After seeking to improve its athletic ability and size, and hopefully its shooting eye, the key to contending for a title could be the experience and leadership of five seniors
There is an easy distinction when dissecting Eastern Washington University's men's basketball roster for the 2009-10 season.
First of all, there are five letter winners back -- all seniors -- who will be heavily leaned on for leadership and focus on the floor.
Then there are the newcomers, featuring some of the most athletic players Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine has ever recruited.
Experience and athletic ability is the start, giving Eastern hopes that their size, speed and strength will help make them a championship contender in the league this season. And if the shooting comes around, that will be an even bigger bonus.
"We needed to become more athletic, we needed to add size and we needed shooting ability on the perimeter," said Earlywine, who is 23-37 in his first two seasons at the helm. "We thought if we could get all three of those it would be a home run. We accomplished two of those three goals for sure.
"We increased our size and length, and we increased our athletic ability," he continued. "What I don't know is if we improved our perimeter shooting enough, but I feel pretty good about the other two areas."
The Eagles were 12-18 overall last season, and 6-10 in the Big Sky Conference to finish seventh. For the second-straight season under Earlywine, Eastern just missed out on a berth to the Big Sky Conference Tournament as they finished in a sixth-place tie with Montana State but lost the tiebreaker.
The Eagles failed to qualify for the BSC Tournament for the third-straight season after a string of nine-straight appearances.
"Last year was disappointing because we thought we were going to make that jump," said Earlywine, who was 11-19 overall and 6-10 in the league in his debut season in 2007-08. "To take the step from being a bad team to being a competitive team is easy compared to taking the next step of going from being competitive to winning. That is much tougher. For us to take that step, we need our seniors to have a good year. If they have good senior seasons, we have a chance to be right where we all want to be that first week of March."
The seniors include second team All-Big Sky Conference guard Benny Valentine and 6-foot-9, 250-pound center Brandon Moore. The other three seniors are guard Gary Gibson and forwards Matthew Brunell and Mark Dunn.
"We have five seniors who have been in our program and understand our terminology and how we want things done," Earlywine explained. "We need those seniors to take a step forward in a leadership role so I don't feel like I'm coaching 14 or 15 guys every minute of every day. You want your upperclassmen to help coach the younger players along with you. When those five seniors are echoing my thoughts, and when they are saying the same things to the young guys that I'm saying, then we're making real progress."
Of prime concern was his team's shooting percentage for the season, which went from 40.6 percent in Earlywine's debut season to 41.8 percent in 2008-09. The team's three-point percentage actually went down, from 34.0 to 32.4 percent. The Eagles were 11-3 when they made at least 45 percent of their shots, but were 1-15 when they made 44 percent or less from the field
"We had the ability to play as well as anybody in the league," Earlywine said. "But you have to do it over long periods of the season -- it has to be a day-after-day-after-day type of thing. There were nights where we were very good defensively and struggled on offense, and vice versa. Part of that are just the growing pains of a new program.
"I would expect to see fewer of those peaks and valleys this coming season," he explained. "I would like to see us much more consistent in terms of our production. Our physical effort was pretty consistent a year ago for the most part, but we had mental lapses as a group and individually that we need to eliminate."
Consistency Key for Valentine & Moore . . .
Getting more consistent production out of Valentine and Moore will be of prime importance for the Eagles. They combined for 44 double figure scoring performances, but they also had 14 performances of eight or less.
"They all know that, in particular Brandon and Benny," explained Earlywine. "There is more responsibility that comes with being one of the guys who takes the most shots and is perceived to be one of the team's best players. When you are in that role it increases the responsibility that is thrust upon you.
"I think both of those players are ready, as well as our other three seniors. They are ready to take that challenge on and were terrific this past summer. Our players have worked hard in the weight room and increased their strength. I think we'll look like a Division I basketball team physically for the first time in three years. I expect what we did this past summer to carry right over to this season. I expect us to be right there the first week of March."
The 5-foot-7 Valentine redshirted the 2007-08 season after transferring from Texas Tech University where he played for Bobby Knight. Valentine finished third in the league with a 15.2 scoring average, ranking behind Anthony Johnson from Montana (17.5 average) and Loren Leath from Sacramento State (15.6).
For the season, Valentine made 40 percent of his shots from the field, 34 percent of his three-pointers (53-of-155) and 72 percent of his free throws to go along with averages of 3.1 assists (fifth in the league), 1.5 steals (fourth) and 2.8 rebounds per game. He led Eastern in scoring in 15 games, with a pair of 30-point performances, six outings with at least 20 and 24 of 29 games in double figures.
