Big Sky Tournament preview: Eastern Washington men have a long road ahead to replicate tourney success
March 7, 2022 Updated Mon., March 7, 2022 at 10:09 p.m.
Playing well at the Big Sky Tournament has become something of a tradition recently for the Eastern Washington men’s basketball team.
In the last three full tournaments – the 2020 event was cancelled in the early stages of the pandemic after just three games were played – the Eagles are 7-2, losing the title game in 2018 and 2019 before winning it last year to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
But the sixth-seeded Eagles’ challenge this week is to do something that no Big Sky team has accomplished in tournament history: win four games.
That’s one reason why Monday’s practice was physically lighter – but no less so mentally – as the Eagles prepared for an opening-round game against 11th-seeded Northern Arizona (9-22, 5-15 Big Sky) at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.
“Right now, we need to rest our bodies,” redshirt sophomore Ellis Magnuson said. “We’ve been through a whole season already, and (with) possibly four games coming in the next four days, we don’t need to be going too hard on our bodies.”
On the Eagles’ side of the bracket is No. 3 Northern Colorado, a team Eastern beat in Greeley, Colorado in February, and then a potential matchup with No. 2 Southern Utah. The Thunderbirds swept the Eagles in two matchups this year. Montana State – a team Eastern also beat once this season – won the regular season outright and is the No. 1 seed.
But the Eagles are confident in their ability to beat whichever teams they might face this week in Boise, primarily because during stretches of the season Eastern really did play quite well. Eastern has also won six of its last eight, finishing 11-9 in Big Sky games and 17-14 overall.
Just three of those losses in conference play came by double digits. The last of those – an 84-72 loss at Southern Utah – came at the end of a four-game losing streak during which the Eagles played five road games over the course of 11 days. Two of those were rescheduled from earlier in the season, when Eastern shut down for a week due to COVID-19 protocol.
That was a crucial stretch, because it prepared the team for what could come this week, reserve forward Casey Jones said.
“(Against) Southern Utah, we got off to a great start but we just couldn’t finish the game, and it was on the road,” said Jones, a true freshman. “We just weren’t as sharp as we needed to be. We’ve got to lock in for these four games.”
And so, Jones said, the focus lately has been to sharpen that mental toughness in practice, because the habits built there will be what players fall back on when they are tired.
“Physical (fatigue) is always going to be there at the end of the season, especially with the guys that play heavy minutes,” Magnuson said. “The most important thing to me is mental fatigue. We experienced that when we had the makeup games (against Idaho State and Weber State), so that was even a good practice for what we’re going to do in the tournament.”
“I think the teams that do best in this tournament are mentally tough,” Magnuson said. “That’s one of the things we hung our hat on last year.”
To Magnuson’s point about the starters, The Eagles haveindeed relied heavily on their starters. This season, three players average at least 32 minutes per game and the other two starters average at least 27.
Last year, Kim Aiken Jr. averaged the most minutes (30.4) and six others played at least 20 per game.
Magnuson ranked eighth in minutes last season (15.7). This season he is playing 17.1 minutes per game and is the clear sixth man for the Eagles, who have rarely played more than three bench players – the third being true freshman Mason Landdeck – in the last two months.
“We’ve had some good minutes from them here and there,” head coach David Riley said of his bench after Saturday’s victory over Portland State. “Ellis has had some big games. I thought Mason came in both the last two games and really did a great job. … Casey’s had some big games, going back to the Montana State game (10 points in 24 minutes).
“We’ve had some games where they’ve been able to contribute, and we’ve obviously ridden our starters in the second half a lot. But we’re confident in (our bench). We know they can step up, and it’s a big opportunity (for them) in Boise.”
Yet perhaps one advantage the Eagles have is that they are not as reliant on one primary scorer as other Big Sky teams are. Redshirt freshman Steele Venters leads the Eagles in scoring at 16.5 points per game, but he ranks sixth in the conference.
Right behind him is grad transfer Linton Acliese (16.0 per game), and fellow starters Rylan Bergersen (13.2) and Angelo Allegri (12.3) rank 15th and 19th, respectively, in the Big Sky in scoring. No other team has that many in the top 20.
“That’s something that can make us really dangerous,” Magnuson said. “”A team that has one player that scores all the points, that’s way easier to stop than a bunch of people who can go off for 20 any night. … I think we can definitely play that into our advantage, especially in a long tournament weekend where people might be tired.”
First, though, the Eagles need to beat the Lumberjacks, a team it already beat twice and that relies heavily on Jalen Cone – the league’s second-leading scorer at 19.3 points per game.
Last Thursday, Cone scored 20 points but made just 2 of 9 3-pointers, and Jones said that’s not something he expects will happen again. Northern Colorado’s Dru Kuxhausen is the only player in the conference who has made more 3s this year than Cone’s 90.
For his own part, Jones said he is going to try to do just what he’s done all season: grab rebounds; make baskets when they are there to be made; and spell Eastern’s starters, especially if they get into foul trouble.
“(I am) not trying to make any hero plays,” Jones said. “Just do what the team needs me to do and make winning plays.”
Idaho, Sac State to begin tournament
After closing the season with wins in four of its final seven games, the Idaho Vandals (9-21, 6-14) earned the No. 9 seed and drew a first-round game at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday against No. 8 seed Sacramento State – one of the Big Sky’s hottest teams.
The Hornets (10-17, 6-14) have won four of their last five games, including a 72-71 win Saturday in Missoula over fifth-seeded Montana and an 83-51 thrashing of the Vandals on Feb. 24 in Sacramento.
Against Montana, Hornets senior guard Bryce Fowler scored 39 points and earned Big Sky player of the week honors.
The winner of the Hornets-Vandals game will face top-seeded Montana State on Thursday.
As a program, Idaho’s last win in the Big Sky Tournament came in 2017, as a No. 4 seed in the quarterfinals.
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