SEASON OUTLOOK: Returning Guards Key to Eastern’s Big Sky Hopes; Season Begins Tuesday
The Eastern Washington University men's basketball team opens its 2010-11 season next Tuesday (Nov. 2) when it plays an exhibition game against Seattle Pacific at 7:05 p.m. Pacific time at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
The Eagles will host another exhibition on Monday, Nov. 8 versus MSU-Billings, also at 7:05 p.m., before officially opening the season at home on Friday, Nov. 12 against San Jose State at 5:35 p.m. at Reese Court. Season ticket and single game ticket information is available at www.goeags.com.
Seattle Pacific was 22-6 last season under head coach Ryan Looney, and won the Great Northwest Athletic Conference title with a 13-3 mark. The Falcons return three starters and three other letter winners from last year's team that fell to BYU-Hawaii in the first round of the NCAA Division II Tournament. One of SPU's assistant coaches is former EWU assistant coach Grant Leep.
Montana State-Billings is also a member of the Great Northwest Conference and came one victory shy of a NCAA Tournament berth. Coached by former Idaho and Lewis-Clark State head coach George Pfeifer, the Yellowjackets finished 15-10 overall and 9-7 in the conference. They are 25-27 overall in Pfeifer's two seasons at the helm, a vast improvement on the 7-49 record the school had the two previous seasons.
Eastern has no seniors on its 2010-11 roster, and features a quartet of returning letter winners from last year's team that finished 9-21 overall and 5-11 in the Big Sky Conference. More on the Eagles may be found in the season outlook below and on the basketball page at www.goeags.com.
Johnson and other newcomers will have to be factors as well if Eagles hope to compete for the league title
In a league dominated by guard play, having three returning starting guards is a great place to start for the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team.
But highly-touted Tremayne Johnson and Eastern's other newcomers will also need to be a factor if Eastern is able to compete for the Big Sky Conference title in the 2010-11 season.
Eastern has no seniors on its 2010-11 roster, and features a quartet of returning letter winners from last year's team that finished 9-21 overall and 5-11 in the Big Sky Conference. Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine, who is entering his fourth year at the helm, returns three starting guards, including last year's Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year Glen Dean. Dean also earned honorable mention All-Big Sky accolades.
Besides Dean, returning starters include fellow sophomores Jeffrey Forbes and Kevin Winford, who averaged 11.0 and 6.9 points, respectively, a year ago. The fourth returning letter winner is 6-foot-8 Laron Griffin, who averaged 4.8 points and 3.8 rebounds last season.
"Last year the Big Sky was as good as it's ever been, and the league was dominated by guard play," Earlywine said. "The guards were certainly as good as I've seen in my 10 years in this league. I think that's generally the case in the Big Sky and in college basketball. Having Jeffrey Forbes, Glen Dean and Kevin Winford returning with significant minutes under their belts -- and playing very well in those minutes -- bodes well for the future."
"We can certainly build around those three returning guards, as well as Laron Griffin and Tremayne Johnson," he added. "For the first time we have a core of players that are going to be in the program for a number of years that we can build with. But we have to add pieces to it."
Johnson is an extremely athletic and talented 6-foot-7 forward who played one season with Griffin at Los Angeles Southwest Junior College. Johnson attended EWU for the first time in January 2010 after completing his associate degree, but as a mid-year transfer, could not play because of NCAA rules. He was recruited by San Francisco and Arizona, but originally signed a letter of intent with the Eagles in spring 2009 and then re-signed in November 2009.
"It's really a shame that he missed that year of playing," Earlywine said. "He is very, very gifted athletically and the game comes easy to him -- he's very basketball smart. Whether he can put all of those pieces together and make it translate into production is the challenge for Tremayne. If he does, he has a chance to be a terrific player for us."
Johnson has untapped potential, according to Earlywine. He is a 2007 graduate of Artesia High School, which was the No. 1 ranked team nationally his senior season and third as a junior. One of his teammates at Artesia was James Harden, who played at Arizona State and now plays in the NBA for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
"He's never been the quote, unquote, go-to-guy," explained Earlywine. "In high school he played with eventual pros and other players who played at a high level of Division I basketball. He's never been a guy that's been counted on and depended upon. And to some degree, we are depending on him. Whether he can shoulder that burden or not is going to tell a lot about our season and the kind of season he has."
Guards Exceeded Expectations in League Play . . .
As good as Eastern's young guards were in non-conference games, they were even better in the league in the 2009-10 season.
The 5-foot-10 Dean finished with a 12.2 scoring average to rank 11th in the Big Sky, and his average of 4.4 assists was second. He was also eighth in the Big Sky in three-point field goal percentage (42.9 percent) and seventh in free throw percentage (80.4).
In Big Sky Conference play, Dean averaged 5.2 assists to lead the BSC in league-only statistics, and his 14.4 scoring average was 10th. He made 29-of-62 treys (46.8 percent to rank fifth) and 57-of-68 free throws (83.8 percent to rank sixth).
The 2008 graduate of Seattle's Roosevelt High School was selected as Eastern's male recipient of the December Scholar-Athlete of the Month Award, and currently has a 3.64 grade point average at EWU.
Forbes was also one of the top newcomers in the league, averaging 13.2 points in 16 Big Sky Conference games to rank 12th in league-only statistics. The 2009 graduate of Federal Way (Wash.) High School averaged 11.0 points overall (17th in the league) as he started 27 of 30 games in the 2009-10 season.
Besides Dean and Forbes, no other freshman ranked in the top 24 in the league in scoring overall and in the top 22 in league games only. Forbes led the Eagles with an average of 31.2 minutes per game (33.8 in league play to rank seventh).
