Analysis: Skyhawks remain a thorn in Eastern’s side, even in preseason poll


File Photo | The Daily Eastern News Kashawn Charles (middle) makes a short pass to Shareef Smith (right) on the wing. Eastern lost to Morehead State 84-78 Feb. 2 in Lantz Arena.

Dillan Schorfheide, Sports Editor

Eastern finished sixth in the Ohio Valley Conference last season and prepared to face Tennessee-Martin, the seventh seed in the conference tournament, March 6 in the first round of the tournament.

The Panthers had already beaten the Skyhawks twice before in the regular season, so there was a feeling that they should defeat the Skyhawk once again.

But Eastern ended up walking off the court with that same feeling, as a 78-71 final score loomed over the eliminated Panthers, who then had to wait for next season.

With a lot of returning players, and some transfers head coach Jay Spoonhour is excited about, this season brings a refreshing feeling about Eastern’s chances.

Even being placed seventh in the preseason poll should not deter the Panthers because there is a lot to be excited about with them.

But, two spots ahead of Eastern in the poll, which was voted on by the conference’s coaches and sports information directors, sits guess who: Tennessee-Martin.

In an interview with Eastern play-by-play announcer Mike Bradd Tuesday at Media Day, Spoonhour said he liked the experience on his roster.

Even so, the poll voters seem to like the roster of Tennessee-Martin a bit more.

And there is a lot to like about the Skyhawks this year.

Two Tennessee-Martin players, redshirt senior Craig Randall II and senior forward Quintin Dove, were named to the preseason All-OVC team.

Last season, Randall II averaged 16.3 points per game (in 12 games played), and Dove averaged 13.3 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.

What stands out about these two is that only three schools have two players on the preseason All-OVC team: Belmont, Murray State and Tennessee-Martin.

For the Skyhawks to get two players recognized among the two best schools in the conference says a lot about the respect those in the league have for the Skyhawks this season.

On top of that, the Skyhawks’ preseason rank of fifth affects Eastern beyond just early predictions and possibilities for the season.

Last year, Eastern started its conference schedule 5-2 including, in that seven-game span, two wins over the Skyhawks and a home victory over Austin Peay (also a close road loss to Jacksonville State).

But Eastern finished the 18-game conference schedule 2-9, which included a flipped 2-5 record over the next seven games after that 5-2 start.

So, this season, Eastern will obviously need to find a more consistent rhythm in the conference schedule, and Tennessee-Martin will be in the thick of that.

Eastern’s first game against Tennessee-Martin is Jan. 23 in Lantz Arena, which will be Eastern’s seventh game in the OVC schedule.

The next time the Panthers face the Skyhawks is on the road Feb. 15, which will be Eastern’s 14th game in the conference schedule.

That puts the matchups between the two within that 14-game span where Eastern, last year, went 5-2 then 2-5 right after.

The little caveat is that the matchup Feb. 15, being the 14th game in the conference schedule, is the game last year that Eastern started a five-game losing streak to end the regular season.

So, the Skyhawks are poised to face Eastern at very critical points in the season, points the Panthers cannot afford to screw up this year.

The top teams in the conference are clearly better than the rest of the OVC (namely Belmont, Murray State and Austin Peay), so for Eastern to have good chances of getting as far as possible in the conference tournament, it will have to get as high a seeding as possible.

That means, preferably, the Panthers earn the fourth or fifth seed for the tournament, and as of Tuesday’s preseason poll, that means the Panthers’ path to asserting themselves as one of the best teams in the top half of the conference lies through the Skyhawks.

But, even though the Skyhawks have two players on the preseason All-OVC team compared to Eastern’s one (Josiah Wallace), they will be missing a lot of scoring from last year.

Tennessee-Martin had five players average double-figure scoring last year, compared to Eastern’s three.

While Eastern lost one of those players (Ben Harvey), Wallace and Mack Smith are returning as more-experienced juniors, with eight other returning players. Among them, Rade Kukobat, JaQualis Matlock and Kashawn Charles are capable of scoring double figures when they need to.

Tennessee-Martin, however, has a question over who it can rely on this year to make up for the approximately 33 points per game it will miss from the three double-figure scorers it had last season that are gone this year.

Senior guard Derek Hawthorne Jr. will be returning for the Skyhawks, and he was their sixth-leading scorer last year with 9.7 points per game.

That alone shows the scoring gap left by their departures from a year ago, but even then, as of right now, the Skyhawks remain a thorn in Eastern’s side.

And that thorn happens to be right between Eastern and a top-five spot in the conference in the preseason poll.

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