In EWU's 12 victories last season, Valentine averaged 17.8 points on 46.6 percent shooting from the field. In Eastern's losses, those figures fell to 13.4 points and 34.6 percent shooting.
"We need Benny to be more judicious with his shot selections," said Earlywine. "He took too many bad shots last year. He's one of the best students in our program and very, very bright intellectually and academically, but he tends to be his own worst enemy at times because of his thought processes. We have to minimize those occurrences this year."
Moore closed the year with a double-double against Portland State, scoring 18 points and pulling down a career-high 14 rebounds with a career-high five blocked shots. But the 2008-09 season wasn't always like that as his shooting percentages and fouls were a great indicator of his trials and tribulations. Moore had three double-doubles in Eastern's first 12 games of the season, but didn't have any in his next 16 until the PSU game.
Moore was the only Eagle to have started all 30 games and averaged 11.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game to rank 14th and second, respectively, in the Big Sky Conference. In his 87-game career (46 as a starter), Moore has averaged 8.2 points and 5.4 rebounds while making 50 percent of his shots from the field. His 61 blocked shots now rank third in school history and he has 473 total rebounds to rank 10th.
"Brandon needs to get back to shooting and scoring in the paint the way he did the final month his sophomore season and the final game of the season last year against Portland State," said Earlywine. "We need him to shoot 52-55 percent from the floor. I'm not saying we can't win or play well when he doesn't score in the low post, but it makes it much more difficult."
Brunell and Dunn are role players in the post, and their confidence as seniors could pay dividends for EWU. The 6-8, 260-pound Dunn averaged 5.6 points and 3.3 rebounds in an average of 23.3 minutes per game, and was the team's top field goal shooter at 48.9 percent. He started 24 of 30 games.
"I couldn't have been more happy with what Matt and Mark brought to the table last season," said Earlywine. "For the first 20 games, Mark was better than I thought he would be, but I played him probably too many minutes and he wore down. He doesn't have the body type to play 30-32 minutes per game and be effective. I think we can get the same production from him even with shorter minutes this season."
The 6-8 Brunell played in all 30 games and started three, and averaged 2.1 points and 2.1 rebounds per game. He also had 12 blocked shots and six steals.
"Matt became what I thought was the best team defender in the Big Sky Conference by the end of the year last season," Earlywine continued. "He might not have been able to take a player out of a game individually, but as a team defender he was spectacular and as good as I've coached. His awareness, his alertness away from the ball and his ability to cover mistakes by his teammates was outstanding. I would like him to be more of a threat offensively and a player the other team has to worry about a little more on the offensive end of the floor."
The fifth senior returning is Gibson, who has lettered two previous seasons under Earlywine. A quiet leader for the Eagles, the 6-1 Gibson averaged 19.4 minutes, 3.4 points and 1.7 assists per game as a junior, with just 32 turnovers in 30 games (14 as a starter).
"It's been a two-year process to get Gary Gibson to talk and communicate more, not only on the floor, but while he's on the sideline and in practice. He has to be more vocal in terms of helping the other players, especially on the defensive end of the floor. Gary is a very smart player and recognizes things very quickly. But he keeps it to himself, and that's not a good habit for a guard."
Newcomers Include Pair of Redshirts . . .
Earlywine redshirted two freshmen in 2008-09, and both are expected to contribute greatly to EWU this season. Kevin Winford is a 5-11 point guard from Anchorage, Alaska, and Abebe Demissie is a 6-5 forward who played for the highly-successful Rainier Beach High School program in Seattle.
"Kevin gained a tremendous amount of strength in his body and that was what was lacking like most incoming freshmen," said Earlywine. "He only gained four pounds but he gained a lot of strength. He struggled to practice for more than two or three minutes in practice really hard because he got really fatigued. But he's at the point now where he can play long minutes.
"Without any question he's the best shooter in the program and we'll need Kevin to step up and hits shots on the perimeter for us. He'll play both guard positions for us, but more than anything else, we need him to shoot the ball. He's more than proven he can do that in practice. He's a year older and a year stronger now, and I expect him to have an outstanding redshirt freshman year."
"Abebe simply has to learn to play hard over extended periods," said Earlywine of the very athletic Demissie. "He's blessed with a gift of his ability to pass the ball and handle the ball for a player 6-5. He literally can play the point. He can guard both guards and forwards and he's a good shooter when he's disciplined with his shot. He gained 18 pounds during his redshirt season and gained an unbelievable amount of strength and cut his body fat. He simply has to mature mentally and become much more focused when he comes onto the floor."
