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KU Hoops Preview: Eastern Illinois

This game exists

NCAA Basketball: Eastern Illinois at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

You didn’t forget about this game and rest assured, neither did I. I definitely knew this game was happening today. In fact, I’ve been preparing for weeks. There’s no chance that between the back to back marquee matchups the basketball team had last week, and the regular season-ending blowout that propelled the football team to 8-4 on Saturday, that I wasn’t even thinking about this matchup with one of the worst teams in mid major basketball on a Tuesday night where I may barely be able to watch any of it.

When I say one of the worst teams in mid major basketball, by the way, it’s not hyperbole. Analytics bible KenPom rates the Panthers 345th nationally out of just 362 D1 teams, which puts them in the bottom 20. If you look at their record this year, they are 3-4, which might be a bit confusing at first glance. How can a team that’s already won three games rate so poorly? Well, two of those games were against Monmouth (IL) and Eureka, who you’d be excused for not knowing since they’re both D3 schools, sitting a whole division below Kansas powerhouses like Ft. Hays State, Emporia State, Washburn, and Pitt State. To be fair, they blew the doors off those teams by a combined 92 points (46 each time), but to quote Shania Twain (I think it’s her, at least...I could be thinking of another country-pop crossover singer) that don’t impress me much. Against teams with pulses, the results haven’t been so promising. They started the year with a 28 point loss at Illinois, a game that was 60-33 before the Illini took their foot of the gas. Next came losses to Loyola Chicago and Illinois State by 16 and 8, respectively. They did eke out a 48-46 win over the team sitting one spot out of dead last in KenPom’s ratings, Coppin State, a game in which 30% all total possessions ended in turnovers. I could go into more detail about that game, but I refuse to subject myself to any more of that box score and I’m certainly not watching video of it. Their other game was a 12 point loss to Miami (OH).

Getting into the details about the Panthers, it’s important to note the things they do well. Especially...uh...

They rank in the top 100 nationally in forcing non-steal turnovers! 99th! Sure it’s been against mostly poor competition, but they’ve been ok at it!

There are, however, a few areas where they struggle. Namely, every other category. Looking at just four factors and other higher-importance numbers, they rank below 300th nationally in offensive eFG%, offensive free throw rate, and 2 point shooting%. Defensively, they’re just a touch above the top 300 in eFG% allowed, but 331st in FT rate allowed. They also don’t contest shots very well, allowing opponents to make 57.1% of their twos so far. And again, Illinois is the only good team they’ve played, so many of these numbers came against subpar teams.

Like most D1 teams, they aren’t without any talent whatsoever. Juco transfer Naykel Shelton is a high-usage player who can get some buckets, albeit not at an efficient rate so far this year. In his D1 games, he’s averaged 11 ppg and is one of two guys most likely to get the ball when they need a bucket. The other primary scorer is sophomore Toledo transfer Kooper Jacobi, averaging 11.2 ppg with lower usage rates than Shelton. He’s just 4-19 on his threes in his career to date, and sits at 2-10 so far in his Eastern Illinois career. He’s 6’7, 200 pounds, puts up some halfway decent rebounding numbers, including 11 against Illinois, he limits turnovers, and has made 42.5% of his 40 attempts inside the arc. Eastern Illinois does have a bit of size for an OVC squad, and 6’8 sophomore Sincere Malone is a solid defensive rebounder, sitting in D1’s top 100 in dReb%. Senior center Jermaine Hamlin doesn’t do much offensively, but at 6’10, he does boast a block rate just over 7% and crashes the offensive boards hard. He also started his career with two seasons at Illinois, so at least at one time he was considered a high-ceiling player.

Prediction

Eastern Illinois favors a very slow pace, sitting 318th in adjusted tempo and 312th in average possession length. However, that focus on slowing things down and running half court offense hasn’t really helped them much so far. They’re a horrendous 2 point shooting team (38.5%) and subpar from three (31.6%). They also take about as few threes relative to their overall field goal attempts as anyone in D1 basketball, meaning they’ve continued to try and force the issue with easier looks and failing, getting 11% of their field goals blocked along the way. It would make more strategic sense to push that style of offense if they were better at getting to the line, but ranking 347th in free throw rate and making a respectable-but-not-great 72.3% at the stripe, nothing has worked well in the half court offense for them so far. And since they favor a slightly larger lineup than you see from most small D1 schools, they likely aren’t built to get out and run.

Unfortunately for EIU, it’s extremely unlikely that they’ll be the ones dictating pace and style of play. This is a team that simply cannot hang with KU’s players in terms of athleticism or skill. A home loss to this team would be easily the most shocking defeat Kansas has faced since the dreaded “Topeka YMCA” game against TCU. I see no reason whatsoever for this to be anything short of a blowout, and it shouldn’t even require a great game from the Jayhawks to do it. Yes, EIU has a 6’10 center, but Hunter Dickinson will likely get as many points and rebounds as he wants until Bill Self takes mercy on the Panthers and pulls him. They defend shots inside the arc horribly, so guys like Harris and KJ Adams can likely get to the bucket for easy looks based on their athleticism alone, and Kevin McCullar should be able to patiently wait for high-quality looks without forcing anything. Barring something crazy, the point differential in this game should be just about whatever Bill Self wants it to be before he starts pulling starters.

Kansas had a tough week last week, with three games in three days, and two of those coming against top 10 teams, and their next game coming up Friday is a brutal matchup with UConn. Hopefully this game serves as a nice, easy victory to keep the players warm in between tough contests. I don’t see any reason for this to stay remotely close.

Kansas 92, Eastern Illinois 56