Eastern Washington rebuilt a championship roster, once again it’s time to prove it at the Big Sky Tournament
March 4, 2023 Updated Sat., March 4, 2023 at 10:05 p.m.
In early January, Eastern Washington hosted – and beat – the Sacramento State Hornets, who are playing this year under first-year head coach David Patrick.
Patrick brought to Cheney a men’s basketball roster remade in his own image, with transfers representing a patchwork of his past.
There was junior Akol Mawein, an Australian who played at Oklahoma where Patrick was an assistant. Patrick was also previously an assistant for the Australian men’s basketball team.
There was senior Hunter Marks, who played four years at Hartford but also is from Australia.
And there was senior Callum McRae, a 7-foot-1 post who played two seasons for Patrick at UC Riverside. He is originally from New Zealand.
They were joined by six other players who, at some point in their college careers, played elsewhere before landing at Sacramento State, part of the swirl of transferring players who have, at least for now, landed in the Big Sky.
“I mean, we’re starting to get used to it now with all the portal stuff,” redshirt sophomore Steele Venters, who has played only at Eastern Washington, said at the time.
“Every team we play has new guys. You just have to go in and adjust, read the scout and that’s all you can do.”
Eastern Washington itself is no different. If anything, the Eagles have maximized the portal better than any team in the Big Sky.
Up and down their roster, transfer players are filling key roles. Senior Angelo Allegri played three years at UNC Greensboro before becoming a first-team All-Big Sky selection in his second season at Eastern.
Redshirt junior Tyreese Davis, a prep teammate of Allegri’s, played at Jacksonville before joining Allegri in Cheney.
The Eagles’ top three reserves are all transfers, too. Sophomores Dane Erikstrup and Cedric Coward transferred up from Division II and Division III, respectively.
Senior Deon Stroud actually played against his future Eastern teammates at the end of last season with Fresno State.
All of them – plus the high school recruiting trio of Venters, Casey Jones and Ethan Price – comprise the core of the Big Sky’s top-seeded Eagles (22-9), who will open the second round of the conference tournament Sunday evening against Northern Arizona.
They represent the way so many college rosters are now constructed: year by year, based on who knows who. Under Big Sky Coach of the Year David Riley and the staff he put together, Eastern Washington is showing that such an approach can win a lot of basketball games.
“It’s all based on relationships,” Riley said. “I think it’s really important that you do have a strong contingent of guys who started their careers here just because that consistency is important. But there’s a reason they’re all here and you go through each guy and there’s a relationship.”
In other words, Riley isn’t just browsing the transfer portal like he was online shopping.
“There are all these statistical things for the portal where they give you all the analytics. We don’t need that,” Riley said. “It’s going to be based on who we know and who makes sense for us.”
‘A second home’
Stroud graduated from San Joaquin Memorial High School in Fresno, California, and chose to play at UTEP. He played 24 games there during the 2019-20 season but transferred back home, to Fresno State, the next season.
But by the end of the 2021-22 season, he was ready to move on and was looking for “that last year of playing freely,” he said on Monday.
“There’s a lot that goes into college basketball, the unseen hours and that can be hard on people’s mental (state) sometimes,” Stroud said. “So I think players are just trying to get that last year of actually having fun playing basketball.”
Stroud started his first nine games with the Eagles before transitioning into a bench role, but his scoring hasn’t suffered much, trimming about 1½ points off his scoring average (which is 5.4 per game).
Stroud was drawn to Eastern by a relationship with associate head coach Arturo Ormond, who was at UTEP the same year Stroud was and also has ties to Fresno State from earlier in his coaching career.
“Coming here on a visit, I felt like this could be a second home for me,” Stroud said. “Coach Riley took me in.”
If the Eagles have a “type,” Stroud certainly fits it. He is 6-5 and versatile, another one of the team’s “mismatch nightmares” they have talked about all season.
He also has another year of eligibility should he wish to use it, an option given to NCAA athletes who played through the pandemic year of 2020-21 – another factor in how this Eastern roster was constructed.
As a 2021 high school graduate, Erikstrup didn’t get many looks during his senior year at Beaverton High in Oregon. It wasn’t so much due to a lack of access but a lack of space on college rosters.
“No teams had to drop their seniors, they could stay, so the only spots that opened up were where players wanted to quit and move on in their life,” Erikstrup said.
That, he said, is why players like he and Coward moved up from Division II and Division III, respectively, after last season.
“(Players) didn’t get the opportunity to have coaches look at them,” Erikstrup said, “because the coaches didn’t need to look at them.”
Erikstrup had a strong freshman season at Cal Poly Pomona, averaging 11.6 points and 5.2 rebounds while making 26 of 64 3-point attempts.
It was enough to make him the California Collegiate Athletic Association’s Freshman of the Year, and it led him to transfer back to the Northwest.
Coward, who like Stroud is from Fresno, won the same award as Erikstrup did in the Northwest Conference, the D-III league in which Whitworth plays.
That perceived under-recruitment is something Coward and Erikstrup have talked about this season, and the play of both during their sophomore seasons has demonstrated that they can hold their own in a midmajor Division I conference like the Big Sky.
‘Crazy routes’ and homegrown talent
But as Riley said, the Eagles have still relied on recruiting high schoolers to fill out the core of their roster.
Venters and Ellis Magnuson, two holdovers from the NCAA Tournament team in 2021, are 2019 high school graduates who play key roles on this year’s team. Venters was named Big Sky MVP earlier this week; Magnuson has carved out a pivotal role as a veteran practice player and an eighth or ninth man in the rotation.
Casey Jones, who grew up in Sammamish, Washington, but played the end of his prep career at Wasatch Academy in Utah, has stepped into the starting lineup and as a true sophomore leads the team in rebounding.
Ethan Price is the program’s first player from England – a place from which many Big Sky teams have lured their starting post players – and was named all-conference honorable mention one year after earning freshman of the year honors.
Three freshman recruits – 6-foot guard Amarion Savage, 6-6 forward LeJuan Watts and 6-10 post Sebastian Andersson – have redshirted this season.
Rounding out the roster are two transfers, junior Imhotep George and sophomore Ty Harper – George is in his second year at Eastern, Harper his first – who have played limited minutes.
In all, 12 of the 15 are at least 6-5 and most can shoot from anywhere on the court. And the mix – quite different even from just last season’s roster – has developed into a team that won a Big Sky-record 18 straight games.
Now the task is to win the Big Sky Tournament, something Riley has said all year this team has been built to do.
The Eagles may have lost their first three games and their last two. But Riley’s plan all year has been to crescendo to this point so that Eastern is playing its best basketball in March and April.
Now the Eagles get the chance to prove it by getting three wins in Boise.
“This is as loose of a group as I’ve ever coached. They love to compete,” Riley said on Monday when asked about how this team would respond to ending the regular season with two straight losses.
“They’ve got a chip on their shoulder,” he said. “We’ve got a bunch of guys who aren’t supposed to be here.
“We’re picked fifth place (in preseason polls). Guys took crazy routes to get to Eastern Washington.
“There’s nothing to be nervous about. We’re playing with house money. We’re going to come in loose and aggressive and ready to kick some butt.”
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