Cheney Free Press -

By PAUL DELANEY
Staff reporter 

What if? The question that EWU can't answer

 

Last updated 3/26/2020 at 9:56am

CHENEY – What if? Those two words continue to echo throughout college basketball locker rooms following the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Basketball Tournament way back on March 12.

In the span of a few hours “what if” reverberated through Eastern Washington’s basketball family when minutes from tipoff Eagle players and coaches got word that the Big Sky Conference Tournament opener vs. Sacramento State — and the event itself — had been cancelled as a precaution against further spreading of COVID-19 “coronavirus.”

With a seven-game winning streak that helped propel them to the Big Sky’s regular-season championship with a 16-4 record, Eastern was trying to take the one step that they stumbled on in the previous two league tournament trips under head coach Shantay Legans.

“We’re bummed out because we couldn’t play and show everybody how much better we had gotten from the year before,” Legans said.

It’s been decades since any Big Sky conference team had made it past the first round of the NCAA’s. Weber State accomplished that in the 1978-79 season and Idaho reached the Sweet-16 in 1982 under one-time Cheney High School coach, Don Monson.

What if Eastern had conquered its Boise bracket, pushing its streak to 10, and reaching the NCAA Tournament for just the third time in school history?

But that journey was forced into the ditch by a pandemic that experts feared would break out of its boundaries and rampage across the world.

“We went to a shoot-around, it was optional, we had about seven guys and we shot about 25 minutes,” Legans said of the Thursday morning preparation.

His team got back to the hotel and were about to start loading the bus and then, “We got the call that the tournament was over, the Big Sky Tournament was canceled,” Legans said.

In his mind, Legans thought, “It was like okay, at least you know, we get to go to the NCAA Tournament,” he said. Eastern had accomplished numerous goals throughout the season, among them the conference crown, but one remained. The NCAA’s and a “chance to make some noise,” Legans said.

Then it was the other shoe and a kick to the gut, the unimaginable news that “March Madness” would not happen.

“It hit our guys and hit our coaching staff,” Legans said. “You just don’t have words to tell our seniors.”

But at the end of the day, most important is people’s safety and health, Legans said. “You know, it’s a bummer, but if Disneyland is closed there’s something going on.”

Not only was it a huge disappointment for his team, but for others — even cross-town rivals, and those not so close.

“I feel for teams like Gonzaga, this could have been their year,” Legans said. “They’re hosting and it’s the first time that a non-Power Five school was going to host ‚ that’s a big deal. Rutgers gets in, they haven’t been in for however long.”

There are a lot of story lines that were erased by “What if?”

“I thought we were on the right path, Legans said. “We played the right way, we played fast, we were more like one of those bigger schools.”

It wasn’t long before virtually every sports league on the planet followed suit. But for the players on the 68 potential national champions that would land in a bracket on Selection Sunday, things were different.

A series of “faux” brackets and simulations are rumored to have included the Eagles, but access and info rivals the best maximum-security prison to break into — or out of?

“The pros cancel, but the pros get to come back and play; the seniors don’t,” Legans said.

Now the focus shifts already to next season.

“We bring our whole team back, except for one guy,” Legans said. While Big Sky MVP Mason Peatling is the lone graduating senior starter, Legans contends, “I think we’ll have the two best players in the league again next year with Kim Aiken and Jacob Davidson.”

But there’s more.

“We have Tanner (Groves), a very formidable big player,” Legans said. “I think he’s gonna’ shock a lot of people.”

For now, and until a year from now, they all have to live with that “What if” notion, but doing so knowing, “Sometimes in life things happen that you have no control over,” Legans said.

“I think our guys are mature enough and understand there are bigger things besides us.”

Paul Delaney can be reached at pdelaney@cheneyfreepress.com.

 

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