This season University of Evansville men’s basketball team is different.
There are plenty of reasons to point to — roster turnover, increased size and athleticism, better defense — but Wednesday’s 76-57 victory at Southeast Missouri State showed just how good the Purple Aces of this year have improved during coach David Ragland’s second season.
UE lost to SEMO 67-61 just 366 days ago.
This was the first test drive of the season for UE. The Aces went to a team that made the NCAA tournament last season and with a largely new roster, picked up a win and are now 3-0 for the first time since 2019. Compared to last season, both in the record and on the field, it’s an improvement.
This Aces team is undoubtedly better than Ragland’s first. This will all be determined as the season progresses, but it will sort itself out. UE has a winning streak against Division I opponents for the first time since beating Valparaiso in back-to-back games in 2021. UE needs two more wins out of its 29 remaining regular season games to tie his total from last season.
The Aces entered the night ranked 320th in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency rankings. They finished it at 289. The 19-point victory is the Aces’ largest margin of victory over a DI opponent since beating IUPUI by 20 two years ago and their largest away from home victory since winning against Indiana State in Arch Madness in 2016.
“I love it, I love it, I love it, I love it,” Ragland said on a postgame radio show. “I had a SEMO fan and worked to talk about how fun our group was to watch play because of how connected they are, how hard they play defensively, how we share the ball offensively and we encourage each other.”
Here are some reasons why the EU remained undefeated.
Defense, defense, defense
The Aces struggled to defend the 3-point line in their exhibition against Wabash College and their season opener against Miami (Ohio). These two hit a total of 23 deep shots against UE. The Aces’ non-DI opponent, University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy, also hit nine.
SEMO, on the other hand, connected on seven of its 22 attempts to finish at 31 percent.
“Very pleased,” Ragland said. “They knew what the job was.”
UE also forced 18 turnovers, including 10 in the first half, which led to 29 points. Some were errant passes that went astray, but the Aces defense also finished with 11 steals and four blocks.
“I thought we did a really good job of staying in the gaps,” forward Ben Humrichous said. “I thought we were great all night having help on drives and being able to contest shots and get rebounds.”
Smart, selfless offense
UE beat SEMO with assists on 17 of its 32 field goals. The Aces also focused on getting the ball inside rather than forcing 3-pointers. EU finished 4-12 from the perimeter but made 48 attempts from inside the arc.
Aces forward Yacine Toumi finished with a game-high 20 points on 10-13 shooting while connecting on his first eight attempts.
“I’ve seen a lot of progress in Yacine,” Humrichous said. “He’s grown so much since day one, he’s someone who’s willing to work hard every day.”
The EU has been altruistic in its approach. Last season, the Aces relied too much on Toumi and Kenny Strawbridge Jr. to play hero and get them out of trouble. This season, Strawbridge can show off his passing range more and Toumi can stay in the post.
This is the creation of a much improved team.
Better offensive balance and depth
As far as over-reliance on a few players last season, that’s not a factor this year. Toumi’s big effort was part of EU’s victory, but there’s more balance and depth this time around.
Of the 10 Aces who played, six scored six or more points, with each of the starters getting at least eight. UE had 12 bench points, 16 fewer than SEMO, but the second unit still contributed in other ways. Gage Bobe had a steal and three assists; Tanner Cuff had three rebounds and an assist.
The EU needed players to contribute in ways other than goals; The Aces get this from both the bench and the starters.
The increased depth also allows for fresher legs, which is crucial during the harsh season. Apart from Strawbridge’s 30 minutes, no EU player played more than 25 minutes.
“If we do the right things collectively, one through 10, because that’s our rotation, we can wear out some teams,” Ragland said. “She’s a beauty to have. Sometimes it’s a little difficult because I want to play them all. … It was a complete team victory.