Men's Basketball

A local team is traveling 2,500 miles to play one game. Here’s why.

Western Kentucky forward Justin Johnson (23) was called for a foul after colliding with Eastern Kentucky forward Nick Mayo (10) during an NCAA college basketball game in Bowling Green, Ky., Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017.
Western Kentucky forward Justin Johnson (23) was called for a foul after colliding with Eastern Kentucky forward Nick Mayo (10) during an NCAA college basketball game in Bowling Green, Ky., Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. Daily News via AP

In May, when Eastern Kentucky head basketball coach Dan McHale asked his team if they’d rather play Oregon State on the road in December or stay at home against a potentially inferior opponent, there was no debate at all.

“Everyone said Oregon State,” EKU senior Zach Charles said.

And so, Monday morning, the Colonels packed their bags to play their first Pac-12 opponent since they lost to California in 1998.

Challenging non-conference road games have been a theme for this year’s Colonels squad. Less than a month into the season, EKU has played Rice in Houston, Mississippi in Oxford and a pair of games in Las Vegas. Now, wheels up to Corvallis, Ore.

“I like to get creative with the schedule,” McHale said.

The Colonels, who will receive $85,000 for making the trip, will likely get a chance to see the Pacific Ocean. For many of them, it will be a first.

“A lot of guys have never traveled to the West Coast before, so it’s real cool to go out to places you may never go again and play basketball,” Charles said.

Charles, originally from California, was able to play in front of family members when the Colonels took on Prairie View A&M and Eastern Washington in Las Vegas.

The Oregon State game will be televised on the Pac-12 network.

“Playing a team like that, we can get some exposure on the West Coast, which is great for the guys. Get the EKU brand out there,” McHale said.

Perhaps most importantly, however, is the experience the Ohio Valley Conference school gains from playing Power Five schools.

“You don’t get anything from playing teams that aren’t good,” McHale said. “And night in and night out, we’re gonna play a team that’s really, really good. Whether they’re in the Horizon League, or the Pac-12 or the SEC, I wanna play quality opponents.”

Said Charles: “It’s good to challenge yourself against the top teams because it’s kind of a good measuring stick to see how you compare to bigger teams. And it also helps you because when you get to conference play, you have a little more experience playing against Power Five schools.”

Opponents matter. So do venues. Playing neutral games in the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas (where Kentucky defeated North Carolina last year) and in hostile environments at Ole Miss and Oregon State prepare EKU for conference play, and especially the conference tournament — which will be held at the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind., capacity: 11,000.

“You get to play in different venues,” McHale said. “You get to play in different types of atmospheres. Some are crowded venues, some are not.”

The Colonels might be trotting across the country this season, but they’re also keeping tabs on local schools. EKU lost to Western Kentucky 83-59 on Nov. 29 and have a date with Northern Kentucky — an NCAA Tournament team that gave UK trouble last season — on Sunday. It will be the first time the in-state schools have met since 1992.

The Colonels will also play at Marshall on Dec. 22.

“When I got the job, I said I wanna play the Western Kentuckys, the Marshalls, and generate some good rivalries of the past,” McHale said. “I think the Northern Kentucky rivalry can be one that we start.”

McHale, in his third year at EKU, has made keeping in-state talent at EKU a priority. When he arrived in Richmond, EKU had two players from Kentucky. Now, they have eight on their roster from the Commonwealth.

He believes building rivalries against local schools is attractive to recruits.

“It helps with in-state kids,” he said. “They wanna play against Western Kentucky. They wanna play against Northern Kentucky.”

Depleted by injuries this season, EKU (4-4) has lost to WKU, Prairie View A&M and Eastern Washington, but has scored some dramatic wins in defeating Rice and Jacksonville — two teams that qualified for postseason tournaments last year. The Colonels edged Rice by one and topped Jacksonville in overtime. Plus, they played Ole Miss close before a 10-point loss.

“We’re a good basketball team, but we haven’t found our way as early as I thought we would,” McHale said.

Nick Mayo, a junior forward from Maine, leads EKU with 18.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Freshman Dedric Boyd, who hit game-winning free throws with five seconds remaining against Rice, has chipped in 15.9 points per game.

Next game

Eastern Kentucky at Oregon State

10 p.m. Tuesday