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Eastern men’s basketball team opens Friday at Mississippi State

Eastern head coach Jim Hayford and his men’s basketball team open the season on Friday against Mississippi State. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern head coach Jim Hayford and his men’s basketball team open the season on Friday against Mississippi State. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Eastern Washington basketball is picking up where it left off: by playing in a packed gym.

Eight months after playing in the NCAA Tournament, the Eagles open the season Friday night at Mississippi State of the Southeastern Conference.

“This game has all the great ingredients for making our team tougher, better and tested,” said EWU coach Jim Hayford, noting that the Bulldogs host Alabama in football the following day and is anticipating a sellout for basketball as well.

The game – the first of three in five days for Eastern – tips off at 6 p.m. PST and will be televised by the SEC Network.

The Eagles are coming off their best season as a member of NCAA Division I, going 26-9 overall and finishing 14-4 in the Big Sky Conference to share the regular season title with Montana.

Despite the success, “Our kids are hungry,” said Hayford, who plans to start transfer Austin McBroom and Sir Washington at guard, and Venky Jois, Bogdan Bliznyuk and Felix Von Hofe in the frontcourt.

With preseason practices behind them, Hayford said he expects plenty of production from a young bench. “The big question is the consistency of the starting lineup and the maturity of the freshmen,” he said.

Mississippi State finished 13-19 overall last year and 6-12 in the SEC. The Bulldogs’ first-year head coach is Ben Howland, a former head coach at Northern Arizona, UCLA and Pittsburgh.

The biggest question for Friday’s game is the status of MSU guard Malik Newman, a McDonald’s All-American who signed with the Bulldogs after being tabbed the No. 1 shooting guard in the country by ESPN.

The Eagles open their home schedule with an exhibition Sunday against Division III George Fox. That game will tip off at about 3:30 p.m. after the EWU women’s game against Air Force.

George Fox, a member of NCAA Division III, was 5-20 a year ago and 3-13 in the Northwest Conference. The afternoon matinee will feature the presentation of championship rings to the 2014-15 squad and unveiling of Big Sky championship and NCAA Tournament banners at Reese Court.

Two days later, the Eagles host a Seattle team that was 18-16 overall and 7-7 in the Western Athletic Conference last season. Seattle advanced to the semifinals of the College Basketball Insider (CBI) Tournament, falling to Loyola Chicago 63-48.

The Redhawks host Eastern on Nov. 23.

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