Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now
Eastern Washington University Basketball

Eastern Washington men embrace road tests to prepare for Big Sky Tournament play

Eastern Washington forward Cedric Coward controls the ball against Portland State guard Jorell Saterfield on Dec. 28 at Reese Court in Cheney.  (James Snook/The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

Among the many motivations David Riley had for designing a difficult nonconference schedule, this week’s stretch of three games in five days was one of them.

Riley, in his third year as Eastern Washington’s head men’s basketball coach, has made a habit of testing his team early in the year with contests against major conference teams, and that was true of this year’s schedule.

All of this is with an eye toward winning the Big Sky Tournament, which for a one-bid conference is by far the biggest postseason prize.

But Riley also hopes that the nonconference schedule prepares his team well for this week spent on the road, as the first-place Eagles (13-7. 7-0 Big Sky) play at Montana State (10-11, 5-3) on Thursday, at Montana (14-7, 5-3) on Saturday and at Portland State (13-8, 4-4) on Monday.

“We get that gauntlet of a road schedule for a reason,” Riley said Tuesday. “We did the same three-game road trip (earlier this season). I look at it as an opportunity to play three games in four days (like we would) in Boise.”

The Big Sky Tournament, which will be played March 9-13 in Boise, will determine the conference’s representative in the NCAA Tournament. Eastern won the Big Sky Tournament three times: in 2021, 2015 and 2004.

The Eagles know well how difficult that tournament can be. They lost in the opening round – as the No. 1 seed – to Northern Arizona last year and settled for a consolation prize – a bid in the National Invitation Tournament – that is no longer automatic for conference regular-season winners who lose in their conference tournaments.

Montana State won the Big Sky Tournament a year ago; soon after head coach Danny Sprinkle accepted a job at Utah State. He took many MSU players with him to Logan, where the Aggies are thriving: They are ranked 17th in the AP Top 25 and lead the Mountain West at 7-1 in conference, 19-2 overall.

But under first-year head coach Matt Logie, the Bobcats are tied for third in the Big Sky standings.

Logie was the head coach at Division III Whitworth from 2011-2019, a tenure that overlapped with Riley’s time as an assistant at EWU.

“He was the first person who hired me (as I) worked (youth) camps for him at Whitworth,” Riley said of Logie. “Logie was always good to me.”

Riley compared the task set before Logie at Montana State to the one set before Riley when he first became Eastern’s head coach: to reload a roster depleted by the departure of his predecessor.

Montana State has two of the conference’s top scorers this year in junior Brian Goracke (15.5 points per game), who followed Logie from Division II Point Loma in California, and redshirt senior Robert Ford III (15.1), who remained with the Bobcats after last season.

Riley said the emphasis this week is for the Eagles to shore up their consistency.

“This is going to be a good test for that,” Riley said. “This is the hardest road trip of the year.”

He added this is also a chance in which the Eagles can wrap up control of the conference. They have at least a two-game lead over every other Big Sky team, and the only two-loss team, Northern Colorado (5-2), lost to Eastern in Cheney last week.

Monday games, explained

The Eagles have two stretches of three games in five days this season, as the Big Sky has worked to create as balanced of a schedule as possible given the parameters agreed upon by the commissioner’s office and the conference’s head men’s and women’s basketball coaches.

Since Southern Utah left the conference in July 2022, the Big Sky has used a travel partners system that allows for a certain elegance to the schedule in many ways: Thursdays feature four conference games, and Saturdays feature five, with the travel partners – Eastern and Idaho are paired up – adding a fifth game.

Dan Satter, the Big Sky deputy commissioner, is responsible for scheduling, something the conference handles in-house.

He said the scheduling process is a “give and take” within the parameters – that teams get four weekend home conference games and that they use travel partners – while also recognizing that there are only so many weekends between Christmas and the Big Sky Tournament.

“There are a lot of positives, but it does constrict some of the things you can do,” Satter said on Tuesday, “because it means on every weekend when there’s two games you’ve got one pair playing another pair, but you’ve got one pair that can only play itself.”

That necessitates all teams except two (this year Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado) play two Monday games. Eastern’s fall this week – at Portland State – and then at the end of the season on March 4, when all 10 teams play. On that final Monday, the EWU men will play at Sacramento State while those two women’s programs meet in Cheney.

But unlike other teams this year, the Eagles do not have any stretches of four games in eight days, something the Eastern men did last year during their record 18-game winning streak.

Satter said the conference is in the second year of a four-year schedule cycle that balances out those idiosyncrasies among the 10 basketball programs, both men’s and women’s.

“It rotates around the pattern, so everybody will have the different makeups of those schedules,” Satter said.

There are certainly other positives to balance it out, too. This week, for example, while the EWU men are flying to Bozeman, busing to Missoula and flying to Portland, the EWU women get to play three games in a row at home.

Next year’s schedule isn’t finalized, Satter said, but one change is set: The Big Sky-Summit League Challenge will occur Dec. 4 and 7, rather than interrupting conference play as they did at the start of January this season.