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Eastern Washington stung by loss of Pac-12 nonconference games

UPDATED: Mon., Aug. 17, 2020

Eastern Washington basketball coach Shantay Legans speaks to players on the court late in the second half of a victory over Belmont in November 2019 in Cheney.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Eastern Washington basketball coach Shantay Legans speaks to players on the court late in the second half of a victory over Belmont in November 2019 in Cheney. (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

It’s been five months since young, high-scoring Eastern Washington experienced the initial sting of a canceled NCAA Tournament.

The Eagles – the outright Big Sky Conference champions – believed they had the hottest hand heading into their conference tournament in Boise, which was also shelved in March due to growing coronavirus concerns.

EWU was given a short-lived automatic berth to the Big Dance when the Big Sky canceled its tournament. Hours later, the NCAA Tournament followed suit.

This was a different pain for EWU than its back-to-back tournament championship losses in 2018 and 2019, when the Eagles squandered double-digit second-half leads against rival Montana and came up just short of March Madness.

But EWU – which returns the overwhelming majority of a roster that ranked 6th in the country in scoring (80.9 points per game) last season – found solace in an exciting 2020-21 slate.

Shantay Legans, EWU’s 39-year-old coach and reigning Big Sky Coach of the Year, recently put together one of the best nonconference schedules in program history.

But EWU’s rough luck continued last week when the Pac-12 Conference opted to not play sports until early 2021, effectively canceling a good portion of the Eagles’ marquee games.

The Eagles were set to face USC on Nov. 13 in Los Angeles and Washington State in December at the Spokane Arena.

The USC and Oregon games would have potentially given EWU around $200,000, sources close to the team’s scheduling said. The Eagles’ game against Washington State in Spokane would have been a home game, giving the school much of the ticket revenue.

“It’s disappointing, because we want those games to get better and for our guys to have those experiences against the bigger schools,” said Legans, who started three seasons at California.

Two of EWU’s best returning players – All-Big Sky returnees Jacob Davison (18 ppg) and Kim Aiken Jr. (13.4 ppg, 9.7 rebounds per game) – are from Southern California.

USC, a team that likely would have qualified for the NCAA Tournament last season, didn’t recruit either of the high school standouts.

They haven’t forgotten.

“I really wanted to play USC,” Davison said. “That was a game where my friends and family could have watched us.”

EWU still has nonconference games against Notre Dame and NCAA Tournament regular Saint Mary’s before the start of Big Sky play.

Most of EWU’s basketball players are back in Cheney and have recently started team workouts of seven players at Reese Court, Legans said, though the school postponed all fall sports last week.

Davison is hopeful the college basketball season will start on time in the late fall.

“It was devastating not having a NCAA Tournament, and to now lose those big nonconference games,” Davison said. “But if the season is delayed, it gives us more time to keep improving.”

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