Eastern men’s basketball team travels to Gamecocks in pivotal game


File Photo

Rade Kukobat attempts a jump-pass during a fast break during Eastern’s 90-37 victory over Fontbonne University on Dec.4 in Lantz Arena.

Dillan Schorfheide, Assistant Sports Editor

The Eastern men’s basketball team hosted and won its first two conference games of the year, but the teams Eastern faced, Tennessee-Martin and Southern Illinois Edwardsville, are not like Eastern’s opponent Thursday.

Jacksonville State has announced its presence in the upper echelon of the conference by making a statement right away, with a victory over preseason favorite Belmont on Belmont’s court.

The Gamecocks boast one of the best defenses in the conference, sitting near the top of the OVC for rebounding and opponents’ shooting percentage.

With all this in mind, Thursday will be the first not only big challenge for the Eastern, but the first chance for the Panthers to see how they compare to the big players in the conference, on the road nonetheless.

“They play really tough and play every possession,” head coach Jay Spoonhour said. “They get loose balls and rebounds—that’s how they do the stuff they’ve done.”

So far this season, the Gamecocks are fourth in the conference in rebounding, grabbing 38.4 per game, while allowing opponents to only get 34.7 per game. These numbers are almost exact opposites for Eastern, who gives up 38.3 rebounds per game and gets only 35.4 per game.

Rebounding has been important for Eastern all season long, as the Panthers have won every game in which they outrebounded their opponent (except the win over Bradley where the Braves had more), and have lost every game they were outrebounded.

Spoonhour knows how good the Gamecocks are rebounding-wise and said his team will have to play tough to hang with them on the boards.

“We got to match them,” he said. “Blocking out is not all of it; you have to go and try to grab the ball.”

One of the Panthers’ strengths all season long has been its ability to shoot well. 

The Panthers lead the conference in three-point shooting at 37.1 percent, and although they are eighth in overall shooting percentage, Eastern is fourth in the OVC for free throw percentage (71 percent).

But against the Gamecocks, getting and making shots will be a challenge.

“Every shot they contest, and they switch really well on screens,” Spoonhour said. “They have good interior defenders, which means they do not have to help a lot inside. We got to be physical.”

As if the Gamecocks’ defense was not already bolstered up enough, they also are tied for third in the conference with 4.5 blocked shots per game and are second in the conference with 8.9 steals per game.

But looking at solely what the Gamecock defense can do and ignoring the offense would be a tragic mistake, as the Gamecocks have four scorers who average double-digits, with two others who average nine and eight.

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