Eastern Washington lived up to its preseason Big Sky Conference hype.
EWU went 7-4 during its nonconference slate, the Eagles’ second-best start since they earned NCAA Division I status 36 years ago.
The Eagles took down NCAA Tournament regular Belmont, ex-Big Sky member North Dakota, Omaha, Seattle University, High Point, and a pair of tiny Christian schools, Multnomah and Portland Bible College.
The Eagles also challenged themselves in four road losses to now top-ranked Gonzaga, No. 21 Washington, an ascending Saint Louis program coming off an NCAA Tournament berth and Atlantic Coast Conference member Boston College.
Now EWU, picked No. 1 in Big Sky preseason coaches poll in October, is ready to play its best when it counts.
The Eagles open Big Sky play on Saturday at Weber State (4-7) ending the trip at Idaho State (3-7) on Monday.
According to the KenPom efficiency rankings, EWU enters league play No. 129 in Division I basketball, the second-highest ranking among Big Sky teams. Northern Colorado is No. 121.
“We still have to figure some things out,” EWU forward Mason Peatling said. “We have a lot of pieces and we’ve figured out things a lot earlier than we did last year, so I’m excited for the conference season. A lot of credit goes to our young guys. They’ve been amazing and pushing the intensity in practice.”
EWU, which has advanced to the previous two Big Sky Conference Tournament championship games, was paced by its three standouts during its nonconference stretch.
All-Big Sky selections Jacob Davison (18 points per game), Peatling (15 ppg, 6.9 rebounds per game) and redshirt sophomore Kim Aiken Jr. (16.1 ppg, 11.2 rpg) – an All-Big Sky Tournament selection last season – lead the Eagles. Freshman guard Ellis Magnuson averages 5.5 assists and 2.2 turnovers.
EWU heads to Ogden, Utah, to face a Weber State squad that features high-scoring guard Jerrick Harding (20.7 ppg), the preseason Big Sky MVP.
Cody John, another Weber State guard, is averaging 11.3 points. The Wildcats have one Division I win, beating nearby Utah Valley 72-67 earlier this month.
The Wildcats were picked second in the preseason Big Sky media poll and third by the coaches.
“They have Harding, who can really put the ball in the basket, and he could break the scoring record in the Big Sky,” EWU coach Shantay Legans said. “Cody John is a veteran who has played in big games and has done a great job there for them. Weber State has some size on the inside that is pretty good – their bigs are young, but they play smart and hard.”
Under first-year Idaho State coach Ryan Looney, a Spokane Valley native, the Bengals have one Division I win, an 89-79 decision at Air Force.
ISU, picked 10th in both preseason polls, played its entire nonconference stretch without two projected starters, 6-foot-8 forward Brayden Parker and 6-3 guard Balint Mocsan, because of injury. The Bengals are led by guard Tarik Cool (14.4 ppg).
Idaho (4-7) opens Big Sky play against ISU in Pocatello on Saturday. The Vandals are led by former Clarkston standout guard Trevon Allen (18.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg).
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