SEASON OUTLOOK: EWU Hopes Pendulum Swings Eagles Back Into Big Sky Tourney
With all five positions featuring players with starting experience, Eastern will be young again with no seniors on its 2013-14 roster
The pendulum is swinging toward experience for the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball program.
A year ago, Eastern utilized six freshmen/sophomores who each started at least three games with a collective total of 97 starts between them. This season, the Eagles will look to those same players – only a more improved and experienced group -- to help get the EWU back to the Big Sky Conference Tournament in the 2013-14 season.
“Our third year is a pendulum year, as we take these young players with some experience and continue to build them together as a group,” said head coach Jim Hayford, who is entering his third season at the helm of the Eagles.
Eastern finished the 2012-13 season with a 10-21 record overall and 7-13 mark in league games. All 10 of EWU’s wins were against NCAA Division I foes, which exceeded EWU’s total in four of nine years since the 2004-05 season. The same was true of EWU’s seven conference victories.
But this year’s team has no seniors in the lineup, and has just two juniors who have played for the Eagles previously.
“I have never coached a team without seniors,” admitted Hayford. “I have always said your team is as good as your seniors are, but we don’t have any seniors. We have sophomores and juniors that have played more than other sophomores and juniors. When you look at the amount of playing time and experience sophomores or juniors at other schools in our conference have had, I think we compete very favorably.
“Every coach is comfortable when you have great seniors,” he continued. “There is an old saying that freshmen want to play, sophomores want to score, juniors want to start and seniors want to win. We just need to expedite our maturity level with our guys in that regard.”
For a variety of reasons – mostly because of injuries – Eastern used 14 different starting lineups in the 2012-13 season. However, the benefit is that Eastern will return starting experience at all five positions next season, led by last year’s Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year, Venky Jois.
“I think one of the strengths of our team on the floor is the cohesiveness of our players off the floor,” said Hayford. “They really do like one another. One glance down our roster shows that all these guys have come from all over the globe to be together, and they have made each other their family. I know that is a term that is overused on teams, but these guys really are close.
Eastern appears solid at all positions, but the one question mark will be point guard where the Eagles have limited NCAA Division I experience.
“We know what we are going to get with returning players at all five positions who have started games, but we are still bringing in a junior college point guard who needs to blend in with all these guys,” said Hayford. “The smoothness of that addition will be really telling in how we play in our non-conference schedule.”
In years beyond, the expectation is to compete for a NCAA Tournament berth. This season, the goal in the preseason is for the Eagles to be ready for its 20-game Big Sky schedule and then take it one game at a time from there.
“We might not have seniors, but I do feel like by the time we get into Big Sky play in January and particularly February, we will be a more experienced team than most teams in the conference,” he added. “I am really looking forward to the road ahead.”
In the Eagle Frontcourt . . .
With the top two shot blockers in school history returning – the 6-foot-7 Jois and 6-10 Martin Seiferth – the Eagles return one of the Big Sky’s top frontcourt tandems.
Jois finished the season as the Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year, after averaging 12.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.4 blocked shots, 2.0 assists and nearly one steal per game. The native from Boronia, Australia, was also the lone Eagle on the All-BSC team, earning honorable mention accolades.
Seiferth, a transfer from Oregon, finished his debut season for the Eagles averaging 8.2 points and 6.3 rebounds (sixth in the Big Sky). He made 62.3 percent of his shots from the field to lead the Big Sky and rank as the fourth-best single season performance in school history. Seiferth averaged 2.2 blocked shots to rank just behind Jois in the league, and they had totals of 68 and 66, respectively, to rank as the top two performances in school history.
“When you look at our frontcourt, especially our starters Martin and Venky, they are as strong as anybody else’s front court in the conference except for maybe Weber State,” Hayford said.
Also returning in the frontcourt is 6-6 sophomore Thomas Reuter. For the season, he started 16 of EWU’s 31 games and averaged 22.2 minutes, 5.4 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. He scored in double figures five times in the 2012-13 season.
