By Ryan Alves

Just days away from the season’s first exhibition game, Eastern basketball’s Head Coach basketball coach Jeff Neubauer is upbeat about his team, despite the fact that the Colonels lost three of their top scorers from a year ago and welcome in a bevy of new players, all of whom will be looked to for filling those holes.

“I do have quite a bit of optimism about this team,” Neubauer said. “We have got guys that are very talented, especially at the offensive end.”

But even with the seventh-year head coach’s positive outlook, he understands the road ahead may be a bumpy one.

“There could be some tough sledding here early in the season, not only because we are playing eight games away from Alumni Colliseum to start the year, but also because we will be counting on freshmen and guys that are new to our program, more than many other program in the country.”

The new-look Colonels will feature only one four-year player: Senior guard Joshua Jones. who was a double-figure scorer for Eastern last year. Jones has started 83 games in his career for Eastern and is the team’s top returning scorer at 10.7 points per game in 2010.

Jones’ fellow sienors – Jeff Allgood and Jaron Jones, who joined up last year – will also provide some depth and leadership for Neubauer’s team.

Allgood played in all 31 games last season and will look to once again be a threat from three-point range. Jaron Jones played in 29 games as a reserve guard last season and also led the team in field goal percentage at 54.7 percent.

“All of us [seniors] have to step into that leadership role on the court and off the court,” Joshua Jones said. “Coach relies on us [senior] a lot to be the captains of the team.”

Those new players – some of which are freshmen, the other who are transfers – have already been showing their worth in preseason practices.

“Mike Dinnuno is a transfer from Northern Illinois that hasn’t played a minute yet here at EKU,” Neubauer said. “He will be very important to our team. And Dimitri Riggs is a junior college transfer, who has a lot of offensive talent, but will take some time getting used to our system…We’ve also got two or three freshmen who are definetely going to play important roles on our team.”

The freshman class that joined the team this year are comprised of two Kentucky high school signees: Timmy Knipp from Olive Hill and Robbie Stenzel from Winchester. Eric Stutz, from Newburgh, Ind., is the other freshman who will be looked to for significant  impact.

“Eric Stutz has really shown the ability early on to score around the rim, which is something we didn’t have a lot of last year,” Neubauer said. “But as a true center he has shown that he can score. Now when we go out into the world of Division I basketball it will be an experiment and he will have to learn on the fly, but he has shown the ability of being adept around the rim.”

Knipp, who stands at 6 feet 7 inches, and Stenzel, who is a 6-foot-5-inch guard, both have the ability to score and shoot from the outside.

Eastern also returns a few players who played significant minutes last season in forwards Jeff Johnson and Taylor Filipek, as well as guard Willie Cruz. Johnson tallied 24 starts last season, showed a nice stroke from three-point range and was the team’s second leading rebounder. Fillipek shows his strengths with post defense and on the glass. Cruz, who has been sidelined with a hand injury this preseason, was third on last year’s team in field goal percentage and rebounding.

“Right now, it could be weeks or months before Willie is back; we don’t yet know,” Neubauer said.

The Colonels will look to use the speed of their guards more this season, playing at a faster pace, something Joshua Jones looks forward to.

“We have some pretty fast point guards, which in the past I’ve played a lot of the point so it will be good to have a true point guard out there,” Jones said.

Eastern opened up its season with an exhibition game against Urbana College Wednesday, Nov. 2, but as of press time no results were available.

The Colonels next eight games will all be on the road during the 2K Sports Classic. Eastern will face off against the likes of Mississippi State, Lehigh and Delaware State before returning to Alumni Colliseum.

“I really do feel good about this team,” Neubauer said. “There will be some time in developing this squad but overall we have to feel good about where we could end up.”