Eastern Washington Eagles

Travis DeCuire
Montana head coach Travis DeCuire (AP Photo)

Big Sky Preview: Montana, Weber State lead the way

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big Sky.

After a 2013-14 season in which eight teams managed to win at least ten games in conference play, there was more separation in the Big Sky pecking order in 2014-15. The number of teams with ten or more league wins was trimmed to five, with Montana and Eastern Washington finishing tied for first at 14-4 and Sacramento State and Northern Arizona a game behind the Grizzlies and Eagles at 13-5.

Jim Hayford’s Eagles managed to win the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, winning at Montana in the Big Sky title game, but he has a lot to replace with four starters from that team having moved on including high-scoring guard Tyler Harvey. That leaves senior forward Venky Jois as the lone returning starter, but fellow forward Bogdan Bliznyuk could be one of the Big Sky’s breakout players after averaging 8.7 points and 4.0 rebounds in 19 minutes of action per game. Even with their personnel losses EWU has the potential to be a factor in the Big Sky race.

As for the favorites, a Montana team led by forward Martin Breunig and guards Mario Dunn and Brandon Gfeller can certainly make that claim even with the graduation of leading scorer Jordan Gregory. Travis DeCuire’s first season as head coach at his alma mater yielded a share of the Big Sky regular season title and a trip to the Postseason NIT. The question now is whether or not this talented group can go a step further than they did in 2014-15, as they fell at home to EWU in the Big Sky title game.

Another team to keep an eye on is Weber State, which returns the tandem of guard Jeremy Senglin and forward Joel Bolomboy. In total five of Weber State’s top six scorers (four starters) from last season are back, meaning that the pieces are in place for the team to rebound from last season’s 13-17 record. The Wildcats struggled on both ends of the floor but especially offensively, shooting just 45 percent inside of the arc and ranking 258th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers.

But Randy Rahe’s squad was young, with a number of players getting used to new roles. With a season of experience under their belts, Weber State can make a leap up the Big Sky standings.

Jack Murphy’s Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, who won 13 league games last season, return two of the Big Sky’s best players and as a result are capable of contending as well. Guard Kris Yanku emerged as one of the conference’s top point guards as a sophomore, and with forward Jordyn Martin serving as the team’s defensive anchor (Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year last season) NAU can overcome the fact that they lost three starters from last season’s CIT finalists.

Southern Utah may be able to take a step forward in Nick Robinson’s fourth season at the helm, as they return five of their top six scorers led by senior wing A.J. Hess. The middle of the Big Sky won’t lack for intrigue, which is usually the case for the conference. Five teams won between seven and ten conference games last season, with the best offensive team of that quintet (Northern Colorado) finishing at the top of that group. Yet while in seasons past those teams were fighting for a conference tournament berth, they’ll only be fighting for seeding as the format (all 12 teams qualify) and location (Reno, Nevada) of the tournament have changed.

Prior to last season either Montana or Weber State won four of the last five Big Sky tournament titles (2011 being the exception), and at least one of those two has played in the last six championship games. Given the talent back at both programs, the 2015-16 season could see one of those two traditional powers holding the Big Sky trophy come March.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “It’s either Montana or Weber State. Montana lost (Jordan) Gregory but they have some guys coming back, and Weber State has more experience after last season. The talent on both of those teams make them the ones that will be the favorites to win the league.”
  • Sleeper: “They lost some guys but I like Northern Arizona. (Kris) Yanku is one of the best players in our league, and he can score and distribute the basketball. And they’ve got the league’s Defensive Player of the Year (Jordyn Martin) back as well. Jack Murphy’s done a good job rebuilding that program.”
  • Star to watch: “He’s going to have more attention on him because of the guys they lost, but Venky Jois might be the best player in the conference. He’s a handful to stop in the post, and he rebounds and passes well too.”

