Editor’s note: This is one of 12 team capsules breaking down the men’s basketball teams in the Big Sky Conference. League play opens on Thursday, December 29. For the other available capsules, click here.
For Eastern Washington, life without Venky Jois, the school’s all-time leader in points and blocks, got off to a pretty good start. The Eagles dropped their first two games against Power 5 competition, but reeled off seven straight wins, including two double overtime victories over Seattle and a sweep over Denver and San Francisco to capture its own tournament.
Since that win streak, Eastern has been brought to back to earth with three straight road losses as it prepared for its Big Sky opener at Idaho on Friday.
Sixth-year coach Jim Hayford, who guided the Eagles to the 2015 NCAA Tournament, is without his two leading scorers of a year ago, and has relied heavily on forwards Bogdan Bliznyuk, Felix Von Hofe and Jacob Wiley in the early going. The 46 points the trio has been contributing on a nightly basis has replaced the 41 Jois and Austin McBroom averaged during conference play last year.
Eastern has size throughout the roster; even true freshman point guard Luka Vulikic stands 6-foot-6. Hayford hopes this will help the team defensively and on the glass.
Current record — 8-5
2015-2016 record: 10-8 in Big Sky play, 18-16 overall.
Big Sky Tournament finish: The Eagles lost to Idaho in the second round of the conference tournament. Eastern was invited to the College Basketball Invitational and won its opening-round game against Pepperdine before falling to eventual champion Nevada in the second round.
Head Coach: Jim Hayford entered his sixth season at Eastern Washington with an 84-79 record in Cheney and a 338-163 mark in his 17 seasons as a head coach. Hayford guided Eastern to a win over Pepperdine in the 2016 CBI for the school’s first postseason win and coached the Eagles to the 2015 Big Sky Conference title and a spot in the NCAA tournament. The appearances were the seventh and eighth postseason for Hayford after he brought Division III Whitworth to six national tournaments.
Hayford is the winningest coach at Eastern since the program moved to Division I for the 1983-84 season.
Hayford on the upcoming conference campaign: “This team just keeps getting better every day. We’ve found some grit. We’ve won three overtime games. We are finding ways to win. We won on the road at Seattle in double overtime. I really like the identity that we are forming as a team.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Bogdan Bliznyuk — A native of Lutsk, Ukrain who played his high school ball at Todd Beamer High in Federal Way, Washington, Bliznyuk has developed into a diverse talent. After averaging just a shade over 10 points per game in his first two seasons in Cheney, Bliznyuk’s scoring average has swelled to more than 22 per night with four games of 30 or more this season. The 6-foot-6 wing is equally adept at running the offense as evidenced by his team-leading 57 assists and has played on the ball the majority of the season for the Eagles.
Felix Von Hofe — A 6-5 senior, Von Hofe has been a deadly outside shooter and shows no signs of cooling off during his senior year. He has already knocked down 35 threes and is shooting 42 percent from the arc to help boost 13-points-per-night scoring average of a year ago up to almost 15. One of five Australians on the roster, Von Hofe will be counted on to fill the scoring void left by Joyce and McBroom.
Sir Washington — Eastern’s sixth man last year has been asked to increase his contributions as a junior. With four starts to his name this season — two less what he received last season — Washington’s scoring average has jumped by nearly a point despite some early struggles from the field. Shooting just 36 percent from the field and 24 percent from three, the 6-3 Washington has shown an ability to get to the line where he has shot 34 free throws.
Venky Jois — A two-time first-team all-league selection (he was also a two-time honorable mention and 2012-13 freshman of the year) Jois left Eastern as the school’s all-time leading scorer and shot blocker as well as the third-best rebounder. The Australian graduated as one of three players in Big Sky history to finish his career with more than 1,600 points and 900 rebounds.
Austin McBroom — McBroom was tasked with filling in for 2015 AP All-American Tyler Harvey, who was drafted by the Orlando Magic, and that’s exactly what McBroom did. The Eagles’ leading scorer last season with 23 a game during conference play, McBroom was a second-team All-Big Sky selection in his only year of eligibility in Cheney after transferring from Saint Louis.
Jake Wiley — A two-time NAIA All-American, including a first-team nod during his junior year at Lewis-Clark State, Wiley returned to Division I with a transfer to Eastern Washington in his final season of eligibility. A 6-7 jumping jack who played his freshman year at Montana, Wiley has made an immediate impact in Cheney where he is the team’s second-leading scorer (13.6) and leading rebounder (7.6).
Luka Vulikic — A 6-6 true freshman point guard from Serbia, Vulikic’s transition to D1 basketball is being eased by Eastern’s ability to run its offense through various players, but so far Vulikic has proved able. He has already made nine starts in 13 games and is fourth on the team in assists.
Preseason polls finish: Eastern Washington was picked to finish fifth by the media and seventh by coaches.