By Jonathan Stark
Basketball season has arrived.The day that every Eastern basketball fan has been looking forward to since March 15th, when Eastern lost to UNC has finally come. The Colonels open the season against the West Virginia Wesleyan Bobcats (0-1).
Eastern Head Coach Jeff Neubauer will be facing an old acquaintance: Bill Lilly, West Virginia Wesleyan head coach. Lilly and Neubauer both worked at West Virginia prior to their current positions. Lilly was the director of operations for men’s basketball and Neubauer was an assistant coach.
“They (West Virginia coaches and players) try to emphasize the things that we do as far as running a similar offensive system,” Neubauer said.
The Bobcats’ first game was last Saturday. They fell to Mountain State 91-67.
Defense will be the main emphasis for the Colonels Saturday.
“We really want to be a good defensive team and those are things we really spend a lot of time on, improving our defense, becoming better individual defenders as well as having a good team concept,” Coach Neubauer said.
One of Eastern’s best defenders, senior Darnell Dialls, has been sidelined the past few weeks with an ankle sprain but is expected to play.
“We should be healthy for this game. Darnell is very resilient and I do expect him and our other guys to be healthy come Saturday,” Neubauer said.
Last season, Dialls was the team’s second leading rebounder at 4.1 a game. He also missed four games at the beginning of last season due to a knee injury.
The last time Eastern and West Virginia Wesleyan met in 2005, the Colonels won 88-46. Dialls had 14 points and five rebounds off the bench. Now, junior Mike Rose started and had seven points and four rebounds.
Rose is now a key part of the Eastern offense. As last year’s leading scorer, he averaged 15.1 points per game. Adam Leonard, last year’s co-OVC Freshman of the Year, is expected to produce even more this season. Last season, he averaged 12.5 points a game.
With it being the first game of the season, the possibility lingers that the team may come out a bit rusty.
“At this time of year, it’s the first experience under the lights. Obviously, it’s been a while since we’ve played a real game. But that’s just not the case for us; it’s going to be for every team in the country here in November,” Neubauer said. “Quite honestly, our guys are very mature and very experienced, so I don’t think we’ll have any trouble getting up for our first real game.”
While Eastern has been extremely successful over the last three seasons, West Virginia Wesleyan has struggled. The Bobcats had only 10 wins in the last three years and only three wins last season. But Neubauer said he feels Eastern’s experienced group of veteran players will keep their minds focused on the game at hand and refrain from thinking this will be an easy win.
Since it’s early in the season, the Colonels aren’t focused much on their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses but their own.
“This time of year, I think most coaches concentrate on their team, so we’ve really been concentrating on what we do; we really try to emphasize taking care of the ball,” Neubauer said. “Our focus will be for all of our guys to play EKU basketball. We are just hoping to play unselfishly, to share the basketball as we do every day in practice.”
Saturday is a big night for the basketball program; not only is it the first game, but it is also “Banner Night.”
Eastern will unveil the 2006-2007 OVC Champions banner. The night will include t-shirts, scholarship and even car giveaways.
“We are really trying to get off on the right foot this year as a basketball program, so we’ve been working very hard to become the best team that we can become,” Neubauer said. “One of our goals this year as a basketball program is to create a great student interest in our team. So, hopefully, we can get a great crowd here especially with our student body – just to kick this thing off the right way.”
The following Tuesday, the Colonels will host the Thomas Moore Saints. It’s been 15 years since these teams met; Eastern won the game 79-51. Thomas Moore finished last season with a 3-24 record.
The two-day break between games will be used by the Colonels to review game film and learn from it. Coach Neubauer said Sunday will be devoted to improving on the team’s mistakes in the WVW game, and Monday will be focused on preparing for Thomas Moore.
“It’s just a process that we go through throughout the year where we play a game, take a few days to prepare for the next game. We get in a little routine, learning from one game and then moving on to the next,” Neubauer said.
Saturday’s game against West Virginia Wesleyan will tip off at 7 p.m. at McBrayer Arena.
Tuesday’s game against Thomas Moore will also tip off at 7 p.m.