Maybe it’s taken longer than Jim Hayford and the Eastern Washington fans had hoped, but in his fourth season with the Eagles they’re finally looking like a team that can challenge for the Big Sky conference title and make its second ever trip to the NCAA tournament in March. Their over Big Dance appearance was 10 years ago in 2004.
At 8-1, Eastern Washington is off to its best start during its 32-year history as a Division I program. The Eagles carry a five-game winning streak into Alaska Airlines Arena for Sunday’s 5 p.m. game against the 17th-ranked Huskies.
It’s still a relatively small sample size and some of the competition has been questionable, but EWU has been scary good at times. Especially offensively. It remains to be seen if the Eagles can play defense or squeeze out significant contributions from their bench. But they’re starting five is dangerous. Just ask the Hoosiers, which lost 88-86 – at home – to EWU on Nov. 24.
After his first three years in Cheney, Hayford had a 41-54 record, which may have led Eagles fans to question why he couldn’t duplicate the success he had at Whitworth where he posted a 217-57 record during a 10-year tenure. Those teams has a .792 winning percentage and won five conference championships.
Hayford believes he needed time to put his system in place.
This season the Eagles average 85 points, which ranks ninth among 351 Division I teams through Thursday’s games. Junior forward Venky Jois is averaging 21.9 points, ranked 13th in the nation. Junior guard Tyler Harvey, who led the Big Sky in scoring last season, is averaging 20.6 points.
Eastern Washington spreads opposing defenses thin and stations three shooters around the arc, who shoot 43 percent or better on three-pointers. It creates room inside for Jois, a tough low-post scorer, who shoots .670 percent.
“It’s a team that we recruited to this style of play,” Hayford said. “We love to spread the floor and make you guard the shooters, then attack the rim. We rarely will take a shot that’s not at the rim or behind the three-point line.”
Here’s the transcript from an interview with Hayford following Eastern Washington’s 87-75 win over Seattle University on Dec. 6.
(On beating Indiana) “We’re off to the best start in 38 years so I’d lose all credibility if I didn’t tell you that we were happy. To go in and be the first Big Sky team to win a game at a Big Ten school and to snap the nation’s third longest nonconference home winning streak, yeah we’re pretty juiced.”
(How cool was that win?) “It was pretty great. I tell it this way, as soon as I got back to the locker room after the postgame interviews I had 210 texts and 47 emails. It must have been a big deal because everybody who had my phone number said great job. We just want to make sure that the high point of our season isn’t something that happened in November. As great as the recognition is, which is really good for our school. When you’re at a school at Eastern and you win on national TV it’s good for the whole school. But we just need to keep our mindset in a growth mindset.”
(For people who haven’t seen you can you describe your team a bit?) “Our junior class is the special highlight led by Tyler and Venky. Tyler was the leader in scoring in the Big Sky and Venky is an outstanding player. He was the Big Sky freshman of the year. We’re not taking anybody in our league by surprise. It’s a team that we recruited to this style of play. We love to spread the floor and make you guard the shooters, then attack the rim. We rarely will take a shot that’s not at the rim or behind the three-point line. We’re one of the national leaders in three-point field goal attempts. When we have good balance and our guys make good decisions, it’s a really fun offense to watch. We’ve been pretty good offensively the last couple of years, but the growth curve on our team has been our defense.”
(Is this a team that we’ll see in March?) “I sure hope so. I think it’s too early to tell. We’re going to need to get better bench production and make sure we’re not dependent on good three-point shooting nights. My mindset is all about growth.”
(This is a long road trip.) “We got to USF on Wednesday and then we’ll fly up to Seattle on Saturday. Play UW on Sunday. Take a red-eye flight to Houston after the UW game. Play in Houston on Tuesday. Get back to San Francisco on Wednesday and play Cal on Friday. And then get home for our only home game in December.”
(Sounds like the life of a mid major in the nonconference.) “We’ll pick up about $250,000 for the athletic department and hopefully a couple of wins.”
Also had a chance to speak with Eastern Washington athletic director Bill Chaves. In addition to the basketball team, we talked about the fourth-seeded EWU football team, which hosts a Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinal Saturday.
Here’s a transcript of that interview.
(Good time to be at Eastern Washington?) “The combination of what’s happening with football and men’s basketball is historic. That’s the only word I can think of. At this point we’re a combined 19-3 between the two programs. So very excicting times.”