Other players in the frontcourt include a pair of 2012-13 redshirts – 6-5 Garrett Moon and 6-6 Danny Powell. Mammoth 7-foot-1, 285-pound Frederik Jörg, who played in 16 games as a true freshman last season, is expected to redshirt 2013-14.
Newcomers on the front line include 6-5 Felix Von Hofe, who spent the summer of 2013 playing for Australia in the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) U19 World Championships. Another new addition is 6-7 Ognjen Miljkovic from Belgrade, Serbia, who played for Bishop Montgomery High School in California.
In the Eagle Backcourt . . .
The most promising development for the Eagles in the backcourt in 2012-13 was the continued improvement of Parker Kelly and Tyler Harvey. Now a junior and sophomore, respectively, both showed the ability late in the year of providing plenty of offensive punch, particularly from the 3-point stripe.
“Parker and Tyler can spread the floor laterally,” said Hayford. “Both of them are shooting over 40 percent from the 3-point stripe and are capable of scoring over 20 points a night.”
Kelly, out of Gonzaga Prep in Spokane, averaged 13.6 points in his last eight games, including a new career high with 28 points in EWU’s 87-73 win at Idaho State on March 7. He started 17 of the 28 games he played in the 2012-13 season, and finished the year averaging 9.5 points and 1.0 assists per game, while making a team-leading 55-of-137 3-point shots for 40.1 percent.
Harvey scored 132 points (16.5 average) on 55 percent shooting from the field (52-of-94, including 20-of-44 3-point attempts) in EWU’s last eight games. In the first 13 games he played in the 2012-13 season, Harvey scored just 17 points. For the season, he played in 21 of EWU’s 31 games and averaged 14.0 minutes and 7.1 points per game.
“Tyler can play the point, but ideally he is a two guard in our system,” explained Hayford. “We like to have two guards on the floor that can interchange between those two positions. The more Tyler is playing the two and not the point, the better for us.”
At point guard, the Eagles return Australian Daniel Hill, who averaged 1.8 points, 1.5 assists and 1.3 rebounds per game after becoming eligible in December. He played an average of 11.9 minutes per game in 22 total games with three starts.
The Eagles will rely on incoming junior college transfer Drew Brandon to provide an immediate impact as a starter. From Corona, Calif., he played last season at Sierra College in California where he averaged 15.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 3.9 steals per game.
“Tyler and Drew both give us really good size in the backcourt,” he added. “You have a neat variable to add when you bring Daniel off the bench.”
Sir Washington, an incoming freshman from Las Vegas, is expected to redshirt this season. In the past two seasons, he led his Clark High School team to a collective record of 52-8, with averages of 14.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.0 steals as a senior.
Offense . . .
Last season, Eastern ranked 12th in NCAA Division I in 3-pointers made per game (8.5), including a 14-of-26 performance in an 87-73 win at Idaho State on March 7 in EWU’s next-to-last game of the season. In the 2011-12 season, when EWU set school records with 283 makes and 793 attempts, Eastern averaged 8.8 made treys per game on an average of 24.8 attempts.
Kelly is currently ranked seventh in school history in career 3-point percentage (.419) and his 55 3-pointers in the 2012-13 season ranks 13th in school history.
“We obviously love to shoot the three-point shot and we recruit to that,” admitted Hayford. “We need to have more consistency in (three point shots) because the better you shoot that shot, the more it opens up the other shots and vice versa. We need to get more balance. I think that is the next step offensively.”
The Eagles will continue to make the 3-point line a priority, but so will be improving the team’s overall 41.5 percent shooting percentage. From the free throw line, Eastern was at 65.5 percent and that needs to be boosted as well, according to Hayford.
“The biggest key we have emphasized in the offseason is individual skill development offensively,” he explained. “The numbers do not lie. If we can get three to four points better offensively and defensively we would be knocking on the door of a 20-win season. Nearly every player needs to shoot the ball five percent better. And we need to shoot better at the foul line.”
