With the first 12 games of his NCAA Division I head coaching career in his rear-view mirror, Jim Hayford admits to feeling more comfortable than he did in March, when he was hired to turn around the fortunes of Eastern Washington University’s struggling men’s basketball program.
But he also is quick to confess he still has much to learn about his first Eastern team, and the Big Sky Conference, in general.
“The hardest part for me is that while there are less variables to consider now, I’m still not confident what I’m going to get from my team each night out,” said Hayford, whose Eagles will take a 6-6 record into Wednesday night’s Big Sky opener against Montana State (5-6) in Bozeman, Mont.
“It’s obvious we are further along than we were, but the number of questions I still have in my mind makes it clear just how far we still have to go.”
In preparing for the start of BSC play, Eastern tackled one of the most difficult nonconference schedules in school history, playing three Pac-12 schools (Washington State, Oregon and UCLA) and two of the top teams in the West Coast Conference (Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s), all on the road.
The Eagles lost all five, but stuck around until the latter stages of the second half in nearly every one.
Hayford hopes that will help his team’s mindset as it embarks on a difficult start to league play that has it playing another road game against Montana (7-5) on Friday, before returning home to take on preseason Big Sky favorite Weber State (8-3) at Reese Court on Jan. 5.
“I think what our preseason gives us is confidence that we can be in the postseason mix in the Big Sky, where you only have to win two or three games to make the NCAA tournament,” Hayford said, “along with the confidence that, if we get there, we can play with just about anybody.
“You would hope that having played in the venues we’ve played in, our guys would feel they can look just about any challenge in the eye.”
In attempting to analyze the Big Sky and his own team’s title chances, Hayford insists little has changed since the start of the season, when league coaches and members of the media picked Weber State to capture its fourth BSC title under sixth-year coach Randy Rahe.
“I think all the questions that were on the league in early November are still on the league,” he said, noting that WSU, Montana and Portland State (7-6) are the only three Big Sky teams with better than .500 records.
“Weber has put its head above everyone else, just like everyone expected, but everyone else thinks – and rightfully so – that they can beat anyone else, which should make for some good, exciting basketball.”
Adding to the unpredictability of this year’s league race are the rare in-season departures of Northern Arizona’s Mike Adras and Idaho State’s Joe O’Brien, who both resigned their head coaching positions this month.
Hayford considers his Eagles to be among the teams capable of challenging for a first-division finish and, perhaps, even a regular-season Big Sky title. But in order to do so they will need to show more consistency than they did against nonleague opponents.
In analyzing his team’s first 12 games, Hayford discovered that senior center Cliff Ederaine had shot 72 percent from the field in the six wins and only 27 percent in the six losses. And he also noticed that senior point guard Cliff Colimon’s shooting percentage from 3-point range was 20 percent higher in the six wins than in the six losses.
“I’m certainly not blaming anything on those two,” Hayford said, “but that shows how inconsistent we’ve been. The games where we’ve had three dimensions to our attack – an interior post presence on offense, outside shooting and a drive game – we’ve proven we can play with anybody.
“But in the games where we weren’t able to establish an interior post presence, we showed we can lose to anyone, as well.”
Among the other numbers Hayford found intriguing about the nonconference season was that Big Sky teams were 32-14 at home and only 9-40 on the road – a trend he sees continuing throughout the season.
“Road wins will be scarce, and when you find one, it’s going to be extremely valuable,” Hayford said. “I think the team that is able to edge out a few on the road is going to find itself with home playoff games in the conference tournament.”
And with two challenging Big Sky road games in its immediate future, Eastern has a great opportunity to make a strong early season statement – and answer a few more of Hayford’s many remaining questions.