Men's Basketball

EKU has a star and a new coach. Will Colonels finally return to the postseason?

Eastern Kentucky University forward Nick Mayo is well on his way to making a credible case that he’s the best basketball player in the history of the program.

Named to the All-Ohio Valley Conference first team after each of his first three seasons in Richmond, the 6-foot-9 inside-outside threat from Oakland, Maine, reached No. 8 on EKU’s all-time scoring list last year. He’s one of just six Colonels to top both 1,500 career points and 500 rebounds.

Mayo already owns the program’s record for career blocks, and barring injury he’s on pace to shatter EKU’s all-time scoring mark this season. At 1,582 career points, he’s 250 behind Matt Witt. Mayo would need to average just 8.1 points per game over the course of the Colonels’ 31 regular-season contests to capture the scoring crown.

That’s a feasible task for a guy who’s averaged 17 points per game during his career and who packed on about 40 pounds during the off-season Fairly thin in his first three years, Mayo was notably bigger and more muscular at the team’s Media Day on Oct 31.

But despite his statistical domination and myriad All-OVC accolades, there’s a hole on Mayo’s resume. During his first three years with the program, the Colonels have never qualified for the postseason.

EKU’s last trip to the OVC Tournament, which includes just the top eight finishers in the 12-team conference, was the year before Mayo’s arrival. The 2014-15 season was also the last time the Colonels finished with a winning record (21-12).

That rough stretch prompted a coaching change this off-season. EKU fired Dan McHale, who joined the program the same year as Mayo, and hired Georgetown native A.W. Hamilton, who last year helped North Carolina State return to the NCAA Tournament in his lone season as an assistant coach with the Wolfpack.

A.W. Hamilton, a basketball standout at Scott County High School in the late 1990s, is back in Kentucky as a first-time college head coach this season. His EKU team opens its season Wednesday night. Alex Slitz

It didn’t take long for Hamilton to realize he’d inherited a foundational pillar for his rookie campaign with the Colonels.

“I tell people this all the time, Nick Mayo is a once-in-a-lifetime-type player,” Hamilton said. “I’m so excited and blessed that I get to coach him for one season. We’re going to enjoy it and we’re going to celebrate him, and hopefully get some wins for him.”

Tabbed to finish sixth in the OVC in the preseason coaches poll and eighth in the media poll, it appears many expect EKU to make it back to the conference tournament in Evansville, Ind., after a three-year absence. And Hamilton sees a clear formula for turning around the Colonels’ fortunes quickly so that Mayo will have a chance to end his EKU career in the postseason.

“He took 12 shots a game (last year),” Hamilton said of Mayo. “I watched all the film, and if he only gets 12 shots a game we’re probably going to lose a bunch. So we need him to take 15 to 18 shots, and he’s been great. His approach is completely different. It’s a new Nick Mayo.

“I say that, and Nick has had an incredible career ... but I think he can be even better. And I really mean this when I say it. I think one day we’re going to put ‘NBA’ beside his name. He’s that talented.”

More Mayo sounds like a recipe for success. A highly efficient scorer, Mayo has a career three-point shooting percentage of 44.6 and has converted 52.6 percent of his field-goal shots overall. He shot a career-high 84 percent from the foul line last year — a statistic that bodes well, considering that Hamilton wants Mayo to use his added bulk to do more work in the post.

“The muscle that he’s put on is going to be really good for him,” Hamilton said. “Last year if you look at Nick’s stats he only got six rebounds a game. He’s got to be getting about eight, nine rebounds a game ... he was playing at 217 pounds at 6-(foot)-9, so he needed to put on muscle. That’s going to improve his rebounding and his conditioning.”

Hamilton said when he told the team about his plan to raise Mayo’s shot count to upwards of 18 a game, several of his teammates suggested that was still too low.

One of those players, redshirt junior Dujuanta Weaver, is fully on board with a Mayo-centered game plan.

“We have as much confidence in him as he has in himself,” Weaver said. “I’ve been with him for three years and he is the best big man I’ve ever played with. So I’m cool with however many shots he takes.”

Mayo said he welcomes the challenge of putting the team on his back to an even larger degree this year. And he expects the Colonels’ postseason drought to end come March.

“It’s very disappointing that I haven’t been there yet,” Mayo said. “But it’s a team goal to get there, that’s why we’ve been working so hard. We plan on being there this year.”

Season opener

Marshall at Eastern Kentucky

When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.