This season Eastern’s men’s basketball team is hoping to get off to a better start than they did last season when they won just two of the first nine games, but in the same right is striving to contend for the Big Sky championship after tying for the trophy last season.
Early on this season will be challenging for the Eagles, with records of 12-4 in the Big Sky Conference and 15-12 overall, who were handed one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the nation, with a retooled team and new head coach, much is unsure.
Opening up at home Friday night against Gonzaga University, which was a Sweet Sixteen team last season and one of the top eight teams in the nation two years ago, is a tough task for Eastern and new head coach Ray Giacoletti.
“This is a great opportunity for us to open up at home against a caliber of opponent like Gonzaga,” said Giacoletti. “There’s no second guessing what they’ve done, now every one in the country is aware of that team.”
Eastern, like Gonzaga, lost intricate sprockets to the team this year, but also are predicted to succeed with experienced players this season.
The Eagles lost senior first team All-Big Sky Conference selections Deon Williams and Ryan Hansen from their backcourt, along with Big Sky Coach of the Year Steve Aggers, who coached the team to the team to a co-championship last season.
Even though the losses Eastern still remains with a talented core of experienced upperclassmen and good young players that could help to challenge for post season once again.
After Aggers departure to Loyola-Marymount last spring, Eastern hired new skipper, Giacoletti, who is nothing but optimistic of the potential that this year’s squad brings to the court.
“This team [Eastern] has four seniors that have been through the conference and they understand what it takes to win the big games,” Giacoletti said.
The first year coach is a former University of Washington assistant and was the head coach at Division II North Dakota State University for the past three seasons before his leaving for Cheney.
The Eagles will feature perimeter players, seniors Jamal Jones and Aaron Olson; along with standout freshman Marquis Poole and junior transfer Jason Lewis.
Senior forward Chris White, an All-Big Sky Honorable Mention selection one year ago averaged 11.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocked shots on last season’s campaign and will be striving to post such numbers if not better with the help of fellow senior Kareem Hunter.
The 6-foot-6-inch, 215-pound Hunter will be a dominant force in the paint, like he was last year when he brought down an average of 5.3 rebounds and added 6.5 points per contest.
Giacoletti feels that the mixture of experience at all positions will be key for the team this season.
“We have two perimeter players that are seniors and two big men that are seniors,” he said. “There’s not really one of four that we will look to, rather we look to each one of them. We need to do it by committee.”
Friday night’s opponent, Gonzaga have also gone through a transition of players after graduating standout back court players, Matt Santangelo and Richie Frahm, along with Mike Nielson, Ryan Floyd and big man Axel Dench.
In spite of the potential for disaster with the losses, the Bulldogs are growling with the same integrity as in past seasons.
Anchored by John R. Wooden Player of the Year nominee Casey Calvary, Gonzaga forwards Mark Spink and Zach Gorde are returning from last season’s phenomenal team. Gonzaga is also expected to flourish with first year Bulldog Dan Dickau.
Dickau, a junior transfer from the University of Washington and 1998 Washington State Player of the Year, left the Seattle after a sub-par freshman season and a broken ankle the next year.
“Inside and out they’re pretty potent and can score a lot of points,” said Eastern’s new coach.
Eastern opens with Gonzaga and will follow next week in Lansing, Mich. for the Spartan Coca-Cola Classic. Eastern will play Bradley on Friday, and if they win they will face off against the defending national champion Michigan State Spartans on Saturday.
Giacoletti agrees that playing top programs in the country has its benefits, but also has its share of downfalls as well.
“I think there needs to be a fine balance between the two,” said Giacoletti. “You don’t want to get content playing lower level teams, but certainly you don’t want to play nothing but better teams and not be able to accomplish any improvements before conference games.”
Improvement is what the Eagle coach is stressing in the preseason.
When Gonzaga invades Reese Court in Cheney Friday night for the 7 p.m. match up, and the big tournament next week, Eastern will try to put what ever out come into a positive that they will be able to learn from and in result become better.
“Look at the opportunity that we have,” the excited Giacoletti said. “There are only so many opportunities in life and this is one of them. We have to make the most of them.”