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For change, guards leading charge for undefeated Eastern

11/19/2022, 12:30pm EST
By Jerome Taylor

Jerome Taylor (@ThatGuy_Rome)

During Eastern University’s recent run of success, the frontcourt’s production has been the focal point of the team. 

The run has consisted of earning winning seasons in five of the last six years (the only losing season came during the covid year, 2020-2021). But now, without players like Victor Peña, Michael Bowlers and William Belt, it’s the backcourt’s turn to take the reins for the Eagles. 

“I was really confident going into the season that like, ‘We can groom these, these young kids in the front court, but our back court's gonna be solid,” Eastern head coach Dan Pruessner said. 

Eastern guard Kaeshawn Ward is part of the backcourt leading the charge this season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

So far this season, veteran guards like Jaron Fairweather (12 ppg), Kaeshawn Ward (11.8 ppg) and Sam Gallardo (12.4 ppg) have evenly divvied up shouldering the scoring responsibility, with all three players averaging just about 12 points per game through 5 games.

Fairweather, a senior from Tamarac, Florida (one of few Floridians on a roster that usually reflects Pruessner’s Florida roots), has been a part of the front court-centric success of Eagles’ teams in the past. Now he’s leading the charge of a new-look offense.

“It's a big difference,” Fairweather said. “When I came in [as a freshman], we had three or four all-conference type bigs… When Belt left, the only returners we had from that team were just the guards.”

“I feel like the coaching staff did a great job of just adjusting the offense and having it kind of be built a lot around the guards, but still getting the bigs involved too, because the bigs can’t win without the guards, and the guards can't win without the bigs. That's what makes us a team.”

One of the ways that the coaching staff has kept the bigs involved is through a lot of ball screen action, which plays into the Eagles' strengths this season — putting the onus on the guards to make plays both as scorers and distributors.

It’s a lot different from the post-centric play that has led to the Eagles’ success these past few years. Pruessner noted that the goal for his teams in the past was to average more than 30 post touches a game. This season it won't be uncommon for that number to be in the single digits or the low teens.

According to Pruessner, his guard play will be essential to postseason success, as he says, “guards win championships.” And even though his guards have played well, that doesn’t mean he’s satisfied with the offense at this point of the season.

“We got veteran guards that are playmakers, and the biggest problem with that is you become ball watchers,” he said. ”Guys are sitting there like, ‘wow, Kaeshawn just took somebody off the bounce, he's gonna go to work again.’” 

“We're not making that ball move side to side, and it needs to go east and west and stop going north and south so much.” 

For instance, in the Eagles' 66-65 win over Lancaster Bible College on Thursday night, Ward (14 points) and Fairweather (18 points) bailed out a stagnant offense with a collection of tough mid-range shots off of the dribble. 

This stagnation was most prevalent at the end of the close game with the last made field goal coming at the 4:42 mark in the second half on a Fairweather jumper. Thankfully for the Eagles, they could rely on their defense and the ten-point lead they built at that point to come away with the victory. 

Still, the guard trio will be critical to the Eagles’ success this year. A year removed from reaching the Division III NCAA tournament but falling to the University of Rochester in the first round, Eastern has changed its standard of success. 

“We got just as much talent as we had last year, it's just the leadership. … Those new guys coming in, we just lead, so they know how to get there now,” Fairweather said. “Last year, we didn't have guys that had [made the NCAA tournament] before. … But this year, me, Sam, Kae, Jayden [Smith]. We got guys that have been to the NCAA tournament before, so we know how to get there. “

“It's just one big effort just to get back to where we was, get farther than we was last time, win the conference championship and then get past the first round. Cause we plan to do better than we did last year.”

With their win over LBC on Thursday, the Eagles moved to 5-0 and all three guards scored in double-digits. They also got some contributions from Zubair Lee (5 points, seven rebounds, three blocks and two steals), a 6-7 freshman starter who seems poised to be next in the line of productive front-court players from Eagle Road.

“He's a learner like he messes up, but then he learns too, which is really good. I think you're going to see a steady incline from him all year long,” Pruessner said about Lee.

Lee’s development and sustained success from the backcourt are why Pruessner thinks his team will remain contenders in the Middle Atlantic Conference, take strides in the national tournament, and shock some local media outlets. 

“We're not going to be satisfied with the conference championship,” Pruessner said with a smile. “Yes, we want to get that on the way. But these guys are locked into something bigger, and I don't know what that is, but it's probably bigger than eighth in the local poll that you guys put out,

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