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Eastern’s recent stumble just doesn’t make sense

It is neither fair nor correct to suggest that what’s happened to Eastern Washington’s 2009 basketball season is subtraction by addition.

But something isn’t adding up.

Victories, for one thing.

The Eagles approach Saturday’s midpoint of the Big Sky Conference having slipped into the second division after a rather embarrassing 63-50 loss to Montana at Reese Court on Wednesday night. It’s not so much the placement that should worry the Eagles – aside from Portland State and Weber State at the top and Sacramento State giving it the old Ty Willingham try, the Sky is one big middle class – but that at a time when even the worst teams in college basketball are making at least incremental gains, Eastern is making like a soap sliver in a shower drain.

“We’re not the same team we were the first month of the season,” said coach Kirk Earlywine, “and I don’t know why.”

And he knows better than anyone that this is a bad time not to know.

November is the time not to know, but in November the Eagles and Earlywine seemed to have the answers. They won six of their first eight games, with a worthy road victory at Portland (which had already knocked off Washington), a couple of game good-tries against Big Ten bullies and a head-start win in the Sky over Montana State.

Then came a trip to Hawaii. Perhaps the airline lost the Eagles’ game instead of their luggage.

They are 3-8 since that happy start.

“We need to find some heart,” said guard Benny Valentine, “and a will to win.”

Wednesday approached as a likely place to look. In Montana, they’ve been agitating to delist the gray wolf from endangered status and replace it with the road victory. The Grizzlies were 1-8 in enemy gyms this season – a failing not peculiar to them, what with Sky cousins Northern Arizona (1-10), Idaho State (0-10) and Sac (0-11) also traveling poorly. The last four times out on the road, the Grizzlies have shot just 34 percent – 20 percent from beyond the arc.

So, of course, they went out and made 14 of their first 27 attempts against Eastern – and 7 of 15 from 3-point range.

“You could see the tension fall off our guys,” said UM coach Wayne Tinkle.

And you could see the Eagles right there to catch it.

In the first half alone, Earlywine counted 18 shots from inside of 6 feet. Not many were uncontested, but still the Eagles made just six of them – and after an early 9-5 lead, Eastern found itself down by 10 in a matter of about 4 minutes because, as the coach pointed out, those point-blank misses “were in essence outlet passes for them.”

After that, the Eagles did little right at either end of the floor aside from not turn the ball over. The Montana lead eventually reached 25 points and Earlywine subbed his entire starting five out in desperation.

It is an unfortunate yet impossible-to-ignore coincidence that Eastern’s about-face this season dovetailed with Adris DeLeon and Chris Busch joining the team after being ineligible the first quarter of school – unfortunate because it suggests they’re the problem, when it is very much a collective issue.

But the numbers don’t just speak, they holler. Since that addition, EWU’s shooting has gone from 44 percent to less than 40. Opponents’ marksmanship is up nearly seven points to 49.5 percent – and eight points from the arc, to almost 40 percent.

There were bound to be some hiccups in bringing the roster together, especially since the keys to the car had been handed to Valentine – who can turn a trip to the grocery store into Le Mans – after DeLeon had been at the wheel much of last season.

It was worth wondering: Can you put too much cayenne in the chili?

And yet on several fronts, Earlywine insists it’s not a chemistry problem.

“I don’t see any signs of dysfunction with our team off the floor,” he said. “But clearly we’re not the same on the floor.

“Brandon Moore is not scoring in the post as efficiently as he did early in the season. But who’s on the floor with him – those two things shouldn’t be connected. Andy Genao is not playing with the same passion as he did. He’s a senior and his career is coming to an end and you’d think he’d be playing his butt off every single second.

“But the short answer is, I don’t know what the problem is.”

As Valentine said, “It should have taken one or two games with the guys who joined for us to make the adjustments. But it’s 10 games now and we haven’t made them.”

And now they have to try to make them under more trying circumstances – five of the next seven games are on the road.

“We have to be able to score,” Earlywine said. “As a coach, I can drive them into playing harder on defense. I can force them to play harder. But I can’t force them to make the shots we’re missing.”

And those misses, well, they add up.

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