Prior to his first season as Eastern Kentucky University’s head basketball coach, A.W. Hamilton told fans and the media to expect something different.
The Colonels would play harder, faster and engage in an up-tempo, defense-focused style.
The changes payed off.
Powered by a high-scoring offense, EKU averaged nearly 83 points-per-game — the most by the program in more than 30 years — while also breaking the school's record for points scored in a game (147) and also shattering the OVC record for points scored in a half (87).
EKU was 16th in nation in scoring while ranking second in the country in both steals-per-game (10.2) and turnovers forced-per-game (18.2).
This year, Hamilton said to expect the same passion and fast-paced style of play — but with one major change.
EKU was picked to finish sixth out of 12 teams in a preseason poll of league head coaches and sports information directors and ninth in the OVC Media Poll.
EKU will be without its all-time leading scorer, Nick Mayo, who Hamilton acknowledged carried much of the offensive responsibility during his final season as a Colonel.
Mayo scored 2,316 points (fifth most by an OVC player) and — arguably even more impressive — started every game during his four-year Colonel career — 124 consecutive starts.
However, the coach said his team is hungry to build upon last year’s successes and will do so with a more balanced approach — with several young players taking on Mayo’s former workload.
“I love my team. We’re different than we were last year,” Hamilton said during EKU’s media day last week. “ I’m excited about this group… We’ve come a long way since last year… These guys are hungry and they want to compete and they love to play... What I love about these guys is that they love representing the E. It means something. You can tell when young men our passionate about the university and the school.”
The Colonels return three starters in Jomaru Brown, Tre King and Houston King, who Hamilton said have only grown stronger and more comfortable on the court.
“Those three freshman become sophomores. It has been great to see them grow. They encourage our other younger guys and they know the system… the guys know what to expect. Nothing is a shock to them anymore,” Hamilton said.
Brown was voted to the Preseason All-OVC Team after averaging 14.4 points-per-game (16.9 during conference play).
The sophomore guard spent the summer at EKU, building up muscle and honing his game — work he hopes will help him lead the Colonels on the court this season.
“I was here for both sessions of the summer. I sacrificed my summer and focused on working on my game. It means a lot to me, its why I was here … We hope to get a lot of wins. We haven’t been to the OVC Tournament in a while, it is definitely one of our goals this year,” Brown said.
Hamilton said he has been impressed with the sophomore’s dedication.
“Jomaru Brown has the chance to be one of the best defenders on the country. He had the most steals in the season by a freshman last year,” Hamilton said.
Tre King played in all 31 games as a freshman and was second on the team in rebounds (137) and blocks (17).
“Tre has put on 25 pounds of muscle and is older and wiser,” Hamilton said of the sophomore.
King said he has learned from his mistakes last season and has stepped up his game while embracing his role as a leader on the team.
Houston King ranked third in the OVC in three-point shooting percentage (42.7) last season and showed off more of those shooting chops during EKU’s 113-63 exhibition win last week against Berea College — scoring 12 first-half points.
Hamilton said EKU will have a strong front court this season with multiple players the team can go to.
“That is definitely one of our strengths this year,” the coach noted. “We have a lot of depth in our front court.”
In addition to Tre King, redshirt junior Darius Hicks is eligible to play after having to sit out last season after transferring from N.C. State. Freshmen Tyrique Balogun and Georgetown native Michael Moreno, along with senior Lachlan Anderson round out the available big men on EKU’s roster.
Anderson led the team, along with Brown, last week in scoring with 19 points against the Mountaineers.
The senior was 7-of-13 from the field, including 3-for-6 from behind the arc, and grabbed a game-best 11 rebounds.
Hicks said, after two years off the court, he is ready to compete.
“I’ve been working for so long, I’m ready to show what I can do. I’m so grateful for this opportunity and I’m ready to take full advantage of it,” Hicks said.
Another senior, Ty Taylor will add experience to the young roster of Colonels.
The 6-foot-3 guard has played for Hargrave Military, Wichita State and UNC-Wilmington and was one of EKU’s leading scorers during the exhibition game last week with 13 points.
Junior Peyton Broughton will likely miss some of the Colonels first few games as he heals from a knee injury, but fellow juniors Jacquess Hobbs and Russhard Cruickshank proved themselves on the court last week against the Mountaineers.
The juniors played the second and third-most minutes of the game. Cruickshank had a team-best seven assists, three steals, five points and two rebounds. Hobbs had five assists, eight points and five rebounds.
The Colonels boast another exciting freshman class that includes Moreno and Balogun as well as Curt Lewis and Jordan Reeves-Young. Madison Central graduate Isaiah Minter is a redshirt freshman for the Colonels this season.
“Michael is one of the most decorated high school players in the state in the last decade. All he did was win… He is going to have a big year for us. He knows how to play. He's going to bring great value to us immediately. I take Isaiah with me everywhere in town. People love him and are excited he is here with us. Curt Lewis is one of the most underrated players out of Louisville I seen in a long time. He’s going to be a superstar,” Hamilton said of his underclassmen.
The coach said, while the team is young, the Colonels are eager to prove themselves and that the talented younger players lay a strong foundation for the future.
“And I told you last year, look we’re not just going to build a team, we’re going to build a program. And we’re going to be really young again, we’re going to wake up one day and we’re going to be old and then we’re going to stay old and we’re going to be good for a long time,” Hamilton said.
The Colonels will have a rigorous schedule this season in which they will play all six Division-I universities in Kentucky – Kentucky on Nov. 8, Western Kentucky on Nov. 15, Northern Kentucky on Dec. 8, Louisville on Dec. 14, Morehead State on Feb. 13 and Feb. 29 and Murray State on February 27.
It will be the first time in program history the Colonels have squared off against Kentucky, Louisville, WKU, NKU, Morehead State and Murray State all in the same season.
EKU will will open the regular season by hosting Chattanooga tonight. The Colonels went on the road and defeated the Mocs, 81-78, last season in Chattanooga.