Oct. 14, 2008
At times during his first season as head coach of the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team, Kirk Earlywine said it “felt like we were going into a sword fight with a pocket knife.”
But a year later, and with a full complement of players on his roster, Earlywine is ready to let the real swashbuckling begin.
Six returning letter winners join three 2008-09 redshirts and six newcomers to Earlywine’s roster, giving the Eagles a team of 15 players he hopes will be a team to reckon with in the Big Sky Conference.
Last season, the Eagles finished 11-19 overall and 6-10 in the league, but failed to advance to the six-team Big Sky Tournament for the second-straight season.
“It took a little longer to type up the roster this year than it did a year ago,” laughed Earlywine, who entered last season with just three players with NCAA Division I experience. “Obviously, we were short-handed a year ago. We feel good about how a larger roster this season will help our depth and enhance our ability to have quality practices. Maybe the biggest benefit of having a full roster is that we can accomplish things in practice that we weren’t able to a year ago.”
Eastern lost a pair of senior starters in Marcus Hinton and Kellen Williams, but six of the team’s nine letter winners return. Williams will be the biggest loss as the 6-foot-5 forward earned All-Big Sky Conference honors after averaging 13.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.
“It will be very difficult to replace Kellen Williams,” Earlywine admitted. “We’ll not only miss his production on the floor in terms of points and rebounds, but we’ll miss his leadership by example. He was our best-conditioned and hardest-working player, and a great teammate. He leaves a huge void that we must find a way to fill.”
“We will miss Marcus,” added Earlywine. “He set a tremendous example of what it is to be a student-athlete. He balanced playing Division I basketball with having a newborn baby, going to school and graduating on time in four years.”
It took time, but a foundation for success was built around the eight regular players Eastern utilized in the 2007-08 season.
“I think we built a foundation that allowed us to take a step forward,” Earlywine said of last season’s greatest accomplishment. “I was really happy with the way our guys responded to me and my staff. I thought we had as good of practices as we could given our numbers, right up until literally the walk-through on the day of our last game of the year. Our guys kept trying hard and allowed themselves to be coached. I think we developed a style of play, a mentality and the discipline we needed both on and off the floor to be successful.”
Winning 11 games was viewed as a great accomplishment by some, however, Earlywine made it clear he was not happy with the end result. And he won’t be pleased this year unless Eastern is able to contend for the league title.
“I never want to sell our guys short,” Earlywine said. “By having returning players who have been through the Big Sky schedule makes winning the league title our goal, and I think we can do that."
“I was and still am disappointed,” he explained of last season. “Like I said at the beginning of last year, the goal every year is to win the Big Sky. And we didn’t do that, and we didn’t qualify for the conference tournament. So in my eyes, it was not as good a season as I hoped for. I’ve had people tell me that they thought we overachieved, and maybe from an outsider’s view that was the case. But not in my eyes.”
Six Players Return With Extensive Time . . .
Playing time was not an issue for such a small roster last season, and the Eagles will benefit from that this year.
The six players returning all averaged between 18.0 and 27.2 minutes per game. Guard Adris DeLeon averaged 12.5 points and 3.1 assists per game as a 12-game starter, but three others averaged at least 5.7 points. All six of the players started at least 10 games.
“Experience is really important in every league, but I think it’s even more important in the Big Sky,” Earlywine said. “The difficulties of travel, time zones and altitude make winning on the road more difficult in the Big Sky than other conferences. Having players that have been through that and understand what you have to do is critical. I think if you go back through the history of the Big Sky, most years the team that wins this league is junior and senior dominated.”
The three returning starters include point guard Gary Gibson (5.7 points, 2.5 assists), guard Trey Gross (7.3 points) and 6-foot-9 center Brandon Moore (7.3 points, 5.8 rebounds).
Guard Milan Stanojevic started 10 games and came off the bench in the other 20 games to average 7.9 points. He made 64-of-174 (.368) three-point attempts per game to rank among the league leaders, and his 64 made three-pointers was fifth in school history. The other returning letter winner is 6-8 Matt Brunell, who averaged 3.2 points and 1.8 rebounds.
