The youth movement is under way at Reese Court.
It began last winter when Eastern Washington hired longtime assistant Shantay Legans and carried over into the energy of Thursday’s practice.
“We’re feeding off him,” Eagles forward Bogdan Bliznyuk said. “Everyone is playing really hard, everyone is engaged and everyone is on the same page.”
That page was turned when Eastern turned to the 36-year-old Legans to replace Jim Hayford, who in six years turned the Eagles from Big Sky Conference doormats to title contenders.
Legans was there for all of them, including three postseason appearances the last three years. During that run, the Eagles went 66-37 overall and 27-17 in the Big Sky.
They did it mostly with offense, breaking numerous school and conference records. Legans promises to keep up the pace but expects his Eagles to toughen up on defense.
To reinforce the point at the end of Thursday’s practice, new assistant Nick Booker set up chairs one end of the court, sat his players down and reinforced a few half-court concepts.
Then Booker looked each of in the eye to make sure they understood. After all, the season opener against Walla Walla is only five weeks away.
“That’s going to be a key to our success,” Legans said after the third practice of the year. “Our length is going to bother people, and the way we’re competing.”
By all measures, this will be a transition year for Eagle basketball: new coaches, more emphasis on defense and new players – nine of them, or exactly half of the 18-man roster.
The veterans will help impart the lessons.
“They have to mentor the younger players and let them know exactly what they need to be doing on and off the court,” Legans said. “They are doing a great job of that already – they started this summer and have carried it on over.”
Speaking of carryover, the Eagles return eight letter winners from last year’s team that went 22-12 overall and 13-5 in the Big Sky.
The most important is Bliznyuk, a 6-foot-6 forward who did a lot of everything last year while earning second-team all-Big Sky honors.
Complementing Big Sky MVP Jake Wiley, the Ukrainian native averaged 20.6 points, 6.5 rebounds and almost four assists while handling many of the full-court ball-handling chores.
As defenses focused on Wiley, the Eagles created more isolation plays for Bliznyuk in the paint.
The Eagles also lost sharpshooter Felix Von Hofe, but they can count on returning guards Sir Washington (6.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg), Ty Gibson (5.2 ppg and 48.5 percent from 3-point range) and Ferris High School product Cody Benzel (4.8 ppg, 44.8 percent from 3).
The key player in the backcourt may be 6-5 sophomore point Luka Vulikic, who was eased into the lineup last year but now figures to handle the ball full time.
In the frontcourt, Bliznyuk will get help from 6-8 sophomore Mason Peatling and graduate transfer Benas Gricianus, a 7-footer who previously played at UNC Charlotte and Auburn.
“Benas has played a lot of Division I basketball at a very high level,” Legans said.
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