Feb 27, 2013
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, IL - Have you ever wondered why Saluki senior Jeff Early plays with such a non-stop motor -- always hustling and scrapping -- as if he has a chip on his shoulder? Turns out he does have an axe or two to grind.
The Virginia native, who spent most of his childhood growing up in Puerto Rico, will never forget the day he was cut from his eighth-grade basketball team. The coach flat-out told him he didn't have the size or talent to play junior-high hoops.
A devastated Early practiced and trained on his own almost every day, determined to prove the coach wrong. Soon, he realized his coach was correct. He was short and his skills were lacking. That's when Early decided to try a different approach that would set him apart.
"No matter how well you can shoot or how bad you are at dribbling, if you play as hard as you can and leave everything on the court, anything can happen," he explained. "I still carry that feeling around of when I got cut and being the only one of my friends not on the basketball team."
Early's frenetic, high-energy style was born out of necessity and made its debut at Rockbridge High School, where he blossomed into an All-State basketball player. He was also a football star and would've accepted a gridiron scholarship, except for academic deficiencies. Rather than play JUCO football across the country in Kansas, he elected to play basketball for nearby Allegany College and earned All-American status his freshman year. To increase his profile, he transferred to JUCO powerhouse Monroe College, where he subsequently broke both feet in the span of 18 months.
Although he was named an All-American at Monroe in 2011, most Division I coaches shied away from Early because of his injury history and lingering questions about his unorthodox shot. Saluki assistant coach Anthony Stewart loved Early's dogged style and convinced Southern Illinois head coach Chris Lowery to take a chance on both Early and Monroe teammate T.J. Lindsay.
Jeff Early leads the nation in rebounding among players 6-foot-1 or shorter.
The 6-foot-1 Early was a part-time starter at guard last year for SIU and averaged 8.6 points and 3.8 rebounds -- not bad numbers, but modest in comparison to the breakout season he's experienced for Southern this year. Early is averaging 12.6 points and leads the nation among players 6-foot-1 or shorter with 7.4 rebounds per contest. He's coming off a monster game against Miami University in which he scored a career-high 31 points and recorded his eighth double-double of the season.
Perhaps the key to his dramatic improvement has been a position switch to what first-year head coach Barry Hinson calls the hybrid forward. Early admits being skeptical at first about the proposed change.
"Coach pulled Josh (Swan) and I to the side one day and said he had a plan for us to be successful this year," Early recalled. "I'd never heard of the word hybrid, and he told me it was the four. I started thinking, how am I going to play the four?"
The move has paid off for the Salukis and Early, who can use his explosive, energetic style to his advantage against taller, slower four-men. Defensively, he's worked hard not to be a liability.
"I have my disadvantages on height and weight," he acknowledged. "With how aggressive I play and with the mentality I play, I think I overcome most of the disadvantages."
The 24-year-old Early, who is the oldest player in the Missouri Valley Conference, said he's improved as a team leader this season, as well.
"Coach told me not to be afraid to tell my teammates what's right and what's wrong," he said. "We're so cool together off the court that sometimes you don't want to make them mad and mess the friendship up. Somebody might take a bad shot or make a turnover, and before, I wouldn't say anything or say it under my breath. I started to get to know how each player responds. There's certain players you can yell at to get them going, and there's certain players you have to talk to them calmly so they don't get off their game."
The Salukis have won four of their last six games, and in the wins over Missouri State and Miami University, it was Early who shook his teammates out of their doldrums for come-from-behind victories.
"I think it's the drive I have and the love for the game," he said. "If the team doesn't have the energy it needs, they need that captain and leader on the court to bring it out of them."
Early plans to graduate in May and will play in the 14-team Puerto Rican pro league next summer.
"After I graduate, I want people to remember me as a hard-nosed warrior who left it all out on the court," he said. "I play every possession like it's my last."