PRESEASON BIG SKY PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Martin Breunig, Montana

In his first season on the court for the Grizzlies, the former Washington forward emerged as one of the top players in the Big Sky. Averaging 16.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game and shooting better than 59 percent from the field, Breunig was one of three players to be a unanimous All-Big Sky selection.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-BIG SKY TEAM:

  • Venky Jois, Eastern Washington: A first team All-Big Sky selection as a junior, Jois is the most experienced returnee for Jim Hayford’s Eagles.
  • Joel Bolomboy, Weber State: Bolomboy averaged a league-best 10.2 rebounds to go along with 13.3 points and 1.7 blocks per game last season.
  • Kris Yanku, Northern Arizona: One of the conference’s top freshmen in 2013-14, Yanku averaged 13.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game last year.
  • Jeremy Senglin, Weber State: Senglin averaged 16.4 points and 3.5 assists per game as a sophomore.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @BigSkyMBB

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Montana
2. Weber State
3. Northern Arizona
4. Eastern Washington
5. Southern Utah
6. Portland State
7. North Dakota
8. Northern Colorado
9. Idaho
10. Sacramento State
11. Idaho State
12. Montana State

Eastern Washington, head coach Jim Hayford agree to contract extension through 2020

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Prior to last season Eastern Washington had just one NCAA tournament appearance to its credit, back in 2004. Head coach Jim Hayford’s team changed that, winning 26 games and the Big Sky’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament with players such as Tyler Harvey, Venky Jois and Ognjen Miljkovic leading the way. As a result of that success, the school has decided to reward Hayford with a new contract.

Thursday it was announced by the school that the two sides have agreed on a contract extension that will run through the 2019-20 campaign.

Hayford’s Eagles put together the program’s most successful season as a Division I member, not only winning 26 games (which included a win at Indiana) but also winning 14 conference games. Now comes the tough part for Eastern Washington: accounting for the loss of three of their top four scorers (Harvey, Miljkovic and Drew Brandon) with Jois being their most productive returnee.

Among Eastern Washington’s additions are grad student Austin McBroom, who played his last two seasons at Saint Louis. The Eagles also add 6-foot-8 junior college transfer Rico Nuno and four freshmen to the program. Forwards Bogdan Bliznyuk, who averaged 8.7 points and 4.0 rebounds per game as a freshman in 2014-15, and Felix Von Hofe (5.1 ppg) should figure more prominently in the rotation as the Eagles look to earn the Big Sky’s NCAA bid for a second consecutive year.

Eastern Washington guard Tyler Harvey announces intentions to turn pro

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One of the nation’s best scorers has decided to move on to the professional ranks.

Wednesday afternoon Eastern Washington announced that junior guard Tyler Harvey has decided to enter the 2015 NBA Draft. According to the release Harvey, who was named an Academic All-American last month, will complete his degree requirements (he’s one class away from graduating) online while going through pre-draft workouts.

“When I went home (for spring break) I had a good chance to talk to my family about everything and what happened this year,” Harvey said in the release. “I was fortunate and blessed enough to lead the NCAA in scoring and we had a great year as a team, so we felt like the time was right. We thought this was the best opportunity to pursue a professional career.”

Harvey was outstanding for the Big Sky champion Eagles (they shared the regular season title with Montana and won the Big Sky tournament) this season, averaging 23.1 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game while shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from beyond the arc. DraftExpress.com currently ranks Harvey 84th on its list of the Top 100 prospects, projecting him to be a second round pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.

While the school did state in the release that Harvey would be free to return to school should he decide to, as he hasn’t had an agent, current NCAA rules only give underclassmen until April 12 to declare their intentions to return. Harvey also stated that “as of now my mind is made up” in regards to turning pro.

There has been discussion of a more “player-friendly” calendar being put into effect in the future, which would get them more of the information they need to make an informed decision when it comes to moving on to the professional ranks.

Introducing Cinderella: Meet the Eastern Washington Eagles

Tyler Harvey and company are a team to keep an eye on (AP Photo)
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Tyler Harvey and company are a team to keep an eye on (AP Photo)

Conference: Big Sky

Coach: Jim Hayford

Record: 26-8 (14-4)

Ratings and rankings:

Kenpom: 140
RPI (NCAA.com): 78
AP/USA Today: Not ranked

Seeding: Eastern Washington is projected to be a 14-seed in the NCAA tournament.

Names you need to know: G Tyler Harvey (23.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.7 apg), F Venky Jois (16.9 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2.3 bpg), F Ognjen Miljkovic (10.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg), G Drew Brandon (9.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 4.9 apg)

Stats you need to know: Jim Hayford’s Eagles are one of the best offensive teams in the country, as they’re averaging 81.1 points per game (third in the country). Eastern Washington shoots 40.6 percent from three and 48.1 percent from the field, ranking in the top 20 nationally in both categories. As for the defensive end, opponents are shooting 44.9 percent from the field and 38.8 percent from beyond the arc and those are numbers this team could stand to improve upon.

