Confident EWU reaching peak

Eastern guard Tyler Harvey has lived up to the lofty expectations of coach Jim Hayford. (Colin Mulvany)

Point guard still out, but Harvey in high gear

The energy of Tuesday’s basketball practice at Reese Court carried over into the media interviews, as coach Jim Hayford and star guard Tyler Harvey joked in front of the cameras.

“Before the season, I predicted that Tyler would break the school record for 3s in a season, lead the Big Sky Conference in scoring with a 23-point average, play 38 minutes a game and get straight-A’s in the classroom,” Hayford said as he put Harvey in a playful headlock.

Harvey has done all of that this year, leading the Eagles to the brink of reaching Hayford’s oft-stated goal of qualifying for the Big Sky’s seven-team tournament.

With two games to go, the ball is in Harvey’s hands – even more so now that starting point guard Drew Brandon is sidelined with a hand injury suffered last week.

“Whatever coach needs me to do, I’ll give it my best,” Harvey said as the Eagles prepared for tonight’s game against Idaho State, one that Hayford calls “arguably as big as Eastern has played in 10 years.”

That, of course, was 2004, the first and so far last time the Eagles have qualified for the NCAA tournament. This year, the Eagles first need to get to next week’s Big Sky affair in Ogden, Utah. A win tonight and another on Saturday against Weber State will seal the deal.

“We’re all playing our best basketball at the right time, and we’re peaking at the right time,” junior point guard Parker Kelly said.

The Eagles (9-9 Big Sky, 14-15 overall) are coming off a split on the road, winning 80-66 at Northern Colorado and falling 69-67 on a last-second bucket on Saturday at North Dakota. They’ve won three of their last five, and are 7-2 at home this year. The inside game is prospering, and the versatility Harvey developed last year as a combo guard is paying dividends this season.

That’s a good thing, because Hayford said that Brandon is “very unlikely” to play this week after suffering a severely bruised right hand after colliding with a Northern Colorado player.

In Brandon’s absence, Hayford expects reserves Ogjnen Milkovic and Felix von Hofe to contribute the way they did last week, and hopes for quality minutes from backup point Daniel Hill.

Tonight they’ll face an Idaho State team that, at 8-10, needs to beat Eastern as well as Portland State on Saturday to have a chance at the postseason.

In their first meeting on Jan. 4 in Pocatello, several Eagles were felled by food poisoning before they fell to the Bengals 83-72.

Before Tuesday’s practice, Hayford and his players watched film of that game.

“That wasn’t the same team that’s playing now,” said Harvey, who set a school single-season record last week when he drilled his 104th 3-pointer of the season at Northern Colorado.

In addition to making fewer mistakes compared with last year, the Eagles have markedly improved their rebounding (plus-1.9 this year, minus 4.2 last season) and free throw shooting (70.4 percent, up from 65.5 percent).

Stats alone won’t win tonight’s game.

“Idaho State won’t beat themselves, we have to beat them,” Hayford said.

Playoff scenarios

 If EWU finishes 11-9 in Big Sky play, it is guaranteed a spot in the seven-team Big Sky tournament, and could finish anywhere from third to seventh, depending on other games. No matter what, the Eagles’ seeding wouldn’t be set until the rest of the teams play Saturday night.

 If the Eagles finish 10-10, the possibilities are bewildering. Assuming North Dakota (12-7) and Northern Colorado (10-9) take care of winless Southern Utah, those two teams, plus regular-season champ Weber State (13-5) and Montana (11-7), would finish ahead of the Eagles. That would leave six teams competing for the remaining three spots, and the Eagles’ fate would be out of their hands. For example, Sacramento State and Portland State (both 9-9) would each get to 11-9 with a pair of home wins, while Northern Arizona (10-8) needs to win just one home game against either Montana or Montana State.

 Eastern’s best hope at 10-10 is a multi-team tie that includes Montana State – whom the Eagles swept this year – and that doesn’t include Portland State (which swept Eastern).

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