OBLONG — Certainly, Anthony Johnson is going to be known as the kid from the small town.
Eastern Illinois teammates from bigger more traveled recruiting areas may rib the kid about the town’s name Oblong.
But EIU coach Jay Spoonhour and assistants didn’t just travel the two-lane highway to the school with a 181 enrollment in Crawford County for fun.
Johnson, a 6-foot-5 guard who led Oblong’s Panthers to back-to-back regional championships for the first time since 1958 and ’59, is now part of the EIU Panthers’ rebuilding plan after signing his letter of intent on Tuesday.
“I think he’s going to be really good,” Spoonhour said. “Recruiting is always the same way. It’s more heart than science, but I think he has a lot of potential and he wants to play. He will work at it.”
While Johnson also considered a scholarship offer from NCAA Division II power Southern Indiana and walk-on invitations from Evansville and Indiana State, Spoonhour and EIU assistant coach Bob Sundvold convinced Johnson that EIU was the place to go.
“I first heard from Coach Sundvold around Thanksgiving and about a week after that Coach Spoonhour came to one of my games,” Johnson said. “Coach Sundvold came to about nine or 10 of my games during the year.”
That apparently meant more than the flashy arenas or tradition of Missouri Valley Conference schools.
“Yeah, it felt very good to be wanted,” Johnson said.
The Herald & Review Area Player of the Year and an Illinois Basketball Coaches Association fourth-team Class 1A/2A all-stater, Johnson averaged 24.7 points, 9.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.6 steals per game as a senior for a 21-12 Oblong team that reached a Class 1A sectional final for a second straight year.
He finished as the school’s career leader in scoring with 1,990 points and rebounding with 801. In December of his senior year, he scored 51 points in a win over Martinsville.
That at least put the player from the Little Illini Conference school on some college radar screens.
“Southern Indiana showed a lot of interest,” Oblong coach Brent Harper said. “He had a workout at SIU Carbondale. I don’t think there was an offer. Evansville talked to him, but they offered a scholarship to a junior college player.”
Now Johnson is looking to make the leap from IHSA Class 1A to NCAA Division I.
“I think he will fit in real well,” Harper said. “Mainly, his skill level is so good, and his work ethic is tremendous. I’m sure it will be an adjustment to the next step, but with his skill level and work ethic I am sure he will be able to play and maybe right away.”
Johnson’s top priorities during the off-season: “My defense needs work,” he said. “I can get a little better on side to side and need to get stronger.”
But he obviously has some skills to bring.
“I like to get to the basket and create open shots for other guys,” Johnson said.
“I knew coach Spoonhour is going to turn Eastern around. I like his system how he runs and jumps. That’s the way I like to play.”
Spoonhour is glad to give Johnson that opportunity.
“We are thrilled that Anthony is coming to EIU,” the EIU coach said. “There is little question about Anthony’s toughness and willingness to work. The past two seasons at Oblong High School were their most successful in about 60 years. Anthony, his teammates and his coaches should be very proud of what they have accomplished. We couldn’t be happier that he has chosen to be a Panther.”
Johnson joins a recruiting class that includes 7-2 center Mat Piotrowski of Southwestern Illinois College and wing Jake Verhagen of Appleton West, Wis., while the Panthers added 6-8 forward Chris Olivier as a midyear transfer from Northern Iowa.
Along with additions come the departures of a couple of players.
Junior forward Alex Lubsey and freshman guard Cameron Harvey, two players who saw playing time dwindle while the Panthers won eight of their last 12 regular season games on the way to an 11-21 finish, have both announced they are transferring.
Lubsey was a two-year member of the EIU team and the past season averaged 4.3 minutes playing in 24 of EIU’s 32 games. He totaled 13 points and 16 rebounds and now finds things more crowded with Piotrowski and Olivier joining returning starters Sherman Blanford and Josh Piper at post positions.
The wing player Harvey saw action in 31 games averaging 1.9 points and 0.5 rebounds.