Sixty-seven miles separate Pullman and Cheney, about as long as the scheduling gap between Washington State and Eastern Washington.
When the defending Big Sky Conference-champion Eagles visit the Cougars on Saturday night at Beasley Coliseum, it will be the first time the regional men’s basketball programs have met since 2012.
EWU coach Shantay Legans, whose team is predicted to win another Big Sky title this season with the return of four starters, was an assistant under Jim Hayford in the last meeting, a 88-69 Cougars home win.
WSU coach Kyle Smith, who led the Cougars to a 16-16 mark and first Pac-12 Tournament win in a decade in his first year last season, was leading an Ivy League squad at Columbia when the schools last met.
Both coaches have changed the complexion of programs looking to build off last season’s progress.
The Cougars (1-0) are forging ahead with the loss of high-scoring guard CJ Elleby, who was recently drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers after a first-team All-Pac-12 sophomore season.
EWU lost forward Mason Peatling, the reigning Big Sky Most Valuable Player, who is now playing professionally in Australia.
Like Eastern, the Cougars return significant experience, including one of the Pac-12’s most productive guards in Isaac Bonton.
Bonton averaged 15.3 points, 4 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.2 steals last season. Bonton scored a game-high 28 points in WSU’s 56-52 season-opening home win over Texas Southern on Wednesday.
“They play great defense and have a dynamic scorer in Bonton,” Legans said. “They didn’t shoot well (against Texas Southern), but I don’t expect that to be a trend for them.”
EWU was slated to open its season at No. 20 Oregon on Wednesday, but the game was postponed after two Eagles starters tested positive for the coronavirus.
One of the two starters, who tested positive last week, will miss the WSU game. The second player, who tested positive on Monday, took a second test, which had a negative result, and will play, according to multiple sources close to the team.
Smith returned to WSU’s bench on Wednesday after testing positive earlier this month.
EWU, which ranked sixth in the country in scoring last season (80.9 ppg), returns two of its most productive players in guards Jacob Davison (18.4 ppg) and Kim Aiken Jr. (13.3 ppg, 9.7 rpg).
Davison was unanimously voted preseason Big Sky MVP and the 6-foot-7 Aiken was named to the preseason All-Big Sky team.
The guard-heavy Eagles will battle with a bigger WSU team, which starts 6-10 Efa Abogidi and 6-8 Aljaz Kunc.
WSU and EWU were initially scheduled to play at the Spokane Arena in December before the coronavirus altered their schedules.
WSU leads the all-time series 14-1, the lone loss coming in 1997 when the Eagles clipped the Cougars 83-82.
“It’s always good to play the in-state teams,” Legans said. “When you get these games, they’re special.
“Some of these guys are friends and we know the (WSU) coaching staff well.”
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