The Richmond Register

Sports

March 18, 2014

OVC BASKETBALL: Remarkable turnaround has led to historic results at EKU

RICHMOND — Just a decade ago, the EKU men’s basketball team was pretty much irrelevant to anyone except the most die-hard of Colonel fans.

And with good reason.

Between 1994 and 2004, the Colonels didn’t have a winning season and only won more than 10 games in a season just four times.

Let’s be honest.

It was a losing program.

It was simply a bad program.

And despite having a high-profile former University of Kentucky player on the sidelines (Travis Ford), wins were extremely hard to come by for the Colonels at that time.

Looking back now, those days seem like a lifetime ago.

Now, EKU has, without a doubt, one of the strongest men’s basketball programs in what is considered a very formidable mid-major conference.

Last week, the Colonels won the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament title for the third time in the past 10 seasons. That victory over Belmont in the championship game set up a showdown with Kansas Friday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Consider this.

The Colonels went 26 years without qualifying for the NCAA Tournament (1980 to 2004).

Now, they are headed to the Big Dance for the third time in a decade (2005, 2007 and 2014).

It’s been an amazing turnaround.

No doubt.

Remember, it was just 15 years ago that the Colonels finished with a 3-23 overall  record (1998-99).

And it was just 13 years ago that EKU went 1-15 against Ohio Valley Conference competition (2000-1).

“There was a lot of work that went into turning the program around,” EKU assistant coach and former player Austin Newton said. “My first two years were some bad years.”

The turnaround really started with Travis Ford.

Led by the former UK guard, the Colonels won a then school-record 22 games in 2005 and captured the OVC Tournament title. They went on to give Kentucky a battle in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

Ford left following that season and a fairly unknown assistant coach at West Virginia took over — Jeff Neubauer.

Two years later, Neubauer took the Colonels back to the NCAA Tournament.

Now, he has them back there again.

Neubauer has quietly put together probably the best sustained run of success of any coach in EKU history.

Last season, the Colonels won a school record 25 games. This year, they’ve won 24 games.

That’s the best two-year stretch in program history.

To put that in perspective ... EKU has 49 wins the past two years ... the Colonels had a total of just 48 wins from 1998-1999 to 2003-2004 (a total of six seasons).

In nine seasons, Neubauer has a record of 167-121 with four postseason appearances (two NCAAs and two CBIs). The Louisiana native is already second on the school’s all-time wins list, trailing only the legendary Paul McBrayer (214).

He’s certainly left his mark.

Now, Neubauer and the Colonels have a chance to do something even more historic. EKU has never won an NCAA Tournament game in seven appearances.

A victory over Kansas in St. Louis on Friday would vault a once-struggling program into the national spotlight.

And that’s something that almost no one could have imagined just a decade ago.

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