Every transfer on the men’s basketball team stands out in his own way and has produced well in the Panthers’ games so far.
Because each player has his own strengths, picking the “most valuable” is tough, but if an argument could be made for two of them, it would be for Jordan Skipper-Brown and George Dixon.
That is because what they do for the Eastern offense, in and around the lane, is undoubtedly vital for the Panthers’ success going forward.
Eastern head coach Jay Spoonhour, after Eastern’s 114-61 blowout victory over Indiana Northwest Monday, admitted that Eastern has not had good luck scoring inside over the past few seasons.
“It’s the difference between a team that can win and a team that has a hard time winning,” Spoonhour said. “If you get it around the basket, it’s hard to get it around the basket, and if you get it in there and don’t make it, it’s just demoralizing. And we saw a lot of that the last couple years.”
Last season was particularly memorable for Eastern’s lack of scoring inside.
There were players who could score inside, like JaQualis Matlock and Rade Kukobat namely, but Kukobat scored a decent amount of his points in the mid range or around the three-point arc, and Matlock was good posting up but was not always aggressive enough on the post.
Entering this season, Kukobat entered the transfer portal, leaving Matlock and a new crew to be the inside scoring options.
And after just four games, it is pretty clear that Dixon and Skipper-Brown will be essential for the Panthers’ success inside, offensively and defensively.
Spoonhour and his players said it last year, that they wanted to get inside more often on offensive possessions; this season so far, the Panthers are actually doing that.
Keep in mind that Chicago State and Indiana Northwest are not the talent levels Eastern will face all year, but how about these numbers for back-to-back games: Against Chicago State Nov. 12, Eastern had 46 points in the paint, and against the Redhawks Monday, the Panthers had 48.
A lot of those have come from layups and dunks that Eastern was able to get with ease, but Dixon and Skipper-Brown have shown that their post-up game is a big factor in those totals.
“To be honest with you, (Skipper-Brown) and George are shooting the ball, I mean they’re making 75 percent of their shots,” Spoonhour said Monday. “Now it won’t always be that way, but that’s where the ball needs to go.”
While the lower-level talent of Eastern’s last two opponents is certainly a factor in this offensive output, keep in mind that last season, even in blowout games, Eastern never scored 46 or 48 points in the paint in a game.
The Panthers never even scored 40 points in the paint in a single game.
The closest Eastern got was a couple times where the Panthers scored 38 points in the paint: The first time was Feb. 1 in an 84-78 loss to Morehead State, and the second time was in a 94-86 loss to Austin Peay Feb. 9.
The reason Eastern never amounted 40 or more points in the paint last season?
Eastern relied on three-pointers for a lot of its scoring, and too many times it came back to bite them. Part of the issue was that Eastern’s guards never had consistent inside scoring to dump the ball in to.
This season looks to be different.
“We just have bigs that are real aggressive and demand the ball a lot, and it’s the guards’ jobs to get them the ball,” said Eastern guard Mack Smith Monday. “What coach has been harping on is working our way inside.”
The start to this season is indicative of a reconfiguring of Eastern’s identity.
There are only four games to go off of, and things could very well change and revert to the same thing that happened last year.
But what the team has shown so far is a very good sign of things to come.
That thing the Panthers have shown? Less of a reliance on three-pointers.
In four games, a small sample size of course, they have attempted 20.25 three-pointers per game. Last season, Eastern attempted 22.96 three-pointers per game.
What is even more interesting is that Eastern only shot a combined 16-of-46 (about 35 percent) from three-point range in the last two blowout wins.
While that figure is fine considering the results, that and the overall season three-point shooting percentage so far (35.8) are lower than last season’s 37 percent.
Going beyond that, shooting 35 percent from deep will not produce wins down the stretch, especially when you take into account that the team went 14-18 last season with the 37 percent on the stat sheet.
Having consistently reliable inside scoring this season, which Dixon and Skipper-Brown look to be able to provide, will help Eastern spread out its offensive scoring.
If defenses try to crash on the post players, it could open kickouts to open shooters more.
On top of that, Eastern’s post players have already shown their ability to also make passes to cutting players to the basket.
No matter which way you look at it, Eastern’s possible inside scoring for the rest of the season looks to be a key cog in the offensive machine.
Dixon’s ability to bully his way to the basket for points, or for rebounds, is apparent, and Skipper-Brown’s jumping ability brings some verticality to Eastern’s presence inside.
Dixon and Skipper-Brown have already recorded a double-double each, with Dixon’s coming against reigning national runner-up Texas Tech in the season opener, and they are the leading rebounders for Eastern so far (Dixon averages nine rebounds per game and Skipper-Brown averages five).
Not to be overlooked, Matlock rounds out the trio of inside threats for Eastern, as he can also make some plays in the post and is third in rebounding for the team (4.8 per game).
“We need to establish (Skipper-Brown) and George in there as much as we can,” Spoonhour said Monday. “Last year, we just shot jumper-jumper-jumper because that’s about all we could get that we could make, and the jumpers will go down a lot easier if you can establish inside.”
Dillan Schorfheide can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]