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Eastern Washington excited to host mid-major power Belmont

Belmont, the EWU Eagles next opponent, first appeared in the NCAA Tournament in 1996. (DENIS POROY / AP)
Belmont, the EWU Eagles next opponent, first appeared in the NCAA Tournament in 1996. (DENIS POROY / AP)

Two NCAA Division I men’s basketball programs have earned more conference titles than Belmont since 2006: Kansas and Gonzaga.

The mid-major power from Nashville, Tennessee, has won 10 Ohio Valley Conference banners in that span, advanced to eight NCAA Tournaments and settled for the NIT three times.

Regular participants of the Big Dance rarely visit Cheney for a nonconference tune-up, but Eastern Washington (3-2) plays host to Belmont (4-2) on Tuesday at Reese Court for one of its finest non-Big Sky Conference home tests in program history.

The Bruins, who beat Temple to open the NCAA Tournament last March before falling to Maryland in the second round, also have an opportunity to boost their resume if the Eagles live up to their preseason expectations.

After falling a win short of the NCAA Tournament the previous two seasons, experienced and talent-stocked EWU was picked No. 1 in the Big Sky preseason coaches poll released last month.

Third-year EWU coach Shantay Legans dubbed Tuesday night’s matchup with Belmont one of the top mid-major games in the country.

“They can really play. They’re very skilled,” Legans said of Belmont. “They get up and down, are good in transition and can shoot the 3-ball well.”

“It’s going to be fun to watch,” Legans added. “A lot of scoring and 3-pointers.”

Belmont, the Ohio Valley preseason favorite, is ranked No. 22 out of 351 Division I teams in in 3-point attempts, connecting on 66 of 177 tries. EWU is No. 61, hitting 57 of 157.

Belmont and EWU are playing as part of the the five-team Gotham Classic, where each team has three common opponents.

The Bruins have beaten Boston College (100-85), High Point (90-51) and lost to Saint Louis (60-55).

The Eagles won at High Point (90-74), but lost on the road to Saint Louis (82-60) and were edged 72-68 at Boston College after EWU led in the final two minutes.

Belmont isn’t a stranger to knocking off power-conference foes like Boston College.

Since 2012, the Bruins have also dispatched North Carolina, Marquette, UCLA, Vanderbilt and Stanford during the regular season.

Eastern, which is four seasons removed from its last NCAA Tournament appearance, has also beaten big schools in that span, including Indiana and Stanford.

EWU sophomore forward Kim Aiken Jr. (14.8 points per game, 10.8 rebounds per game) said he sees a few parallels between the Eagles and Bruins.

“They’re a team that plays exactly like us,” Aiken said. “They hit 3s, run and use their big men well.”

“It’s a winnable game if we play right,” added Aiken, who ranks sixth in the country in defensive rebounds at 8.8 per game). “It’s exciting to a play a team like this in Cheney and show what we can do before (Big Sky) play starts.”

Aiken and fellow standout forward Mason Peatling (9.8 ppg, 6 rpb)) will be tasked with stopping Belmont 7-footer Nick Muszynski, who is averaging 13.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks.

Explosive EWU guard and leading scorer Jacob Davison (17.4) will look to keep pace with Belmont’s leading scorer and 3-point specialist Adam Kunkel (19.3 ppg).

With most students gone this week for Thanksgiving break, Legans is encouraging local college hoops fans to make the trek to Cheney to see his ascending program take on one of college basketball winningest teams.

“That’s what you want to get to when you’re a mid-major school,” Legans said of Belmont.

Here’s a look at other memorable nonconference teams to visit Reese Court.

Nov. 17, 2000

Gonzaga 74, EWU 65: The previous time Gonzaga played in Cheney, the Bulldogs were coming off a program-changing Elite 8 appearance in 1999 and a spot in the Sweet 16 in 2000. Gonzaga’s season opener saw forward Casey Calvary score 24 points and pull down 10 rebounds and help the Bulldogs lead by as many as 25 points. Jamal Jones had 15 points for EWU, which played in front of a crowd of 5,256, among the largest in Reese Court history.

Dec. 10, 1991

Washington State 80, EWU 59: WSU hasn’t played in Cheney since 1998, but when the Cougars made the 67-mile trip north in 1991, the Pac-10 team had some buzz. WSU coach Kelvin Sampson’s squad handled the Eagles and went on to finish 22-11, fifth in the Pac-10 and advanced to the second round of the NIT.

Nov. 24, 2009

Boise State 82, EWU 69: Two seasons after Boise State reached the NCAA tourney and a year after it played in the College Invitational Tournament, the Broncos’ Ike Okoye had 21 points, 17 rebounds and six blocked shots against the injury-plagued Eagles. Brandon Moore led EWU with 18 points and nine rebounds.

Nov. 14, 2014

EWU 88, Texas Southern 62: Tyler Harvey poured in 21 points to help the Eagles open their Division I schedule with a win over over Texas Southern, which joined the Eagles in the NCAA Tournament later that season. The Tigers have reached the NCAA tourney five times in the 2010s.

Dec. 28, 2018

South Dakota State 74, EWU 64: The Jackrabbits played in three straight NCAA Tournaments before facing the Eagles in Cheney, where All-America forward Mike Daum had 27 points and 11 rebounds. Jacob Davison had 20 points in a losing effort. SDSU later won its fifth Summit League title in seven seasons and advanced to the NIT.

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