David Riley’s tenure as Eastern Washington’s men’s basketball coach began in March, and he had little time to waste.
More than half the roster left when former coach Shantay Legans did, leaving behind six players for Riley, who was promoted from associate head coach to replace his former boss.
Just three of those six could reasonably be considered regular contributors on last year’s NCAA Tournament team, but all of them have formed an important core to this season’s squad.
“We were telling them and teaching them how to lead and how to hold guys accountable,” Riley said, “because when we hit the ground running in late June, with all our guys, they’re the ones who had to set the standard.”
And if anyone understands that standard, Riley said, it’s those six: Austin Fadal, Steele Venters, Isaiah Amato, Casson Rouse, Victor Radocaj and Ellis Magnuson.
“We know what it’s like to win a championship,” Riley said. “Everyone that was on our team last year developed in our program, and they understand the process for us to get better.”
Joining those six returners are 12 newcomers, a collection of transfers and freshmen. They are all at Eastern to prove that the expectation the Eagles will take a step back this year – they were picked to finish eighth and seventh by the coaches and media, respectively, in the 11-team Big Sky Conference – is unfounded.
The 12 new players hail from five different states and three foreign countries, but each is somehow connected to the program, Riley said, and the connotation is that each was specifically pursued. Recruiting was done over video calls and phone calls, and Riley was seeking three key traits beyond basketball skills: high character, high IQ and high motor.
“Those are the three most important things for us, and you don’t get to see that based on watching a game,” Riley said.
When the team first convened for a dinner in June, they talked about their goals both as a team and as individuals, and it was clear to Riley that everyone on the roster has a chip, he said, that they were overlooked somehow, whether in college or in high school.
But together now at Eastern, Riley said, “they have an opportunity to show the world what they can do. That’s a fun mindset to have.”
Lately, then, the focus has been on bringing together the old with the new and developing team chemistry as Eastern prepares for a road-heavy nonconference schedule.
The Eagles will play just three of their first 12 games at home. They host Walla Walla on Nov. 15, Southern Utah – the Big Sky preseason favorite – on Dec. 2, and then Multnomah on Dec. 15.
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