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Eastern Washington men exude confidence in improved Big Sky Conference

Eastern Washington’s Luka Vulikic, left, shoots against Stanford’s Michael Humphrey  on Nov. 14, 2017, in Stanford, California. Eastern Washington won 67-61. (Ben Margot / AP)
Eastern Washington’s Luka Vulikic, left, shoots against Stanford’s Michael Humphrey on Nov. 14, 2017, in Stanford, California. Eastern Washington won 67-61. (Ben Margot / AP)

Eastern Washington took some lumps during the nonconference men’s basketball season. Now the Eagles hope to inflict a few on their Big Sky Conference brethren.

“I think we’re going to surprise people,” said Eagles coach Shantay Legans, whose team was picked to finish seventh this year.

It won’t be that easy in a season that’s already full of surprises. So far, the conference is having a remarkable year, perhaps one of its best. Last year, the Big Sky was rated only 29th out of 33 Division I conferences; this year it’s 19th.

Overachievement is everywhere:

  • Northern Colorado – the Eagles’ opponent in their conference opener on Friday in Greeley – has won five of its last six and is a surprising 115th in RPI.
  • Preseason favorite Idaho is living up to its billing with a 9-3 record that includes a win over Washington State.
  • North Dakota is only 2-7 but nearly shocked the world, or at least Spokane, by taking No. 12 Gonzaga to overtime on Dec. 16.
  • Longtime cellar-dweller Southern Utah is 4-5 against a difficult schedule and currently sits at 89th in RPI despite the transfer of all-conference guard Randy Onwuasor.

And then there’s Portland State, one of the biggest surprises in the nation this season. The Vikings got the biggest headlines at the PK80 tournament after leading No. 1 Duke at halftime in a game they lost by 18.

Since then, PSU has defeated Stanford and California – the latter by 25 points on Thursday – and also owns wins over West Coast Conference teams Portland, Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara.

PSU’s reward is a No. 47 ranking in RPI, a program-best 10-3 nonconference mark, and a target on its back for the rest of the year.

That’s OK with Legans, whose Eagles will get two shots at PSU this year, the first on Jan. 4 at Reese Court.

“We’ve had a great, hard schedule – we had five nonconference wins and a difficult strength of schedule,” Legans said.

“For us to be picked seventh, our team put that on our shoulders and said we aren’t going to be seventh. We are going to be better than that.”

The Eagles have been through a lot this year, most of it on a 10-game road trip that encompassed the highs (a win at Stanford) and the lows (heartbreak losses at South Dakota and Wyoming).

But after a pair of home wins last week, Legans said the Eagles are eager to get back at it.

The signs are encouraging. Even with four newcomers seeing action and starters Luka Vulikic and Mason Peatling missing several games, the Eagles are gaining confidence. They’re shooting 51 percent over the last four games.

No matter what, expect the Eagles to lean on senior forward Bogdan Bliznyuk, whose 17.8 scoring average is more than twice that of No. 2 scorer Ty Gibson (8.5).


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Eagles to face Syracuse in basketball opener

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