CHARLESTON – Jay Spoonhour sped into the classroom that masquerades as a press center in the bowels of Lantz Arena and, before even fully sitting down at a desk, blurted the obvious.
“Well, we know who the better team was,” he said.
Murray State, just like it has done to all five of its Ohio Valley Conference opponents so far, jack-hammered Eastern Illinois Thursday with Ja Morant acting as the blade. The Racers created open shots, made difficult ones, turned up their pressure defense, forced early turnovers and made EIU play faster than it wanted to start the game. They flexed their superior athleticism, speed and skill – a demonstration entirely expected out of the favorite to win the OVC and traits that would have been patently clear even had they won by fewer points than they did.
EIU, in an 83-61 loss, was credited with 11 turnovers – hardly an abhorrent number – but Murray State’s defense forced the Panthers into an uncomfortable night for the entire game. Flustered and unsure of themselves, they dribbled and passed into spots where no good options existed, drove to a spot where only a difficult shot was available and passed it right where a Murray State defender stood.
“There were too many possessions where this didn’t look right,” Spoonhour said. “The ball was stuck in this guy’s hands too long, the guy that was going to screen wasn’t running, just stuff that wasn’t in sync. Most of the time when that happens, when you look out of sorts, it’s because of the defense.”
All told, that defense revealed what EIU is and what it isn’t. It illustrated how EIU has to go about trying to win games against Murray State and other OVC programs that, to borrow Spoonhour’s line again, are clearly the better team.
“Coach often tells us the team coming in is most likely more athletic than us,” guard Mack Smith said. “So we have to go out there and beat them with quickness, beat them by playing smart.”
The Panthers, as Smith noted, aren’t stocked with athletes, relative to the rest of their conference, an observation that had simmered all season and became obvious over the course of Thursday night’s game. That hasn’t limited them, necessarily, as they’re two wins away from matching last year’s total and still 3-2 in OVC play. It just means they need to run real offense with cuts, screens and smart passes. The absence of that Thursday underscored its importance. They’ve done so plenty of times this season. It’s important because the roster lacks a high-level shot creator who can score 20 points without any help or structure. When the Panthers are flummoxed by an athletic pressure defense and can’t cut, screen, “deliver the ball” and create open shots, results like Thursday’s are likely to happen.
“We threw the ball into their hands,” Spoonhour said. “We can’t have the turnovers we had and beat a good team.”
As if Murray State wasn’t enough, EIU will host Austin Peay, another athletic team with a similar pressure defense that fuels its offense. The Governors have forced opponents to commit a turnover in at least 22 percent of their possessions in four of their five OVC games.
“You’re going to run into a strong, athletic team that’s really going to try and guard you, make it hard to set screens, make it hard to pass the ball,” Spoonhour said. “And when you get pressure, the natural reaction is to dribble away from it. We don’t have guys who can take off and dribble the ball. That’s not what we do. We did that a little bit too much.”
“You’re reaction can’t be to dribble. That’s panic. You’ve got to try and keep your vision and try to deliver the ball to a guy who’s cutting. That’s what you work on.”
Forty hours is hardly enough time to go about improving play against pressure, which Spoonhour fully believes his team can do. He says the aimless dribbling and all the other issues that arose from playing Murray State’s pressure defense are fixable. Being the “smart team,” as Smith said, takes practice time, and not all teams progress at the same rate or in linear fashion. That also doesn’t make athleticism, speed and skill differences disappear. But it can mitigate a gap. That’s what EIU has to hope for Saturday, and again in an early February road trip to Murray State and Austin Peay.
“In some regards, nobody has to go out and be a lottery pick,” Spoonhour said. “But everyone has to realize what can make them good.”