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Big Sky Roundup: Eastern Washington claims leader status with upset of Indiana

It's early, but the Eagles are looking good.

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

In the rest of college basketball, the focus is always on the big guys. "Indiana isn't very good this season." That doesn't fly at Mid Major Madness. Get that stuff outta here.

Eastern Washington beat Indiana at Assembly Hall.

I don't need to know a thing about how Indiana plays zone defense or shoots the three this season to give Eastern huge points for that. IU has every advantage over a school like EWU.

That's not the only reason I'm bestowing Big Sky leader status upon the Eagles in the early going of the 2014-15 season, however. It's about how Eastern has built its 4-1 start.

The Eagles shot 51.6% from the field against the Hoosiers, a number that includes a 6-of-16 performance from three. Tyler Harvey is filling up the hoop, which is to be expected, and he may become a name you hear more and more as the season goes -- but it's the guys behind Harvey who are showing up.

Venky Jois appears to be taking a next step. Shooting two more field goals per game than last season's clip, his percentage is up from 52.8% to 63.8%. He's still grabbing 9 rebounds per game and blocking 2.2 shots per contest. Jois swatted the Hoosiers five times.

Drew Brandon has emerged as a key third cog. His line against Indiana? 27 points (10-of-16 FG, 7-of-8 FT), 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 5 steals. He's averaging 13.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game. While Harvey grabs headlines, Brandon has the beginnings of conference player of the year status if he can keep that up.

Sure, the Eagles lost to SMU on the road by 9, which isn't going to be a bad look at all by season's end. The other opponents are not as impressive, as is common this early in the Big Sky. But beating Utah Valley 75-50 isn't an easy task given UVU's knack at mucking up games with teams more talented than them. UVU usually makes it hard to separate like that.

Overall, I've been very impressed with Eastern Washington. It's not a total surprise; EWU was picked 2nd by coaches and 3rd by the media in the preseason. But so far, Jim Hayford's crew looks ready to step into the limelight.

WEBER STATE (2-3)

Another reason I'd give Eastern the nod as best-looking team so far is Weber State's struggles. The Wildcats are as talented and athletic as expected, highlighted by POY preseason favorite Joel Bolomboy averaging 16.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game.

But the Wildcats have been a turnover machine and have not found consistency in shots outside the paint. In its opener, Weber built an 18-point halftime lead on the road at Utah State -- only to make 4 field goals in the second half, three of which came after the lead was already surrendered, commit 20 turnovers, and lose by 11. After treading water at Paradise Jam in losses to Illinois State and LSU, the Wildcats grabbed a victory over Nevada before leaving the Virgin Islands when Jeremy Senglin hit a go-ahead three-pointer with 19 seconds left.

It's not to say Weber State is bad. It just feels a lot like last season when the Wildcats left you scratching your head early, things came together, and they won the Big Sky. There's just a lot of work left to do that again.

PORTLAND STATE (3-0)

Portland State made some noise with its season-opening win at USC. Tiegbe Bamba burst onto the scene with a 19 point (8-of-11 FG), 6 rebound, 4 steal performance. The Vikings overcame an 0-of-12 shooting night from Gary Winston thanks to Bamba and Tim Douglas combining to shoot 7-of-9 from three.

After an expected pounding of Willamette, however, things got less clear. The Vikings needed overtime at home to beat something called SIU-Edwardsville, which in a betrayal to my MMM kin here at this site, I had no idea was a Division-I school. Sorry guys. (In my defense, SIU-E was a recent call-up to D-I, and, there are five hundred million universities in the Midwest.) It's in the Ohio Valley Conference, I learned, and its logo is both tacky and frightens me.

So, jury is still out on PSU.

NORTHERN ARIZONA (1-3)

NAU was expected to be, according to preseason polls, the other big challenger to Weber State. The Lumberjacks started the season with a trip to Ohio, losing by 33 to Xavier (which is going to be really good, it appears) and by 13 to Toledo. It's been tough sledding for NAU. After picking up a 21-point win over Fresno State from the Mountain West, NAU headed east again -- losing by 6 at Ole Miss and playing Middle Tennessee tonight.

Quinton Usphur is averaging 15 points per game and shooting 45% from three, and all the pieces still seem to be there. The 'Jacks may just be in the same boat as Weber. The travel set up is tough, but the competitive loss at Ole Miss is encouraging.

SACRAMENTO STATE (2-1)

We still don't know anything about Sacramento State. The Hornets were thrashed by Gonzaga 104-58, squeaked by UC-Riverside by 1, beat a Div-III team by 30, and faces an NAIA squad next. So far it feels unimpressive.

MONTANA (1-2)

Montana has yet to play at home. The Griz were outclassed by Colorado State to start the season, but then battled Boise State to double overtime before falling. Then, Montana bested Seattle in Key Arena. Martin Breunig is turning in consistent 15 point, 8 rebound performances as expected. If Jordan Gregory can find his shot, Montana may be in business. They, too, feel to me like Weber State. I think Montana will finish better than predicted.

The Griz host local Carroll College before returning to the road for tough matchups against San Francisco and Cal.