Eastern Illinois joined recent masochists yet intrepid adventurers Incarnate Word and South Alabama in opening a season against Texas Tech’s soul-crushing, steel-walled defense. It left feeling bruised, just like the others.
The Panthers are 0-1 after an 85-60 loss to Texas Tech Tuesday night, a game in which they never led and averaged .83 points per possession with 15 turnovers.
By comparison, a Friday night (7 p.m., BTN plus) trip to Wisconsin – its next high-major game – will feel like a waltz through a sunflower field. It’s also a chance for EIU guards Deang Deang and Shareef Smith to play in their hometown of Madison. But it is still one mighty task, even though these are not Bo Ryan’s lock-in-a-top-four-finish Badgers of earlier this century. Wisconsin, picked to finish sixth in a preseason Big Ten media poll, lost do-everything forward Ethan Happ from its 23-win team a year ago. It opened its season with a 65-63 overtime loss to Saint Mary’s on a neutral court.
Wisconsin, like EIU's first opponent, can guard well and has some strong individual defenders. And once again, not much is expected of EIU here. This is not, though, a useless game where no impressions can be made or strides can be taken.
Brad Davison, an aggressive, charge-taking point guard who played through multiple dislocated shoulders as a freshman two years ago and 3-point threat D’Mitrik Trice are Wisconsin’s leading returning scorers. Nate Reuvers, though, may hold the key to just how well Wisconsin can fill the void left by Happ. A 6-foot-11 forward who can handle the ball, face up and make jumpers, Reuvers scored 22 points in Tuesday’s opener. He blocked four shots. If it portends a breakout year where he grows as a rebounder and foul draw-er, Wisconsin’s in business. If not, the Badgers may find themselves struggling to separate from the Big Ten’s crowded middle and on the NCAA tournament bubble.
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As far as EIU is concerned, Friday is its last scheduled game against a high-major team, and the non-conference schedule lightens after. The Panthers gave seven players at least 20 minutes on Tuesday, but none more than 26. Including Smith (17 minutes) and Dondre Duffus (11), the rotation was nine deep, with Braxton Shaw and Kashawn Charles making spot appearances as well.
Against Texas Tech, EIU shot 16 3-pointers and 13 free throws. Everything else was either around the rim or a mid-range shot, and nothing went down too often. The Panthers were 17-of-41 on shots inside the 3-point line. Of those, 26 were at the rim, per hoop-math.com. EIU made just 13 of those and shot 4-for-15 on 2-point jumpers.
Plenty of the credit for the stilted offense and inability to finish at the rim goes to Texas Tech, which blends physicality and athleticism better than any team EIU will play. The Red Raiders can also run teams off the 3-point line and taking away top scoring options. On cue, Josiah Wallace took just six shots.
George Dixon, though, managed a 13-point, 10-rebound double-double by using the feistiness and strength that earned him a starting spot in his first career game. He was 5-for-6 on shots at the rim, while fellow newcomer Jordan Skipper-Brown was 4-for-5. Even in a loss, some semblance of an ability to get shots around the rim was a good sign after it was largely absent a year ago.
Room around the basket may not come any easier than it did against Texas Tech. With Happ, Wisconsin finished 10th nationally a year ago in opponent 2-point percentage and 96th in opponent offensive rebound percentage. Reuvers, for his part, still finished in the top 50 nationally in block rate in 2018-19 and was a big reason Saint Mary’s shot only 37 percent on 2s on Tuesday.