CHENEY - Although he received a better preseason look at his squad than most years, second-year Eastern Washington University men’s basketball coach Jim Hayford never knows what the season opener will be like. Especially when facing a Pac-12 Conference opponent in the first of six-straight road games to open the year.
The Eagles officially open their 2012-13 season this Saturday (Nov. 10) when EWU plays at Washington State at 4:30 p.m. Pacific time at Friel Court. The game is being televised by the Pac-12 Networks.
“We’re trying to build a winning program, so you put the uniforms on, the lights are on, the refs are out and the fans are there, so winning is always a good thing,” said Hayford of his team’s 96-70 exhibition victory over Concordia (Ore.) last Sunday (Nov. 4). “You hope that becomes contagious. But at the end of the day, those exhibition games are just like a practice. But now everything counts and it gets a lot more intense. We are eager to take the challenge on down in Pullman.”
A year ago, Eastern finished 15-17 overall and was 8-8 in Big Sky Conference play to finish fourth, and the Eagles hosted and won their first Big Sky Conference Tournament game since 2006. Eastern improved by five victories from the year before, as the Eagles equaled their most wins since Eastern made its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 2004.
Four seniors were lost to graduation from Hayford’s first Eastern team, and his 2012-13 squad will return two starters and four other returning letterwinners. His team also includes three players who redshirted last season – featuring a pair of NCAA Division I transfers – with six newcomers rounding out his squad. One guard and three players 6-7 or taller were lost from last year’s team.
The Cougars were 19-18 a year ago and 7-11 in the Pac-12 Conference. Washington State played in the College Basketball Invitational Tournament, and lost to Pittsburgh 89-69 in the championship game. The Cougars lead the all-time series 54-11, including a 75-49 win over EWU in Pullman a year ago. The 26-point setback was easily the worst defeat EWU had in Hayford’s debut season.
“When you look at that all-time series, it is definitely heavy in Washington State’s favor,” said Hayford. “Our players feel like we really let our fans down and ourselves down last year – we felt like that was maybe our worst game of the year. We’re going to come focused. We might be the underdog, but we embrace the role and we are looking at going down to Washington State and get the win.”
Following Saturday’s game, Eastern continues on the road to face Cal State Northridge on Nov. 12. The Matadors finished 7-21 overall last season and 3-13 in the Big West Conference. The Matadors, who were a member of the Big Sky Conference from the 1996-97 to 2000-01 school years, are coached by Bobby Braswell. He is currently in his 17th season at Cal State Northridge, having started there in CSN’s initial year as a Big Sky member.
Eastern doesn’t play at home until Cal State Fullerton visits on Nov. 30.
“We’re going to try to come back from that road swing with a team that is cohesive and together,” said Hayford. “Obviously, it is going to be hard to take a young team who hasn’t played much together and ask them to win on the road with six straight games. I feel the adversity can pay off in the long run. We embrace the challenge, but obviously it is a big challenge.”