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John Blanchette: Any Big Sky road win can be declared masterpiece

Eastern Washington guard Sir Washington tries to clamp down on Idaho guard Victor Sanders on Friday in Cheney. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington guard Sir Washington tries to clamp down on Idaho guard Victor Sanders on Friday in Cheney. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Parachuted into the heart of a Big Sky basketball renaissance on Friday night.

Oh, no one was putting The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of Reese Court and maybe 58-51 is nobody’s idea of fine basketball art – though the locker room whoops of the Idaho players, who had never won in the building and had the 58 to Eastern Washington’s 51, suggested otherwise.

“It’s a long ride back to Moscow when you lose,” the Vandals’ Victor Sanders said. “Not today.”

No, but in point of fact, it’s a long ride from any outpost in this league to another. That’s why the sky is so damned big.

And for some reason, the competition seems a little saltier than usual.

Don’t think Don Verlin hasn’t noticed. Idaho’s head coach saw his team picked to win the conference in polls of both his brethren and the media, and then sweated through a split of the first four games. Just last weekend at home, the Vandals won and lost one-pointers, so someone is taking the term “favorite” loosely.

“It’s the best I’ve seen it since we’ve been back in the league, “ said Verlin, this marking the fourth year. “I heard a stat the other day that in the preseason last year we won 30 some games, and this year we won 70 plus. And that’s with a lot of us being on the road a ton.”

It’s reflected in the league’s RPI – 19th among the 32 Division I conferences after years languishing in the low, low 20s. To be precise, Sky teams beat 46 Division I opponents in November and December, up from 31 a year ago (the 70 includes some mystery guests like Antelope Valley and Presentation). Five of those victims were Power 6 teams – as many as the Big Sky beat in the previous three years combined.

Of course, the Big Sky’s mistake is that four of those were over Pac-12 schools, so perception points get docked.

Tough break, fellas.

And, in the end, it won’t make much difference. The Sky is a one-bid NCAA Tournament league and always will be. But the scrap for that spot this year should be epic.

“A fistfight every night out,” Verlin predicted.

Take Friday night. Eastern had the Vandals in a 20-6 hole almost before the obligatory doffing of the head coaches’ suit jackets. This was done on 61-percent shooting, the thing the Eagles do best.

To that point, anyway.

In the ensuing 30 minutes, the Eagles scored just 31 points and made just 12 of 42 shots. The spigot wasn’t just turned off, it was iced over – and it was Idaho’s defense that was responsible.

The Vandals made some deft switches from man-to-man to zone and back again – sticking with the zone for a long stretch in the first half to pull themselves back into the game, going man most of the second in inching away.

“Idaho came in here and kicked our butts and outcoached us,” EWU coach Shantay Legans said. “They did good job of going into a zone. We knew it was coming, but I didn’t have our guys prepared.”

The Vandals’ focus, of course, was Eastern’s soon-to-be-career scoring leader, Bogdan Bliznyuk “who had the first nine points, almost,” Sanders said – and then no more until getting to the foul line with 93 seconds left in the game.

His undoing was mostly Brayon Blake, a strong, athletic forward who apprenticed at North Idaho College before transferring to Idaho last year and is the Big Sky’s rebounding leader.

“He’s a great, great player and I’ve got to give him a shout out – I played against him my whole life basically in high school,” Blake said. “He’s a third or fourth move guy. You can stop him one time, but he can do an up-fake and go under you in any direction.”

Problem was, he rarely got more than a step.

And this is the Sky many nights: As your best player goes, so go you. There are six or seven teams with a legitimate shot at winning the league and there’s a potential Big Sky MVP at each one: Bliznyuk, Sanders, Montana’s Ahmaad Rorie, Montana State’s Tyler Hall, Weber’s Jerrick Harding, Portland State’s Deontae North.

So Verlin will spend plenty of time at the drawing board.

The start is unforgiving. After trips to Alaska, Louisiana, California and Michigan before Christmas, the Vandals play five of their first seven Sky games on the road –making the two longest possible trips. And, as the paper favorites, getting every team’s attention.

“We haven’t talked much about it,” Verlin insisted. “If we’re getting people’s best shot, that’s what you want. Hey, we haven’t won the league. Eastern has a banner up there. We don’t.”

Hard to know who’ll raise one toward the ceiling in the Sky this year. But it figures to look like fine art.

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