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Sports >  EWU basketball

‘You’ve just got to have belief’: Former Eastern Washington coach Shantay Legans working to change perception at Portland

Jan. 31, 2022 Updated Tue., Feb. 1, 2022 at 10:38 a.m.

Portland Pilots head coach Shantay Legans reacts against the Gonzaga Bulldogs during the first half of a college basketball game on Saturday, Jan 29, 2022, at McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Portland Pilots head coach Shantay Legans reacts against the Gonzaga Bulldogs during the first half of a college basketball game on Saturday, Jan 29, 2022, at McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

When the 2021-22 college basketball season began, nine of 10 teams in the West Coast Conference were returning at least two starters, six were returning at least three and one of those, Saint Mary’s, was bringing back a roster that included four players who’d started one year ago.

So, a tough, experienced and unusually deep WCC only heightened the challenge facing first-year Portland coach Shantay Legans and a program that not only saw all five starters depart in the offseason, but also 11 of the team’s top scorers and 13 of the 14 players on the Pilots’ 2020-21 roster.

So, before he could address the culture changes that needed to take place within a program that hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since Legans was a freshman at Dos Pueblos High School in Southern California, the former Eastern Washington coach first needed to restock the cupboard.

“For me, it was trying to recruit 13 scholarship guys from March until the season started,” Legans said. “Pretty much a new roster, so you had to go and get guys and you had to fill a roster. … I’ve got great young men, I think they’re all high character guys and so you have an opportunity to really get to know them.”

Legans hasn’t been back to EWU since he accepted Portland’s job last March, but Saturday was a homecoming of sorts as the 40-year-old returned to the Inland Northwest, where the Pilots lost 102-74 to Gonzaga at McCarthey Athletic Center on a night that saw Mark Few’s Bulldogs hit a building-record 18 3-pointers.

In a postgame interview, Legans said “I wanted to come back here and be one of the biggest upsets of the year,” and voiced that he’d like another crack at Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament: “I hope this isn’t the last GU sees of us this year, I hope we get another chance.”

It’s a testament to the belief and confidence that Legans is trying to weave into the fabric of a program that hasn’t had much of either over the last decade. More than a few critics thought Legans was committing the biggest mistake of his young career by taking over at Portland, even if the job came with a significant pay raise and considerably more support than he was receiving at EWU.

Neither of the program’s last three coaches managed to get the Pilots back to the NCAA Tournament – a drought that’s now at 26 years – and all three failed to secure another head coaching job after leaving Portland. Just one of those, Georgia Tech assistant Eric Reveno, is still coaching in any capacity.

But the Legans era is already off to a promising start and the Pilots are playing spirited basketball that’s produced more than a few rewards in the win/loss column, yet still not as many as the first-year coach would like. Portland, currently sitting at 11-10, has already matched the program’s top win total over the last six years and the Pilots have won more WCC games ( two) than they did the three previous years combined.

“You’ve just got to have belief. You’ve got to get guys that believe in your vision,” Legans said. “When I was talking to the athletic director, Scott Leykam, I told him my vision was to win it. I’ve had a couple interviews before and they don’t have that. They’re all, ‘Well you could do this …’ and (Leykam) was like, ‘Yeah, why not? Why not us?’ It takes awhile, it takes a couple knocks on the head to figure things out and try to get there.

“But as we keep building this thing and we keep getting better and better and we keep getting players in here that are very good, I think it’s going to be a lot of fun for the fans of Portland. I think we’re knocking and scratching and clawing, but we’ve got a lot of hurdles to go over as we get there. We’re excited about doing it and that’s the whole plan.”

Legans brought two assistant coaches, Bobby Suarez and T.J. Lipold, with him from Cheney – “I’m crazy sometimes, so they can deal with me,” he laughed – and at times feels like he has three more de facto coaches in ex-Eag players Tyler Robertson, Mike Meadows and Jack Perry, who are light years ahead of their UP teammates when it comes to knowledge and understanding of Legans’ system.

“The three of us knew we were going to have a big responsibility and a lot of changing the culture within the new players coming in,” Robertson said. “ We’ve got some young guys that are taking some time to get there, but they’re doing better and better every game and that’s just the big thing, the three of us that have come with Legs, guys need to learn the new system, new defense, new offense are just learning how to cope with our coaching staff.

“But no, we knew we were going to have an extra responsibility coming up here and so it’s been fun and been challenging, but that’s what we wanted when we came up here.”

Meadows (19 points) and Robertson (17) combined for almost half of Portland’s offensive production in Saturday’s game. Perry helped lead Portland to a 5-1 record before the team’s starting point guard saw his season end after an ACL tear against Portland State. While Legans called the injury “a little damper on things,” it’s given his staff another valuable set of eyes as Perry has essentially transitioned into a fifth coach for the Pilots.

Legans still monitors the EWU program that took him in as a young assistant back in 2009 and speaks regularly with David Riley, his former pupil and successor in Cheney, noting “he’s doing a good job with this team, especially all the stuff you have to go through at Eastern.”

Legans added: “He knows what I’m talking about, a lot of people understand, but it’s tough over there with the support. He’s got a great Sixth Man Club, but besides that it’s not a lot of support for my man. But he’s doing a great job and he’s making believers out of those young men.”

Robertson said he misses various aspects of Cheney and he’s enjoyed seeing some of his former teammates make strides this season, singling out second-year guard Steele Venters. When Legans made his move to Portland official, Robertson didn’t take long to follow, indicating it would’ve been hard to envision himself playing for another coach.

“I originally committed to Legs when I was 17 in high school, right before my senior year,” Robertson said. “I told him I was going to be with him my whole collegiate career, so once he moved it was a no-brainer for me. He didn’t have to do much of a sales job for me and I knew we had some guys coming from Cheney, too.”

Meanwhile, Legans continues to polish his sales pitch for players he’ll have to recruit down the road by piling up wins at a place where few thought it was possible.

“As you keep pushing that agenda and people are falling in line and they want to be a part of that, it really makes me feel good,” he said. “My kids are at every game, they’re running around. If you ever watch one of the games, you’ll see my son during timeouts.

“It’s just something I haven’t had before, which I’m really, really excited about having, and I’m never going to take this for granted because it’s an amazing opportunity, and I really want to bring some championships to this school.”

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