The new year starts with a toughie.
The Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team plays its first game in nearly two weeks when the Eagles take on the Montana Grizzlies tonight (Jan. 3) at 6:05 p.m. Pacific time at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula. Saturday (Jan. 5), the Eagles are in Bozeman to face Montana State, also at 6:05 p.m.
Eastern hasn’t played since beating Idaho State 57-54 Dec. 22 to even its Big Sky Conference record at 1-1 and improve EWU’s overall mark to 3-9.
Most importantly, the extended break allowed the youthful Eagles to get more practice time.
“We have 12 practices between games, and we have them coming off a win,” Eastern head coach Jim Hayford said. “Our team is making great improvement, and we needed time on the practice floor to improve and fix who we are.”
The Idaho State win snapped Eastern’s four-game losing streak, including a league-opening 74-53 loss to Weber State. The Wildcats were picked to finish second in the league standings behind Montana, which defeated EWU in the semifinals (74-66) and Weber State in the championship game (85-66) of the 2012 league tournament.
“Now we look ahead and face one of the two toughest road games on the schedule,” Hayford said. “We have a tough road trip ahead of us, but I do know our team is getting better and will embrace the challenge.”
A year ago, the Eagles were swept in three games by Montana, but won both meetings against the Bobcats. The Grizzlies enter Thursday’s game with a 6-4 record overall and perfect 2-0 Big Sky Conference mark, while MSU is 3-7 overall and 0-2 in the league.
Hayford liked glimpses of what he saw from the Eagles in the opening weekend of conference play, but now hopes to see more of it. His regular rotation of players includes a trio of true freshmen and a pair of sophomores.
“That’s part of having a young team – you can see during a 40-minute game stretches of 15, 25 and 30 minutes of just how good they can be,” he said. “They are playing hard – harder than they’ve ever played.
But they are also playing against the league’s upper classmen who have already figured out how hard you have to play, Hayford said
“We’re getting our team to that level,” he said. “The neat thing is that our players recognize that and are all-in to be the very best they can be.”
Following this week’s games, Eastern returns to Reese Court to host Northern Arizona Jan. 10 and Sacramento State Jan. 12 in a pair of games that start at 6:05 p.m.