It has steadily climbed the Big Sky Conference mountain since Shantay Legans was named head coach in 2017, but Eastern Washington has yet to reach the summit.
The coronavirus pandemic cut the Eagles’ rope in March after they won an outright regular-season title, just before a conference tournament could present the final step to the pinnacle – a trip to March Madness.
EWU came close its two previous years, but slipped with back-to-back Big Sky Conference Tournament title game losses to rival Montana.
With the return of four starters and nearly its entire bench – the most returning lettermen in the league – EWU is eager to buckle its harness for another ascent.
Eastern, picked first in the Big Sky preseason media and coaches’ polls, opens its 2020-21 slate on Wednesday at 20th-ranked Oregon.
The experienced Eagles, who ranked sixth in the country in scoring last season (80.9 points per game), are still a relatively young bunch, returning just two seniors.
“They’ve been in the program for a while and I think they’re excited about playing,” Legans said of his returners. “There’s a feeling of unfinished business with this team, and that’s how they’ve been going about it.”
EWU returns the team’s leading scorer in versatile, spring-heeled guard Jacob Davison (18.4 ppg), who was unanimously voted the Big Sky Preseason Most Valuable Player last week.
The return of do-it-all junior Kim Aiken Jr. – another All-Big Sky returner – is another boon for the Eagles. Aiken, a 6-foot-7 wing, averaged nearly a double-double a game last season (13.3 points, 9.7 rebounds), was his team’s primary defender and a viable threat from the outside (2.3 made 3s a game).
EWU was among the top 3-point shooting teams in the country last season, hitting nearly 10 a game.
Having the conference’s most reliable inside threat – Big Sky MVP forward Mason Peatling – helped open up the Eagles’ already wide-open offense.
But now Peatling (17.2 ppg, 9.1 rpg) is playing professionally in Australia, and EWU will look to make up for his steady production and vocal leadership.
Who will step into those sizable MVP shoes, also previously worn by ex-Eagles Jacob Wiley (2017) and Bogdan Bliznyuk (2018)?
“We got some guys with some big feet,” Legans said. “It’s going to be fun to see who steps up and takes the reins.”
EWU, looking to punch its first NCAA Tournament ticket since 2015 and win back-to-back Big Sky titles for the first time in program history, returns a wealth of experience at guard.
Senior Jack Perry (6.2 ppg, 2.3 apg) has started games since his freshman year and point guard Ellis Magnuson (5.8 ppg) started every game as a true freshman last season and ranked fifth in the Big Sky in assists (4.2 apg).
Sophomore shooting guard Casson Rouse (4.5 ppg) was the team’s sparkplug sixth man last season and may have an even bigger role this season.
Austin Fadal, who contributed as a freshman (3.8 ppg) two years ago before a knee injury sidelined him for more than a full season, is another experienced, athletic guard.
EWU typically goes with four guards and a big with a shooter’s touch in the rotation, and the loss of Peatling leaves a substantial void.
Looking to fill up the middle is junior Tanner Groves, a 6-foot-9, 235-pound Shadle Park product who came off the bench last season (5.1 ppg, 2.1 rpg), exhibiting an ability to score both inside and outside.
Other big and strong bodies on EWU’s roster include sophomore freshman Victor Radocaj (6-9) and forwards Jacob Groves (6-7) and Tyler Robertson.
Legans, the reigning Big Sky Coach of the Year, has won 41 of 58 conference games and this past summer was ranked No. 11 in ESPN’s “Top Head Coaches Under 40.”
Legans, 39, may have the youngest staff in Division I basketball, alongside associate head coach David Riley (32), second assistant Bobby Suarez (30) and third assistant T.J. Lipold (32).
Another winning season and bigger schools will likely be pursuing Legans, who will get his shot against the likes of Oregon (Nov. 25), Washington State (Nov. 28), UNLV (Dec. 9) and Saint Mary’s (Dec. 15) in nonconference play.
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