(This is old hat in football isn’t it?) “Never old hat. Never. Never. Never. I’m not going down that path. You know what, every year is special. When you’re in a playoff scenario like we are, you take nothing for granted. I think that’s part of the success of the program. We treat each year as its own. Every year is year special when you can make it to the final eight.”
(What is the feeling on campus?) “From a football perspective, our fans by no means are they ever used to it. They’re certainly excited to be this deep in the playoffs. There’s just that general excitement. On the men’s basketball side, to have your best start in the Division I era and that’s going back to the early 80s, obviously that just speaks volumes to what coach Hayword and the staff is doing. There is a genuine excitement about that. It’s been about a decade since we went to the postseason. Obviously with the way the season has started it looks like we have an opportunity this year to potentially go down that path again.”
(What does that excitement look like? Are we talking bonfires and more ticket requests?) “That’s a good question. I think I can gauge it in the way we are in life right now with social media. Just the buzz in that regard has been tremendous. You can just tell folks are just excited to be back in the mix in the Big Sky in men’s hoops. It’s hard to say. It’s always tricky at this time of year with the pre-conference games. You’re still kind of crossing over from the football season to basketball season and the holiday season so I’m not quite sure how that will play itself out on Sunday or when we get into conference play in January. I can tell you our crowds have been from a student standpoint by far the best I’ve ever seen in my eight years here. I think it’s kind of rivaling what occurred back in 2000-04 when coach Giacoletti had it going.”
(Compare and contrast Beau Baldwin and Hayford. How are they alike and how do they do things different?) “That’s a great question. Both coaches fully understand where we stand in the food chain if that makes sense. There’s not a lot of things that dissuade them as far as knowing that we can have success. That optimism and vision of what they want both programs to be are in concert with each other. They’re both very talented and extremely bright coaches. And they’re both very creative. Both offensive minded.”
(Did you hire both coaches?) “Yes I did.”
(How did that happen?) “We were fortunate. When I first got here I had a season with Paul Wulff and then he got the Washington State job so what a great opportunity for him. I was able to run the search and coach Baldwin seemed like the logical fit at the time. You look back seven years later and it’s worked out pretty good. With coach Hayford, we were looking for a coach four years ago and he just had unprecedented success at Whitworth University in Spokane. It was the right time and right place. I think he was looking for the next opportunity and it just happened to be generally quote, unquote in the same town. Those things just aligned. The stars and the moon aligned. It was a great fit on both ends.”
(When teams like EWU have success the bigger schools come calling. We heard that recently with rumors about Baldwin being linked to the Oregon State job. Is that just the price of doing business for small schools?) “I hope so. I hope so. I hope that our coaches have a tremendous opportunity moving forward in whatever they want to accomplish in their careers. I hope they say that Eastern was a part of that. Now if they want to stay at Eastern and have a long legacy that’s awesome too. I think it’s our job to try to do the best we can while we’re here. We got great coaches on board and if people are looking at that and they have opportunities, I’m all for it.”
(Earlier you said they both understand where Eastern is in the food chain, but I’m wondering where is the Eagles in the food chain as it pertains to the state of Washington. Conventional wisdom says you guys should be third in football and fourth or fifth in basketball, but maybe that’s not right.) “That’s probably for others to decide honestly. We’ve got our heads down trying to do the best we can. Our first commitment always is to try to be the best we can in the Big Sky conference. Obviously the state is incredibly important to us. If we can put the best product on the field and on the court a lot of those things take care of themselves. You know as well as I do it starts with great head coaches and coaches that attract great student-athletes that fit our profile. Maybe a little under the radar or one that maybe has a chip on their shoulder and is willing to grind and work hard to get to the next level. That’s what our coaches do here. How we rank and stack up within the state per se, that’s not something I spend a lot of time with. I just try to get us better each and every day.”
(Where will you be Saturday and Sunday?) “Saturday I’ll be at Roos Field at 1:05 to see if we can figure out Illinois State in the quarterfinals. Then I will take a flight over on Sunday and watch our team play at UW. Then take a red eye to Philadelphia and see if our quarterback can win the Payton Award.”
(Again does all of this translate into an uptick in enrollment or does any more revenue come into the school?) “Obviously there’s been a lot of studies done in regards to that. I can tell you this is we continue to have our best enrollment over the last four years. Everything has been going north. I don’t want to say that’s absolutely been the reason, but I’m sure it has helped. If we can use athletics as a platform to help the greater good at the university that’s why we exist. Hopefully we can do our part.”