Column: Eastern should use its big men more in Thursday’s game

Dillan Schorfheide, Sports Editor

EVANSVILLE, IND- In somewhat surprising fashion, Eastern’s big men were almost a no-factor, offensively, in the first half, and even into the second half in Eastern’s 67-61 win Wednesday.

Jacksonville State is a big, strong and long defensive team, emphasis on defensive team because the Gamecocks are always tough to break with your offense.

But Eastern could have benefitted from running the offense through the post players more in the first half. Even in the second half, Eastern’s offense ran through its guards making plays, not so much through the big men posting up and making plays through that, which the Panthers have done all year so well.

Eastern was lucky to make five of their nine three-pointers in the first half to help give them a 27-22 lead at halftime, but as is the case with any team, three-point shooting can only be so reliable (especially for Eastern).

The Panthers rolled out a better offensive plan this season, with the addition of George Dixon and Jordan Skipper-Brown to the roster.

With those two as offensive threats inside, Eastern could rely on bigs to post up and put up numbers down low. Gone were the days where Eastern relied on outside shooting to get them out of trouble.

But in the first half of the first round of the OVC tournament against Jacksonville State, Eastern went back to its ways last year, where it tried using jump shots to keep the offense going.

In the first two minutes of the game, JaQualis Matlock took a fadeaway jump shot and another jump shot before that, shots he is not known to make.

Matlock’s one basket in the first half came from a three-pointer, and he attempted another one.

Dixon was a non-factor in the first half, offensively, not scoring at all and going 0-for-3 from the field.

For the game, Dixon, Matlock and Skipper-Brown combined for nine points.

After the win, Eastern head coach Jay Spoonhour said it would be nice for the Eastern big men to score more Thursday.

“A lot of their stuff is going to come on offensive rebounding,” Spoonhour said. “Folks are running at Mack (Smith), and they’re for sure running at Josiah (Wallace)… Every time a guy like George (Dixon) or (Skipper-Brown) can go get one and get a stick back, that’s big time.”

A lot of credit is due for the Gamecocks’ defense because they made it hard for Eastern’s big men to post up effectively.

But their defense was also effective in denying Eastern passes and shot attempts on the perimeter, which is something that makes Eastern comfortable offensively.

Josiah Wallace’s usual dribble moves and spins through the lane were ineffective for the most part, and Mack Smith only got two clean three-point attempts off in the first half. Smith did make one in the first half, extending his streak of consecutive games with a three-pointer made to 80.

But when your usual offensive flow is being denied so heavily, switching it up is helpful, and Eastern did not try to go inside a whole lot. A lot of passes and plays were made around the perimeter.

Most of Eastern’s 10 first-half points in the paint were from layups or putbacks from rebounds. The only basket Eastern truly got from a post-up was when Skipper-Brown scored after posting up with 1:42 left in the first half.

In the second half, even, a lot of Eastern’s points in the paint were layups or drives to the basket or jump shots.

Matlock is somebody who can score six points a game (mainly from inside), and Dixon averaged 11.1 points per game in the regular season (mainly from inside).

Again, the Gamecocks’ defense was strong and constrictive inside, but there are ways to get your bigs better shots: Give-and-gos, pick-and-roll or backdoor passes.

Dixon found himself around the perimeter a lot handing the ball off, and Matlock almost exclusively was around the perimeter in the first half.

The beneficial part of running offense through the post is it can open up those outside shots, or drives to the lane.

Jacksonville State did that well offensively: Its first six points of the game came from Jacara Cross (the Gamecocks’ big man) in the paint. Gamecock guards would drive baseline and dump it off to a big man in the paint, and in general, the Gamecocks moved the ball around enough that they could eventually get Eastern’s help defense scrambled and find a big man open around the lane.

The Gamecocks’ defense was tremendous, but if their big men found a way to score against Eastern’s tough defense, Eastern should be able to, and needs to be able to, find a way to get post-ups, whether through scoring or passing, as a bigger part of its offense.

The Gamecocks outscored eastern in the paint in the first half 16-10. For the game, the Gamecocks outscored Eastern in the paint 30-24, but again, a good portion of the Gamecocks’ points in the paint came from post-ups, while Eastern got a lot from Wallace’s jump shots or layups.

However, Eastern’s bigs were great inside defensively.

“Let me tell you something, JaQualis (Matlock) had a stretch of about five possessions that was good,” Spoonhourn said. “We’re going to need more of that. I thought (Skipper-Brown) was good, too.”

The Gamecocks had a noticeable size advantage, but Dixon and Skipper-Brown did well. Matlock had a great first half defensively, especially. Eastern had four blocks in the half, with Dixon recording three of those.

Eastern ultimately finished the first half with the lead, but playing through their big men inside, the Panthers could have given themselves a bit of an easier time trying to score.

Playing through the post has been a big part of Eastern’s offensive success this season, and going through the post could have alleviated Eastern’s tough time of getting open, much less, good looks.

Eastern survived without post scoring Wednesday, but against Austin Peay Thursday, the Panthers need to get their big men looks in the paint.

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