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Focus at EWU on more than just replacing Harvey

Part of Tyler Harvey is still at Eastern Washington.

“I got an e-mail from him last week,” Eagles coach Jim Hayford said after a recent practice. “He said he wants the team to get back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, so a lot of his heart is still here.”

What’s missing is the sweet step-away jumper that helped Harvey score 23 points a game and make a name for himself, as in “National scoring leader Tyler Harvey.”

The new moniker followed Harvey all the way to the second round of the NBA draft but left Hayford with the task of replacing those 23 points and the floor-spreading benefits that accrued to the rest of his offense.

So who will replace Tyler Harvey?

The question isn’t fair, coach Jim Hayford says.

“I wouldn’t say I’m too philosophical of a man, but one of the things I’ve thought through is that comparison isn’t a good thing. It leaves a winner and a loser, and no two things are the same,” said Hayford, who at the same time noted that the Eagles went 3-0 last year while Harvey was out with a leg injury.

More to the point, Hayford is focused on replacing his entire backcourt, which also included hard-nosed sharpshooter Parker Kelly and versatile point guard Drew Brandon, who averaged almost 10 points a game and was one of the top rebounding guards in the nation last year.

That combination helped forge the best season in Eastern history, a 26-9 campaign that ended with the Eagles’ first NCAA Tournament appearance in 11 years.

Hayford’s offense isn’t just about spreading the court and letting ’er rip. “Everything we do is based on progressions,” Hayford said. If you play out the progressions, he explained, the result will be high-percentage shots.

And while Tyler Harvey routinely let fly from 25 feet, “he was a high-percentage maker,” Hayford said. Much depends on someone keeping those percentages high.

The obvious answers are on the perimeter, in sharpshooting forward Felix Von Hofe; guard Sir Washington; and Austin McBroom, a graduate transfer from Saint Louis.

If only it were that simple.

This year, success at Eastern will start in the frontcourt, which Hayford said he wouldn’t trade for any in the conference. And defense, which is getting a boost with the offseason hire of assistant Chris Victor.

In 6-foot-7 senior Venky Jois, the Eagles have the top power forward in the Big Sky Conference, a player who can post up as well as drive the lane with authority. Last year, Jois averaged 17.6 points and 7.7 rebounds while complementing the Eagles’ perimeter game.

“When opponents look at this Eastern team, the first challenge to address is what are they are going to do about Venky Jois,” Hayford said.

That in turn should open up the perimeter for kickouts from Jois.

While Jois was a known commodity going into last year, the biggest surprise was the emergence of true freshman Bogdan Bliznyuk. “I wasn’t surprised, because I thought I had it in me,” said the 6-6 Bliznyuk, who averaged almost nine points and four boards despite playing just 19 minutes a game. Expect those numbers to go up in Bliznyuk’s sophomore year after starter Ogjnen Miljkovic left after last season.

An added bonus for the Eagles’ perimeter game: Bliznyuk was 24-for-43 (55.8 percent) from long range last year.

And while Hayford said he expects the Eagles to average about 75 points a game, the big push will be on defense. Last year the Eagles showed strong improvement on defense, but still gave up 47 percent shooting and were outrebounded (albeit slightly) in conference games.

“We’re working hard to improve our defense and rebounding and we think we can take this to a new level,” Bliznyuk said.

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