Oct. 10, 2007
Just three short years ago in 2004, the Eastern Washington University men's basketball program was basking in the glow of playing in its first-ever NCAA Tournament.
Now, it's the job of new Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine to return the Eagles to prominence after three EWU seasons that yielded a collective record of 38-49. In the 2006-07 season, the Eagles had their string of consecutive Big Sky Conference Tournament berths snapped at nine.
Earlywine has a little recent history on his side in that effort.
"The last three years in the Big Sky, the team that won (the regular season conference title) and hosted the (six-team) tournament was not in the tournament the year before," he explained, citing the success of Weber State (2007), Northern Arizona (2006) and Portland State (2005). "I don't see any reason why we can't make it four in a row and be hosting the Big Sky Tournament at Reese Court next March."
Eastern's program was rebuilt from 1995-2000 by Steve Aggers, then Ray Giacoletti took the program to new heights from 2000-2004 with a NIT Tournament berth in 2003 followed by the NCAA berth in 2004. Giacoletti was 69-50 overall and 41-17 in the Big Sky in his four seasons. His .707 winning percentage in conference games is fourth-best in the 44-year history of the league among coaches with at least four seasons at the helm.
Giacoletti and Earlywine share common threads in coming to Eastern. Both were assistants at large Division I schools (Giacoletti at Washington and Earlywine at Utah) and both had head coaching experience at NCAA Division II schools (Giacoletti at North Dakota State and Earlywine at Pfeiffer).
"With the tradition over the last nine or 10 years at Eastern with coach Aggers and coach Giacoletti, this is a place that has proven that it can win the Big Sky Conference," he said. "Unless you're in the top 20 or 25 where you're trying to get to the Final Four, every school should have as their goal to win their conference, and that will be our first and foremost goal every year."
Earlywine has added 10 new players to three returning letter winners and a returning redshirt. The returning players include senior 6-foot-4 forward Kellen Williams, the lone returning starter who averaged 8.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game in 2006-07. He is a 2003 graduate of Franklin High School in Seattle, and played one year at Highline Community College in the Seattle area.
The other two players returning made their Eagle debuts last season.
Sophomore center Brandon Moore came off the bench in 26 of the 27 games he played. The 2005 graduate of Bethel High School in Graham, Wash., averaged 5.9 points and 3.6 rebounds while making 59.8 percent of his shots from the field. Eastern's biggest player at 6-9, 240 pounds, he was selected as the team's most inspirational player.
Marcus Hinton started nine of 25 games and was named the team's most improved player. The 6-3 guard finished the season with 33 points in his last two games, including 24 and the game-winning shot in an 82-79 win over Idaho State on Feb. 22. A 2004 graduate of Wilson High School in Tacoma, Wash., and transfer from Centralia (Wash.) Community College, Hinton finished with a 6.0 scoring average and made 14-of-25 three-point attempts.
The three returning players helped Eastern average 84.2 points per game in the 2006-07 season to rank third in NCAA Division I. However, the Eagles allowed 82.6 per game, giving Earlywine an early focus on improvement. Toward that goal, he will call upon his past experiences working under Rick Majerus at Ball State and Utah.
"We need to defend a little bit better, and we will do that," Earlywine said. "Coach Rick Majerus is a terrific defensive coach and, as I told the players in my interview, I was smart enough in the six years I spent with him to keep my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open. I learned a lot from him and hopefully I'll be able to translate that knowledge to the players."
"It's not necessarily important what I know," Earlywine added. "It's what I can get them to know."
The rest of the team will consist of newcomers, including 2006-07 redshirt Jack Loofburrow. The 6-6 forward is a shooting threat from the outside, but he missed valuable practice time last season with a broken left foot suffered in preseason practices. He is a 2006 graduate of Eisenhower High School in Yakima, Wash., where he played for one of USA Basketball's coaches, Pat Fitterer.
Eastern's newcomers will include a pair of cat-quick guards in 5-11 Adris DeLeon and 6-1 Gary Gibson. DeLeon averaged 8.4 points, 3.9 assists and 1.5 steals per game as a sophomore at the College of Southern Idaho to help the Golden Eagles to a 30-7 record and the semifinals of the National Junior College Athletic Association National Tournament. Originally from the Bronx and a well-known performer in New York streetball circles, he earned the nickname "2 hard 2 guard."
Gibson played one season at Miami-Dade Junior College and is formerly from Windsor, Ontario. He averaged 6.1 points, 2.7 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.6 steals to help his team to a 21-7 record and league championship.
Two Serbians have also joined the Eastern program - 6-2 junior guard Milan Stanojevic and 6-8 freshman forward Petar Milasinovic.
Stanojevic averaged 17.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2.2 steals as a sophomore last season at Northwest Junior College in Wyoming. He made 47 percent of his three-point shots (118-of-251) and led Northwest to a 21-11 record. He is formerly from Subotica, Serbia.
Milasinovic is from Sombor, Serbia, and averaged 14 points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots per game last year at Rise Academy prep school in Philadelphia, Pa.
Besides finding international players to fill out his roster, Earlywine also found a much-improved local product. Matthew Brunell, a 2006 graduate of Cheney (Wash.) High School - the home of Eastern Washington University - joined the Eastern program after one year at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake, Wash. Brunell was a starter at Cheney, but he was also an All-State tight end for the Blackhawks in football and played soccer.
Trey Gross, a 6-2 guard from Stockton, Calif., joins Loofburrow and Milasinovic as the team's lone freshmen. He averaged 21 points and 4.5 rebounds as a senior to lead Edison High School to a 22-9 record, a league title and the quarterfinals of the NorCal Division I basketball playoffs.
Two walk-ons will also join the Eastern program, including Brunell's Big Bend teammate Blake Solomon. A 6-2 guard, Solomon was a 2005 graduate of Kentwood High School in Kent, Wash., where he played on teams with former Eagle and current Detroit Piston Rodney Stuckey.
Jeff Christensen, a 6-5 senior forward, is the other walk-on after transferring from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. He averaged 8.5 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.0 steals per game as a junior and is a 2004 graduate of Wilson High School in Portland.
Eastern also has two transfers on its roster, but both will sit out the 2007-08 season because of NCAA transfer rules. Benny Valentine played the 2006-07 season for Bobby Knight at Texas Tech and Andy Genao played at Prairie View A&M the same season.
Valentine is a 5-7 junior guard who averaged 3.5 points and 1.2 assists in 20 games at Texas Tech. He is orginally from Omaha, Neb., and played one season of junior college basketball at Howard College in Texas.
Genao averaged 8.0 points and 2.5 rebounds last season, but before that earned first team junior college All-America honors at SUNY Delhi JC in New York. He averaged 17.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.0 steals as a sophomore. He is a 6-3 guard/forward and will be a senior next year for the Eagles. He is from the Bronx and graduated from Columbus High School in 2003.