CHARLESTON -- The Western Illinois men’s basketball team is a familiar opponent for Eastern Illinois. The Panthers have faced the Leathernecks four times over the past two seasons and once again this year, the two teams will face twice. There’s only one season in coach Jay Spoonhour’s tenure when the two teams haven’t play. They even made the contest a trophy game as the two teams play for the remodeled Old Railsplitter Trophy.
But there will be one significant change, though. WIU will be without one of the best players in the Summit League over the past two seasons since Garret Covington graduated. Covington did it all for the Leathernecks and was the focal point of their offense.
But WIU seemed to move on from Covington, at least for one game. The Leathernecks opened the season against NCAA Division III St. Mary’s and won 109-68.
Still, it was only the first game against a non-D-I opponent, so the Leathernecks may be a bit of a mystery as EIU travels to Macomb to take on WIU at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.
“They are like everybody. It’s difficult to know much about any of us,” EIU coach Jay Spoonhour said. “Covington did a lot for them last year, but those other players were more than capable players. They have good players. Late in the year, they were in every game and really battled.
“It’s what it always has been, a hard game. We got them (twice) last year, but couple of years before, they were better than us.”
Center Brandon Gilbeck showed he might be the focus of WIU’s offense this season. The 6-11, 235-pound center hit 12-of-15 from the field and finished with 31 points.
Last season, Gilbeck averaged 7.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game.
“Gilbeck flashed some talent the past couple of seasons. Two years ago, he played great against us and played great against Wisconsin,” Spoonhour said. “He was really good. Last year, we did a pretty good job on him. He’s a really skilled, good, big guy and they are throwing the ball to him more than he got it last year he can score it.”
EIU’s defense appeared to be its biggest strength in the 72-68 loss to Nebraska. The Panthers finished the game with 10 steals and it was the first time since Dec. 19, 2016, against Fontbonne that EIU had 10 or more steals in a game.
Spoonhour described the defensive performance against Nebraska as “fine.”
“I didn’t think we forced that much on Nebraska. They turned it over some, but I don’t know how much we had to do with that,” Spoonhour said. ”We will try and guard and stay in front of you. Early in the year, people will turn it over because of pressure and that won’t happen as the season goes on.
“More so than forcing turnovers, I want us to be solid defensively and harder to score on. If we don’t force turnovers but are harder to score on, that’s fine.”
Terrell Lewis led the Panthers with 12 points in the season-opener and Jajuan Starks, in his first official D-I game, score 12 points and had six rebounds.
Starks is a junior college transfer from Wabash Valley College and Spoonhour said Starks is acclimating himself well to the D-I level.
“Jajuan is really smart and picks stuff up really fast and he has got way more ability than he has shown yet,” Spoonhour said. “He could be a really good player and he’s already. You are always going to want more and we want him to rebound and guard better. He is doing exactly what we hoped he would do so far.
“It’s what I thought about a few guys. Just trying to get consistently good efforts and performances and the winning part will take care of itself.”