Win or Lose, EWU's Playoff Fate May Not Be Determined Saturday

Feb. 23, 2007

The playoff picture for the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team is still a little fuzzy, but it will be somewhat clearer late Saturday (Feb. 24) afternoon.

The Eagles head into their 7 p.m. home game that night at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash., against Sacramento State on Saturday (Feb. 24) knowing they probably need to win to have any chance at making a 10th-straight appearance in the Big Sky Conference Tournament. But which teams they will be able to catch will be determined Saturday afternoon when Portland State hosts Idaho State.

And unless both EWU and PSU lose -- thus eliminating Eastern from contention with a final league mark of 7-9 -- the Eagles won't know their fate until the final five Big Sky games are played Sunday through Tuesday.

Weber State has clinched the regular season title (11-4), and both Northern Arizona (9-5) and Montana State (8-6) have clinched berths. Montana (8-6), Idaho State (7-6), Portland State (8-7) and Eastern Washington (7-8) are still alive for the three final spots. One of those four teams will not make the tournament.

If Idaho State beats Portland State, an EWU victory over Sac State will most likely earn the Eagles a berth because any tiebreakers involving PSU, ISU and/or Montana would eliminate PSU, thanks to EWU's victory over Weber State.

The only tiebreaker in that scenario that doesn't favor Eastern is one that involves Montana State. The Bobcats, who swept EWU, could still finish 8-8 if they lose Sunday at home against Northern Arizona and Tuesday at Idaho State.

If Idaho State falls to Portland State and the Eagles win, Eastern could still catch Montana, Montana State and Idaho State. Eastern loses all tiebreakers with Montana State, but since ISU and Montana play each other on Monday (Idaho State won the first meeting), other tiebreakers with those two teams are too numerous to list. However, Montana could be aided by a win over Northern Arizona, and Eastern could possibly be aided by a split with Portland State.

Since Idaho State and Eastern are the only teams that could finish 7-9, the Eagles would win that tiebreaker over the Bengals by virtue of a split against PSU (Idaho State would have been swept).

In all, there are still 256 different scenarios with eight league games remaining between Saturday and Tuesday. Eastern can finish fifth (15 scenarios), sixth (86 scenarios) and seventh (155 scenarios).

If Eastern beats Sacramento State, there are 85 scenarios out of 128 that will get the Eagles into the tournament (66 percent). If EWU loses, there are only 16 scenarios of 128 where Eastern can sneak in (13 percent).

Essentially, Eastern wants to be in a tie with Portland State but not Montana State. There is even a chance that an Eastern-Idaho State tie could come down to RPI rating for the sixth and final berth.

Eastern stayed alive by beating Idaho State 82-79 Thursday (Feb. 22) as Marcus Hinton made a three-pointer with 2.6 seconds to play. Hinton finished with a game-high 24 points after entering the game averaging just 5.1 points per game on the season.

He made all six of his treys to break the school's single game percentage record that was previously held by Greg Gaulding with a 5-of-5 performance versus Gonzaga on Jan. 20, 1987. He finished 9-of-11 overall from the field as his previous season high for points was 15 in November against The Evergreen State.

Rodney Stuckey had 23 points as Hinton's game-winner snapped his streak of 15-straight games leading Eastern in scoring. (A story on Stuckey was published Feb. 23 at: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/basketball/ncaa).

Four Eagle seniors -- Paul Butorac, Rhett Humphrey, Neal Zumwalt and Derek Risper -- will play their final home games in EWU uniforms on Saturday. Including last week's 71-70 victory over UC Santa Barbara, Eastern will be trying for its first three-game winning streak of the season when they play against the Hornets. The Eagles will also be trying for their first Big Sky Conference weekend sweep of the season.

Eastern Athletics is asking all fans attending the game this Saturday against Sacramento State to wear red as part of Eagle "Red Out Reese" night.

 

Remaining Games Hold Key: It would seem, based on history, that even an 8-8 record should be good enough for EWU to get into the tournament. Since the league expanded in 1970-71 (it has had at least eight teams ever since), a .500 record has always been good enough for a top six finish.

However, the Big Sky is as competitive as ever this year and now has nine members with the addition of Northern Colorado. So there are most definitely several scenarios that could have a team -- the Eagles included --- finishing 8-8 and not advancing.

The top six teams in the nine-team league advance to the Big Sky Conference Tournament. The quarterfinals take place on March 3 and are hosted by the No. 3 and 4 seeds. The winners of those two games and the top two teams in the regular season standings receive byes to the semifinals on March 6. The semifinals, as well as the nationally-televised championship game the next night, will be hosted by regular season champion Weber State.

Here are the remaining league games for Eastern and the four teams Eastern is chasing in the league standings:

Eastern Washington (7-8): 2/24 vs. Sac State.

