Eastern Washington coaches and players haven’t been able to avoid the slew of mock NCAA Tournament brackets that recently hit the internet.
The cancellation of several conference tournaments before the subsequent halt of March Madness – a result of the worldwide coronovirus pandemic – also took away one of the month’s most-watched spectacles: Selection Sunday.
But several of college basketball’s top analysts released brackets of their own this week, and Big Sky Conference regular-season champion Eastern Washington is featured in most of the simulations.
Many gave the Eagles (23-8) a No. 14 seed with such matchups as Duke, Seton Hall, Kentucky and San Diego State, in first-round locations as far away as Albany, New York.
When EWU punched its previous two NCAA Tournament tickets in 2004 and 2015, it was as No. 15 and No. 13 seeds, respectively.
The Eagles, whose Big Sky Tournament was canceled 90 minutes before their first game last week in Boise, were given an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament, which was canceled hours later.
“You start thinking about the fake scouting reports in your head when you see those brackets,” said third-year EWU coach Shantay Legans, the Big Sky’s Coach of the Year.
Jacob Davison, EWU’s leading scorer, wished for the real thing.
“Would have been nice to prove we belonged there,” said Davison, who already is looking forward to his senior season. “But it’s cool seeing our name in the brackets and who we could have possibly played.”
Behind senior forward and Big Sky Most Valuable Player Mason Peatling, the young Eagles earned the program’s fourth conference title and posted the school’s second-best record.
Peatling (17.2 points and 9.1 rebounds per game) and All-Big Sky selections Davison (18.4 ppg) and sophomore Kim Aiken Jr. (13.4 ppg, 9.7 rpb) spearheaded a high-scoring EWU offense (80.9 ppg) that ranked first in the Big Sky and sixth in the nation.
EWU, which hit nearly 10 3-pointers a game, also lived up to its billing as the preseason Big Sky favorite, per the coaches preseason poll.
“It was a fun year and an exciting year, but I thought we could have done better in preseason,” said Legans, who lamented a 72-68 loss at Boston College in November in which the Eagles had a late lead.
“But every loss we had this season set us straight for a while. We got better.”
EWU’s preseason also included a 87-82 win over NCAA Tournament regular and 2020 Ohio Valley Conference Tournament champion Belmont and a 98-82 win over North Dakota, which reached the Summit League Tournament title game.
Legans, who has an overall Big Sky record of 41-17 and reached the Big Sky Tournament title game in 2018 and 2019, returns a talent-stocked roster next season.
EWU loses one senior starter in Peatling but returns Davison, Aiken, three-year starting guard Jack Perry and point guard Ellis Magnuson, who ranked fifth in the Big Sky in assists (4.2) as a true freshman.
The Eagles, who routinely played five freshmen, also return sixth man and guard Casson Rouse, 6-foot-9 swingman and Shadle Park graduate Tanner Groves and several other contributors.
The loss of Peatling leaves a major void in leadership and in the paint, but the Eagles will look to reload inside with Groves and sophomore-to-be Abdullahi Mohamed (6-9), who played sparingly this past season.
EWU also recently got a big commitment from 6-10 forward Victor Radocaj, a member of Canada’s national team.
The Eagles’ scout team may have also produced a gem last season in 6-7 guard Steele Venters, an Ellensburg product who redshirted as a freshman in an effort to add bulk to his frame.
Multiple EWU coaches said Venters developed into one of team’s most talented players by the end of the season, and has a game similar to Davison.
“We’re equipped to come back and do well again,” Legans said.
“We had a young team, and that’s a huge plus,” Davison said. “The guys were able to experience a championship run and now know what it takes to get there.”
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