Venky Jois kept the interview short; chemistry class was a few minutes away.
The chemistry practicum – a 2 ½-hour exercise in bonding and basketball at Reese Court – had just ended. The nucleus is Jois himself, last year’s Big Sky Conference freshman of the year.
“He’s the kind of player you can build a program on,” third-year coach Jim Hayford said of Jois, a 6-foot-7 forward from Australia, who along with center Martin Seiferth gives the Eagles one of the top returning frontcourts in the Big Sky Conference.
Jois averaged 12.3 points and nine rebounds, while Seiferth, a German-born transfer from Oregon, led the conference in field-goal shooting at 62.3 percent while averaging 8.2 points and 6.3 rebounds.
Good numbers for sure, but the pair made history last year by blocking a combined 134 shots, the top two single-season performances at Eastern. The 6-10 Seiferth, with 68 blocks overall and 2.2 per game, was a defensive highlight reel all season.
So was Jois, a lithe 230-pounder Hayford describes as “solid and talented.”
“If you’re an Eastern fan, come watch this guy, because some school records are going to be his,” Hayford said.
That Eastern’s record last year was 7-13 in the Big Sky and 10-21 overall spoke more to youth, inexperience and chemistry than anything else, players and coaches said.
“A year ago we had so many guys at the same time, with everybody feeling each other out,” Hayford said. “This year everything seems a lot more cohesive and a lot more enjoyable.”
That goes double for Jois, who admits he wasn’t sure what to expect when he arrived in Cheney last year. He said the Eagles have improved “leaps and bounds” from a year ago, especially on the offensive end.
On both sides of the court, Jois said he and his teammates need to show more toughness, as well as “those little intangibles that people don’t pay much attention to.”
Seifert too was a bit of an unknown last year. A youth spent in Berlin and two seasons on the bench at Oregon meant that last season was his first against top competition. “It was a year of investment, and the return will be high,” Hayford said.
That may be true for the entire team, which was among the youngest in the conference last year, and has no seniors this season. Jois is a true sophomore and Seiferth a redshirt junior, so they’re expected to provide leadership as well as rebounds.
“I feel like everyone is more focused … and we’ve grown mentally older,” said Seiferth.
Hayford has several choices at small forward, including not having one at all if he goes with a three-guard lineup. Last year, the Eagles got a solid effort from another German, Thomas Reuter, who averaged 5.4 points and 3.1 points while playing 22 minutes a game as a true freshman.
Newcomer Ogjnen Miljkovic, a 6-7, 220-pounder from Serbia, “is one of the freshmen who’s poked his head out a little bit” since practice began Oct. 1, Hayford said.
“He’s hard to guard and he can shoot the 3,” said Hayford, who will count on reserves Garrett Moon and Felix Von Hofe on the bench.
The backcourt is full of potential, starting with redshirt sophomore Tyler Harvey, who turned in perhaps the best crunch-time performance of the 2012-13 season. With the Eagles trailing by 18 at Northern Arizona with 7 ½ minutes to play, Harvey scored 14 points as Eastern rallied for an overtime win that kept it in the playoff hunt.
The 6-4 Harvey is athletic and can play either guard position. “I really like blurring positions,” Hayford said. “You have to guard him as a distributor and you have to defend him as a shooter.”
Along with junior college transfer Drew Brandon, an experienced 6-3 point guard, the Eagles can offer a backcourt that will play a greater role on the boards.
Junior Parker Kelly, who played 28 minutes a game last year, will again see plenty of action. The Eagles’ top outside scoring threat, Kelly averaged 9.5 points last year – second only behind Jois among returnees.