Kirk Earlywine doesn’t have much of a feel for how the Big Sky Conference men’s basketball race might play out this winter.
All Eastern Washington University’s third-year head coach knows for sure is that his Eagles (3-4) open conference play on the road Saturday against two-time defending conference champion Portland State (2-4).
The game, starting at 7:05 p.m. at the Stott Center in Portland, will be EWU’s earliest conference opener since joining the BSC 22 years ago. Earlywine has again made it clear he is not an advocate of playing conference games in early December.
“It’s not ideal. I don’t like it,” he said. “But these last two December (Big Sky) games we’ve won – two years in a row – so, maybe, I shouldn’t be quite so critical.”
The Eagles opened conference play with an early-December win over PSU in Earlywine’s first winter in Cheney and then knocked off Montana State in last year’s Big Sky opener last December. Both games were played at Reese Court.
This time, Eastern opens on the road against a PSU team that returns three starters – Dominic Waters, Jamie Jones and Phil Nelson – who all boast double-digit scoring averages.
The Vikings, in their first season under head coach Tyler Geving, are coming off an impressive 86-82 road win over the No. 25-ranked University of Portland, which is expected to challenge Gonzaga for this year’s West Coast Conference title. Despite their middling record, Earlywine feels they still deserve the title of preseason Big Sky favorites.
“They’re the reigning champs, two times, and until someone knocks them off the throne, they’re still king of the hill,” Earlywine said. “You still have to count them as at least one of the favorites.”
Faced with a flood of injuries to key players, which has left him scrambling to put together game plans and lineups for a busy and ambitious early-season schedule, Earlywine confesses to not having had much time to evaluate the contenders and pretenders in this year’s Big Sky regular-season title chase. But he was impressed by Montana’s wins over Boise State and Oregon, along with the way the Grizzlies battled in a 63-59 road loss to nationally ranked Washington.
“Montana’s had some really good wins, and their scores have kind of jumped out at me,” Earlywine said. “And Sacramento State being up 22 at halftime (in a 65-63 road win) against Oregon State jumped out at me, too.
“But other than that, I haven’t had time to do much looking ahead.”
Earlywine’s Eagles have been plagued by what he calls “a season’s worth of bad luck on the injury front,” and have played all but two of their games without at least two projected starters.
Senior front-liners Brandon Moore and Mark Brunell missed Tuesday night’s rout of visiting Walla Walla University with ankle injuries. Senior guard Gary Gibson made his season debut just two games ago after missing the first five with lingering knee problems.
In addition, freshman guard Kevin Winford has missed the last two games because of a concussion, and freshman forward Abebe Demissie has missed four games with an injured hamstring.
“We’ve only started two games this year where we’ve had all of our starters – against Portland and against Washington State – and in those two games we played well against teams that are proving they’re pretty good right now.
“Since them we’ve been without two starters in every game. So, it’s been hard for us to get any kind of rhythm. It’s not where I’d like at this point, but, hopefully, we’re close to being through it, and we won’t have any more (injuries), because it’s been hard.”
Earlywine said Brunell and Moore, who is averaging a double-double of 11.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, are “very questionable” for Friday’s game against PSU. But he added he still expects to have his team in the hunt for a first-division Big Sky finish and a spot in the six-team conference tournament, provided Moore and senior guard and leading scorer Benny Valentine have good years.
Among the other teams expected to figure into the 2009-10 title-chase picture are Weber State and Montana State. Earlywine expects Idaho State to be much improved, provided its gets the kind of point guard play it expects from first-year junior college transfer Broderick Gilchrest, who is averaging 12.6 points and three assists in the early season.
The surprise team could be Northern Colorado, which is unbeaten in seven games after winning the Rainbow Classic in Honolulu and the Reggie Minton Air Force Classic in Colorado Spring, Colo. But Earlywine, who spent seven years as an assistant under Joe Cravens at Weber State prior to landing at Eastern, insists records mean little at this point.
“I’ve learned over 10 years in the Big Sky that November and December records can be very, very deceiving, because people are playing a whole bunch of road games and a whole bunch of money games,” he said.
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