RICHMOND — All talk aside about rules to harness physical play, defense still wins basketball games.
At least, that's how Coach Jeff Neubauer is approaching things as Eastern Kentucky opens its season Friday by facing Florida International at the Kennesaw (Ga.) State Invitational.
"When it comes to March, the best defensive team in the OVC is going to win the OVC championship," Neubauer said. "Rules changes, no rules changes — at some point, somebody in this conference is going to figure out how to play within the new structure and that team is going to win the title.
"We also want to be aggressive. We want to lead the country in steals. We've got to figure out how to do it without touching people."
Having set a school record for wins (25-10) last season, EKU is a solid choice to win the OVC East.
The Colonels return 13 lettermen, including starters Glenn Cosey (15.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg), Corey Walden (13.0, 3.5), Tarius Johnson (6.6, 4.2) and Eric Stutz (8.3, 4.7).
Cosey, a pre-season All-American guard, says defense is "our main focus."
"Our main goal is to be the top defensive team in the OVC and lead the country in steals," Cosey said.
"We hope our defense leads to our offense. Get steals, get easy transition buckets. The offense, it'll be there. We've got a lot of different scorers who can score any kind of way. And with the new foul call, offense is going to be there."
EKU led the league with a 5.69 turnover margin last season, ranking fourth nationally in that category and 21st with 8.9 steals a game.
Part of the reason is that EKU uses two "point-guard-type" players most of the time, Neubauer said.
In addition to Cosey, that list includes Walden, senior Marcus Lewis and freshman Isaac McGlone.
"So we do have several options at the guard positions," Neubauer said. "And I really feel like this is the deepest team we've had, and also the deepest we've been at the guard spots, in my nine years."
The Colonels, who started last season with seven home games, open with two neutral-site games and one on the road before coming home for four.
Then comes a stretch of four on the road — against North Carolina State, Virginia Commonwealth, Longwood and Wisconsin.
"Last year we did not have to fight through any adversity in November," Neubauer said. "So we got off to a great start — we won our first nine, and it really set us off on the right path. So we will be prepared this year ... to handle some adversity. Maybe we do lose one early in the season. We don't want to do it, but it will be a different feeling than what we had last year if it does happen."
Conference: Ohio Valley
Coach: Jeff Neubauer
Last season: 25-10 (12-4 OVC)
No. Name Pos. Ht. Yr. Hometown
0 Glenn Cosey G 6-0 Sr. Flint, Mich.
1 Robbie Stenzel G 6-5 Jr. Winchester
2 Corey Walden G 6-2 Jr. Daytona Beach, Fla.
3 Monte Burney G 6-1 Jr. Clarksville, Tenn.
4 Tommy Matthews G 6-1 So. Clinton, Md.
5 Isaac McGlone G 6-2 Fr. Lancaster, Ohio
10 Will Gary G 6-1 Fr. Lexington
11Jaylen Babb-HarrisonG 6-4 So. Ajax, Ontario
12 Marcus Lewis G 6-4 Sr. Streamwood, Ill.
15 Orlando Williams G 6-4 Sr. Cincinnati
21 Herb Harrison F 6-7 So. Cleveland
22 Timmy Knipp G 6-7 Jr. Olive Hill
23 Ryan Parsons G 6-2 Sr.Morgantown, W.Va.
24 Jeff Johnson F 6-7 Sr. Champaign, Ill.
33 Deverin Muff F 6-8 Jr. Strongsville, Ohio
34 Tarius Johnson G 6-5 Sr. Jackson, Tenn.
42 Eric Stutz F 6-8 Jr. Newburgh, Ind.
Nov. 8—a-Florida International, 5; 9—a-at Kennesaw St., 5:30; 10—a-Youngstown St., 1; 13—a-WARREN WILSON, 7; 16—HIGH POINT, 8; 19—ALABAMA A&M, 7; 22—BRESCIA, 7; 30—at N.C. State, TBA
Dec. 5—at Va. Commonwealth, TBA; 7—at Longwood, 4; 14—at Wisconsin, 1; 18—NORTH CAROLINA A&T, 7; 29—at IPFW, 2
Jan. 2—at Eastern Ill., TBA; 4—at SIU-Edwardsville, 8; 8—MURRAY ST., 7; 11—at Morehead St., 7:30; 16—Belmont, 7; 18—JACKSONVILLE ST., 7; 23—at Tennessee St., 8; 25—at Belmont, 8; 30—TENN.-MARTIN, 7
Feb. 1—SE MISSOURI ST., 7; 4—TENN.-CHATTANOOGA, 7; 8—MOREHEAD ST., 11 a.m.; 13—at Tenn. Tech, 8; 15—at Jacksonville St., 5:30; 22—at Austin Peay, 8:30; 27—TENN. TECH, 7:30
March 1—TENNESSEE ST., 7; March 5—b-TBA
a-Kennesaw St. Invitational; b-OVC Tournament at Nashville
Coach: Jeff Neubauer (143-112 entering his ninth season)
Last season: 25-10 overall, 12-4 Ohio Valley Conference (second in East)
What to watch: With the graduation of Mike DiNunno, Glenn Cosey will be called on to shoulder much of the point-guard duties.
"Last year I would play five or 10 minutes here and there each game," Cosey said. "But this year I'm mainly at the point. I've just got to handle the ball, control my turnovers and I've got to stay focused the whole game."
EKU ranked fourth in the nation in free-throw percentage (78) last season and sixth in three-pointers (8.8 a game).
In addition to Cosey, returning starters are Eric Stutz, Tarius Johnson and Corey Walden. Stutz and Johnson were the only players to start every game last season.
Off the bench, Jeff Johnson played in all 35 games. Deverin Muff started 20 games. Timmy Knipp played in 22 games.
Marcus Lewis, known for his flashy dunks, is among the most improved players, according to Neubauer.
Lewis, for one, is taking EKU's role as East Division pre-season favorite as a positive.
"I feel like it makes us work harder considering the fact that there are a lot of teams that are gunning for us to prove that they're better than us," Lewis said. "And we've still got to live up to the hype of being ranked No. 1."
At 6-8, Stutz and Muff are the tallest Colonels, so rebounds could be a concern.
Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Twitter: @MarkMaloneyHL. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.com.