guard Josiah Wallace drives the basket in the Panthers 79-44 exhibition win over Eureka on Nov. 2. Eastern is 0-2 this season and play Western Illinois Saturday in Lantz Arena.

Oscar Rzodkiewicz, Men's Basketball Reporter

Eastern continues gearing up this week to take on Western Illinois in the first regular season game at Lantz Arena on Saturday at 7 p.m.

The Panthers began the season on a two-game road stretch, dropping contests against Texas in the season opener and IUPUI this past weekend.

Western Illinois’s season has begun in the opposite direction, first falling to Creighton before rebound with 28-plus point blowouts of North Park University and Dominican University at home.

However, the matchup with Eastern is the first of a three-game road stint for the Fighting Leathernecks over the next two weeks.

The rough start for the Panthers has come with positives as well, with transfer junior Rade Kukobat pouring in 30 points and 13 rebounds over the first two games.

Fellow junior transfer Shareef Smith has also contributed well offensively to start the year, posting 21 points on 63.6 percent shooting in just 43 minutes played.

The scoring has not just come from the new faces—and Eastern sports eight of them this season—as sophomore Mack Smith leads the team in minutes with 70 and posted a near double-double with 12 points and 8 rebounds against IUPUI.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, senior guard Terrell Lewis is still slowly working his way back into the rotation after playing just eight games last season.

Lewis was a scratch against Texas and played just seven minutes against IUPUI last weekend.

The all-time series between Eastern and Western Illinois is tight, sitting at 81 to 80 in favor of the Fighting Leathernecks after a 56-54 victory last season.

Eastern’s lack of height may be an issue against Western Illinois, as seven-footer and reigning Summit League Defensive Player of the Year senior Brandon Gilbeck will be manning the paint for the Fighting Leathernecks.

Gilbeck has blocked 12 shots in just three games this season, after averaging 2.6 rejections per game during the 2017-18 campaign.

Gilbeck is not a one-way player, though, as the big man added 19 points against Dominican on just seven shot attempts.

Sophomore Kobe Webster leads Western Illinois in scoring this season, tallying 56 points on the year at a 43.5 percent shooting clip.

Eastern may want to avoid fouling the Fighting Leathernecks as much as possible, as Western Illinois ranks third in the nation in free throw percentage, converting 85.7 percent of shots from the stripe.

After Western Illinois, the Panthers begin play for the Visitcurrituckobx.com Battle in the Blue Ridge Tournament on Nov. 23 at 4 p.m. against Gardner-Webb.

Oscar Rzodkiewicz can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]