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EWU men’s basketball believes Big Sky title reachable

Thu., Aug. 7, 2014, midnight

Improbably, the clatter of football spikes was briefly drowned out by the squeak of tennis shoes Wednesday morning at Eastern Washington University.

As the football team began another round of two-a-days, Eagles basketball coach Jim Hayford was presiding over a two-hour session at Reese Court.

Hayford’s program has made a lot of noise in the offseason: Longtime top assistant Craig Fortier left the team to join his wife’s staff at Gonzaga; in the reshuffling EWU director of basketball operations David Riley became an assistant.

Two months later, Hayford received a vote of confidence in the form of a raise, from $99,000 a year to $117,000. In the meantime, he lost two of his earliest recruits, both from Germany: former starting center Martin Seiferth is now playing professionally in his homeland, while forward Thomas Reuter left for medical reasons.

The season can’t arrive soon enough for Hayford, who begins his fourth year in Cheney with a team all his own. Most were on hand for the seventh of eight two-hour practices allowed by the NCAA for players enrolled in summer term. In other words, the coaches were getting their penultimate look until formal practices begin on Sept. 15.

Summer enrollees also are allowed six hours of strength and conditioniing training; more importantly, it gives four true freshmen a chance to get acclimated, on and off the court.

“It keeps them focused and really lets them get ahead academically,” said Hayford, whose team figures to be among the preseason favorites in the Big Sky Conference this season. Last year, the Eagles finished 10-10 in the conference, 15-16 overall and were a tiebreaker short of reaching the postseason.

A reshaped lineup looks more athletic. Small forward Ognjen Miljkovic has gained 15 pounds and now can put his 6-7, 235-pound frame in the middle along with All-Big Sky power forward Venky Jois (6-8, 230).

The backcourt looks settled, with senior point guard Drew Brandon feeding last year’s leading scorer, Tyler Harvey (21.3 ppg) and former Gonzaga Prep star Parker Kelly.

Going into his final year, Kelly hopes to help the coaches impart to the newcomers “the importance of defense and mental toughness it takes to win at the Division I level.”

Harvey, a junior who didn’t see full-time action until last year, said the summer sessions give him a chance to “be a leader and be a little louder, so hopefully they can learn from me.”

True freshmen include Cody Benzel, a 6-4 guard from Ferris High School; Will Ferris, a 6-1 point guard from Bellevue; Bogdan Bliznyuk, a 6-6 forward from Federal Way; and Bear Henderson, a 6-6 forward from Mission Hills, Calif.

Hayford said Ferris is the least likely to be redshirted, to give him a chance to grow into the point guard role with upperclassmen Brandon and Daniel Hill.

Another key newcomer, is Kyle Reid, 6-6 junior college transfer from Cleveland who Hayford calls “really springy and a good rebounder”.

Guard Sir Washington, a redshirt freshman from Las Vegas, will add depth in the backcourt, Hayford said.

“I think what we have is a balance of depth and classes, not having to count on them (the freshmen) right away,” Hayford said.

“Our guys feel like they should compete for the league championship, but we’ve got to prove it on the court,” Hayford said.

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