Montana State (8-6; 2-0 vs. EWU): 2/25 vs. NAU; 2/27 at ISU.

Montana (8-6; 1-1 vs. EWU): 2/24 vs. UNC; 2/26 at ISU.

Portland State (8-7; 1-1 vs. EWU): 2/24 vs. ISU.

Idaho State (7-6; 1-1 vs. EWU): 2/24 at PSU; 2/26 vs. UM; 2/27 vs. MSU.

 

About Sacramento State: The Hornets allow an average of 82.1 points per game, but force a league-best average of 20.1 turnovers per game, with an overall league-leading turnover margin of +5.74 per game. Also an illustration of their relentless hustle is the fact the Hornets lead the league and rank third in NCAA Division I in steals (10.8 per game) and also lead the Big Sky in offensive rebounds (14.4). Five players average at least 9.8 points per game, paced by the 13.5 average of Haron Hargrave.

 

EWU-Sacramento State Series History (Since 1983-84): Since Eastern became a member of NCAA Division I in the 1983-84 season, the Eagles are 18-7 versus Sacramento State. The Eagles have won 11 of their last 14 games against the Hornets, and have an 11-1 record versus Sacramento State in Cheney and 7-6 record in Sacramento.

Eastern lost 88-69 at Sacramento State last year before winning 87-75 at Reese Court. Eastern has won the last 10 meetings at home against Sac State, dating back to a 68-67 Hornet victory on Jan. 19, 1995.

Earlier This Season - Eastern Washington 100, Sacramento State 85: Eastern Washington University men's basketball coach Mike Burns used words like poise, character, cohesion and chemistry to describe this one.

With Rodney Stuckey putting on a record-setting performance from the free throw line, Eastern rallied from a 15-point deficit to win by that margin, 100-85, over Sacramento State in a Big Sky Conference game Jan. 25 at the Hornets Nest in Sacramento, Calif.

"We showed great poise and great character," said Burns, whose team out-scored the Hornets 73-45 after falling behind 40-27. "I'm very proud of them for that.

Eastern rose above the .500 mark for only the third time this season and pulled to within one game of the conference lead.

"The cohesion and chemistry is very good right now," said Burns. "There have been some questions about that lately. But I know we had a very happy group in the locker room tonight."

Besides Stuckey's 12th 30-point game of his 51-game career -- including his sixth this season -- Paul Butorac had 21 points and nine rebounds on 8-of-11 shooting from the field. Kellen Williams added 11 points and nine rebounds, and Derek Risper came off the bench to finish with 13 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots.

But Stuckey was again his amazing self, finishing 8-of-19 from the field and 15-of-16 from the free throw line to go along with seven rebounds, five assists and a pair of steals.

He now has made 319 free throws in his two-year career, surpassing EWU's previous school record of 317 set by Randy Buss from 1970-72. Stuckey missed his 16th and final attempt against Sac State, which could have equaled him with Jason Lewis for the best single-game free throw percentage performance in school and Big Sky history (16-of-16 in 2001 versus Weber State).

Stuckey scored many of his points on drives to the baskets against Sacramento State's pressure defense. The result was Eastern making 16-of-24 field goals and 21-of-27 free throws in the second half. Eastern finished the game making 58.6 percent from the field and 32-of-41 free throws for 78 percent.

"When they really crawl up in you and extend that defense, they give you one choice," explained Burns. "And that one choice is to put it on the deck. Through most of the second half that was what we did. When you can get by the first guy, it opens things up.

"We shot 67 percent in the second half, and that's why," he added of the team's offensive performance, which also included just 15 turnovers after Sac State entered the game forcing an average of nearly 21 per game. "Kudos to our players for being strong with the basketball and taking care of it."

Eastern fell behind early 31-16 and 33-18, but eventually chipped into that lead to take a 43-42 advantage late in the first half. Eastern's zone defense and a 45-30 rebounding edge in the game helped the Eagles overcome the big deficit.

"They hit some bombs against us and got on a roll," said Burns. "We were struggling to stop them but our guys did a nice job, especially rebounding. That was a phenomenal effort."

Tied at 47 at halftime, Eastern trailed 59-55 when it went on a 12-0 run to take the lead for good. Stuckey, Williams and Butorac each scored four points in the run as EWU held Sac State scoreless for nearly four minutes.

The Eagles broke the game open with a 12-2 run that gave them an 86-70 advantage with six minutes left. Stuckey and Risper each scored four points in that run as EWU held Sac State to just a single field goal in a span of 4:48.

Eastern led by no less than 11 the rest of the way and led by as many as 19.

"We switched zone defenses in the second half," explained Burns of a suggestion made by EWU associate head coach Carl Howell at halftime. "We've worked on a 1-3-1 a little bit in practice but we haven't shown it in a game. My hat's off to Coach Howell for making that call at halftime. We stuck with that for a long stretch and it gave them some problems."

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