Jim Hayford likes to build things, and it shows.
A solid layer of concrete was poured in his first season as head basketball coach at Eastern Washington. It was stress-tested during an inconsistent midseason, and hardened as the Eagles won four of their last seven games en route to the semifinals of the Big Sky tournament.
“The Eastern program had to be built – in every way,” said Hayford, who recently looked back – and ahead – in a wide-ranging discussion of the program.
Reaching the next level will be more difficult with the departure of three major pillars – guard Cliff Colimon and forwards Cliff Ederaine and Laron Griffin. In the season-ending loss to Montana, they accounted for 58 of the Eagles’ 66 points.
“They did a tremendous job, and we couldn’t have done this without them,” said Hayford, whose team finished 8-8 in the conference and 15-17 overall.
Still, Hayford has made some moves – some not so obvious to fans – that he hopes will pay off in the future:
• A difficult road schedule that helped provide funding for better seats at home;
• A rejuvenated summer kids camp program that drew about 900 youngsters while also providing employment for players;
• A larger donor base thanks to his 6th Man program;
• Redshirting a pair of players whom Hayford expects to be major contributors next season.
“We’ve tried not to use Band-Aids, but to lay a foundation,” Hayford said. “That’s part of the culture we have to change.”
The changes came fast and furious almost a year ago, when Hayford was hired from Division III power Whitworth. Hayford soon found he wasn’t much newer to Eastern than some of the returning players, many of whom were junior college transfers.
“A lot of guys had known each other for only about seven months, so that was another wave of newness,” said Hayford, whose tenure began with the unexpected departure of veteran point guard Glen Dean.
But Colimon moved to the point and the Eagles moved on, to an ambitious schedule that included road games at Gonzaga, Washington State, Idaho, Oregon and UCLA. Of those, they won only the Idaho game, but competed well in a difficult schedule that included 19 road games.
Griffin and Ederaine were a steady presence inside, while transfer Collin Chiverton – the eventual Big sky Newcomer of the Year – offered a dynamic offense and was the team’s leading scorer for most of the year.
The heart of the season saw the Eagles at their most inconsistent – “I don’t know what I’m going to get,” Hayford said at midseason. At one point the Eagles lost seven of 10, but two of those were nonconference games.
A pivotal win came at home against Northern Colorado on Feb. 15, when the Eagles overcame a 17-point deficit in the second half and beat the Bears 79-76. A week later, they won the first of three straight against Idaho State to reach the Big Sky semifinals, where they led for most of the game before falling to Montana 74-66.
Along the way, the Eagles enjoyed their first nonlosing conference season in six years and won their first postseason game since 2006, beating Idaho State in the quarterfinals 81-75.
Perhaps more important, they more than doubled their home attendance, from 1,101 to 2,286.
Looking ahead to next year, Hayford plans to return his entire coaching staff, along with starters Chiverton and guard Jeffrey Forbes.
Chiverton was a big part of the buzz with his athletic drives to the hoop and his 3-point shooting, but was hampered by a foot injury and later by a back injury that limited his effectiveness late in the season.
“We would have used the medical redshirt, but that was already used,” said Hayford, who is excited about having a healthy Chiverton, who averaged 13.9 points and better than 40 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
Forbes averaged almost seven points a game despite a hand injury while always guarding opponents’ top scoring threat. “He brings great emotional stability to the team,” said Hayford. “And he’s a leader.”
Forbes, the team’s defensive MVP, saved his best for the postseason, scoring 22 points and grabbing a key steal in the quarterfinal win over Idaho State.
Freshman Parker Kelly (4.8 ppg) was a key contributor last year, especially with his 45 percent 3-point shooting, but may be redshirted next year. “We need to make the decision on what’s the best thing for Parker and the program,” Hayford said.
The biggest hole is in the middle; most of the rebounds – 703 out of 1,090 last year – have left the building.
Recruiting and player evaluation will dictate some of those decisions. Hayford stresses that he hopes that over the long haul, about 80 percent of the roster will be filled with “four-year guys.”
Already in the fold from last year are 6-foot-10 post Martin Seiferth, a transfer from Oregon; and Justin Crosgile, a 5-11 guard who played 45 games and averaged almost six points a game in two years at St. Joseph’s.
“Justin is going to be a premier playmaker,” said Hayford, who will welcome Australian Daniel Hill, whom he compares to Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos.