Aug. 15, 2006
Head coach Mike Burns and the Eastern Washington University men's basketball program beamed with pride when accolades were heaped upon Rodney Stuckey for his many accomplishments in the 2005-06 season.
In 2006-07, they want to show that same kind of joy for the accomplishments of their team.
"Rodney had perhaps the greatest freshman season in the history of the Big Sky Conference," said Burns, who is entering his third season as EWU's head coach. "The one thing we and he can do better is win more basketball games and try to win a conference championship. Rodney would be the first to tell you that is very much the goal with this group. Going into last year we had a very young team and we didn't want to get caught up in setting our goals too high. This year we have experience and we're ready to take the next step."
All the pieces are in place to do just that, as Eastern tries to win the Big Sky Conference title and advance to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in school history. Stuckey returns for his sophomore season ready to lead the team toward that goal, but this time, maybe not having to shoulder so much of the burden after leading the team in scoring for the final 27 games of the season.
A total of seven returning letter winners and some talented newcomers -- including three guards -- has Burns excited about Stuckey's supporting cast.
"We have great depth in our back court," Burns said. "That's going to be a blessing because it's going to make practice much more competitive and, in turn, it's going to make us that much better in games. We can go to several different people at different times to try to solve the puzzle of winning games. That depth combined with having some experience and success last year has us excited about this season."
The excitement starts with Stuckey.
Playing for a team with just one senior, the 6-foot-5 graduate of Kentwood High School in Kent., Wash., burst onto the scene with one of the best seasons by a freshman in NCAA Division I history. Among his many awards was being honored as Collegeinsider.com Freshman of the Year after a record-breaking season unmatched in the history of Eastern Washington and by any freshman in the 43-year history of the Big Sky Conference.
He set seven school records, including a 24.2 scoring average per game that is a Big Sky record for a freshman and the seventh-best overall in the history of the league. His average ranked eighth in NCAA Division I. His 726 total points is fifth-best in league history, the most in the conference in nearly 30 years (since 1978-79) and the most-ever by a freshman in the BSC.
But most importantly, Eastern won seven more games than the 2004-05 EWU squad.
"When you have a player of his caliber, you are going to want him to have many opportunities to make plays," Burns said. "That isn't going to change. The one thing we have this year more than last year is a lot more depth on the perimeter and overall team depth. That is going to allow Rodney to not only rely on his ability to make plays but to also rely on the ability of his teammates to make plays. Statistically his numbers might drop slightly, but I think the team's overall improvement will be much greater."
Supporting cast a year older and a year more experienced . . .
Besides Stuckey, Eastern returns five other players with starting experience. Guard/small forward Matt Penoncello provided some shooting punch and defense, while the other four provided Eastern's presence inside. Back are 6-10 senior Paul Butorac, 6-8 senior Derek Risper, 6-8 junior Jake Beitinger and 6-5 junior Kellen Williams.
Other returning letter winners include three-point shooting threat Neal Zumwalt and former walk-on guard Rhett Humphrey. Having eight of 10 letter winners back is a blessing to Burns, whose program also returns 2005-06 freshman redshirt Brandon Moore.
"When you return a player of Rodney's caliber in addition to having eight of your top nine players back, I think you have reason for great optimism as we do," Burns said. "We expect this team to be extremely competitive in our conference and non-conference schedules. We improved a lot in January and February last year, and I think that improvement has propelled us into this year and hopefully to greater success."
Inside, Butorac, Risper, Beitinger and Williams combined for 73 starts and each averaged at least 16 minutes of playing time per game. Butorac earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors after averaging 10.3 points and 5.4 rebounds per game while making 57.3 percent of his field goal attempts. He also blocked a school-record 51 shots.
Risper averaged only 2.3 points and 3.8 rebounds, but earned a starting position late in the year. Beitinger chipped in 6.3 points and 3.6 rebounds.
"We have four players who really played a lot of minutes for us last year," Burns said. "We expect a great deal from Paul as a senior. Derek came on extremely strong at the end of last year, and has done a great job in the spring and summer of getting stronger and improving all facets of his game. Jake has potentially the most skill of any of our big players."
Williams is the most versatile player in the group, and averaged 8.0 points and 4.3 rebounds as a sophomore.
"Kellen is invaluable because we can play him in the front court or back court," Burns said. "He can make plays from the perimeter and can make plays inside. And he rebounds -- he's kind of a swiss army knife in terms of his ability to do many, many different things."
On the perimeter, Penoncello started 16 games and averaged 6.6 points and 1.7 assists per game. He also made 30-of-81 three-point attempts, including 20-of-45 during the league season when he averaged 7.9 points in 14 conference games.
"We were really fortunate to get the quality play we did out of those players last year," Burns said on Penoncello and role players Humphrey and Zumwalt. "Matt stepped up as a freshman and not only was probably our best perimeter defender, but also showed a propensity of knocking down huge shots at huge times in conference games. It was nice to see him develop in that role."
A walk-on who earned a scholarship, Humphrey averaged 16.1 minutes per game as a sub for Stuckey at point guard. He averaged 3.0 points and 1.6 assists while making 54 percent of his shots from the floor with 15 three-pointers.
"You couldn't ask more from Rhett for the things he did night-in and night-out for our team," Burns said. "His toughness and work ethic were a true blessing."
Zumwalt averaged 9.0 minutes in his first season as an Eagle, and made 19-of-48 three-point attempts. He averaged 2.2 points in 29 games with one start.
"The reason Neal was voted most inspirational is because I think his teammates realized just how important he was to our team," Burns said. "He could come in and play six minutes and hit two or three shots for us, or he could play 26 minutes. He adapts to many different roles for us and really shot it well."
Moore has added about 30 pounds since he arrived at Eastern, so the redshirt year could prove to be extremely valuable for the Eagles and their 6-8, 245-pound center.
"We were very lucky to be able to redshirt him last year," Burns said. "I expect him to have a huge impact on the front line for us. He plays extremely hard, rebounds, can score with his back to the basket and can run the floor. He's going to make a significant impact in our program this year."
Newcomers include point guard of the future . . .
The Eagles have had good luck with recruiting talented freshmen in recent years, and this year is no exception. Among the three high school players the Eagles signed, 6-4 point guard Michael Taylor from Brewster, Wash., is expected to be just what the Eagles needed.
The Eagles also signed a pair of junior college guards from Washington in Omar Krayem from Lower Columbia Community College and Marcus Hinton from Centralia CC. Krayem is originally from Modesto, Calif., and Hinton is a 2004 graduate of Wilson High School in Tacoma, Wash.
Taylor was selected as the State 1A Player of the Year by the Seattle Times, and was also selected by that newspaper as a second team All-State selection including players from all classifications. He averaged 25.2 points, 9.7 rebounds, 6.7 assists and nearly three steals per game in leading 24-2 Brewster to its second-straight runner-up finish in the State 1A Tournament where he was MVP.
"Michael is mature beyond his years," Burns said. "I think he'll be able to handle more than the average freshman is capable of handling. The good thing for him and our team is that we don't have to throw too much at him because we have some really good players around him. I think he'll adapt quickly to the college game. He has a great feel for playing in the back court. He can shoot it, handle it and pass it very well. We feel very fortunate to have him."
The hope is that Taylor can quickly step in as EWU's point guard, enabling Stuckey to move to an off-guard position. Krayem will also see action at the point.
Krayem led the 31-2 Red Devils to a runner-up finish in the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges Tournament and earned first team All-Tournament honors. He then was selected as the MVP in leading the West over the South 104-94 in an NWAACC All-Star Game, finishing with 22 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
"We will see the point guard position shared between Michael, Omar and Rodney," Burns said. "Omar can play both guard spots and has the ability to score or make plays for his teammates. He has a great feel for the game and is a winner."
Hinton finished his sophomore season with a scoring average of 22.9 points per game, including 48 points at Clark on Feb. 22, 2006, to set a NWAACC Western Region single game scoring record. He earned first team All-NWAACC Western Region honors twice, including as a freshman when he averaged 20.6 points per game. He also earned NWAACC All-Tournament honors in 2006 after leading Centralia to a fifth-place finish -- its highest finish since placing third in 1994 -- and a final record of 29-4.
"Marcus gives us an athletic slasher and defender, and somebody that can play around the rim," Burns said. "He also has a very good feel for how to play the game and is a very unselfish player. I think he'll have a very special year for us."
"Both of those young men come from great high school programs and are going to be great players in the future," Burns said. "We are fortunate that we have the opportunity to give them time to develop their bodies and get bigger and stronger."
Schedule has similar feel . . .
Eastern's 2006-07 schedule has a familiar ring to it as the Eagles take on the likes of Gonzaga, Washington, Oregon and UNLV -- all on the road. Gonzaga and Washington, as well as Big Sky rival Montana, advanced to the NCAA Tournament where all three teams picked up first-round victories.
"We have always scheduled tough, and this year is no different," Burns said. "Those are not easy places to win basketball games. But we have a group that can go in there and physically compete against those teams. We're excited about that."
Eastern plays an unprecedented eight games in November as the NCAA moved-up the allowed season starting date by a week. After an exhibition game against Northwest Nazarene, Eastern plays at Gonzaga on Nov. 10 and UNLV on Nov. 14. From Nov. 18 to Nov. 29 the Eagles play five games, including four home games and a visit to Washington on Nov. 24.
"The schedule allows us to start a week earlier and we kind of shoe-horned some games in around Thanksgiving as well," Burns said. "We'll have a tough stretch there to deal with. From Nov. 18 to 29 we play five games, but at least four of those five games are at home."
Four-straight road games follow in December, with Eastern hosting Idaho on Dec. 21 prior to Christmas. However, because of the addition of Northern Colorado to the Big Sky, league play will begin before the new year begins. Eastern hosts Montana State on Dec. 28 and Montana on Dec. 30.
"We tried to make sure we had some time to rest as we get ready for conference play," Burns said of his December schedule. "It's tough starting off the conference race right after Christmas. The fortunate part is we start at home. I think our schedule allows us a chance to get better against some pretty good teams and ultimately get ourselves ready for conference play."
The Big Sky Conference Tournament is scheduled for March 3, 6 and 7 as Eastern tries to extend its string of consecutive appearances to 10. The Eagles are just the fifth team in the 31-year history of the tournament to qualify for at least nine-straight tournaments. The EWU streak started back in 1998 after making just one trip to the tourney in its first 10 seasons as a member of the conference.