I am an appreciator of weird basketball. Or basketball that is, if not truly weird, played at the stylistic extremes. And so I felt a little moment of joy when the 2016-2017 non-conference schedule was announced, and I learned that the Texas Longhorns would be playing the Eastern Washington Eagles early in the season.
I have this list of teams that have fascinated me for various stylistic reasons in recent years. Stephen F. Austin was one of the more compelling stories in college basketball for fans of extreme and effective play. West Virginia’s outrageous aggressiveness is an example that is right in front of Big 12 fans. The Citadel is a bizarre science experiment in crazy up-tempo offense that can best be described as what Paul Westhead probably sees in his dreams. And then there are teams like Central Michigan and Eastern Washington that have built rather successful offenses by taking an extreme approach to floor spacing, shot selection, and minimizing risk.
So let’s talk about Eastern Washington, a team that has actually played with several different, yet highly-effective offensive styles of the past few seasons. Two seasons ago, coach Jim Hayford’s men played fast, scoring like crazy on the way to an NCAA tournament bid. Last year, Hayford put the ball in the hands of graduate transfer Austin McBroom, slowed the tempo down and went with a spread pick and roll attack where McBroom dictated everything that happened in the Eagle offense. This season, with McBroom’s departure, the offense will be different yet again. While I haven’t yet caught a game from this season, I was able to dig up video from Eastern Washington’s summer tour of Australia.
What that video revealed was a style that is in some ways the opposite of what we saw from the Eagles last season. The ball moves around and is shared widely. But some of the same principles — an absolute commitment to spacing the floor and a total desire to avoid all mid-range attempts — remain. Hayford’s team perennially takes one of the lowest rate of two-point jump shots in the nation, largely trading off these mid-range shots for threes. The result is that Eastern Washington has for the past two years rated in the top 15 nationally in effective field goal percentage. Last season, the Eagles finished the season with the sixth highest eFG% in D-I, ranking among offensive powerhouses like Indiana, Belmont, Saint Mary’s, Iowa State, Michigan State, Villanova, and Kansas.
Of course, it really helps if you have players that can shoot. Eastern Washington has those. Let me introduce you to Felix Von Hofe, a 6’5 senior who has buried 41 percent of his career 387 attempts from beyond the arc. Also of concern is Bogdan Bliznyuk, a 6’6 Ukrainian who himself is a 41 percent career three-point shooter. And then there is the 6’5 Julian Harrell, who has connected on a more pedestrian 37 percent of his career threes. The light for these players will always be green; Eastern Washington will attempt to put up nearly half of their shots from long range, and this trio of players needs to be accounted for at all times.
Even the non-shooters, like 6’2 Sir Washington, are dangerous offensive players. Washington is a somewhat reluctant shooter over his college career, but he has a way of knifing to the basket and finishes pretty well in close. 6’7 big man Jacob Wiley is also playing a major role in the Eagle offense so far this season; he is third on the team in field goal attempts through the first two games, and does his work around the basket.
It is pretty safe to say, even with so little to go on at this point in the season, that Eastern Washington can really score. But as good as the Eagles’ offense is likely to be, the defense is just as likely to be terrible.
There are 351 teams in D-I basketball. Last season, per Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, coach Hayford’s team finished 335 nationally in adjusted defense. And the Eagles have not finished the season ranked in the top 200 defenses even once in Hayford’s five years in Cheney.
So get ready for some points. The game tips off shortly after 7 p.m. CT in the Erwin Center, and airs on the Longhorn Network.