The Eastern Illinois men's basketball team saw an improved Bradley squad when coach Brian Wardle brought his team to Lantz Arena last season. It was only his second season as the head coach of the Braves, but a change could already be seen in the team. Bradley pulled out an 87-83 overtime win over the Panthers.
It wasn't a great season for Bradley as the Braves finished with a 13-20 overall record and were 7-11 in the Missouri Valley Conference. However, it was a considerable improvement over Wardle's first season when the Braves were 5-27 overall and 3-15 in the MVC.
The Braves seem to have taken another step forward this season as Bradley comes into Friday's game against EIU, which is at 7 p.m. at the Carver Arena in Peoria, with a 6-1 overall record. It's the best start for the program since the 2004-05 season for the Braves.
"What they do is play hard and smart and it's an easy thing to say and a tough thing to get your guys to do it," EIU coach Jay Spoonhour said. "I think Brian does a great job. His guys are tough and compete all of the time. Their games are a little lower possession than others and it's a wise way for them to play. They are basically doing it with guarding and rebounding and that's a refreshing thing."
The game can be seen on NBC Sports Chicago Plus, which is formerly Comcast SportsNet Chicago.
Bradley has three players averaging double-figures. Darrell Brown is averaging 13.1 points per game, Nate Kennell is scoring 10.3 points per game and Donte Thomas is averaging 10.3 points per contest. The Braves are averaging 67.9 points per game and are shooting 42.1 percent from the field, but are only 61 percent from the free throw line.
The Braves have dominated the boards this season. Bradley is averaging 43 rebounds per game with a plus-10.3 margin on the boards. Three players are averaging at least seven rebounds per game - Elijah Childs (7.3 per game), Thomas (7.1 per game) and Koch Bar (7.0 per game).
In last season's game against EIU, Bradley grabbed 53 rebounds, which were 23 more than EIU had. The Braves had 15 offensive rebounds and Bar led the team with 14 boards.
"Really, rebounds were the difference in the game last year," Spoonhour said. "I thought we played well last year and it was a tough game. They outrebounded us by 20 and that was the main difference. They were tougher on the glass and that won't change. You can stand and do rebounding drills, but it comes down to grit and going and doing it."
EIU is coming into the game with a 2-4 record. Jajuan Starks leads EIU with 16.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Montell Goodwin is averaging 9.8 points per game and Terrell Lewis is averaging 9.3 points and 5.2 assists per game.
Lewis needs seven points to become the 37th player in EIU history with 1,000 career points. He is already EIU's career assist leader and needs six more assists to reach 500 for his career, which would make him only the ninth player in Ohio Valley Conference history to accomplish both feats (1,000 career points and 500 career assists). Lewis is fifth all-time in career 3-pointers in EIU history with 205 and needs four more to move into a tie for fourth place.
EIU is coming off an 86-83 overtime loss at Marquette on Monday and even though the Panthers are 2-4 on the season, Spoonhour likes how the Panthers have approached each game except for the San Diego State contest on Nov. 20 when the Aztecs won 94-63.
"I am happy with what we've been doing. Your play goes in cycles and hopefully we are continuing on a good cycle and not at the end of one," Spoonhour said. "The way we have played has been fine. I think what we have to do, everyone has had to figure out their role and that doesn't always happen easily. Guys are figuring out Jajuan needs to touch the ball and he needs to figure out where to go and get it."