For Eastern Washington basketball coach Jim Hayford, last season really was about the journey.
His favorite stop? Missoula, where on March 14 the Eagles beat Montana to earn the school’s second berth in NCAA tournament.
As the final seconds ticked away in the Eagles’ dramatic 69-65 win, Hayford said he paused to enjoy the moment.
“All the Eastern fans, the band and the cheerleaders … It dawned on me in that moment, that we belonged here, that we’ve arrived,” Hayford said.
For the entire program, it was a moment of promise fulfilled. The preseason expectations and goals were met, then exceeded, in a 26-win season that sometimes bordered on the surreal: the win over Indiana; the 81-point-a- game scoring circus sparked by national scoring leader Tyler Harvey; the gut-check wins despite injuries to Hayford’s top two scorers; and finally the closing rush of five straight wins that sent the Eagles to the NCAAs.
Minutes after the season ended with an 84-74 loss to Georgetown, Hayford was ready to go again.
“I just wish practice for next year could start tomorrow,” he said. … “We don’t have just a good team, but we’ve built a good program.”
To illustrate his point, Hayford is turning the page and tweaking the game plan – but not because he’s losing four starters. He said it’s a necessary part of program-building.
Next year, Hayford expects to see lights-out shooting supplanted by an aggressive defense, a bigger lineup inside and a deeper bench.
At first glance, the losses seem daunting. Two weeks after guards Drew Brandon and Parker Kelly finished their Eastern careers, Harvey announced that he would pursue a professional career. On Wednesday, starting forward Ognjen Miljkovic cited personal reasons for his decision to leave the program.
In all, the Eagles lose 64 percent of their scoring and just more than half their rebounding. To compensate, Hayford expects a big senior year from his lone returning starter, 6-foot-8 power forward Venky Jois, who averaged 16.7 points and 7.7 boards last year.
The loss of Miljkovic is offset by the emergence of 6-6 Bogdan Bliznyuk, who was named the Big Sky Freshman of the Year after averaging 8.7 points and four rebounds. More important, he came up big in some of the Eagles’ biggest games.
At small forward, Hayford likes Felix Von Hofe’s chances to break into the starting lineup, partly thanks to his shooting ability and 6-5 height.
A bigger frontcourt, Hayford reasons, will help realize his goals of getting better in rebounding and in field goal-percentage defense.
“Those three, that’s a pretty good place to start,” Hayford said.
There’s more help on the way. Forward Kyle Reid showed flashes of promise in his junior year, and Hayford said he’s excited about the future of Bear Henderson, a 6-6 redshirt freshman who also could see action at shooting guard. There’s also Frederik Jorg, the 7-1 German who saw spot action last year.
In the backcourt, Hayford is counting on redshirt sophomore Sir Washington, a highly touted recruit from Las Vegas who missed much of the season with injury before helping the Eagles get back in the game against Georgetown.
“He’s on the Tyler Harvey workout plan, shooting 500 3-pointers a day,” Hayford said of Washington.
Another promising newcomer is redshirt freshman Cody Benzel of Spokane, whom Hayford calls an elite shooter.
That leaves the point guard position, which Brandon filled so ably for two seasons.
“That’s going to be the big question all the way up to our first game,” said Hayford, who has one more scholarship in his pocket.
It may go to a transfer, giving his younger guards another year to mature. Or it will stay in Hayford’s pocket.
No matter who starts – at any position – they may see fewer minutes, said Hayford, who claimed that building quality depth is a major component of program-building.
“We need to find a way to play 10 or 11,” Hayford said.
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