By: Jack O’Keefe
Spread: Eastern Washington -5.5
8:00 pm Central – Reese Court, Cheney, WA
Southern Utah Thunderbirds (9-1, 2-0)
“Thunder, feel the thunder… lightning then thunder!” Okay, we have now met our Imagine Dragons reference quota for the 2020-21 season. What a fitting name though for a program like Southern Utah: Thunderbirds. The Thunderbird is a legendary icon in the Native American history and culture as a means to signify power and strength. The 2020-21 Thunderbirds of Southern Utah have exemplified just that, a powerful offensive team that has fueled their way to a 9-1 record. Southern Utah has not made the NCAA Tournament since 2001, so it will take quite a bit of strength from the mighty Thunderbirds to lock-up the automatic bid for the Big Sky Conference.
The Thunderbirds have brought back three out of their five starters from a year ago. John Knight, a one-time Utah State Aggie, averaged 12.6 points per game last season for Southern Utah. In his second season as a Thunderbird, he is right where he was at last year, averaging 12.5 points per game. Dre Marin also returns for Southern Utah this season (10.5 ppg) along with Maizen Fausett ( 13.6 ppg). The main scoring threat for the Thunderbirds this season has been Tevian Jones. Jones comes aboard the Southern Utah team after spending two seasons playing in the Big Ten with the Illinois Fighting Illini. Jones seldom played during his time in Champaign, but he is certainly taking advantage of the moment with Southern Utah this season. He is currently averaging 19.2 points per game this season, and dropped 30 points on Idaho last Saturday.
As I mentioned earlier, the Thunderbirds have a potent offense this season, averaging 79.4 points per game this season (35th in Division-I). Southern Utah gets to the free-throw line at a high rate (26.6 attempts per game; 5th in Division-I), but they are cashing in on the free-throw attempts this season at a subpar level (69.4%; 194th in Division-I). Defensively, the Thunderbirds have struggled defending shots, as opposing teams have shot 49.7% from the field (336th in Division-I) and teams are scoring 74.0 points per game (234th in Division-I).
Southern Utah has historically been a program with a losing record, especially since joining the Big Sky Conference in 2013. Before Coach Simon took over the program, the Thunderbirds had just one winning season in the last 15 years. The 2019-20 season was a breakout season for Southern Utah, which saw them finish just two games over .500 (17-15). To some, a 9-1 with three wins over non-Division-I opponents would not seem like that much to celebrate. However, for a team that has historically suffered losing season after losing season, this hot-start means something to the fans.
Eastern Washington Eagles (2-4, 1-0)
The Eagles of Eastern Washington have tasted the fruits of a successful season far more often than Southern Utah. The Eagles made the NCAA Tournament in 2004 and 2015, and they have had 18+ win seasons in four out of the last five seasons. Had COVID-19 not have happened, there is a strong chance Eastern Washington would have represented the Big Sky Conference in the NCAA Tournament following their 23-8 regular season finish.
The Eagles have a 2-4 record, but they have played some stiff competition to start the season. The Eagles opened up the campaign against three Pac-12 schools in Washington State (L by 3), Arizona (L by 3) and Oregon (L by 17). The Pac-12 may not be as strong this season as years past, but anytime a mid-major comes within striking distance of taking down a Power-5 school, it warrants my attention. The Eagles were 5.5-point underdogs or greater in all-three games, but they managed to cover the spread in two out of the three contests. The Eagles picked up their first Division-I win of the season last month, taking down the Lumberjacks of Northern Arizona 80-64. It will be interesting to see how they do tonight early on in the game, given the last time they played a legit game.
Tanner Grooves, a junior forward, is averaging 14.5 points per game and 9.8 rebounds per game this season for Eastern Washington. Jacob Davison and Kim Aiken, two All-Big Sky team members from last season, have been reliable scoring options as well for Eastern Washington. Davison is averaging 11.8 points per game this season, while Aiken is averaging 10.3 points per game along with 7.0 rebounds per game. Four out of the five starters this season are averaging double figures, which is never a bad thing for a team to be balanced in the scoring category.
Eastern Washington plays at a much more controlled tempo than Southern Utah, averaging only 68.4 points per game this season. The Eagles are pretty middle of the road in terms of shooting the ball this season, as is indicative of their 43.5% field goal percentage (175th in Division-I). The Eagles though thrive on crashing the boards defensively this season. Eastern Washington is grabbing a surprising 26.6 defensive rebounds per game this season (42nd in Division-I). Slightly concerning though is the lack of second chance opportunities they provide themselves offensively with only getting 4.0 offensive rebounds per game this season (341st in Division-I). I am sure though that number will improve, given the drop in team talent the Eagles have remaining on their schedule for the 2020-21 season.
The last time these two teams met, they played at the more favored Eastern Washington slower tempo offense. The under hit by a whopping 29 points the last time these two squared off last February. Had it not have been for overtime in the outing before that last January, the under would have hit by six points. Assuming we have no overtime tonight, I think the under looks to be the move. Southern Utah has crushed the over this season, so they are most definitely due for an under following five-straight overs. The Eagles have not played live action against an opponent in over a month, so I am expecting to see some initial rust from them out of the gate. It kills me to break away from my ATS picks, after picking seven correct in a row, but I am not confident in backing one team over the other ATS tonight. I am going to play the U152.5 points as my best bet.
Jack’s 2020 CBB picks: (12-13)