"You never know for sure," Earlywine said regarding last year's progress by Dean and Forbes. "We knew they were good players when we signed them, but they exceeded expectations. What Glen and Jeffrey did in league play was really remarkable. And when you take into consideration how much trouble we had scoring the ball in the paint a year ago, for Glen Dean to lead the league in assists was even more remarkable. He had an unbelievable freshman year. He and Jeffrey Forbes led us in minutes played, and that will only help us moving forward."
Winford was the third freshman guard in the starting lineup, and averaged 6.9 points per game overall and 7.6 in league play. He made 38 percent of his three-point shots in league play and 33 percent for the season.
What the trio of returning guards can do as sophomores is the question that remains to be answered.
"Last spring and through the summer I wondered how much better those guys could play," said Earlywine. "They have surprised me this fall so far with how they've elevated their play. And maybe more importantly, for maybe the first time in my years at Eastern, we have players who elevate practice and our workouts. They are able to bring the play of others up to another level. That makes me most happy with what those three have done."
Dean, however, may be sidelined for an extended period of time after suffering a stress fracture in his foot during practice in mid-October. Dean will be re-evaluated in early November and that will help determine whether or not he will have to utilize the redshirt season he still has available.
That will make the contributions of junior college transfer Cliff Colimon that much more important early in the season. Colimon was point guard for an Eastern Utah squad that finished 50-16 in his two seasons on the team, including a 27-10 finish as a sophomore when the Golden Eagles placed third in the National Junior College Athletic Association Tournament.
"Obviously adding another guard to the mix wasn't our biggest priority," said Earlywine. "However, Glen Dean is the only point guard returning so we had to have another primary ball-handler. So we recruited the best one we could, and that was Cliff who played on a junior college team with nine Division I players and finished third in the country. He was a vital cog in that, but because he was playing with so many good players, he didn't put up eye-popping numbers. Because he was in a remote town in Utah added to the fact he was not heavily recruited until after he committed to us."
Another guard in the program is walk-on Sean Fischer out of Spokane's Gonzaga Prep High School. He redshirted in the 2009-10 season. Also on the roster is true freshman Willie Hankins, who has yet to be cleared to practice and play by the NCAA Clearinghouse.
Post Players Key to Team Progress . . .
Whether on the perimeter or in the paint, a lot will be expected of Eastern's incoming post players. As many as seven newcomers will compete with Griffin and Johnson for playing time.
"I feel like we could play a game today with our guards," explained Earlywine. "But how quickly we can get our front-line players up-to-speed is important. We need to get to the free throw line more than we did a year ago, we need to score the ball in the paint more than we did a year ago and we have to defend much better than we did a year ago."
Griffin led Eastern in rebounding three times during his debut season, including two of EWU's last six games. He also scored in double figures on three occasions, with a season-high 11 versus Weber State during league play.
Other inside players include junior college transfers Cliff Ederaine (6-7) and Rashano McRae (6-7), as well as true freshmen Jaylen Henry (6-7) and Carter Warnock (6-9). Perimeter players include Rocky Brown (6-6) and Geoffrey Allen (6-5), although Allen will redshirt after suffering a broken wrist in preseason practices. He is the son of former UCLA and NBA standout Lucius Allen, and is a 2010 graduate of Pacific Hills High School in Los Angeles.
"We're especially counting on Laron as well as the junior college players -- Cliff, Rashano and Tremayne," said Earlywine. "I don't know what we have yet in terms of Rocky, Jaylen and Carter, but we certainly have to play better on both ends of the floor from 15 feet in than we did last year."
Down the road, Earlywine hopes the trio of Hankins, Allen and Brown will be mainstays in his program as offensive threats in a number of ways.
"The three freshmen perimeter players bring different things to the table," he said. "Willie is very skilled and really knows how to play. He can pass it and shoot it, and is very basketball savvy. Geoffrey brings us size and length on the perimeter, as well as toughness even though he's really thin at this point. He also has tremendous athletic ability and can drive it and shoot it. Rocky can really drive the ball and get to the free throw line, which we lacked a year ago. He has a very aggressive personality, which I like. Whether he can channel that aggression in the right direction or not remains to be seen. But he has a motor and he will play hard and fast."
Weber State the Team to Beat in League Race . . .
The Eagles have been picked to finish sixth in the Big Sky Conference in both the media and coaches polls. Weber State, which has gone 28-4 in the BSC over the last two seasons and is the two-time defending league champion, is picked first in both polls.
"Weber State had kind of been the dominant team in the league the last three or four years, and the question we asked ourselves is 'what do we have to do to catch them and beat them?'" said Earlywine. "We can't sit back and hope they digress -- we have to go catch them."
"What we have to understand as a program is that the league is not going to back up -- we are going to have to catch them. In order to do that, the players in the program have to improve themselves -- not only in their skill level but also in their conditioning and strength. On top of that, we have to replace our five seniors with five players who are ultimately better. That's not a knock against those seniors, but that's just what we have to do to get better. You improve the players in your program and you go get better players to replace those who leave. That's what we are trying to do."
Eastern has a high-achieving team academically, with a team grade point average of over 3.0 in each term a year ago. Dean, Forbes and Winford were all selected to the Big Sky Conference All-Academic Team and all three have current GPAs of 3.23 and above. They are joined by several other recruits with impressive academic credentials, including a 4.0 high school GPA by Warnock and 3.5 and above accumulative GPAs for Henry and Allen. Ederaine expects to major in pre-med in hopes of becoming a doctor.
"That's an overlying theme with this year's incoming class of high school players and several others," added Earlywine. "Three of our incoming freshmen are 3.5 students or higher, they come from good families and they are high-character kids. We want student-athletes who want to get a degree and are also good basketball players, and many of our student-athletes fall into those categories."