Jeff Neubauer Perseveres, Leads Eastern Kentucky Back to Big DancePosted by David Changas on March 9th, 2014
In 2007, while in his second year as head coach at Eastern Kentucky, Jeff Neubauer led the Colonels to the NCAA Tournament, getting there with a group that he largely inherited from his predecessor. That team was a #16 seed and lost to a Tyler Hansbrough-led North Carolina squad in the first round. In the seasons that followed, Neubauer has had teams that have been competitive in the Ohio Valley Conference, but none of which has been able to get back to the Big Dance. That changed on Saturday, when Eastern Kentucky took down defending champion Belmont, 79-73, to win the OVC Tournament championship in Nashville. It was a surprising result to many, mostly because Belmont, which had won the regular season title, seems to never fall short of the NCAA Tournament. But to those who have watched the league closely over the past couple of years since Belmont’s arrival, it was no surprise at all that Neubauer was able to get this senior-laden team back the place every coach in a one-bid league aspires to.
For Neubauer, despite the many years of being not quite good enough, there was never a doubt that he would eventually make it back. “The thing I’ve had in my mind is that it is inevitable that we will end up back in the NCAA Tournament. I think, as a coach, you have to have that mentality that it’s going to happen,” he said after the win. “It’s something we all should really appreciate.” Given the wealth of experience that this team had, missing the NCAAs would have been a lost opportunity. The Colonels are led by guards Glenn Cosey and Corey Walden, who combined for 52 points in the win, and who give Eastern Kentucky as athletic a backcourt as exists in the OVC. With a total of six seniors, this was clearly Neubauer’s best opportunity to get back to the Big Dance. Last year, in a league with an even better Belmont squad and an extremely talented Murray State team, winning the league’s automatic bid was a tall order and was one the Colonels narrowly fell short of in a semifinals loss to the Racers. It was that game that proved to Neubauer that his team could win it. “Our experience being here last year in the semifinal, if you would ask these players, really helped us understand what this OVC Tournament was all about.”
Belmont coach Rick Byrd, a veteran of six NCAA Tournaments, didn’t disagree, as he too pointed out that Eastern Kentucky showed what it was made of when it battled for the league championship last year. With all the Colonels had returning, Byrd said it was not surprising they were the choice of many to win the league prior to the season, or that they would leave Nashville with the league’s sole ticket to March Madness. Byrd also said that, as disappointed as he is to not be making a fourth consecutive trip to the Big Dance, he is genuinely happy for Neubauer, and has the utmost respect for the Eastern Kentucky coach. “They do more of what their coach says and wants than any other team in this league,” Byrd said. “They’re good enough to make it a tough night for someone in the Tournament.”
Whether the Colonels are good enough to make noise in the Big Dance isn’t necessarily the most important thing for Neubauer and his team. It’s likely they’ll be a #14 or #15 seed, and winning a single game will be a tall order. But for Neubauer’s program, which fights for a single bid each and every March, earning this one was critical. “For me, the most rewarding part of this – and it’s not even close – is just watching these guys celebrate,” he said. “There are 12 teams in the OVC that work for this opportunity, to end up on top at the end, is an amazing feeling, especially when you spend so much time with these young men.” Neubauer also wanted those who have been responsible for putting the program in the position to earn this bid to be rewarded. “My focus was to coach for our seniors and to get them to have the opportunity to experience what they’re going to experience right now. They’re going to enjoy every minute of this. I’m going to make sure of it.”
Like Neubauer, there are a lot of coaches in low- and mid-major leagues who toil in relative anonymity, fighting for that singular opportunity to take to college basketball’s ultimate stage. It’s never an easy task, especially when you operate in a league with someone like Byrd, who earns more than his share of trips to the NCAA Tournament. When you have a talented, experienced group, you have to take advantage, and Neubauer did just that. Whether he is able to pull off a surprise in the Big Dance in a little over a week, the reward of just getting there is supremely satisfying.