SEATTLE – All that’s missing is the mouse and the cheese.
It seems to be a proverbial “trap game,” today’s matchup between Washington of the Pac-10 and Eastern Washington of the Big Sky Conference. The Huskies (2-0) scheduled their fifth game in five seasons with the Eagles (1-2) in the middle of the NIT Season Tipoff – just in case they lost at home in the first or second round of the tournament.
“Oh, yeah, definitely,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said of that scheduling rationale. “We’ve got a lot of confidence in ourselves, but there are a lot of good teams in the NIT that lose.”
But the Huskies didn’t. Jon Brockman’s career night carried them to a tense, rousing rally past Utah and into the semifinals against No. 15 Texas A&M at New York’s Madison Square Garden in a national showcase Wednesday.
That is, after this “side” game.
“I hope so. I hope they are thinking that way,” Kirk Earlywine, Eastern Washington’s first-year coach, said through a chuckle.
No chance, said Romar. He insists his team – picked to finish eighth in the Pac-10 and in proving mode coming off a 19-13 season – is not looking past Eastern. That’s even though the Eagles are without prolific scorer Rodney Stuckey, who’s gone to the NBA, and until this week had only had three players who had played in a Division I game.
“I’m sure we will touch on it,” Romar said of the temptation to look ahead too soon to the excitement of New York. “But over the years, we’ve rarely done that. I think we’ll be fine.
“If we don’t play well (today), it won’t be because we’re looking past Eastern Washington. We’re not looking past anybody.”
EWU is just looking for a break. The Eagles opened with a 27-point loss at No. 9 Washington State and a 35-point defeat at New Mexico, in Steve Alford’s coaching debut for the Lobos. It took a second-half rally at home Thursday night to beat UC Riverside 59-51, the first Division I coaching win for Earlywine. He spent 22 years as an assistant at the top level.
He said life without Stuckey has been a challenge. The Detroit Pistons’ 15th overall pick in June’s NBA draft led the Big Sky in scoring last season at 24.6 points per game.
“It’d be a whole lot easier with him, that’s for sure,” Earlywine said, laughing again. “Maybe with the exception of the Washington game last year against Spencer Hawes (which UW won 90-83), I think Eastern went into every game with the best player on the floor.”
Kellen Williams, the Eagles’ only returning starter, had his second career double-double in leading the rally to win Thursday.
“It’s been a challenge offensively,” Earlywine said.
Washington’s latest challenge could be finding more playing time for freshman Justin Holiday. The 6-foot-6 swing man entered the Utah game late and provided the perimeter defense Romar had been seeking all night. The Utes’ Stephen Weigh had 18 points until Holiday came in to guard him midway through the second half. Weigh had three points the rest of the game – and took just one shot in the final 10 minutes, with Holiday in his face most of that time.
“I would say he earned himself confidence with us,” said Romar, who has stressed more intense defense since the first day of preseason practice. “He definitely got our attention, I’d say it that way.”
Today’s matinee isn’t the end of Eastern’s grind. The Eagles will spend Thanksgiving with three games at the Great Alaska Shootout. Their first is with Virginia Tech of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the second game there will be against either Michigan or Butler, the latter of which made the NCAA tournament last spring.
Washington, Virginia Tech, Michigan and Butler all had at least 19 victories last season, and collectively went 92-45.
EWU also plays at No. 4 Kansas on Dec. 5.