Eastern Oregon men’s basketball team has incredible potential entering the 2018-19 season.

Yes, the team is markedly different with just six players back from last year’s 21-8 squad.

But Head Coach Carlito Labarda Jr. comes to his second season leading the Mountaineers reloaded with a large recruiting class — most of whom are junior college transfers who add size, shooting and basketball knowledge to the program.

“I wanted to get an experienced team here who was more mature (and) could help right away. I usually don’t go the JC route, but some of these players were too good to pass up,” Labarda said of the additions. “I got good references from coaches and people who are around them. I’m happy with how we recruited this year.”

Back for EOU are the top two scorers from a year ago in guard Max McCullough, who averaged 22.2 points per game, and guard Jordan May, who put in 16.1 points per contest. Also back is the Mountaineers’ top rebounder, forward Peter Eke (6.7 rebounds per game). The two guards were also the team leaders in assists, while Eke was the top shot blocker.

But the biggest visible difference in the new-look team this year is the size, which should help on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. A year ago, EOU had just two players on the 13-man team who were 6-foot-3 or taller. This year, eight of the 16 exceed that mark, headlined by 7-foot-0 Treasure Valley Community College transfer Jarek Schetzle.

“I think it’s going to help us on defense a lot,” May, a sophomore, said of the added size. “It’s going to keep teams from wanting to bring the ball inside. We’re going to get them shooting (longer shots), and in the second half it’ll help. On offense, it’ll give us more options going inside-out instead of just outside like last year.”

That inside-out philosophy is a piece Labarda believes could give EOU the potential to thrive. He said if opponents don’t double-team when the Mountaineers go into the post, players like Schetzle, Eke or junior college transfer Tommy Miles-Williams could feast down low. If teams do double, then Eastern will have open players on the outside like May, McCullough or newcomers Zane Wright, Landon Jones, Kobi Gardea, Robbie Simpson or Linton McAllister, to name a few.

“If they double-team those guys, we’ll just kick it out to shooters,” Labarda said.

The coach is also excited about what junior college transfer Joel Anderson, who will run the point, could add to the team, calling him “probably the best passer I’ve ever coached.”

“He has a high IQ for the game,” Labarda said of Anderson. “He creates. He knows what’s going to happen before it happens. We’re relying on him to get a bunch of standstill 3-pointers.”

Defensively, the added size gives Eastern more versatility. Schetzle serves as a shot-blocking threat, along with Eke, which will allow the Mountaineers to expand their pack-line defense.

“When you have size down low, you can take more chances on guarding the perimeter,” the coach said.

One tough aspect for Labarda will be figuring out rotations and finding available minutes for players, noting there is little drop-off in talent no matter who is on the court.

However, he also said he can trust any members of this year’s team to step up when called upon.

“I have confidence in playing anyone at any time without being nervous about them, which I couldn’t say last year,” he said.

The new players are already buying into Labarda’s style.

“I love what he’s doing with our team,” Jones, also a TVCC transfer, said. “We have a lot of new pieces, but he’s drawing up the plays. He knows what he’s doing. He’s going to put us in the position to succeed.”

How will that look on the court? Both May and Jones said the team is hoping to return nationals after missing the NAIA tournament a year ago.

“One of our goals as a team is to reach the national tournament, and I think we’re more than capable of that,” Jones said.

The Mountaineers were picked to finish fifth in the Cascade Collegiate Conference. EOU used a low pick a year ago as fuel to finish in a tie for fourth, and May said they have more fuel with the pick this season.

“Fifth isn’t where we want to finish, so we are going to work to get (higher),” he said.

Labarda said the talent is in place for EOU to win a lot of games in 2018-19.

“We have a lot of depth,” he said. “We have size. We have shooters. We have everything you need, from guards to big men. There should be no (reason) why this team doesn’t succeed this year.”

The Mountaineers open the season today and Saturday in the Quinn Classic against Salish Kootenai and New Hope Christian. The Mountaineers open CCC play at home Nov. 30 against Southern Oregon and face defending CCC champion College of Idaho for the first time Dec. 18 in Caldwell.

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