Nick Mayo has an extensive list of honors and awards these days.
Earlier this month, the omnipresent forward became the first Eastern Kentucky player to reach 2,000 career points. Last weekend, he became the first ever Ohio Valley Conference player and only active Division I player with 2,000 points, 700 rebounds, 200 assists, 100 blocks and 100 3-pointers in his career.
“He’s all over the place,” Eastern Illinois coach Jay Spoonhour said.
The notable item missing from the list is a trip to the OVC tournament. As it stands now, EKU is on track to adding that. The Colonels are currently eighth in the league, at 3-5, and 10-11 overall. They opened league play with an unenviable schedule, facing Austin Peay, Murray State and Belmont in three of their first four games – all on the road.
Also absent: a win over Eastern Illinois. He will try for it Thursday when EKU comes to Lantz Arena on Thursday night (7:15 p.m., ESPN+).
EKU is 0-3 against the Panthers with Mayo. The last two losses came at home. In both of those, he encountered EIU’s defensive-minded center, Muusa Dama. Mayo will surely enjoy not seeing him this year. Dama held him to 9-for-28 shooting in their two battles. But he could only contain so much. Mayo still scored 29 points, shot 11-for-13 from the foul line and dropped eight assists.
“I’m not sure we have kept him down, to be honest,” Spoonhour recalls.
In his only visit to Lantz Arena, as a freshman in 2016, Mayo supplanted a lasting impression in Spoonhour’s mind, even though EIU won 97-85 and led comfortably in the entire second half. Without a sturdy defender like Dama to guard him, Mayo scored 23 points on 9-for-12 shooting.
“I thought, ‘Man, this guy is going to be a problem for a long time,” Spoonhour said.
Mayo did most of his work around the rim in that game. He has expanded his skill set since. He took 27 3-pointers as a freshman. This year, he’s at 106. He’s averaging more than a steal per game for the first time in his career. He’s a stretch five who can handle the ball and fills every stat category.
With Mayo as the catalyst, EKU has transformed itself in A.W. Hamilton’s first season as head coach. The Colonels operate at the second-fastest pace in the country and average 80 possessions per game. On average, they take 14.2 seconds to score. On defense, they’re “frantic.” They get steals and generate turnovers 22 percent of the time. Thursday, they upset OVC co-leader Jacksonville State behind 20 forced turnovers (11 of them steals).
“If you’re not careful, you’ll get into a game of getting sped up,” Spoonhour said. “We have to make sure we’ve got some poise and composure, because they’re going to take it from you.”
That’s precisely what EIU lacked in the closing moments of Saturday’s loss at Southeast Missouri State. The Panthers committed three turnovers in the final 60 seconds. Each conveyed a hasty approach. Rade Kukobat threw a pass away while trying to find Shareef Smith on a curl. On the next possession, he set a moving screen at halfcourt. The dagger came with 24 seconds left, when Smith couldn’t hang on to a three-quarter court heave.
Playing EKU, though, requires a different kind of discipline and focus, Spoonhour says. While Saturday’s end-game mess was a result of trying to do too much, the poise needed to handle EKU revolves around concentration and decision-making.
“There’s not going to be an easy pass. There aren’t that many teams who even play that way where it’s hard to even inbound the ball,” Spoonhour said.
Just like previous meetings with up-tempo teams, EIU won’t make a concerted effort to play at a similar pace to EKU. Spoonhour wants the Panthers to take the obvious avenues to run (“Can’t hold it”), but not try and force anything.
“We’re going to have our moments where we struggle and don’t do a very good job,” he said. “It’s just a matter of if we have more of those or if they do.”
“You just hope guys can play without getting too sped up.”