Things have changed dramatically since Eastern Washington finished its regular-season sweep of Portland State a month ago, enough that the Eagles shouldn’t be overconfident for tonight’s Big Sky Conference Tournament opener.
If the Vikings weren’t riding high after taking the Eagles to overtime – a game they had a good shot to win at the end of regulation – they should be now after posting four straight wins which pushed them into the final playoff berth.
“There is no question we have our hands full,” Eagles coach Mike Burns said. “You could make a strong argument that they are playing the best basketball in the Big Sky Conference based on the teams they have defeated in the order they have beaten them. It’s going to take a tremendous effort.”
The Vikings have every reason to feel good about themselves. They won two road games and then defeated Montana and Montana State to get into playoff contention following a 1-9 conference start that included an 89-70 home loss to Eastern.
At the same time, the lineup that was working for first-year coach Ken Bone has to be altered since 6-foot-11 sophomore center Scott Morrison has been suspended for today’s 7 p.m. game at Reese. Morrison threw a punch after the Vikings beat Montana in overtime last weekend.
“We’re just probably going to go right back with Tyler Hollist,” Bone said. “He started, I think, 17 games for us. … Then we’re going to have to get more minutes out of Tyrel Mara and Keith Sconiers, two guys who both played 2 minutes in a 45-minute game the other day.
“I’m not sure there is any other way around it except to change our style of play and our philosophy for one game after we’ve been playing 4 1/2 months to play a certain style. Hopefully those other kids that haven’t played a lot can step up and have a great game.”
Hollist is a 6-7 senior who scores 5.9 points and grabs 4.9 rebounds. Morrison averages 9.3 and 5.3.
Even without Morrison, the Vikings are formable inside with 6-9 Anthony Washington, a transfer from the University of Washington who averages 10.3 points per game. Guards Ryan Sommer (10.2 ppg) and senior Jake Schroeder (12.5 ppg) are capable of big nights and 6-6 Juma Kamara (11.3 ppg) led the league in 3-point shooting at 53 percent.
Another key is how the Vikings defend Big Sky MVP Rodney Stuckey, who had 53 points in the two Eastern wins. Reserve guard Josh Neeley is expected to get the bulk of the work.
“I would say most of the time when he is on the floor he’ll be on Rodney, but not all the time,” Bone said. “We’ll try to give Rodney different looks throughout the game, as if that will work.”
The Eagles, who have won six of nine with four players in double figures in five of the wins, hope to counter with balance.
Paul Butorac had 26 points in the two games and Deuce Smith 23. In the first-game blowout 11 players scored and Jake Beitinger had 11 key points off the bench in the second game.
“We knew people were going to do things to slow Rodney down and we needed other people to step up,” Burns said. “We’ve had a lot of different kids in different games step up and play well. That’s been huge for us in the second half of the conference season.”
The winners of this game and the Sacramento State at Montana State game join Northern Arizona and Montana in the semifinals at Flagstaff, Ariz. on Tuesday. Conference champion Northern Arizona faces the lowest remaining seed, but Eastern can only play Montana, the only team to sweep the Eagles this year.
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