Eastern Washington’s strong finish last season made an impression, especially with the people who cover Big Sky Conference men’s basketball.
Despite returning only two starters, the Eagles are picked third in the preseason media poll released Thursday. Big Sky coaches picked them sixth out of 11 teams.
Eastern finished the season 15-17 overall and 8-8 in the conference under new coach Jim Hayford, hosting and winning its first Big Sky conference tournament game since 2006. That team was selected third by the coaches and sixth by the media.
“Last year I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Hayford, who previously coached at Division III Whitworth.
“We do feel that we have the potential to be an improved team over last year’s team.”
The Eagles return conference newcomer of the year Collin Chiverton and guard Jeffrey Forbes. Chiverton averaged 13.9 points last season despite injuries.
Defending conference champion Montana was the top choice of both groups. The Grizzlies received eight first-place votes and 98 total points in the coaches’ poll, and 24 first-place votes and 344 points in the media poll.
Montana returns a pair of all-conference performers in senior guard Will Cherry and junior Kareem Jamar.
Weber State, which lost to Montana in the conference title game, was selected second in both polls.
The Wildcats lost two-time conference player of the year Damian Lillard to the NBA a year early, but still earned three first-place votes from the coaches and 92 total points. The Wildcats earned 318 points from the media with eight first-place votes.
Northern Colorado was selected third by the coaches and fourth by the media. The Bears, who won the 2010-11 title, led the nation in 3-point shooting percentage (44.4) a season ago.
League newcomer North Dakota was picked fourth by the coaches and sixth by the media. Portland State was picked to finish fifth in both polls. The Vikings lost all-conference performers Charles Odum and Chehales Tapscott from last season’s team that finished third.
The 2013 Big Sky Championship includes the top seven teams from the regular-season standings. The championship will be played March 14-16 at the site of the regular-season champion. The No. 1 seed will receive a bye to the semifinals. There will be three first-round games on March 14.
Teams will play 20 conference games this season in a true double round-robin format.
“That will test your depth with everyone playing each other twice,” Hayford said.