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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Eastern men open Big Sky play against tough Weber State

Here’s an obvious New Year’s resolution for the Eastern Washington basketball team: Beat Weber State.

Do that this afternoon at Reese Court and the Eagles can think more seriously about a bigger goal: winning the Big Sky Conference regular-season title for the first time under coach Jim Hayford.

After the most successful nonconference season in its 32-year history as a Division I school, Eastern’s next step is obvious, if challenging: The Eagles haven’t beaten the Wildcats in more than three years, and today’s conference opener would be the perfect time to start.

Hayford is through basking in the glow of a 9-4 start, including wins at Indiana and San Francisco.

“It’s prepared us for the rigors of Big Sky play,” said Hayford, whose team sits at a lofty 48th – out of 351 teams – in this week’s RPI.

Last year, the Eagles gave as good as they got, going 10-10 in league play and just missing the postseason tournament. This year, Hayford’s team is deeper and more experienced, and more than justifying its No. 2 ranking in the preseason polls.

At No. 1 sits defending regular-season and tournament-champion Weber State, long the gold standard in the Big Sky even if its 5-6 preseason record is a bit tarnished.

“They know how to win, they have pride and they are very well-coached,” said Hayford, whose record is 0-6 against Weber State in three seasons in Cheney.

“Right out of the chute, we are playing the team that is trying to defend their crown.”

The Eagles have a decent shot to take away that crown, mostly because they’re shooting so well. They rank 18th in scoring offense (80.6 per game) and field-goal percentage (49.4 percent), 10th in 3-point shots made (9.6) and 13th in 3-point percentage (41.6).

Junior guard Tyler Harvey, the Big Sky scoring leader last year, is atop the charts again with a 22.8 average, followed by junior forward Venky Jois at 19.4.

Harvey, who broke the school career record for 3-pointers last week, ranks fourth in the NCAA in scoring and leads the nation in 3-pointers made with 4.54 per game.

At the other end of the floor, the Eagles are holding opponents to 42.7 percent shooting and lead the league in blocked shots (5.5 a game) and are second in assist-to-turnover margin at 1.2.

“I like the brotherhood that is developing and I like that we are trying to hang our hat first and foremost on our defense,” Hayford said.

“That’s part of the maturing process – too often we were trying to hang our hat on going out and outscoring the other team.”

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