When Big Sky Conference men’s basketball coaches previously put Eastern Washington atop their preseason poll, the Eagles were coming off the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth.
That was 15 years ago.
Third-year EWU men’s basketball coach Shantay Legans and the league’s most experienced roster are getting similar respect.
After reaching back-to-back Big Sky Conference Tournament championship games and returning the bulk of its talent, EWU was picked first in the coaches’ poll on Thursday.
Montana, which beat the Eagles in the 2018 and 2019 tournament title games, was picked first in the media poll, followed by Weber State, EWU and Northern Colorado.
The Eagles return six of their primary players from a season ago, including All-Big Sky talents in forward Mason Peatling and guard Jacob Davison. All-Big Sky Tournament forward Kim Aiken Jr. also returns.
EWU was the only team to land multiple players (Peatling and Davison) on the preseason All-Big Sky team released earlier in the week.
Peatling welcomes the lofty expectations.
“We’ll have teams gunning for us, but where else would you want to be?” Peatling said. “We’re looking forward to it.
“Coaches have a respect for what (Legans) has done with us the last couple years. We’ve had Big Sky MVPs who went on to play professionally, but now we have more of the pieces, less MVP-type-caliber players.”
Davison, who averaged 24 points in a nine-game Big Sky stretch last season before a season-ending injury, said his team is still taking the underdog approach.
“I think we’re ready for (the big expectations),” Davison said. “We have the same mentality we had when we were picked third and fourth the last couple years. It’s nice to get that preseason recognition, but we still have the same edge and the chip on our shoulder.”
EWU won the Big Sky Tournament title and reached the NCAA Tournament in 2015 when it beat conference co-champion Montana.
Since then, the Grizzlies have won five of their last eight meetings against the Eagles, including the last two tournament championship games in which EWU lost double-digit second-half leads.
Legans believes his team has the talent to earn the program’s third NCAA Tournament berth, but not without several tough tests in its conference slate.
The Eagles open their season Nov. 5 at home against Portland Bible College, a Division II member of the National Christian College Athletic Association.
“We all want to get to the NCAA Tournament, and sometimes you have to be lucky to get there,” Legans said. “We’ve gotten to the championship game but have fallen short, losing to Montana both times. Getting there is a great accomplishment, and it’s something we do think about. We just have to get better as the season progresses and have the depth we need when we get to the conference tournament.”
Southern Utah was picked to finish fourth by the coaches and fifth by the media, with Northern Colorado fifth in the coaches’ poll. The next six teams were ranked the same in both polls – Portland State, Montana State, Northern Arizona, Sacramento State, Idaho State and last-place Idaho.
Idaho, which fired coach Don Verlin in the offseason after a 5-27 season, lost the bulk of its roster to graduation and transfers but returns starting point guard Trevon Allen.
The Vandals, led by interim head coach Zac Claus, open their season Tuesday at home in an exhibition game against NCAA Division II Central Washington.
Idaho women picked second
Defending Big Sky women’s regular-season champion Idaho was picked second in both media and coaches’ polls Tuesday behind favorite Montana State.
The Vandals graduated two of the country’s top scorers and 3-point shooters in Mikayla Ferenz and Taylor Pierce, but they return All-Big Sky guard Gina Marxen.
Portland State, which beat Eastern Washington in the Big Sky Tournament title game last year to advance to NCAA Tournament, was picked third in both polls.
EWU was picked sixth in the media poll and seventh by coaches. The Eagles, who finished sixth in the league last season before going on their deepest conference tournament run in 31 years, return four major contributors in wing Grace Kirscher, guard Brittany Klaman, guard Jessica McDowell-White and forward Bella Cravens.
EWU led Portland State for the majority of the championship game before the Vikings went on a late 11-2 run to beat the Eagles 61-59.
“(Coming a win short of the NCAA Tournament) left a bad taste in our mouth and we want to get back to the championship and finish the game,” EWU head coach Wendy Schuller said. “But we have to get there first.”
EWU opens its season with a home exhibition game Oct. 30 against NAIA member Northwest University.
Idaho plays host to NAIA power Lewis-Clark State in an exhibition game Nov. 1.
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