The Eagles also are hoping to improve their rebounding, which can also lead to offense through EWU’s fast-break attack. The Eagles were one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league, but their total of 342 was 78 less than their opponents. Overall, Eastern was out-rebounded by 4.2 per game.
Eastern tied a school record with 1,242 total rebounds by its opponents in the 2012-13 season, equaling the 1,242 Eastern allowed in the 1972 season. In addition, Eastern allowed a record 420 offensive rebounds in 2013.
“What connects offense and defense is rebounding, and we need to become a good rebounding team,” he said. “We are not ready to talk about being an excellent rebounding team, but we can’t continue to be a poor rebounding team, so that is the next step (for us to improve).”
Defense . . .
Finishing with a school-record 176 blocked shots for the season, the Eagles closed the year just three away from the Big Sky Conference record of 179 set by Idaho State in the 2005-06 season. Eastern’s average of 5.7 per game led the Big Sky and ranked 12th in NCAA Division I.
Individual Eagles ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the league, with Jois averaging 2.4 per game to rank 33rd in NCAA Division I and Seiferth averaged 2.2 to rank 41st. Seiferth’s total of 68 shattered the previous school record of 51, and Jois also shattered it with a total of 66.
Partly because of the blocked shots, Eastern held opponents to 43.0 percent shooting for the season – EWU’s best performance since becoming a NCAA Division I member in the 1983-84 season. The school’s 1,113 rebounds were also its most in 30 seasons as a DI member.
After allowing non-conference opponents to make a collective 48.0 percent against them, the Eagles allowed conference opponents to shoot at just a 41.0 percent clip (second in the BSC). EWU was 9-6 when it held opponents to 43.5 percent or less and 1-15 when it didn’t.
“I thought we really developed last season as a good defensive team,” praised Hayford. “We set our Division I record for lowest field goal percentage defense and blocked shots. We were starting to impose our will defensively on teams. I look for us to take that next big step (this year).”
However, there was one oddity to EWU’s defensive efforts. A year after committing a school-record 723 fouls (22.6 per game), Eastern set a school record for fewest per game in the 2012-13 season with an 18.4 average (571 total).
“I look at the first year where we pushed our guys to play hard, and they did play hard,” Hayford explained. “In fact, we led the nation with the most fouls committed. Someone had to commit the most fouls in the country, and it was us. We played really hard that season, then, last year, we set the school record for the fewest fouls per game. Somewhere in there we need to find the right balance with our aggressiveness.”
Schedule . . .
The Eagles will get several early tests when they open their 31-game schedule in November.
After a home date with Pacific University on Nov. 10, the Eagles will play at Washington of the Pac-12 Conference. The Huskies were 18-16 a year ago overall and 9-9 in one of the toughest leagues in the country.
“It will be the first time since I have been the head coach that we have played the Huskies and traveled over to Seattle,” said Hayford. “It is always a neat challenge to see how we stack up against the larger schools in the state.”
Then it’s off to Irvine, Calif., to play in the 2K Sports Classic, where Eastern will play three games in three nights. The Eagles play Boston University, LIU Brooklyn and UC Irvine – teams which had a collective record of 58-43 (57 percent) a year ago, and were 34-18 (65 percent) in their respective leagues.
Saint Mary’s, which was 28-7 overall and 14-2 in the West Coast Conference in 2008, ushers in an equally difficult month of December.
“The early season schedule is tough when you look at it,” said Hayford. “When you play the Huskies it is a big challenge. I am really excited to play in the tournament down in Irvine because we are getting to play three other mid-major schools that were picked at the top of their leagues similar to a Weber State or a Montana in our league. It is going to let us know how we hold up against what the top of our league looks like. There are no schools on our schedule that look like the bottom or the middle of our league in terms of our non-conference schedule, but that is only going to prepare us more.”
