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Despite turnover, Hayford optimistic about his Eagles’ chances in Big Sky

Head coach Jim Hayford and the Eagles will play at Wyoming on Wednesday. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Head coach Jim Hayford and the Eagles will play at Wyoming on Wednesday. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Jim Hayford has many goals for his year’s Eastern Washington basketball team.

The first: “Being part of the conversation” in the Big Sky Conference.

That discussion picked up steam Friday morning in the Big Sky’s first Digital Media Day, which encompassed 12 teams, three time zones and the dreams of every coach and player.

Hayford got the conversation rolling with an audience that picked his team to finish in a fifth-place tie with Idaho, which knocked Eastern out of last year’s Big Sky tournament in Reno, Nevada.

That Eagle team finished 18-16 overall (10-8 in the Big Sky) partly because of forward Venky Jois – the leading career scorer in school history – and point guard Austin McBroom. Now they’re gone, together with a combined 37 points a game.

Not surprisingly, Hayford’s Big Sky colleagues were even more skeptical, picking the Eagles seventh in a league that features elite guards Quinton Hooker of North Dakota, Victor Sanders of Idaho, Jeremy Senglin of Weber State and others.

No Eagles were picked to the six-man preseason all-conference team.

However, the cupboard isn’t bare, the sixth-year coach told his far-flung audience, especially in the frontcourt. Besides versatile senior swingman Julian Harrell, the Eagles return junior Bogdan Bliznyuk – who authored the first triple-double in school history last year against Northern Arizona – and senior Felix Von Hofe (a 43 percent shooter from 3-point range).

All three started last year.

Citing the guard-heavy talent around the league, Hayford said that “My team is the opposite of those other teams – that may be a place where other teams have some weakness.”

That size will pay off with better defense, believes Hayford, who added that over a 17-year coaching career, his best defensive teams have been his biggest.

The biggest addition is graduate student Jake Wiley, a 6-foot-7 transfer from Newport, Washington, who started his college career at Montana before becoming a two-time NAIA All-American at Lewis-Clark State.

A preseason trip to Australia helped bring Wiley up to speed with the rest of the team.

“He’s fitting in really well,” Harrell said of Wiley, the heir apparent to Jois.

The backcourt is less settled. Serbian Luka Vulikic, is expected to replace McBroom at the point. Vulikic brings a 6-foot-5 frame but not much experience, so Hayford will rely on junior Sir Washington and underclassmen Cody Benzel and Grant Gibb.

“That’s kind of a question, how those guys do,” said Hayford, who hinted that the Eagles’ pace may be a bit slower this year.

“But we’re still going to shoot a lot of 3s,” Hayford said.

Bliznyuk and Von Hofe also will handle the ball at times, Hayford said.

Another big plus is the schedule. The Eagles will play 16 home games, the most since 2000. Eight of those come before Christmas, starting with an exhibition against St. Martin’s on Nov. 30.

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