If recent history is any indication, Eastern’s men’s basketball team and Austin Peay should put on a great show Thursday evening in the quarterfinals of the OVC Tournament.
Eastern lost by four points on the road to the Governors, but the Panthers beat Austin Peay a couple weeks later in Lantz Arena by three points.
Seeding numbers indicate Austin Peay should win the matchup (third seed to six seed Eastern), but if Eastern’s resilience as of late and momentum have anything to say about that, the Panthers could pull off the win.
Regardless, here are three things to look for when the Panthers and Governors clash Thursday evening (scheduled tipoff time is 8:30 p.m.).
Marvin Johnson’s health
Johnson has been an important player for Eastern, scoring almost 10 points per game while also dishing out 2.5 assists per game coming into the tournament.
But in the Panthers’ 72-70 win over Southeast Missouri Feb. 27, Johnson hurt his leg. That injury is bugging him again Thursday, as he was noticeably limping during the team’s morning shootaround. Even in the Panthers’ 67-61 win over Jacksonville State Wednesday, Johnson only played five minutes.
He is officially listed as a game-time decision, but him playing at all would be shocking.
If he is not able to play, Eastern will not only be missing out on his offensive presence but also his defensive impact.
Johnson’s long body and quickness has made him the go-to defender against opposing teams’ best scorers, which includes Austin Peay’s OVC Freshman of the Year Jordyn Adams.
Adams is the highest-scoring freshman in the OVC (17.8 points per game), which is also second in the nation behind only Georgia’s Anthony Edwards.
When Eastern defeated Austin Peay at home Feb. 22, Johnson, who had four fouls, guarded Adams down the stretch in the fourth quarter and overtime and held him to just one point in overtime.
Shareef Smith is the other go-to defender for Eastern, but Adams was able to score well when guarded by Smith.
How Eastern will fill the hole left by Johnson will be an early storyline to follow in the game.
Eastern’s post production
The defense played by Eastern’s post players, George Dixon, Jordan Skipper-Brown and JaQualis Matlock, in the Panthers’ win Wednesday cannot be understated.
Considering how physical and strong and long Jacksonville State is (on top of a slight size advantage for the Gamecocks), the trio played well.
Offensively, though, the trio put up a combined nine points.
Eastern’s guards carried the weight of scoring, as Josiah Wallace, Mack Smith and Kashawn Charles combined for 54 of Eastern’s 67 points.
Wallace scored most of his points in the second half because in the first half, the Gamecocks had him stymied and not able to penetrate to get to the lane. Austin Peay was in the stand watching the game, so if the Governors learned from that, they will try to keep Wallace away from the lane and Mack Smith from getting clean three-point shot attempts off (Smith shot 3-of-6 from three-point range Wednesday).
That means Dixon, Skipper-Brown and Matlock will need to play big on the post and get some post-ups to work, whether it be through scoring or passing from the post because that is what has made eastern’s offense so successful all season.
One final note: Of the nine points that trio scored, only two came off a true post-up, when Skipper-Brown banked in a shot with 1:43 left in the first half.
With Marvin Johnson either out or playing limited minutes, Eastern will need others to step up and score more.
The trio of big men will need to step up scoring-wise, but other Panthers can help that cause to fill in for the (possible) hole left without Johnson’s scoring.
Charles is the name that stands out the most in this case, especially because he scored 12 big points off the bench in Wednesday’s win.
Charles is one of few, if not the only one, who has an automatic green light from Eastern head coach Jay Spoonhour to shoot right when he gets in, so he will need to shoot well to help the Panthers’ cause. Not to mention, his defense has been good this season, so should he be designated to guard Adams, he will need to do that well too.
Shareef Smith is the other player who will need to score more, too.
Should Eastern’s trio of big men struggle again at any point Thursday night, Shareef Smith will need to help out, especially if Wallace and Mack Smith are guarded tightly and are not scoring.
Shareef Smith only scored two points (two big free throws he made down the stretch in Eastern’s win Wednesday), but he also only attempted one shot. He is someone who can create drives to the basket for himself and knock down three-pointers, so he will need to get himself some opportunities to score.
On top of that, if Johnson does not play, that leaves Smith to be the main passer and assists man for Eastern, so he will have to shrug off Wednesday’s performance (had five turnovers, the most of Eastern’s players Wednesday) and be a catalyst for the Panthers.
If Johnson does not play at all, that leaves room for Shawn Wilson or Logan Koch (or both) to get playing time too, since Eastern will need as many fresh legs as possible, so they will have to help out where they can.
Dillan Schorfheide can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]