CHARLESTON – The possibility of SIU-Edwardsville making the Ohio Valley Conference tournament has gained some traction in recent weeks.
Jon Harris’ squad was an abandoned barge on the Mississippi River two weeks ago, when it owned a 5-13 record and a 1-5 mark in OVC games. It was traveling the expected path for the team picked to finish last in the OVC preseason poll.
Since then, the Cougars are 3-3 and swept Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky on their last homestand. The last two losses came on the road against Murray State and Austin Peay, neither of which is a shameful transgression. Now, with four of their final six games at home, and games left against UT-Martin, Tennessee Tech and Tennessee State, it’s possible they could find themselves in a tournament spot on March 3.
The path to a tournament berth isn’t obvious. It won’t be easy. But it’s certainly manageable.
What’s obvious is this: Eastern Illinois’ Thursday visit to SIUE (5:30 p.m., ESPN+) appears much more difficult than it seemed it would be for the first three months of the season.
Not that EIU was taking it lightly anyway. The Panthers (13-12, 6-6 OVC) have dropped three straight games. They needed overtime to beat SIUE at home on Jan. 5, 84-81. Brandon Jackson powered his way to a 26-point, nine-rebound, three-block day, and even drilled two threes on top of it. Tyresse Williford dropped 11 assists.
“They outplayed us, I thought, for most of the game, if not all the game,” EIU coach Jay Spoonhour said. “They get the ball inside and they do a good job throwing it inside. Jackson, he had a huge game. So that’s something you have to worry about.”
“They have guys you have to be serious about guarding, or they’ll put a bunch of points on you.”
SIUE’s surge has started with a scoring bump. The Cougars have topped 80 points in each of their last three wins. Two of them took at least two overtimes to notch and produced some less impressive efficiency numbers. In a Jan. 31 defeat of Morehead State, though, they averaged 1.2 points per possession and shot 66.7 percent on 2-pointers.
These are the signs of desperate energy.
“Every team is fighting for something still,” Spoonhour said. “You’re going to get a lot of teams, us included, that are in desperation mode where you have to get wins. Everybody in our league has to get wins. You’re going to get everybody’s best night every time out.”
Williford, SIUE’s co-leading scorer at 14.3 points per game, is a 5-foot-10, 165-pound wiry and speedy point guard who plays as if someone lit a firecracker in his shorts. He draws six fouls per 40 minutes and averages 3.9 assists per game, but shoots just 36 percent from the field and averages 3.7 turnovers. He’s a familiar name for a couple EIU players. Josiah Wallace and Rade Kukobat faced him last year, when all three played junior college ball in Region 24 – Williford for Wabash Valley College, Wallace for Olney Central College and Kukobat for Vincennes University.
Kukobat doesn’t remember the specifics of Williford’s game or how he fared in two meetings against Vincennes last year, but he was reminded of Williford’s traits when he led SIUE to that near-defeat of EIU at Lantz Arena.
“He’s fast, he’s looking to score and he gets to the rim every chance he gets,” Kukobat said.
EIU’s three-game losing streak matches its longest of the season, but Spoonhour expressed relative pleasure with EIU’s play in its last two defeats. The Panthers pushed Murray State and Austin Peay in road games and whittled back into each when the opponent briefly looked like it would turn both contests into blowouts.
“I thought we played well in both games,” Spoonhour said. “We need to keep playing well, since now is the time of year where you’re going to be facing teams playing their best. I think the beginning of February is when the basketball is at its best because everybody’s been at it long enough, they know what they’re doing and everybody’s playing for something still. So this is when you really, really need to play well.”