The schedule also features a trip to the East Coast to play Connecticut and Seton Hall, and a total of seven opponents which played in national postseason tournaments a year ago. The schedule includes 20 Big Sky Conference games for the second-straight year and a total of 14 home contests.
“I think the Big Sky Conference is going to be more difficult -- there are many teams returning solid rosters,” Hayford said. “We have a very challenging preseason that will prepare us for a great conference season.”
Connecticut finished 20-10 overall and 10-8 in the Big East Conference last season, while Seton Hall was 15-18 overall and 3-15 in the league. However, Seton Hall and six other teams in the so-called “Catholic 7” broke off from the league, but will retain the Big East tag. The remaining Big East teams, plus others in the expanded conference, will now be named the American Athletic Conference.
“The East Coast trip jumps out at you -- it is an excellent opportunity for our guys to see a different part of the country and to experience playing against one of the nation’s elite programs,” said Hayford. “I know the guys are looking forward to that trip.”
Besides Pacific, Eastern’s non-conference home games include Walla Walla (Nov. 19), Seattle (Nov. 29) and UC Irvine (Dec. 15). Home games will begin at 6:05 p.m. Pacific time for weekday games and Saturday and Sunday games will start at 2:05 p.m.
In all, Eastern’s 2013-14 schedule includes 10 games versus six schools who participated in national postseason tournaments a year ago. Eastern will play six games against those opponents on the road, and four games at home.
Three appeared in the NCAA Tournament – LIU Brooklyn (Nov. 23 in Irvine), Saint Mary’s (Dec. 8 on the road) and Montana (Jan. 9 at home and Feb. 8 on the road). UC Irvine (Dec. 15 at home and Nov. 24 in Irvine) played in the College Basketball Invitational Tournament, and won a game before falling in the quarterfinals.
The other three postseason opponents on EWU’s schedule were also in the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT). Weber State (Jan. 2 on the road and March 8 at home) won four games to advance to the championship, where it lost to East Carolina 77-74. North Dakota (Jan. 30 at home and March 1 on the road) played in the first round, as did Boston University (Nov. 22 at UC Irvine Tournament).
The Big Sky Conference Tournament will take place March 13-15 at the site of the regular season champion. For the second-straight year, it will now include seven teams, with the regular season champion receiving a first-round bye. The tournament will include a quarterfinal round with six of the teams playing, followed by semifinals and the championship game.
Hayford hopes a more experienced team will translate to winning more of the close games they lost in the 2012-13 season. Nine of EWU’s losses were one-possession games with less than four minutes remaining, and the Eagles finished 6-10 in games decided by 10 points or less.
“There were a number of close games,” he said. “That is part of being in a competitive conference. The hard part about experience is getting it. Hopefully we got it, and we will win more than our fair share of those close games this year. I do like that our guys found ways to win some of those last year.”
Eastern will be trying for its third Big Sky Tournament berth in the last four years in 2013-14, and its 13th in 27 years as a member of the league. Eastern has 12 previous appearances (1990, 98, 99, 2000, 01, 02, 03, 04, 05, 06, 11, 12).
Hayford won for the 279th time in his 400th game as a collegiate coach on March 7 when the Eagles beat Idaho State 87-73. He is currently 279-122 (69.6 percent) in 14 seasons as a head coach, including a 25-38 mark at Eastern. He was 217-57 (79.2 percent) in 10 seasons at Whitworth (2001-2011), and before that was 37-27 in two seasons at the University of Sioux Falls (S.D.).
“I have done everything I can to be a student of the history of Eastern Washington basketball,” Hayford said. “The year that stands out for each Eagle fan is when Eastern went to the NCAA Tournament in 2004, but they were 4-9 in non-conference games.
“You cannot be afraid of a tough schedule playing these bigger schools regardless of the outcome,” he continued. “You just focus on it making you better and better. I think we have a non-conference schedule that will put us in the fire. It will refine us, make us stronger and prepare us for Big Sky play. That is what this year’s schedule is, so we embrace it.”