What’s rarer than the Big Sky Conference preseason Player of the Year coming off the bench?
Several things in Eastern Washington’s coronavirus-altered season.
Facing the same conference foe twice in 72 hours. Cancellations. Postponements. Empty gymnasiums. Endless nose swabs.
So when EWU coach Shantay Legans elected to move two-time All-Big Sky Conference guard Jacob Davison to a sixth-man role, relegation of the conference’s scorer didn’t cause much turbulence.
The end result of Legans’ unexpected move: 5-0 and atop the Big Sky standings.
EWU (8-6, 7-2 Big Sky) is undefeated since it dropped a 78-76 decision at Northern Colorado, a result that came on the heels of a late turnover by Davison that was immediately compounded by the senior’s ill-advised foul that decided the game from the free-throw line.
“At that point we had a losing overall record and lost two early league two league games,” said Legans, who returned four starters from last year’s Big Sky champion squad. “We needed a spark, to switch things up.”
Confident that EWU would still get ample production from its versatile scorers such as Davison (12.6 points per game), Tanner Groves (16.5 ppg) Tyler Robertson (11.9 ppg) and Kim Aiken Jr (10.1 ppg), Legans elected to start a defense-first lineup.
Figures such as sophomore guard Mike Meadows, who rarely saw the floor earlier this season, were inserted into the starting lineup.
EWU is surrendering 70 points a game in its five-game win streak, forcing an average 12.6 turnovers in that stretch
Meadows has proven he can score, too, reaching double figures in EWU’s most recent wins (11, 17 and 16 points).
“We can’t let teams score 80, 90 points on us anymore,” Aiken said. “We just know what we have to do. Coaches are doing a good job putting us in the right spots.”
Aiken, like Davison, went into the season as one of the Big Sky’s more touted players, earning All-Big Sky as a sophomore after making the All-Big Sky Tournament team as a freshman.
But the 6-foot-7 Aiken, EWU’s primary defender and second-best rebounder (7.8 rpg), has reached double figures in scoring just twice in EWU’s past eight games.
In November, several pundits believed Davison and Aiken’s firepower and mixture of steady role players would be enough to help EWU contend for another title.
Instead, the Eagles are winning with near top-to-bottom balance.
“It’s exciting to see what everyone can do,” Aiken said.
EWU has lived up to its “let it fly” credo after struggling to shoot from 3-point range earlier in the season.
The Eagles – one of the Big Sky’s most efficient deep-shooting teams in recent years – had struggled from 3-point range (82 for 255) before recent sweeps against Sacramento State and Idaho.
But EWU, which won four games in seven days last week, is seemingly back to its old ways, especially in the second half.
The Eagles are an impressive 21 for 36 from 3-point range in the second half in their past three wins.
Legans, who has pointed to consistency issues in part of coronavirus stops and starts, believes his team is shooting better because it’s been steadily playing.
“We’ve getting into more of a flow,” Legans said. “There’s been some more normalcy.”
EWU controls its destiny as it seeks to win back-to-back Big Sky titles for the first time in program history.
Six games remain on the regular-season schedule for EWU, which is in a five-team race for the crown and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament with Montana State (6-2 Big Sky), Southern Utah (6-2), Weber State (6-2) and Idaho State (5-3).
EWU travels to Bozeman for a key two-game series with Montana State on Thursday and Saturday.
Montana State has vaulted to the top tier of the Big Sky under second-year head coach and former Bobcats standout Danny Sprinkle.
The Bobcats are paced by senior guard and transfer Missouri-Kansas City transfer Xavier Bishop (15.8 ppg, 3.7 apg), senior guard Amin Adamu (15.6 ppg) and junior forward Jubrile Belo (12.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg).
Montana State, which was swept at Weber State last weekend for its first conference losses, opened the season with a 91-79 upset at UNLV.
“They’re solid at everything,” Legans said of Montana State. “They’ve been good all year long. We have to defend.”
Sprinkle has similar respect for EWU.
“You can’t turn the ball over and you can’t take bad, quick shots, because they capitalize on them,” Sprinkle said. “They’re too good offensively. We don’t quite have the firepower they have offensively, so we got to kind of dictate the pace of play a little bit because they’re too talented.
“They’re the best passing team in this league this year as well. Their skill level is off the chart. They can really reel off 30 points in a hurry.”
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