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Eastern Oregon University men’s basketball head coach Chris Kemp goes overs strategy during the second half of the match between Eastern Oregon University and Montana Western University at Quinn Coliseum on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. The team will be looking to replace top scorer Max McCullough, left, after the guard sustained an ACL injury early in the season.

Losing your best player is not an ideal way to start off the season for a first-year head coach.

Just four games into the year, Eastern Oregon University’s interim head coach Chris Kemp has most likely lost his top player. Max McCullough, a redshirt-senior who already owns the program’s career scoring record, was injured in an exhibition at Gonzaga. McCullough likely has a torn ACL, Kemp said, and appears to be out for the season.

Paul Pennington, one of the team’s top guards, is also facing extended time off the court due to an injury sustained in the exhibition.

At a crossroads, Kemp and the Mountaineers are going to have to find a way to overcome adversity early in the season. On the bright side for Eastern, this year’s team has one of the deepest rosters in recent history.

A handful of transfers have made a major impact and created a well-balanced group. Guards Phillip Malatare and Manny N’tula, alongside forwards Xavier Lovelace and Ismael Valdez, have added a major boost to the team.

Malatare adds elite ball handling and efficient court vision, while N’tula showed off his sharpshooting with a team-high 15 points against Gonzaga. Lovelace can play big in the paint, as well as flash athleticism at the forward position. Meanwhile for Valdez, the team is hoping that he can be a lockdown rim protector.

With all these added players, someone is going to have to step up big for the Mountaineers. Otherwise, the ship is going to sink quickly if the team cannot find an identity without McCullough on the court.

With so much added depth this year, the plan was to play McCullough off the ball and clear up space for other scorers. That was evident in a home win against Montana Western on Saturday, Oct. 30, when the Bulldogs’ bench fervently changed its game plan every time McCullough was subbed in or out.

Whether it be one standout or a combined team effort, the Mountaineers are going to need to find an answer — quickly. Eastern faces a handful of non-conference foes during November before opening conference play early in December. In his first year as a head coach, Kemp will need to get creative to find wins without the team’s top player.

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Davis Carbaugh covers news and sports for The Observer. He can be contacted at dcarbaugh@lagrandeobserver.com.

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