Column: Men’s basketball has areas to focus on


File Photo | The Daily Eastern News Rade Kukobat (middle) and Shareef Smith (right) guard an opposing player as he drives to the lane and makes a pass. Eastern lost 63-57 to Tennessee Tech March 2 in Lantz Arena.

Dillan Schorfheide, Sports Editor

Eastern’s men’s basketball team finished sixth, tied with Morehead State, in the preseason OVC media poll that released last week.

Honestly, I pegged Eastern to be at least in the top five in my own preseason thoughts for the upcoming basketball season, possibly the top four even, so the spot in the poll is a little surprising to me.

Belmont was picked first, Murray State second and Austin Peay third (not surprising), but Jacksonville State and Tennessee-Martin were ranked fourth and fifth, respectively.

Both teams were good last year and should be good again this year, but I think Eastern will be better than those teams this year.

My colleague, Tom O’Connor, will be at OVC media day Tuesday for me, so I will be able to get some answers about the rapidly approaching season from head coach Jay Spoonhour from him.

But I do have a couple questions I will be following as the season starts and goes along, questions that the team needs to answer if it wants to be worthy of a top-four spot that I think it could take over.

Lane Defense

My last analysis about the men’s basketball team featured my questions about the team’s defense.

Specifically, I wanted to know if the team would feature a man-to-man defense or the hybrid man-to-man/zone defense it used later in the season last year that helped the team not let opponents get into the lane as easily.

But, now my question is about how the Panthers will fill the 6-foot-9-inch gap left when Aboubacar Diallo graduated after last season.

Spoonhour always talked about Diallo’s presence in the lane and how Diallo was able to be so effective at stopping opponents’ chances to score inside.

Diallo finished sixth in the OVC last year with 1.1 blocks per game.

Rade Kukobat, who is returning to Eastern this year as the tallest player on the team (listed at the same height as Diallo), finished tied for 11th in the OVC with .9 blocks per game with then-teammate Cam Burrell, who transferred away from Eastern in the offseason.

Kukobat is now alone in the blocks department for Eastern, metaphorically speaking, but he said his height will not determine his position on the floor.

“Coach (Spoonhour) wants us to be players and not positions so whatever I can do to help the team I will do,” Kukobat said. “As of now it’s scoring points and really buckling down on the boards.”

Kukobat was last year, and will be this year (likely), a big part of Eastern’s rebounding efforts.

Kukobat tied for the lead in rebounding last year for Eastern, with JaQualis Matlock, at 4.8 rebounds per game.

Matlock was a big defensive presence for Eastern inside last year, and his defense will be welcomed in the paint this season, too.

So while there will be two key returners to Eastern’s inside presence on defense, how Diallo’s effect in the lane will be filled by Eastern’s roster this year will be a storyline to follow.

Scoring Avenues 

Three-point shooting was the choice of weaponry for the Eastern offense last year, and at times, the Panthers’ reliance on shooting behind the arc was their downfall.

For most of last season, Eastern lacked a player who could go inside and post up effectively.

Diallo was not a great scorer overall, and Kukobat could post up at times but scored mainly from outside the paint.

Matlock, in the second half of the season, got better at posting up and scoring in the post.

But even then, three-pointers were still the main driver of the offense.

A lot of Eastern points in the paint came from guards driving to the basket for layups, so if Eastern wants to avoid getting bit in the behind from taking too many threes, developing an inside presence through some post players would be a good start.

On top of that, Eastern could try to get more free throws by making it a focus to get in the lane more often, whether it be through post ups or cuts to the lane or drives to the lane.

Last season, Eastern took the third-fewest free throws attempts (545) out of the 12 OVC teams and finished 11th in the conference in free throw percentage (68.8 percent).

Eastern has what looks to be a promising season ahead of it, but if the Panthers hope to eventually avoid a first-round exit in the conference tournament, they will need to answer these questions going forward.

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