The boiler-plate info for each of Eastern Illinois’ first seven games has read like a scientific formula missing a key ingredient. H20 without the second hydrogen. Baking soda without a carbon molecule. Salt with either too much sodium or chloride.
That’s not in reference to the outcomes or the events of them, but simply the opponent, venue and timing of the games themselves. A key tenant that makes college basketball feel like college basketball for EIU and fellow mid- and low-major teams was missing – until now.
The Panthers have no more buy games against high-major teams, meetings with non-Division I opponents that serve as tune-ups or far-flung exempt tournaments played off the radar in empty, dead arenas. Each of EIU’s games so far has fallen under one of those categories. Perennial D-1 pauper Chicago State can be shoehorned into the middle one. Finally, EIU has arrived at the part of its schedule that contains – all at once – comparable opponents, home and road venues, some pattern of regularly spaced games and, most importantly, real doubt in the outcome. Betting lines that hover around 20 do not appear on the horizon. That’s how it’ll go, maybe with one Belmont-sized exception, until the end of the year.
“I think every one of these is pretty close to a coin flip game,” coach Jay Spoonhour said.
Up first is a road game against Purdue Fort Wayne (6 p.m. CT, YouTube) in the conclusion of a home-and-home series started last year. This will feel like college basketball again. It’ll present EIU with a better chance to gauge the reliability and potency of its strengths through seven games, while also assessing the concern level over some of its missteps.
“It’s hard to measure yourself when you’re on the winning side of a big blowout or when you go on the road to Texas Tech,” Spoonhour said. “We’ll know a little bit more about ourselves.”
So far, the Panthers appear to have made significant progress in putting last season’s defensive issues behind them and finding offense from sources other than jump shots. They sure seem to have a reliable source of interior scoring in new versatile weapon George Dixon and frontcourt running mate Jordan Skipper-Brown. Elsewhere, Marvin Johnson is a bouncy, hiccup-quick scorer who can strike fast and plays at about 150 mph, but has struggled with efficiency with a 31 percent mark on field goals and a team-high 15 turnovers.
Johnson and Deang Deang have resembled sturdy perimeter and on-ball defenders. EIU, so far, has been a high-turnover defense that ranks 18th in turnover rate (25 percent of opponent’s possessions) and 14th in non-steal turnover percentage. Opponents are shooting just 26.7 percent on 3-pointers after making 39 percent a year ago. The attempts from deep have plummeted, a sign of a sturdy perimeter defense.
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Above all, those defensive strides will be tested against Purdue Fort Wayne, which enters with more 3-point makes than all but three teams in the country. The Mastodons (5-5) are shooting 36.9 percent on 3s and rank 43rd in effective field goal percentage.
“That’s what they do,” Spoonhour said.
EIU can attest. Just turn on the film from last year’s meeting on Nov. 28, a 104-60 dusting at Lantz Arena where Purdue Fort Wayne made 21 of its 37 3s. Everything found nylon. The Mastodons averaged an absurd 1.41 points per possession and hung the most points on EIU since it allowed 107 to Central Arkansas on Nov. 26, 2011. It’s still fresh.
“As bad a day as you could have,” Spoonhour said. “It was not much fun. Everything was going well for them and nothing was going well for us.”
There is one major difference between this year’s iteration of Purdue Fort Wayne basketball than 2018-19, though. Guard John Konchar, the program’s all-time leading scorer with 2,065 points, is no longer around. He’s in the NBA G-League on a two-way contract with the Memphis Grizzlies. He dropped 16 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists on EIU last year to go with two steals. Mid-major programs suffer when players like him graduate.
Still, coach Jon Coffman has another shot-making team with three double-figure scorers. Former Kansas State guard Brian Patrick is the most notable newcomer and is averaging 14.4 points per game so far. Guard Jarred Godfrey has upped his scoring by nearly nine points per game to a team-best 15.9.
“These guys are so good offensively that if you have a portion of a possession or you have a couple different guys who aren’t totally locked in on what they’re doing, they’re going to find an opening,” Spoonhour said. “Being in a position where you’re hoping they don’t go in is not a strategy.”
EIU found itself there too often in evenly matched games down the stretch a year ago. Wednesday night may shed more light on the frequency with which the Panthers land in that same undesirable position in the coming months and if their avoidance of it in November is indeed sustainable.