Tendencies: The three-point shot is an important one for this group, as they score more than 38 percent of their points by way of that shot with six players having made at least 20 three-pointers. Eastern also shoots well inside of the arc, as they’re making 52.2 percent of their two-point attempts per kenpom.com. Harvey’s the main scoring option, but that doesn’t mean he’s the only player capable of getting going. That’s what makes this team so tough to defend. The Eagles will show multiple looks defensively, including some full-court pressure, but the defense is where this team has had issues.

Big wins, bad losses: Eastern Washington posted one of the biggest wins in school history in late November, as they won at Indiana. Their worst non-conference loss came at Washington in December. In conference play the Big Sky regular season co-champions picked up wins over fellow contenders Montana (they beat the Grizzlies in Missoula twice this season) and Sacramento State. As for any head-scratching losses, their two-point home loss to Portland State is probably the only one.

How’d they get here?: With the Big Sky tournament being played on Montana’s home court, Eastern Washington erased a nine-point second half deficit to win 69-65. Prior to that the Eagles took care of Idaho and Sacramento State by identical 91-83 scores, and overall they’ve won five straight heading into the NCAA tournament.

Outlook: This is a very dangerous team, and because of their offensive skill Eastern Washington is more than capable of springing an upset. But the defense is the question mark with this group, especially if they run up against a team that can cycle perimeter defenders on Harvey without a serious drop-off.

How do I know them?: Of course there’s the win over Indiana, and they also played No. 20 SMU tight before ultimately losing by nine. This is Eastern Washington’s second NCAA tournament appearance with the first coming in 2004 when they lost to eventual Final Four participant Oklahoma State. And the school also produced Rodney Stuckey, a first round pick in the 2007 NBA Draft who’s currently with the Indiana Pacers.

Late Night Snacks: Evansville defeats No. 23 Northern Iowa

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GAME OF THE DAY: Eastern Washington 84, Weber State 78

Two of the teams expected to contend in the Big Sky met Thursday afternoon, with EWU guard Tyler Harvey going off to lead the Eagles to the six-point home win. Harvey scored 39 points on the day, shooting 12-for-19 from the field and 7-for-10 from beyond the arc. Venky Jois added 18 points and eight rebounds for EWU, which moves to 10-4 on the season. Freshman guard Ryan Richardson led four Weber State players in double figures with 22 points.

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

1. Evansville 52, No. 23 Northern Iowa 49: The Purple Aces struggled mightily in the first half, with leading scorer D.J. Balentine scoring just four points and the team shooting 7-for-23 from the field. Marty Simmons’ team turned things around in the second half, erasing a ten-point halftime deficit with better execution on both ends of the floor, and Balentine scored 14 points to lead the Purple Aces to the win in the MVC opener for both.

Also key for Evansville was forward Egidijus Mockevicius, who added 12 points and 13 rebounds, and the Purple Aces scored 18 points off of 12 UNI turnovers. Seth Tuttle scored 18 points and Wes Washpun added 11 and eight rebounds off the bench for UNI, which is now 11-2 on the season.

2. Saint Mary’s 68, Pepperdine 59: Saint Mary’s moved to 3-0 in WCC play with a nine-point win at Pepperdine, as Brad Waldow scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds on a night that saw five Gaels score in double figures. Saint Mary’s won despite committing 17 turnovers and allowing the Waves to shoot 50 percent from the field, and they’re outscoring Pepperdine 27-9 from beyond the arc was the biggest reason why. Guards Aaron Bright and Kerry Carter hit three three-pointers apiece for Saint Mary’s.

3. Belmont 78, Southeast Missouri State 77: Craig Bradshaw scored 25 points and teammate Reese Chamberlain (ten points, nine rebounds and nine assists) nearly posted a triple-double as the Bruins held off the Redhawks in the OVC opener for both in Nashville. Jarekious Bradley led four SEMO players in double figures with 20 points, but Dickey Nutt’s team fell short due in part to Belmont hitting 14 three-pointers to their seven.

STARRED

1. Tyler Harvey, Eastern Washington: 39 points (12-for-21 FG) in Eastern Washington’s 84-78 win over Weber State.

2. Craig Bradshaw, Belmont: 25 points (10-for-15 FG) in the Bruins’ 78-77 win over Southeast Missouri State.

3. Egidijus Mockevicius, Evansville: Mockevicius posted his fifth straight double-double in the Purple Aces’ 52-49 win over No. 23 Northern Iowa, scoring 12 points and grabbing 13 rebounds.