Earlywine thinks Moore is the key after he had an impressive end to the 2007-08 season, averaging 11.3 points and 7.6 rebounds on 53.1 percent shooting in the last eight games. He helped lead the Eagles to a crucial home sweep over Weber State (69-57) and Idaho State (63-53) in mid-Feb­ruary as he scored 35 points and had 14 rebounds.
“To be honest, I think a lot is riding on Brandon Moore’s shoulders,” said Earlywine. “The game is much easier when you can play inside-out and establish your ability to score in the paint. He is the player we have very high expectations of and I’ve expressed that to him. He’s a player that can be one of the two or three best low-block scoring threats in our conference. The game will be much easier for us if he is able to do that.”
Forward Jeff Christensen, guard/forward Andy Genao and guard Benny Valentine transferred to Eastern and redshirted last season. All three have the potential to take on pivotal roles, especially the 5-foot-7 Valentine, who played for Bobby Knight at Texas Tech.
“I’m a big believer of redshirting players and transfers, who have a built-in redshirt year,” Earlywine said. “They don’t have me breathing down their necks every day and they can acclimate themselves and learn the system without being under fire. That’s a big benefit."
“How quickly Andy and Jeff fulfill their roles and complete their mission, so to speak, will be important for us,” he added. “Benny is talented enough to be a good player in the Big Sky, but he hasn’t proven yet that he can do it. But we need him to.”
Newcomers Include JC Transfers Expected to Help Inside . . .
Eastern’s newcomers include a quartet of junior college transfers – 6-8 Mark Dunn, 6-6 Chris Busch, 6-10 John Clark and 6-5 local product Steven Wesley (North Idaho J.C. and Medical Lake, Wash., High School) The other new players are 5-11 point guard Kevin Winford and 6-5 true freshman Abebe Dimissie.
Dunn and Busch are both juniors, and Earlywine expects their experience to be a huge asset on the inside.
“The players I think we need to (contribute right away) are Mark Dunn and Chris Busch because of their size,” he said. “We lacked size, physical strength and depth last year on the front line, and Mark and Chris provide that. The two older, junior college transfers are the players we expect more from. But the other new players are more than capable of stepping in and doing it right away."
“I’m all for competition out there,” Earlywine continued. “Last year we didn’t have enough competition and I thought at times we had a couple of players who became content with their minutes. They knew they were going to get their minutes because we didn’t have any other options. I don’t like players who are content, and I don’t’ think we’ll have that problem now.”
And the greatest benefit of having more players is having more players to play to their strengths and fill specific roles.
“I told our guys that they are all role players in my eyes,” explained Earlywine. “They all have a role to fill. It is going to be critical for them to understand and accept that quickly.”
Valentine and DeLeon will provide the Eagles with two extremely explosive guards. Add Gibson, Gross, Stanojevic, Winford and Wesley to the mix, and the guard position could be a strength for the Eagles.
“I hope it will be a strength,” Earlywine said. “In general, I think if you turn on the TV to any game in the country, the team with the best guards on the floor will win the game. I think that’s very important – the good teams have good guards. We like our guards right now, but each of them have big question marks attached to them."
“Benny Valentine is very talented, but he hasn’t scored a basket yet for the Eagles. And he must prove he can be a good teammate, run a team and get shots for his teammates as well as himself."
“Adris was hot and cold last year, and when he was good he was as good as any guard in the league,” Earlywine continued. “But he also had nights where he turned the ball over, took bad shots and didn’t place enough value on each possession.
“We have high hopes for Kevin Winford, but he hasn’t played one second of Division I basketball at this point. While we feel good about those players, they have yet to prove that they can win a conference championship.”
Earlywine has some specific goals in mind for his second season as head coach. He says last year’s .406 shooting percentage as a team needs to be increased, and the .465 percentage by EWU’s opponents needs to be reduced. There wasn’t as much discrepancy in three-point shooting (.340 for EWU and .354 by opponents), meaning EWU’s perimeter defense was more impressive than its defense inside the paint.