Column: Eastern can finish the year strong

Dillan Schorfheide, Sports Editor

The Daily Eastern News
Adam Tumino | The Daily Eastern News
Guard Joisah Wallace attempts to drive by a defender in Eastern’s 84-59 win against Tennessee Tech on Jan. 18 at Lantz Arena.

A pair of gut-wrenching losses and nearly a week later, some may think the Eastern men’s basketball team might have lost some confidence.

Nearly knocking off the two best teams in the OVC back-to-back, but falling short in the final minutes/seconds, would be enough to give a major blow to anyone’s confidence, especially when Eastern has lost four of its six road conference games by four points or fewer.

But the team can not and should not lose its confidence going forward, especially after giving the two best OVC teams a run for their money.

Thursday looks like it would bring reprieve to the Panthers, since they get to play in their home territory (Lantz Arena), but even that home feeling might be short-lived since the Panthers host third-place Eastern Kentucky, who beat Eastern once already.

Not only did Eastern Kentucky already beat Eastern, but it was one of the first, close games where it looked like Eastern could pull out a win but fell short.

Going forward the Panthers’ room for margin gets smaller and smaller.

Eastern’s schedule down the stretch favors it well, with five home games and only three on the road, and out of the eight games left, five of the games are, on paper, very winnable.

The Panthers host Morehead State, who they only lost to by three points, face Southern Illinois Edwardsville twice, who is 2-8 in OVC play, and face Tennessee-Martin and Southeast Missouri on the road, who Eastern has both beaten so far.

The other three games are home games against the conference’s top teams: Eastern Kentucky Thursday, and Murray State and Austin Peay back-to-back Feb. 20 and Feb. 22.

Things look good for the Panthers on paper, and even though they have to face the top three OVC teams again, they only lost to those teams by four points or less on the road.

Again, theoretically, hosting those teams may give Eastern the “umph” it needs to finish those games out down the stretch and win.

And it is not like Eastern has played bad and that is why they currently sit at 4-6 in OVC play; the Panthers played stellar games against the two best OVC teams on the road, and while there are things from those games and Eastern’s other losses to fix, Eastern’s played well overall.

But what is really going to help Eastern’s confidence is grit and perseverance down the stretch is the fact that Eastern has been through this before and it is a more complete roster this year.

Firstly, given the fact that Eastern had to play four conference games to start the season, and who the Panthers had to play (all four teams are ahead of Eastern in the OVC standings), they weathered the storm fairly well.

Sticking with the talk about the first part of the conference schedule, it was a much different story last season for the Panthers.

Eastern started conference play 5-2, but out of those five wins, only one came against a top-tier OVC team (Austin Peay). 

After Eastern started OVC  3-2, I stated that Eastern needed a good win to cement its legitimacy, if it was going to stay in the upper half of the OVC standings: That Austin Peay victory helped that case a bit.

But the issue was the Panthers’ wins came against lower OVC teams, and once adversity started to hit, it hit hard.

After the 5-2 start, Eastern finished the year on a 2-9 decline, before losing in the first round of the OVC tournament.

In that 2-9 decline was a five-game losing streak to end the season.

Three of those losses were very winnable home games, where Eastern just either fell apart at the end or had a bad game.

That theme of being able to close out games is something the Panthers needed to fix last year and still need to be better at this year.

But going back to the schedule, Eastern’s season-ending stretch of losses already happened this year, so the Panthers already had adversity this season.

Eastern does not have the luxury of being one of the top five teams in the conference after the start of conference play (as it did last year with its 5-2 start), so the Panthers have to play from behind, so to speak, and make a push to stay relevant and move up in the standings.

And the Panthers can do it; they are likely to do that, in fact, to make a strong push to end the season and even finish this year with a winning record.

What will help the Panthers do this is its balanced roster.

Last season, scoring came from a few primary sources for the Panthers, and a lot of isolation scoring happened.

This season, the team’s ability to pass more is helpful, and the scoring channels are more abundant for Eastern.

No longer do the Panthers have to rely on three-pointers for big scoring, and, especially, they do not have to rely on chucking up three-point attempts when they are trailing.

They have reliable scoring inside (George Dixon), and they are much better at working through and around the post play.

Three-point shooting is a luxury this season, not as much of the workhorse it was last year.

Eastern’s defense is better, as the team is stealing the ball and rebounding the ball more than it did last year.

All-around play is noticeably better this year by Eastern, and that is what will help the Panthers get back on track to finish out the year strong.

Just assuming the team will finish well because of the adversity and the fact that they have to is a more abstract plan (though it is part of it), but considering Eastern’s roster and how the team is overall more suited for this situation than it was last year, that is the material part of Eastern’s trek to climb up the standings.

When Eastern started trailing in games last year, the Panthers did not have enough firepower to make those comebacks and instead, was on the receiving end of comebacks and runs that teams made to close out games, after Eastern had a lead with 10 minutes to go in those games.

This year, while Eastern has not closed out some games well, it has shown the team can come back.

The Panthers trailed by 16 points in the second half against Murray State, before coming back to lose by just three (with two three-point shots in the final 10 seconds to almost tie it).

At the start of the conference schedule, against Eastern Kentucky and Morehead State, Eastern came back in the closing minutes to lose by only three points.

But getting back on track and stopping its current losing streak of two games and finishing the year strong starts with Eastern Kentucky Thursday and winning the next two games after that, all three of which make up a very important three-game homestand for the Panthers.

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