4. Evan Payne, Loyola Marymount: 27 points (8-for-14 FG, 10-for-10 FT) in the Lions’ 77-63 loss to Pacific.

STRUGGLED

1. Tevin Svihovec, Northern Colorado: The Bears’ leading scorer (12.4 ppg) accounted for just three points in a 66-48 loss at Montana, missing all five of his field goal attempts.

2. Matt Bohannon and Deon Mitchell, Northern Iowa: Two of UNI’s three starting guards combined to shoot 0-for-7 from the field, failing to score a point in the Panthers’ 52-49 loss at Evansville.

3. Darion Rackley, Jacksonville State: Scored five points on 2-for-12 shooting in the Gamecocks’ 73-57 loss at SIU-Edwardsville.

NOTABLES

  • Chase Fischer and Tyler Haws scored 14 points apiece and Kyle Collinsworth added eight points, 15, rebounds, six assists and three steals in BYU’s 81-46 pasting of Santa Clara.
  • Christopher Anderson’s steal in the finals seconds preserved a 57-56 win for San Diego at San Francisco. Mark Tollefsen scored 14 to lead the way for USF, but the Dons shot just 8-for-15 from the foul line.
  • Idaho won its Big Sky debut to kick off its second stint in the conference, beating Idaho State 77-54.
  • Dylan Garrity scored 26 points to lead five players in double figures as Sacramento State beat Northern Arizona, 78-73.

Pregame Shootaround: Washington, Syracuse, N.C. State among teams hosting feisty mid-major opponents

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Washington’s Nigel Williams-Goss (AP)

GAME OF THE NIGHT: Eastern Washington at No. 17 Washington, 8:00 p.m.

This will be a really interesting night contest as unbeaten and No. 17 Washington hosts 8-1 Eastern Washington. Nigel Williams-Goss is having a really good sophomore season for the Huskies and the addition of Robert Upshaw has given Washington a much better interior defense than last season. They’ll have to slow down the dynamic duo Venky Jois and Tyler Harvey, who are both averaging 20 points per game for Eastern Washington. The Eagles already own a road win at Indiana, so they’re tested this season and have enough scoring punch to make this a game.

THE OTHER GAME OF THE NIGHT: Louisiana Tech at Syracuse, 4:00 p.m.

Syracuse is coming off of two consecutive losses and has struggled to find consistent point-guard play. Louisiana Tech has some depth and likes to speed it up for opposing teams. Sense a theme here? This could be a good clash of styles and we’ll see how the Orange respond to some early-season adversity while playing a talented Bulldogs team that is one of the best in Conference USA.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR: 

  • No. 15 Butler gets a tough road game when they travel to Tennessee to face the Volunteers. Both teams are going to be rugged and physical and this could easily be the type of game where the first team to 50 points wins.
  • Temple matching up with No. 7 Villanova makes for some really fun Big 5 ball on a Sunday afternoon. Can the improved Owls hand the Wildcats their first loss of the season with a road upset?
  • N.C. State won’t have any kind of easy out when they host Wofford on Sunday. The Terriers only lost senior Aerris Smith from last season’s NCAA Tournament team and the Terriers are 7-2 and favored in the Southern Conference this season.
  • A reunion of sorts as UNC-Wilmington and head coach Kevin Keatts, a former Louisville assistant, travels to face the No. 4 Cardinals. Keatts is in his first year as head coach for the Seahawks and will go against his former boss, Rick Pitino. How well will Keatts know the team he helped coach last year?
  • Michigan State hosting Oakland could be interesting. The Golden Grizzlies always get up at the chance at playing the in-state power Spartans and Oakland senior big man Corey Petros is one of the best mid-major post scorers in the country. Michigan State had some trouble defending Jahlil Okafor, could the 6-foot-10 Petros do some damage?

THE TOP 25:

  • Southern at No. 14 Iowa State, 6:00 p.m.,
  • No. 22 West Virginia at Marshall, 4:30 p.m.
  • Fordham at No. 24 St. John’s, 2:00 p.m.

OTHER NOTABLE GAMES:

  • St. Peter’s at Seton Hall, 12:00 p.m.
  • George Washington at Penn State, 12:00 p.m.
  • Illinois State at DePaul, 4:00 p.m.
  • Coppin State at UConn, 4:00 p.m.
  • Auburn at Clemson, 4:00 p.m.