David Riley has seen the potential of the Eastern Washington men’s basketball team. He knows its capabilities.
But for the most part this season, the Eagles head coach hasn’t seen that potential often enough fulfilled.
That lack of consistency has the Eagles sitting seventh in the 11-team Big Sky Conference heading into Thursday’s home game – their first at Reese Court in Cheney since Jan. 22 – against Weber State, the Big Sky’s best team so far.
The Eagles (11-12 overall, 5-7 Big Sky) have played comparatively well on offense, ranking fourth in the Big Sky in scoring offense at 76.7 points per game. That’s only 2.5 points behind leader Southern Utah and 1.4 points behind Weber State (18-6, 11-2).
But on defense, the Eagles are ranked ninth in points allowed per game (74.3). That’s far behind the conference’s best defensive team, Montana (63.5), and about four points more than the Wildcats give up per game.
“There’s some gray within our defensive concepts, and so it takes guys playing with each other and understanding where they have to be and reading each other defensively,” Riley said on Tuesday. “It takes time (playing together), but it also takes focus and being alert, and that’s the piece we’re inconsistent on.
“There are two sides to consistency. The 30 minutes when we’re playing (well) like that, there’s no one in the Big Sky who can hang with us.”
That potential was on display throughout the Eagles’ current four-game losing streak – and it applies to both ends of the court.
“There are going to be runs (in basketball games),” Riley said. “We’ve got to focus on making our runs longer and their runs shorter. … We had in each of those games a stretch where we did not stick to our principles, and we let those games get away from us.”
In losses to Montana State and Montana – defeats that came by a combined six points – Eastern played some of its best defense of the season, holding the Bobcats to 32.7% shooting and the Grizzlies to 38.9%.
But in each of those contests, the Eagles also shot below their season average of 44.1%.
In the losses that followed at Weber State (90-84) and at Southern Utah (84-72), the Eagles shot better than 50% but also allowed their opponents to do the same.
All four of those opponents rank among the Big Sky’s top five in field-goal shooting, just ahead of sixth-ranked Eastern Washington.
Although teams have been able to score against the Eagles, opponents are shooting just 42.2% against them on average, giving the Eagles the second-ranked shooting defense in the Big Sky.
A significant portion of the points scored against Eastern have come at the free-throw line: No other Big Sky team has had more free throws made by its opponents than the 361 made against Eastern.
All that is evidence enough of Eastern’s potential, and suggests during those 30 minutes or so per game when the Eagles are playing as the “smart IQ defensive team” Riley said they are, the Eagles really are playing great defense.
With eight games to go and six teams ahead of them in the Big Sky standings, a regular-season conference title is essentially out of reach.
But the Eagles will eye a run at the conference tournament in Boise come March – but Riley said they will do so in due time.
“It’s important to have your end goals in sight,” Riley said of that tournament, “but the main thing we talked about lately is, ‘How can we get better today? What are we lacking now as a team?’ If you start looking a month ahead, a month is a long time. So we’re excited about the idea of getting some home games here, practicing and learning and fixing these holes that have been exposed for the last four games.”
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