Third-year Eastern Washington men’s basketball coach Shantay Legans is faced with the highest expectations of his young career.
The Eagles, who began practice Sept. 24, have reached the Big Sky Conference Tournament championship game the last two seasons.
With the return of four starters and the addition of a big, talented freshman class, EWU aims to reach its first NCAA Tournament since 2015 and its third overall in program history.
Here are five things to watch with the 2019-2020 edition of shooter-heavy EWU, which begins its season Nov. 5 at home against Portland Bible College.
A proven group
Eastern returns its most versatile scorer and electric player in 6-foot-4 junior guard and All-Big Sky selection Jacob Davison (15.2 points per game), two-time All-Big Sky senior forward Mason Peatling (15 ppg, 7.5 rebounds per game) and emerging, athletic sophomore forward Kim Aiken Jr., who earned an All-Big Sky Tournament nod.
Senior combo guard and junior college transfer Tyler Kidd Jr. (9.9 ppg, 3.1 assists per game) registered 19 starts for EWU last season, and junior point guard Jack Perry has started 38 career games, giving the Eagles valuable backcourt experience.
EWU, which prides itself on pushing the tempo and making the extra pass for the open 3-point look, returns seven lettermen who combined to hit 151 3-pointers last season, even with the graduation of deep-ball shooters Cody Benzel (58 3-pointers last season), Jesse Hunt (50) and Ty Gibson (38).
Can the Eagles stay healthy?
Injuries have hindered the Eagles the last two seasons, leading to chilly starts and hot finishes. For the Eagles to win their first Big Sky regular-season and tournament titles since 2015, they will need their two primary, injury-riddled players to stay healthy.
Of the slew of injuries, the most notable absences were Peatling and Davison, who each missed 12 games. Davison, who averaged 23.8 points his last eight games before a season-ending foot injury, missed the Big Sky Tournament.
The Eagles also missed the services of BYU transfer guard and former Richland High sensation Steven Beo, who played in three games after recovering from a preseason knee injury before opting to medical redshirt.
EWU is already off to a rocky start on the injury front, losing promising sophomore guard Austin Fadal to a season-ending knee injury.
Six freshman and three redshirt freshmen litter EWU’s roster, and none may be more important than point guard Ellis Magnuson.
Magnuson, a smooth and sturdy Boise product, was named Idaho Player of the Year by USA Today after leading Borah High to the Gem State’s 5A State championship.
Legans expects the 6-2, 190-pound Magnuson to immediately work his way into the starting lineup.
In a 2019 recruiting class that includes local 6-7 shooters Steele Venters (Ellensburg) and Jacob Groves (Shadle Park), Legans said he won’t know who will redshirt from the sizable class until November.
Peatling is a true inside-outside threat, but so is 6-9, 235 sophomore forward and Shadle Park product Tanner Groves, who logged time in 28 games last season and started two games.
At 6-7 and 220 pounds, the explosive Aiken creates matchup problems on the wing.
EWU added another big-bodied freshman in 6-8 Abdullahi Mohamed, a former West Seattle High star who is expected to give the guard-heavy Eagles depth inside.
EWU’s nonconference schedule includes road games at 2019 NCAA Tournament participants Saint Louis (Nov. 13), Washington (Dec. 4) and Gonzaga (Dec. 21), its first meeting with the nearby, national power Bulldogs since 2011.
The Eagles will host midmajor power Belmont (Nov. 26), which has reached the NCAA Tournament eight of the last 14 seasons.
ACC member Boston College (Nov. 20) is also on EWU’s road schedule.
EWU hosts Big Sky rival Montana, a team that has beaten the Eagles the last two tournament championship games, on Jan. 9.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.