The first time Nick Mayo saw the billboard, he was shocked. There he was, 20 feet high. Mayo laughs about it now.

“One night, I was driving with some teammates, and I saw it,” Mayo said. “It just took me by surprise.”

It’s tough to make a 6-foot-9, 235-pound man larger than life, but at Eastern Kentucky University, they’ve done it. The billboard promoting the upcoming basketball season, and the team schedule poster, with Mayo smack dab in the middle going up for an eye-catching dunk, make it clear: The Messalonskee High School graduate is the Colonels’ main attraction.

“He’s the face of the university, really,” Dan McHale, Mayo’s head coach, said.

Both Mayo and McHale are in their second season with the Colonels, and McHale already knows Mayo is the foundation upon which he can build the Eastern Kentucky program. Mayo is a team captain this season, along with seniors Isaac McGlone and Jaylen Babb-Harrison.

“He comes to work every day and he leads by example,” McHale said.

Eastern Kentucky opens the season Friday at home against Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, beginning a tough non-conference stretch of games that includes a home game against UNC-Wilmington, which went to the NCAA tournament last season, along with trips to Auburn, Texas Tech and Louisville, as well as games in Cancun, Mexico just before Thanksgiving. Eastern Kentucky begins Ohio Valley Conference play at Southeast Missouri on Dec. 31.

“I’d say we probably have the toughest non-conference schedule in the OVC,” Mayo said. “That can only make us better.”

Mayo will try to build off a freshman season that was amazingly successful. The only Colonel to start all 31 games last season, Mayo averaged 14.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.1 blocks per game. His 60.7 percent from the field was fourth best in the conference and 18th-best nationally. Among all the freshmen in the country, Mayo was second in field goal percentage and 18th in total points, 450.

Mayo was named Ohio Valley Conference Freshman of the Year and was named first team all-conference. At the OVC media day last month, Mayo was named to the conference’s preseason team. Mayo was the only underclassman (freshman or sophomore) to be named to the preseason team.

While last season was strong for Mayo individually, the Colonels struggled at times, going 15-16, including a 6-10 record in conference play, missing the OVC tournament. In the league’s preseason poll of coaches and media relations directors, Eastern Kentucky was picked to finish in fifth place in the league’s East division.

As a freshman from Maine, Mayo may have been a surprise to some opponents, particularly early last season. Now, Mayo isn’t surprising anybody. A story by Matt Norlander on published in October referred to Mayo as the most talented player in the OVC. Mayo said he’s had to adjust to the attention, as well as his leadership role as a captain. Mayo points out that at 19, he’s still the third youngest player on the team.

“It was tough on me early. Coach (McHale) has talked to me about being vocal. I’m not much of a rah-rah guy when I’m on the court,” Mayo said. “Every day, I’m working to be a better leader. I try to represent my school the best way I can, on and off the court.”

Last Sunday, the Colonels played an exhibition game against Georgetown College, the No. 2 ranked team in the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics). The game, an 83-71 Eastern Kentucky win, gave Mayo a glimpse of what he can expect this season.

“He learned everyone’s going to go after him. He was double-teamed the entire game. He knows he’s got to help us and use his rebounding and passing ability,” McHale said.

Even with the extra defensive attention, Mayo scored 13 points in 29 minutes, going 5 for 5 from the field. Mayo also had six rebounds, an assist and two steals.

“I’m working on different moves, facing up, knowing teams are going to be double teaming me,” Mayo said.

Mayo spent six weeks in the summer at the Richmond, Kentucky campus, working on his strength and adding facets to his game. He took 200 to 300 3-pointers a day. Last season, Mayo made 15 of 27 threes. This year, he expects the shot to be a bigger part of his game.

“I’ve been really trying to work on my outside game, and not be so predictable,” Mayo said.

“Now he’s shooting it and you think it’s going in,” McHale said. “He lived in the gym. That’s the culture of our team.”

McHale points out Mayo’s still relative young age, and thinks Mayo hasn’t yet approached his full potential.

“His vertical leap has improved four inches. He just turned 19. He’s really coming into his body. Remember, he was just 17 when he got here. Now he understands this is his team,” McHale said.

To that end, Mayo know his team has to make the OVC tournament this season.

“We lost so many nail biters last season,” Mayo said. “We had five or six games where we lost in the last minute.”

Eastern Kentucky is Mayo’s team. He’s already the toast of Richmond. If Mayo continues to get better, McHale thinks it won’t be long before he’s the toast of the conference.

“He’s by far the best player in the league,” McHale said, “and he’ll prove it every time he steps on the court.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

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Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM