Mark Story: For EKU's Neubauer, NCAA loss to Kansas launched eventful off-season

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 15, 2014 

The torment of coaching being what it is, Jeff Neubauer has yet to make it all the way through the video of Eastern Kentucky's closer-than-the-final-score-suggests 80-69 loss to Kansas in the NCAA Tournament round of 64.

As you will recall, EKU spent the first Friday of the 2014 NCAA tourney flirting with an upset that would have rocked (and chalked) college hoops. The 15th-seed Colonels were tied with Kansas at halftime, led KU with 8:55 left in the game and were down only three with 3:39 remaining.

"I did sit down, maybe three weeks ago, and watch the first half, and the first 10 minutes of the second half," Neubauer, the EKU head coach, said Thursday. "I haven't been able to make myself watch it to the completion."

The torment of coaching being what it is, just in the parts of the game tape he's watched, Neubauer has seen things he wishes he had done differently. Included are a couple of substitutions he thinks he should have made quicker and switching to a 1-3-1 zone earlier in the game.

That Eastern's OVC Tournament championship team (24-10) featured six seniors, four of whom were among the Colonels' top six players, only enhances the emotional wallop of the loss.

"We were right there, with a chance to win," Neubauer said. "It was a tough one."

Since the Kansas defeat, the offseason for EKU men's basketball has been unusually interesting.

In Dallas on the Thursday before the Final Four, one of Eastern's departing seniors, forward Marcus Lewis, won the Denny's Slam Dunk Championship on ESPN. He beat a field of eight that included Wichita State star Cleanthony Early and Michigan State big man Adreian Payne.

Neubauer says he does not mention Lewis' slam dunk victory to recruits — because he doesn't have to. "All of them saw it, and are familiar with the dunks Marcus did," he said.

For a coach at the OVC level of the college hoops food chain who is losing so many key players off an NCAA Tournament team, Neubauer, 43, would have seemed at a point in his career where it made sense to move up the coaching ladder.

Southern Mississippi, Marshall and Ohio University were among the jobs linked to Neubauer's name by the media this spring.

In the case of the Marshall vacancy, a Huntington, W.Va., newspaper column created a stir throughout college basketball. Without attribution, it claimed that the Thundering Herd had offered its job to Neubauer only to renege as the coach was driving east on I-64 to be introduced. According to this account, Marshall then later re-offered its job to Neubauer, only to have the once-spurned coach decline.

"Absolute fiction," Neubauer said. "At least as it related to me, the story was pure fiction, it didn't happen."

Rather than moving to a larger stage, Neubauer has agreed to a contract extension with EKU that runs through the 2017-18 season.

"The first thing for me is, I want a place where I can win," Neubauer said. "A lot of guys take jobs that may pay more money, but they are tougher jobs where the chances to win are actually not as great. I feel like with what we've established at Eastern Kentucky, that we've shown we can be successful."

Neubauer, 167-122 with two NCAA Tournament appearances in nine years at Eastern, will try to lead EKU to its third straight 20-win season in 2014-15. Even with star guard Glenn Cosey among the departing Eastern seniors, the Colonels have some building blocks.

Guard Corey Walden (13.8 ppg), the OVC Tournament MVP and the league Defensive Player of the Year last season, will be back. So will crafty big man Eric Stutz (8.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg), a high-post passing wizard.

Schedule highlights for Eastern will include road games at Miami (Fla.) and BYU. The Colonels will be in Rupp Arena on Dec. 7 to face Kentucky, the first time the two neighboring schools have played since 2006-07.

The torment of coaching being what it is, when EKU agreed to play Kentucky, Neubauer said he assumed UK starting guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison would be entering the 2014 NBA Draft. With the twins instead choosing to return, it means Eastern will likely be facing the preseason No. 1 team in the country.

"We would have played the game anyway," Neubauer said. "I think it is a game that our students and the EKU fans will really get excited about."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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