As measuring sticks go, it’s hard to beat Sunday’s Eastern Washington men’s basketball game against UC Irvine.
The Eagles get a rare chance to face the same nonconference opponent in the same season, one that beat them by 23 points three weeks ago.
Even better, fans at Reese Court will get to see Eastern take on the tallest player in Division I basketball, 7-foot-6 Anteaters freshman Mamadou Ndiaye of Senegal.
“This is the type of game we have to figure out ways to win,” said Eastern coach Jim Hayford, whose team is 5-3, its best start in eight years.
In their last meeting on Nov. 24, Ndiaye was a one-man swat team, blocking 10 shots as UC Irvine held the Eagles to a season-low 30 percent shooting from the field in the final game of the 2K Sports Classic in Irvine, Calif.
That 81-58 loss came one night after the Eagles’ best overall effort of the season, a 102-70 win over an LIU-Brooklyn team that earlier lost by one point to Indiana. Meanwhile, Irvine (5-5) was coming off a loss to a Boston University team that Eastern also beat handily. According to Hayford, the Anteaters took out their frustrations on the Eagles.
Still, the Eagles won two of three games in a tournament that Hayford hopes will simulate conditions at the Big Sky Conference tournament he hopes to rejoin after missing out last year.
Since then, Eastern beat Seattle University 82-75 at home on Nov. 29 before falling 93-65 Sunday at unbeaten Saint Mary’s.
“I like the development of our team, fighting through adversity,” said Hayford, in his third year in Cheney. “I’m just seeing them develop more resolve – we’re getting better.”
Stats seem to back that up: The Eagles are shooting 48.5 percent from the field, own a plus-2.6 rebounding margin per game and are holding opponents to 41.1 percent from the field and 33.7 percent from 3-point range.
Sophomore guard Tyler Harvey is picking up where he left off at the end of last season, averaging 20.2 points a game on 51 percent shooting, including 49 percent from long range. Harvey also has logged 35 minutes a game.
EWU sophomore forward Venky Jois – last year’s Big Sky Conference freshman of the year – is averaging 14.5 points and a team-high 7.6 rebounds, but is struggling at the free-throw line with a 55.6 percent average.
New point guard Drew Brandon is averaging 11.6 points and 5.6 assists while “exceeding my expectations as a rebounder,” Hayford said of Brandon’s 7.2 average that trails only Jois.
Eastern’s December schedule also includes games against Seton Hall and Connecticut before opening conference play Jan. 2 at Weber State.
“It will be a very, very difficult month of December,” Hayford said. “I’m sure we’ll be the underdog in all of our games, but with that comes the opportunity to gain more and more respect.”