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After long layoff, Eagles resume Big Sky play

Due to a major scheduling quirk, Eastern Washington University has held at least a share of the lead in the Big Sky Conference men’s basketball standings for the past 26 days.

Impressive?

Not really, considering Eastern (7-5 overall, 1-0 in the Big Sky) hasn’t faced a league opponent since disposing of visiting Montana State 61-55 at Reese Court back on Dec. 6 in the conference opener for both schools.

But the Eagles get a chance to build on their successful Big Sky start – however long ago it might have been – when they finally return to conference play with road games against Northern Arizona (0-1, 3-9) at 6:05 tonight and Sacramento State (0-0, 1-12) at 2:05 p.m. on Sunday.

Both appear winnable on paper, but second-year EWU coach Kirk Earlywine insists there will be no mail-in victories against league foes this winter, citing the lack of a clear-cut challenger to preseason favorite and defending league champion Portland State.

The Vikings thumped Montana, the team picked to finish second to them in a preseason poll of the league coaches, 72-45 back on Dec. 20, and stunned then No. 7-ranked Gonzaga 77-70 on the Bulldogs’ home court just three nights later.

“To hand Gonzaga only its third loss in the history of the McCarthey Center is a pretty tall order,” said Earlywine, who missed his team’s 58-47 road loss to Boise State on Monday to deal with legal issues following his arrest on the suspicion of driving under the influence late last week. “So I don’t think there is any question that Portland State is everyone’s pick as the team to beat in our conference this year.

“But after that, I think you could throw the other eight teams in a hat, and probably get a different answer from every coach in the league about where they think they’re all going to finish.”

Earlywine’s opinion has not changed since the start of the season, despite the way certain Big Sky teams have fared against non-league opponents.

“I tend to not pay really close attention to records at this point,” he said. “Those records can be deceiving, because of the number of road games and guarantee (money) games Big Sky teams usually have to play.”

Northern Arizona would seem to have one of those “deceiving” records, based on the fact that coach Mike Adras’ Lumberjacks have played eight of their first 12 games on the road.

“NAU’s record isn’t going to wow anyone right now,” Earlywine said, “but one of the constants in our league over the last eight or so years has been that Coach Adras’ teams have always been in the mix. And I don’t expect that to change this year.”

Earlywine also believes that his Eagles have a chance to make a statement, provided they can sustain the kind of effort they put forth in their latest loss to BSU.

“I was really encouraged,” he said after watching the game via a Boise State webcast. “It’s almost comical to say that when you only score 48 points, shoot 30 percent from the field and miss as many free throws as we did. But I thought our physical effort last night was terrific, and that’s encouraging.

“If we defend that hard and rebound like that against Big Sky opponents, we’re going to be OK.”

Idaho St 62, N Colorado 61 (OT): Center Deividas Busma’s tip-in just before the buzzer gave the Bengals (4-10, 1-0 Big Sky) an overtime win over the visiting Bears (5-9, 1-1) on Thursday.

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