No. 20 Oregon and Eastern Washington, who are scheduled to open their seasons Wednesday night in Eugene, Ore., have more in common than one might think.
The Ducks (24-7 last season) won their final four games to claim the Pacific-12 Conference’s regular-season championship in 2019-20, while the Eagles (23-8) won their last seven to capture the Big Sky Conference title.
Both teams graduated their respective conference players of the year. Ducks guard Payton Pritchard, selected 26th overall in the first round of the NBA draft last week by the Boston Celtics, received the honor in the Pac-12, while Eagles forward Mason Peatling took home the award in the Big Sky.
And both teams have NCAA Tournament aspirations after last season was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was devastating,” EWU senior guard Jacob Davison, the Big Sky’s preseason MVP, said at the conference’s media day. “That’s been my goal since when I first knew what March Madness was, and to come that close for it to be cut short was tough. But it gets me more excited for this season.”
The Eagles were the overwhelming choice to repeat as conference champions in both the preseason media and coaches’ polls. Davison, who averaged 18.4 points last season, and junior wing Kim Aiken Jr., who averaged 13.3 points and 9.7 rebounds, were both named to the preseason all-conference team.
EWU coach Shantay Legans said he didn’t think the conference’s preseason ranking would have an adverse effect on his team as the Eagles attempt to win back-to-back titles for the first time.
The Eagles return four starters and the majority of their bench from last season.
“We’ve always had a target on our back,” Legans said. “We’ve been in situations where we have guys leaving, then guys step up, like (Davison).”
The Ducks were predicted to finish third in the Pac-12 preseason media poll, behind UCLA and Arizona State. Senior guard Chris Duarte (12.9 points per game last season) and junior guard Will Richardson (11.0 ppg) were named to the preseason all-conference first team.
Highly touted freshman guard Jalen Terry, who is expected to back up Richardson at the point, is nursing a sprained ankle, according to coach Dana Altman, and will be “out for a while.” The Ducks are still awaiting word from the NCAA on immediate eligibility waivers for swingman LJ Figueroa and guard Aaron Estrada, who transferred to Oregon from St. John’s and Saint Peter’s, respectively.
“‘Control what you can control’ has always been something I preach to the players. You know, we can’t control the officials, we can’t control what you guys write, we can’t control those things,” Altman said. “Control what you can control, and your work ethic, your unselfishness. Those are things you can control.”
That goes for things off the court as well, like adhering to coronavirus protocols.
“And in this case, I tell them, ‘You’ve got to control and be disciplined off the floor. I know you’re college students and I know you want to get around, but we’ve all got to be somewhat disciplined,'” Altman said.
Altman admitted his team is behind in its preparations for the opener.
“We’re not anywhere near where we want to be. But, man, the guys have been great to work with,” Altman said. “The energy level, the focus, the competitiveness has been really good. The guys have done a good job. I always want to find something to complain about, but right now I can’t.”
–Field Level Media