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Eastern Washington men: ‘Next man up’ approach for guard-heavy Eagles

Eastern Washington had the services of back-to-back Big Sky Conference MVPs the past two seasons.

But neither Jacob Wiley nor Bogdan Bliznyuk led the Eagles to Big Sky Conference regular season or tournament titles, goals second-year head coach Shantay Legans believes the Eagles can still reach in their absence.

Bliznyuk, the program and conference’s all-time leading scorer, spearheaded EWU’s run to the title game last March before falling to Montana, this year’s preseason favorite. Like Wiley, he has since graduated and is playing professionally overseas.

When EWU begins its 2018-19 campaign Nov. 6 at national power Syracuse, the Eagles will have four returning starters who averaged less than double figures.

Backcourt

Legans likes the experience and versatility of his guard-heavy group, and believes it can more than make up for the 21 points, six rebounds and four assists Bliznyuk averaged.

Legans is excited to see who emerges as EWU’s next high-volume scorer and leader.

“I think we could have a different (leading scorer) every night,” Legans said. “We have a bunch of scorers, a talented bunch of guards.

“It’s going to be exciting to step up and see who emerges as that guy.”

EWU, which finished 20-15 last season after falling to Utah Valley in the first round of the CBI, returns guards Jack Perry (6.8 ppg), Ty Gibson (6.3 ppg) and Cody Benzel (6.6 ppg) , as well last year’s trusty sixth man Jacob Davidson (7.2 ppg).

Benzel, a Ferris product, shot an impressive 42 percent from 3-point range last season.

Versatile sophomore Luka Vulikic, a 6-foot-7 guard who started eight games before a early season-ending injury, also returns after averaging 7.1 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists.

Vulikic believes this EWU squad has the means to be more sound defensively and will be more up-tempo.

“I feel like we’re going to be a different team,” Vulikic said. “We have guys that can step up, and we’re going to be even better defensively. We’re going to share the ball more and get our baskets in different ways.

“Our offensive efficiency is going to stay the same, if not better. We’re pretty young, but we still have a lot of experience.”

Adding to the Eagles’ wealth of experience is guard Steven Beo, a transfer from BYU who appeared in 31 games as a true freshman in Provo two seasons ago. The ex-Richland High star redshirted at EWU last season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Beo led the state of Washington in scoring (27.7 ppg) at Richland as a junior.

Frontcourt

EWU, picked fourth in both media and coaches’ preseason Big Sky polls, also returns proven commodities in the frontcourt.

After earning All-Big Sky conference honorable mention last year, 6-foot-8 big man Mason Peatling (7.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg) will be joined by 6-7 Jesse Hunt (7.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg).

Legans said Peatling is one of the top posts in the conference, and that Hunt was on his way to Big Sky honors last season before an injury. Tanner Groves, a 6-9 redshirt freshman from Shadle Park, is expected to add depth inside.

Bench

EWU may be looking for its next big scorer, but it has plenty of experience and depth that Legans can mix and match in its up-tempo system. Of its newcomers, true freshman guard Austin Fadal has been impressive early, according to coaches and players, and adds to the Eagles’ depth. The Eagles are battling some early injuries, Legans said, but he expects his team to be healthy by Big Sky play.

Coaching

In his first year as head coach, Legans, who was an assistant for former EWU coach Jim Hayford before he left for Seattle University, was just one game short of reaching the NCAA Tournament, and had a big nonconference win at Pac-12 Stanford. The 37-year-old likes to get his athletic guards out in space, much like the player he was as a guard at California and Fresno State in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Year two of his system could be even smoother if a consistent high scorer emerges.


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