Going strictly by the numbers, it is tempting to say Eastern Washington’s men’s basketball team – which hosts Big Sky Conference rival Montana tonight at 7:05 at Reese Court – has been in this situation before.
As recently as last January, when the Eagles (9-9 overall, 3-3 in the Big Sky) were sporting the same 3-3 league record heading into the final two games of the first half of their conference schedule.
But second-year coach Kirk Earlywine doesn’t buy into that idea, noting this year’s team seems much more capable of handling the late-season pressures it will inevitably face than last year’s, which went 3-7 down the stretch and failed to qualify for the Big Sky Tournament.
“A year ago, we only had three guys on our roster who had been through that,” Earlywine said in reference to senior guard Marcus Hinton, junior center Brandon Moore and the departed Kellen Williams. “And now, we have quite a few more who have been through it – and, more importantly, been through it with me.
“In that regard, I feel we’re better equipped to deal with it. But I’m not sure that means a whole lot to the Grizzlies, and it certainly doesn’t make them any less daunting.”
Tonight’s game features the Big Sky’s top two scorers in EWU’s Benny Valentine, a 5-foot-6 junior who is averaging 17.5 points per game, and Montana’s Anthony Johnson, a 6-2 junior who is averaging 15.8.
Johnson, a first-year junior college transfer, took over the starting role left vacant when Ceylon Elgin-Taylor was ruled ineligible nine games into the season. Since then, he has averaged 22.8 points per game – all of them coming against Big Sky opponents.
“He can really get it to the basket,” Earlywine said of Johnson, who has taken only 28 shots from 3-point range. “He’s very, very explosive off the dribble, and especially in transition, where he causes a whole lot of problems for the other team. So we’re going to have to be very good with our team defense, because I just don’t think we’re going to be able to guard him in transition with one guy.”
The Grizzlies also have a quality big man in 6-9 senior forward Jordan Hasquet, who is averaging 11 points and a team-high 5.7 rebounds in what seems – to Earlywine, at least – to be his sixth or seventh season at UM.
“I’m starting to wonder if he’s not a Mormon,” Earlywine said. “You know, one of those kids who has gone on a mission and is 27 years old, like some of those guys we had at Utah and Weber when I was an assistant there. Plus, he’s a tough cover – to quote the NBA guys – because he’s a big, strong, good athlete who can score it in the paint, and he can really shoot the ball from the perimeter as well.”
Both teams are among four tied for fourth in the Big Sky standings, just percentage points behind third-place Idaho State (3-2).
“You can throw us all in a hat right now,” Earlywine said of his Eagles, ISU, Montana, Montana State, Northern Colorado and Northern Arizona, which is 2-4 in league play. “And out of that group of six teams, there’s going to be two that don’t make it to the conference tournament.
“But out of that group, somebody is going to finish in the top three, as well, so there’s not a lot of margin for error. Montana knows that, and they’ll be ready to play come 7 … on Wednesday.
“I just hope we are.”
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