The Southeast Missouri State men's basketball team boasted one of the nation's top defenses, at least statistically, through the first 15 games of the season.
Not so much over the last four games, during which Southeast's defense has been shredded -- especially its interior defense.
It's no coincidence that the recent defensive shortcomings have helped lead to a current three-game losing streak for the Redhawks.
"We've got to get better defensively. We've got to get back playing defensively like we were earlier in the season," Southeast coach Dickey Nutt said. "We've just been too soft defensively, especially with our interior defense."
Nutt hopes the Redhawks begin trending back up defensively when they host two Ohio Valley Conference East Division squads this week.
Southeast (10-9, 2-3 OVC) plays Morehead State (8-10, 2-2) today and Tennessee Tech (7-10, 1-4) Saturday. Both tipoffs at the Show Me Center are set for 7 p.m.
The Redhawks are second in the West Division, behind Murray State. Morehead and Tech occupy the bottom two spots in the loaded East Division, at fifth and sixth, respectively.
"These are two really big games for us against two teams that have had a lot of success in recent years," Nutt said. "It's always important to play well at home."
Southeast has performed well at the Show Me Center, winning six of eight games this season. The Redhawks' most recent home outing was a 74-66 loss to Murray State on Jan. 5 as they led much of the game before faltering.
That was followed by a 107-72 blowout at Belmont Thursday and an 81-69 setback at Tennessee State Saturday.
Those are three of the OVC's elite squads, with combined records of 36-15 overall and 12-1 in conference play.
"We knew that was going to be a very difficult stretch for us," Nutt said.
Belmont torched Southeast for 61.5 percent field-goal shooting while Tennessee State shot 49.1 percent -- 64 percent in the first half.
Austin Peay, which Southeast beat 86-84 on Jan. 3, shot 53.1 percent.
Prior to the Austin Peay game, none of Southeast's first 15 opponents had shot better than 45.6 percent.
Southeast's field-goal percentage defense is still a strong 39.8 -- second-best in the OVC -- but in league play that figure is a dismal 48.5 percent. And the Redhawks are allowing an OVC-worst 81.2 points per game during conference play.
Most disturbing to Nutt is that, in the past four games, an opponent's inside player has had a monster performance against Southeast.
Austin Peay's Will Triggs scored a career-high 29 points on 14 of 17 shooting and grabbed 11 rebounds; Murray State's Ed Daniel had 15 points and 17 rebounds; Belmont's Trevor Noack scored a career-high 30 points on 11 of 16 shooting; and Tennessee State's Kellen Thornton scored a career-high 28 points on 11 of 16 shooting while adding 16 rebounds.
"Inside defense the last four games has been our weakness. We've just been too soft in there," Nutt said. "Every inside guy has a field day against us right now."
Morehead, today's opponent, has plenty of size -- led by 6-foot-11, 270-pound junior center Chad Posthumus -- which concerns Nutt. The Eagles are outrebounding the opposition by an OVC-leading 4.4 boards per game.
The Eagles, among the OVC's top programs in recent years, have lost two straight after previously winning three in a row. Both setbacks were close, in overtime at Austin Peay and by seven points at Eastern Kentucky.
"They've got a couple of big, strong inside players," Nutt said. "They're really scrappy and they'll play hard. They've got a lot of tradition, with NCAA tournament appearances. They're just as good as anybody on a given night. They've got as many OVC wins as we do."
Milton Chavis, a 6-6 senior forward, is the Eagles' top scorer with an 11.9 average.
Saturday's opponent, Tennessee Tech, has struggled with an inexperienced roster after also being among the OVC's top teams the past few seasons. The Eagles lost NBA draft pick and OVC leading scorer Kevin Murphy from last year's squad.
Tech, which has dropped six of its past seven contests, does boast one of the conference's premier players in senior guard Jud Dillard. He is averaging 19.8 points and 7.7 rebounds to rank second and fifth in the league, respectively. He was the conference's No. 4 scorer a year ago with a 17.3 mark.
"I tell our team we can win any game we play and we can lose any game we play," Nutt said. "Both of these teams are going to come in here thinking they can beat us."