Higher than Eastern Washington’s expectations was senior guard Jacob Davison’s vertical leap Wednesday, the first day of the defending Big Sky Conference champion’s practice.
He and the Eagles – picked first in the Lindy’s Sports preseason Big Sky rankings – had reason to jump for joy.
They were playing their first true 5-on-5 basketball of the academic year.
Local coronavirus restrictions had previously prevented players from playing full pick-up games at Reese Court, but the team was able to take the appropriate COVID-19 testing Tuesday to have a full-fledged practice and comply with Spokane County’s reopening mandates.
Every test was negative, giving the high-scoring Eagles the green light.
“It felt awesome to be back out there, playing 5-on-5,” said Davison, Lindy’s preseason Big Sky Player of the Year and a two-time All-Big Sky selection. “It just felt right.”
Fourth-year EWU head coach Shantay Legans – the reigning Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year – returns four starters and most of his bench from last season’s 23-9 team which had its Big Sky Conference Tournament games canceled in March due to the coronavirus shutdown.
The Eagles return leading scorer Davison (18.4 points per game) and versatile All-Big Sky Conference wing Kim Aiken Jr. (13.3 ppg, 9.7 rebounds). Experienced guards Ellis Magnuson (5.8 ppg, 4.1 assists), Jack Perry (6.2 ppg) and Casson Rouse (6.5 ppg), and 6-foot-9 forward Tanner Groves (5.1 ppg) give the Cheney team optimism.
Replacing Big Sky MVP Mason Peatling – now a pro in Australia after averaging 17.2 points and 9.1 rebounds as a senior – will be a tough task.
Perhaps as tough as Legans navigating restrictions in recent preseason workouts.
“It’s been kind of hard, but the guys are adjusting,” said Legans, who often reverted to 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 basketball before Wednesday. “We have tried to do so many things to stay competitive. A lot of different drills.”
“It was a little odd. It was hard to get used to. We’re adapting quickly right now, so it’s nice to have the team at once,” Davison said.
Coaches and team personnel wore masks Wednesday.
“Fortunately, none of our guys have tested positive,” Legans said.
The Eagles reached the Big Sky Tournament championship game in Legans’ first two seasons and won the regular-season title last season before COVID-19 ultimately shelved the NCAA Tournament.
EWU, aiming for its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2015, is still piecing together its schedule.
Sources close to EWU’s 2020-2021 scheduling said the Eagles will open their season Nov. 25 at Pac-12 power Oregon, travel to NCAA Tournament regular Saint Mary’s on Dec. 16 and make the short trip to Pullman on Dec. 23 to face Washington State.
Official conference and nonconference schedules have not been released.
EWU initially had a nonconference schedule that included successful programs such as USC, Notre Dame, Liberty, South Dakota State and North Dakota State, but many of the games were lost with cancellations.
“I am excited we got some of those games back,” Davison said of facing Oregon, Saint Mary’s and WSU.
The EWU women’s team also began practice on Wednesday, the start of head coach Wendy Schuller’s 20th season.
Schuller, whose teams often finish in the upper half of the Big Sky standings, looks to rebound from a 4-26 season and first-round exit from the Big Sky Tournament.
The Eagles return three starters, including former Sandpoint standout and versatile junior Grace Kirscher (10.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg).
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