A little toughness could make everything a bit easier this season for the Eastern Washington Eagles men’s basketball team.
To that end, the Eagles moved aggressively into the new year during their first practice Tuesday morning at Reese Court.
It doesn’t hurt that third-year head coach Jim Hayford returns four starters and six lettermen from last year’s young squad, which finished 7-13 in the Big Sky Conference and 10-21 overall.
“The best thing is, we didn’t have to pass out so many name tags,” Hayford said. “All these freshmen and sophomores … we know each other a little better, having been through everything last year.”
That included a difficult nonconference schedule, a key player defection and a rash of injuries. This year’s 31-game schedule is every bit as tough: one week after the opener at Reese Court against Division III Pacific, the Eagles play at Washington. Also on the schedule are Connecticut and Seton Hall.
Hayford hopes experience – “and a little more toughness” – will mean winning more close games. Nine of EWU’s losses last year were one-possession games with less than four minutes remaining, and the Eagles finished 6-10 in games decided by 10 points or less.
“There were a number of close games,” he said. “That is part of being in a competitive conference. The hard part about experience is getting it. Hopefully we got it, and we will win more than our fair share of those close games this year. I do like that our guys found ways to win some of those last year.”
The returning starters include forward Venky Jois, the Big Sky Freshman of the Year, center Martin Seiferth, forward Thomas Reuter and guard Parker Kelly. Forwards Garrett Moon and Danny Powell are coming off redshirt seasons.
Other key returnees are guards Tyler Harvey – a late-season revelation last year – and Daniel Hill. However, the key to success may be junior point guard Drew Brandon, a 6-foot-4, 180-pound transfer from Sierra College in California.
“We’re really counting on Drew Brandon at the point,” said Hayford, who watched last year’s point, Justin Crosgile, quit the team in midseason.
“We have starters at all five positions, so if he can fill that point guard spot capably, that’s really going to expedite the maturing process for our team,” Hayford said.
Hayford said Brandon is strong at creating his own shots and getting off screens.
Other newcomers include forwards Ognjen Miljkovic from Serbia and Felix Von Hofe of Australia.
Jois and Seiferth comprise one of the better frontcourts in the Big Sky Conference, but Jois says the Eagles need to do a better job of rebounding, particulary in the second half. The Eagles were outrebounded last year by an average of 4.2 boards per game.
“We’ve been focusing a lot on rebounding, where we don’t come in with a weakness but a strength,” Jois said.
This season, the Eagles will be without 7-1 center Frederik Jorg, who will redshirt. Freshman guard Sir Washington is not expected to qualify academically and will not play or even practice this year.
The Eagles will hold 30 practices between now and the opener. The Eagles will open Big Sky play Jan. 2 at Weber State and Jan. 4 at Idaho State, with the home conference opener on Jan. 9 against Montana.