With Wednesday night’s Big Sky Conference opener against Sacramento State looming as his team’s next big challenge, Eastern Washington University men’s basketball coach Kirk Earlywine claims he can live with where his Eagles are at this point in the season.
But only because he has to.
“Sure, I wish we were further along,” Earlywine said. “But there was just no way that was possible, given the circumstances.
“We were dealt a bad hand this year. And when that happens, you can either sit around and cry about it, or you can try to make the best out of that hand – which is what I felt like we did.”
Eastern (3-8) opened the season with sophomore point guard Glen Dean, last year’s top scorer and BSC Freshman of the Year, on the shelf with a stress fracture in his foot. Cliff Colimon, the junior college point guard who was brought in to spell Dean, sprained an ankle just prior to the season opener against San Jose State. And promising junior forward Rashano McRae, another first-year transfer, missed several games with a concussion.
And even though all three are expected to be available for the league opener against Sac State (3-8), which tips off at 7 at Reese Court, it doesn’t mean the Eagles are at full strength.
Dean, after missing the first seven games of the season, has played in each of Eastern’s last four, averaging a team-high 14.3 points and 3.5 assists. But he has missed several practices with issues involving his foot injury and is still trying to regain the strength and quickness he had as a freshman.
“It still feels to me like we’re in late October or early November,” Earlywine said, “just because of how little time we’ve had to play and practice with Glen on the floor. When he was out, players had to learn different positions, and we had to run different plays. And now we’re trying to learn the plays we can run with him back at the point.
“There’s been kind of a trickle-down effect that has made it very, very tough.”
Still, Earlywine has seen enough positives – like the early season play of first-year junior forward Cliff Ederaine, whose rebounding average of 8.6 per game is tops among BSC players – to let him believe his Eagles are improved enough to challenge for one of the six spots in the league’s postseason tournament.
“I’m very, very happy with Cliff Ederaine right now,” Earlywine said of the 6-foot-7, 205-pound transfer, who is also averaging 8.9 points per game. “I’d like him to be a little more physical on the defensive end of the floor, but he gets a little better every day with that.
“So, it’s hard to find much fault with him right now.”
That’s not the case with several of the other front-line newcomers Earlywine brought in to complement his young, but experienced, backcourt that includes sophomores Kevin Winford (13.5 ppg) and Jeffrey Forbes (12.3).
Junior Tremayne Johnson, for instance, is averaging 11.4 points and 5.4 rebounds, but has been perplexingly inconsistent. And McRae, along with freshmen Geoffrey Allen, Rocky Brown and Jaylen Henry, have combined to average only 10 points per game.
“If those big guys will just run in transition and be conscious of where open gaps are, offensively, No. 1 (Dean) will find them when they’re open,” Earlywine said. “And they’re gradually realizing that – which is another positive.”
The Eagles were picked to finish sixth in the Big Sky in preseason polls of both league coaches and members of the media.
Weber State was picked to win the regular-season title in both polls, as well, but the Wildcats have lost leading scorer Damian Lillard, a junior guard, for the season with a broken bone in his foot.
The loss of Lillard, Earlywine said, could change the landscape as far as the regular-season title race is concerned and move Montana (8-4), which has beaten both UCLA and Oregon State, and Northern Arizona (8-4) into the role of co-favorites.
“But like I’ve always said,” Earlywine added, “it’s hard to really judge who’s good in the Big Sky in December, because you have to play so many road games and money games. I go back to what (former EWU coach) Ray Giacoletti told me after our Gonzaga game, when he reminded me that his (Eastern) team was 3-10 in nonconference play the year (2003-04) they won the Big Sky.”
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