Eastern Kentucky will enter Saturday's game with a 16-6 record
Eastern Kentucky has been arguably the biggest surprise among the men's basketball teams in the Ohio Valley Conference this year.
Struggling Southeast Missouri State will try to get back on track and knock the Colonels down a notch Saturday when the squads square off at 5:30 p.m. at the Show Me Center.
"We're looking forward to it," junior point guard Lucas Nutt said. "They're a really good team but we know we can win. We just have to do the things we need to do. It would be big for our confidence."
Southeast, despite being picked to finish second in the OVC West Division and receiving the fourth-most votes in the entire 12-team conference's preseason poll, is just 11-12 overall and 3-6 in league play.
The Redhawks, who have lost six of their last seven games, are tied for third in the six-team West but are tied for eighth in the overall conference standings. The top eight finishers qualify for the OVC tournament.
"We're searching for answers right now," said Southeast coach Dickey Nutt, whose squad begins a three-game homestand Saturday. "The biggest thing with me and my staff, we have to make sure our heads stay up. There is still a lot of basketball left to be played.
"I still believe in our team, and I believe we will bounce back."
Nutt said he couldn't have selected a better team to try to bounce back against than EKU, picked fifth in the OVC East.
The Colonels (16-5, 6-3) are third in the East and fourth in the overall league standings, although they are coming off Thursday's 72-65 upset loss at Tennessee-Martin.
"They're probably the biggest surprise in the league," Nutt said. "But this couldn't come at a better time because we're playing a great team than can blow you out.
"We know we've got to come ready to play, and we know we've got to play well."
EKU lost its only two double-figure scorers from last season's team that went 16-16 overall and 7-9 in OVC play. The Colonels returned just two players who averaged more than 3.9 points.
Yet EKU already has already matched its overall victory total from a year ago.
"They're one of the best teams in our league. They've been playing with a lot of confidence," Nutt said.
Prior to Thursday's loss at Tennessee-Martin, the Colonels' only two OVC defeats were competitive ones against East leader Belmont, which is undefeated in conference play.
The Colonels have done it with a guard-oriented lineup that is led by their top returning scorer and three transfers.
Senior point guard Mike DiNunno, who averaged 9.5 points per game as a junior, is averaging a team-best 15.8 points while shooting 40.4 percent from 3-point range (63 of 156).
Junior guard Glenn Cosey, a junior college All-American last year, is close behind with a 15.3 average and shooting 40.2 percent from beyond the arc (45 of 112).
Cosey scored 20 points Thurday at Tennessee-Martin in his first game back after he missed the previous six contests with a broken finger. The Colonels went 4-2 without Cosey in the lineup.
Sophomore guard Corey Walden is averaging 12.4 points and has earned OVC co-newcomer of the week honors the past two weeks. He played as a freshman at Stetson two years ago, averaging more than 12 points.
Another guard, junior Orlando Williams, has missed the past four contests with an injury. The Miami (Ohio) transfer has played in just six games after becoming eligible for the second semester but is EKU's fourth-leading scorer with a 9.2 average. His status for Saturday is not known.
EKU is averaging 71.9 points per game and shooting 46.7 percent from the field -- ranking third and second in the OVC, respectively -- but the Colonels do not have a dominant inside game, something that could work in Southeast's favor.
The Colonels are last in the league in rebounding at minus 6.8 per contest and Southeast has struggled on the boards recently.
Nutt said rebounding probably has been the biggest factor in his team's struggles. The Redhawks have a minus 5.4 rebounding margin in league games.
"We've spent a lot of time in practice on blocking out," Nutt said.
Nutt also hopes the home-court advantage works in Southeast's favor. The Redhawks are 7-3 at the Show Me Center compared to 4-7 on the road. Southeast is 0-4 in OVC road games.
"It's good to be back at home," Nutt said.
Nutt knows EKU will be looking for revenge against Southeast.
Although the Colonels have won all three regular-season meetings the past two years, Southeast ended EKU's season in the OVC tournament during both campaigns.
"They want payback against us," Nutt said.
The Redhawks just want to get back on track.
Southeast senior guard Nick Niemczyk garnered first-team Capital One Academic All-District honors as selected by the College Sports Information Directors of America on Thursday.
Niemczyk, a graduate of Bell City High School, has a 3.80 grade point average in higher education as a graduate school student.
Niemczyk, one of two OVC players honored, will appear on the national ballot for Academic All-America consideration.