When the clock turned to zero last March, with Eastern Washington winning the Big Sky title with a thrilling road win over Montana, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that they would enter next season as the unanimous Big Sky favorites.
They would be losing do-everything point guard Drew Brandon, and four-year shooter Parker Kelly, but the losses paled in comparison to all the talent that looked to be coming back. Tyler Harvey led the nation in scoring as a junior, and defenses had to gameplan around him. Venky Jois would be entering his senior year, and the argument could be made that he was EWU’s most important player, not Harvey. Bolstering the frontcourt was junior to be Ognjen Miljkovic (9.7 PPG) and Freshman of the Year Bogdan Bliznyuk. There was still going to be as much offensive firepower as any team in the league.
Of course, we know what happened next. Harvey declared for the draft, and then Miljkovic decided to transfer. Suddenly, EWU wasn’t just looking to replace two starters – They would only return one starter and six letter-winners. The Eagles bench played just 25.5 percent of the team’s minutes (309th in Division 1), and now, four of those five starters are gone.
All of that said, it would still be foolish to count out the Eagles next year. While they certainly won’t be the favorite, they could still be a top three team heading into next year, with the talent to contend for the top spot.
Anyone who has watched the Eagles over the past couple of seasons knows them as a team that fires away from deep, often with a ton of success. Last year, in DI games, 43.2 percent of their FG attempts came from 3-point land, well above the NCAA average of 34.2 percent. Of course, it worked, as they shot 39.3 percent on those 3-point attempts.
This year, we should expect somewhat of a different style. While they will still shoot a ton of threes (that’s what Jim Hayford loves), we could see a team that is more aggressive defensively, more reliant on the frontcourt, and ideally a little deeper. The front-court reliance seems especially clear when you look at who they have returning.
The star will be senior Jois, who could easily push for POY honors in the Big Sky. All Jois did last year was shoot 61 percent from the floor, while scoring almost 17 points per game and grabbing eight rebounds. He blocked over two shots per game as well, with a block rate that was top 100 in the NCAA. Jois is the heart and soul of the team.
He won’t have to do it alone up front. Bliznyuk came off the bench as a freshman, but he showed on-court maturity beyond his years. He was 22-for-41 from downtown, but also excelled at finding knacks in the defense. He just knows how to score, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his scoring average creep over 15 PPG as a sophomore. Felix Von Hofe will likely join that duo in the starting lineup, as something of a 3-point shooting specialist combo forward.
However, if the Eagles want to be title contenders once again, the key will be the growth of a backcourt that will be entirely new. The player most experienced in the Eagles system is redshirt sophomore Sir Washington, who played in 19 games last year (he missed time due to injury), but has the look of a guy that can step in and contribute as a starter. It’s tough to extrapolate any reasonable conclusion from his stats last year, but he is a very good athlete with the ability to get to the rim. Coach Hayford said that he is on the "Tyler Harvey workout plan" of 500 3-pointers per day, and if he can develop a consistent outside shot, he can be a very good starter immediately.
The Eagles hope the PG concerns were alleviated with the signing of Austin McBroom, a transfer from St. Louis. Though he is a transfer, he is eligible to play immediately, after averaging 6.7 PPG (and shooting 42.9 percent from downtown) last season for the Billikens. He also posted a 20.2 percent Assist Rate, and should step into the starting role vacated by Drew Brandon. Behind him, Hayford has a lot of youth, with redshirt freshman Will Ferris and true freshman Michael Wearne waiting in the wings.
Eastern Washington took the NCAA by storm this past season, combining a talented roster , a fun style of play, and a couple big non-conference wins to make them into (relative) media darlings. They lost a lot of talent from that squad, but they are still loaded with shooters, talented players, and good coaching. They won’t be the favorites, but they’ll be right back in the thick of the Big Sky race.