Another extremely athletic newcomer is Alden Gibbs, a 6-3 junior guard who played at College of the Siskiyous in California. Earlywine likens him to former Eagle Chris Hester (2002-03), a two-time first team All-Big Sky selection who averaged 13.8 points and 4.7 rebounds in his 61-game Eastern career, finishing with an amazing 63 dunks.
Other transfers include 6-8 sophomore forward Laron Griffin, who played at Los Angeles Southwest College, and Rice University transfer P.J. Bolte. Bolte is a 6-6 forward who graduated in 2008 from Franklin Pierce High School in Tacoma, Wash. Walk-on 6-7 forward Morgan Hyslop comes to EWU from Columbia Basin Community College, and was a 2007 graduate of Ferris High School in Spokane, Wash.
Eastern's other three newcomers are freshmen guards who graduated from high schools in the state of Washington. Glen Dean graduated from Roosevelt HS in Seattle in 2007 before attending prep school in North Carolina. Jeffrey Forbes played for Washington State 4A champion Federal Way, and walk-on sharpshooter Sean Fischer played for Gonzaga Prep in Spokane.
Bolte will redshirt the 2009-10 season as a transfer, and Hyslop and Fischer are expected to redshirt as well.
Schedule includes games with Washington State and Gonzaga . . .
Eastern's 2009-10 schedule is highlighted by non-conference games against Washington State and Gonzaga, as well as the earliest Big Sky Conference start in school history.
Eastern opens its league schedule on the early date of Dec. 5, giving the Eagles two exhibition games and seven non-conference games to prepare for league play. Among those seven games, Eastern hosts Portland on Nov. 14 and Boise State on Nov. 24, and plays road games at Washington State on Nov. 16 and Idaho on Nov. 28.
"I like our non-conference schedule and the fact we're not stuck on the road very long," Earlywine said. "But November is very tough and we have to be ready right from the start."
Eastern plays at Portland State on Dec. 5 before resuming league play on Jan. 1 at home against Sacramento State. The other non-conference games for the Eagles include road games at Nevada (Dec.17), Brigham Young (Dec. 19) and Gonzaga (Dec. 28), as well as an appearance in the four-team Las Vegas Classic at the Orleans Arena on Dec. 22-23.
In addition, Eastern plays both at home (Dec. 12) and on the road (Feb. 1) against Seattle University, a newcomer in NCAA Division I in the 2008-09 season. Seattle defeated the Eagles in overtime last season, but the Eagles were able to edge both Portland (63-58) and Idaho (69-59) before both of those teams finished strong in the West Coast Conference and Western Athletic Conference, respectively.
"We have our hands full with our non-conference schedule, but that's always the case," Earlywine said. "Now that Portland and Idaho have elevated their programs in the last year, it makes our non-conference schedule that much tougher."
"I hope we get tremendous fan support for our home opener against Portland because that is going to be a heckuva game," he added. "We beat them in a close game at their place last year and I know they'll remember that. So we jump right into the fire with Portland."
"Everything we do from now until December 5th will be pointing toward conference play," Earlywine continued. "We want to be peaked and ready for every conference game we play."
The Dec. 5 start to league play represents the earliest Big Sky opener in school history. Last year, the Eagles opened league play on Dec. 6 with a 61-55 home win over Montana State, and the previous season opened on Dec. 22 with a 58-57 home victory over Portland State.
"I've made my feelings pretty well known about playing the first conference game in early December," explained Earlywine. "But we've actually been ready to play that game the last two seasons. I shouldn't be too critical because we've won our opener each of the past two years."
Eastern is hoping its five senior letter winners and talented newcomers will help the Eagles earn their first Big Sky Conference Tournament berth in four seasons when that event takes place on March 6, 9 and 10. However, Earlywine expects several other league teams to feature even more returning starters and experience.
"The league is going to be very, very good," he said. "Top to bottom, it may be as good as it's been in the last 10 years. I told our team after our last game last season that our challenge was to go catch the other teams in the league. Nobody is backing up, so we have to go catch them. Our focus has been on doing what we have to do to improve and not count on other teams to stub their toe."
Earlywine has been in the Big Sky Conference for nearly 10 years now, dating back to 1999 when he became an assistant at Weber State. He knows the January to March grind in the league is difficult, but it's made even more difficult this season with the cost-saving measure of playing most weekend doubleheaders on Friday/Saturday instead of Thursday/Saturday.
"The travel difficulties haven't changed -- we still have nine institutions spread over eight states," he said. "You go from sea level to altitude, and one time zone to another. It's tough."