Every position on a basketball court requires a combination of talent, strength, skills and desire, but players who excel as rebounders have to possess all those attributes at an even higher level.
Such is the case for Eli Pepper, a junior forward who leads Lipscomb in total rebounds with 254 and rebounds per game with 7.9. He is ranked second in total rebounds in the ASUN Conference, third in rebounds per game.
“Eli Pepper is on pace to be Lipscomb’s leading rebounder of all-time,” Lipscomb coach Casey Alexander said. “He has started almost every game since he first set foot on campus. The only exceptions would be when he has had an injury or two where he was trying to heal.
“He brings real toughness…a real blue-collar mentality. Eli is just a guy who wants to do whatever he can. There is no stat that reflects that better than rebounding.”
Pepper’s work on the boards isn’t the type of play that produces screaming headlines. But he is a key reason for why the Bisons won their first-ever ASUN Conference Championship and are making their first trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“In my opinion he is as much an unsung hero with this group as anybody,” Alexander said. “He has the flair, in the sense he is an athletic player, but he is not going to wow people with a performance from the tip to the buzzer.”
Pepper, 6-foot-9, not only knows how to go after a rebound, but he knows how to hold on to the ball and make the right choices whether shooting or passing.
“Rebounding is the one place where selfishness is important,” Alexander said. “But you also have to have the mentality that you are willing to do the dirty work. And he does.
“A player might say I am going to rack up as many points as I can and that can turn into a negative real quickly. Rebounding is not that way. You want a guy who wants to dominate.”
Instincts are important to the great rebounders and Pepper knows how to determine where the ball is going to be. He credits working with two-time ASUN First Team All-Conference selection Garrison Mathews in practice as one of the reasons he has honed that skill.
“I always tell my buddies that in shooting practice Gary and I are partners,” Pepper said. “He is the best shooter in the gym. When you rebound for him you see so many makes that you learn exactly what a miss looks like and how it is going to come off the rim or the boards.
“It has been one of the coolest things for me in my life. It has always been one of my knacks. But now I am learning little things from Gary in practice that I can use in games.”
Alexander agrees that Pepper has great anticipation, but that is a part of his overall skills set on the board.
“He has enough athleticism that he can go collect a rebound,” Alexander said. “But he has unbelievable hands. He is a rebounder who can go and grab a ball with two hands and secure it.”
Pepper is from Princeton, Kentucky and played for Caldwell County High School. He was part of the same recruiting class as Mathews. And, like Mathews, Pepper doesn’t think he made an immediate positive impression during his first days of practice in Allen Arena.
Pepper and Mathews have both become major players for Lipscomb dispelling those early reviews. And even though Pepper is already putting his name in the school record books, he knows he is not the prototypical rebounder.
“I am not the most able-bodied person to be a rebounder,” Pepper said. “I am not a physical player. But I will put a body on people.
“I will go fetch a ball. Rebounding is definitely underappreciated, but it keeps me on the court.”
And while he may not think he made a very good early impression, Alexander remembers quite well Pepper’s first game.
“Eli had double figures in rebounding in the first game he ever played for us,” Alexander said. “If he goes and gets a rebound it is going to be his. He has been as steady as a rock.”