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Eastern Washington University Basketball

What if Shantay stayed? Former Eastern Washington stars said they wouldn’t have transferred

His office is bigger, conference is better, city is larger and salary is greater, but University of Portland men’s basketball coach Shantay Legans has bouts of Cheney reflection.

That brand of success – a 72.6 winning percentage against Big Sky Conference opposition – isn’t easy to forget, even in the midst of a reclamation project.

Legans’ run at Eastern Washington included three Big Sky Conference championship game appearances in three tries, a regular season title in 2020 and the crown jewel of his tenure, a berth to the most recent NCAA Tournament.

The scoring was among the highest in the country. Conference MVPs came out of Cheney at an almost annual clip. When the Eagles led Kansas by 10 points in the second half of March Madness before succumbing to the Jayhawks, they boasted a roster littered with underclassmen.

Between the young and budding talent, a long and athletic 2021 recruiting class rarely seen in the Big Sky and the pandemic’s gift of additional eligibility, EWU appeared to have the means to continue its mid-major ascent in the face of the school’s crippling budget crisis.

“We had a great thing going on,” Legans said Friday. “I thought we would learn from the (NCAA Tournament) loss and win one or two games the next year, be the darlings. I believed we were a Top 25 team.”

At a school whose famed red “Inferno” football field caught the nation’s eye, basketball had become the hotter ticket.

“If #Eastern is trending No. 1 on Twitter for well over an hour on a Saturday, that’s media value that you can’t buy even if you have money,” EWU interim president David May said in reference to the Eagles’ recent NCAA Tournament appearance.

But fewer than 48 hours after the Eagles’ 93-84 loss to Kansas in Indianapolis, a mass exodus ensued.

Former Eastern Washington coach Shantay Legans, now the head coach at the University of Portland, gives direction during a recent practice at the Chiles Center in Portland.  (Courtesy/University of Portland)
Former Eastern Washington coach Shantay Legans, now the head coach at the University of Portland, gives direction during a recent practice at the Chiles Center in Portland. (Courtesy/University of Portland)

The first domino to fall was the biggest: Legans, one of the youngest and brightest head coaches in the country, announced in a Monday morning team meeting March 22 that he was heading to Portland.

Most of his players had an inkling he was leaving. Some already heard it was all but a done deal following the Big Sky Conference Tournament in Boise.

Many fans couldn’t believe Legans would leave a winner for a cellar-dwelling West Coast Conference program that had been a graveyard for its previous head coaches.

When Legans won a 2020 conference title before the tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus, administrators from the University of Wyoming and Loyola Marymount reached out to Legans’ agent, but he ultimately stayed put.

When Portland approached Legans a year later, the Pilots – who are paying Legans more than three times his EWU salary of $130,000 – presented a longterm vision in a time of major uncertainty at EWU.

EWU’s athletic department was battling budget cuts on top of more than a $5 million dollar debt and some floated the possibility of the Eagles potentially dropping down to NCAA Division II as a cost-saving measure.

EWU’s Board of Regents have since affirmed its Division I status after hiring an outside firm to study the athletic department’s finances, but earlier this spring, the future wasn’t as clear.

“It wasn’t a departure for money. It was a departure for security,” Legans said. “I just didn’t know what the future had for me at Eastern.”

Legans and EWU athletic director Lynn Hickey couldn’t come to terms on a contract before Portland made its hire.

When it became clear that Legans was leaving at the height of the Eagles’ NCAA Tournament buzz, Legans said EWU made a much larger counter-offer.

By that time, Legans had already made up his mind.

“The (University of Portland) is in a great city, great location and a great league. You can build something here. Having the same vision as (Portland athletic director Scott Leykam) was big.”

Assistant coaches Bobby Suarez and T.J. Lipold and multiple recruits followed Legans to Portland and, a week later, David Riley, formerly EWU’s top assistant, was given the reins in Cheney.

Riley, 32, swiftly lost the most substantial half of his roster.

With a confluence of the NCAA Transfer Portal trend and immediate transfer eligibility because of the pandemic, college basketball had essentially turned into a free-agent market.

Jacob Davison, a two-time All-Big Sky Conference guard whose role shrunk last season, was the first to appear in the portal shortly after the Kansas loss. He’ll play his final college season at Cal Poly.

A week later, Tyler Robertson, the Big Sky’s Sixth Man of the Year, and starting guards Jack Perry and Mike Meadows followed Legans.

When Big Sky MVP Tanner Groves and All-Big Sky Tournament brother Jacob Groves – viral sensations for their combined 58 points against Kansas and their respective bearded and frizzy-haired aesthetic – entered the portal, a recruiting frenzy ensued.

Several high-major programs recruited the 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-8 brothers from Spokane, who both ultimately signed with Big 12 power Oklahoma and began workouts with the Sooners last month.

Two-time All-Big Sky forward Kim Aiken Jr – also the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year – initially signed with Arizona in April before the firing of Sean Miller. He signed with Washington State weeks later.

If Legans stayed, Tanner Groves said he wouldn’t have left EWU for the glitz and glamour of Power 5 basketball.

“We would have the same returners and we would be running it back for another go-around,” Groves said. “But it just wasn’t in the cards. It was a better opportunity for (Legans) for his family, take a higher job and get more exposure in a bigger conference. It was the same for me, a better opportunity to be in a bigger conference and make a name for myself.”

Riley, who remains close with Legans and the departed players, agreed.

“I don’t think we have this turnover if Shantay stays,” Riley said. “But (Legans leaves) and guys start thinking, players start looking at their own opportunities and start making decisions.

“But I’m super excited for all of the guys that were on the team last year and where they are, but also the future of our program. We have the same situation and blueprint to build another championship team.”

Aiken believes the moves were necessary and that EWU still has the means to compete for another Big Sky championship.

“It was a situation that called for people to leave,” Aiken said of the exodus. “We’re grown men, but we were Eaglets. And Eaglets have to take flight and leave the nest sometime.

“And there’s new hatchlings now to go with the guys that have been there, like (returning guards) Casson (Rouse) and Ellis (Magnuson). It’s their time now. Riley is young but will do well, and coach for 30-plus years.

Groves said he was disappointed that Legans didn’t get the contract he was hoping for and said he gave serious consideration to following him to Portland.

“But at the end of the day, you got to do what’s best for you, set aside feelings and truly figure out what you want to with your future,” Groves said.

Legans hopes all of his former players flourish at their respective schools.

“That team we had at Eastern was special, great kids on and off the hard. It was one the hardest things in my life to tell them I was leaving.”