Monday, December 15, 2014

Why not us? Do these Eagles share any traits with previous NCAA "Cinderella" Teams?

***I am re-posting this one, in light of EWU rising to 41st in the RPI ratings after last night's thrilling loss to then #17 ranked Washington (The Huskies are now ranked #16).  If the Eagles can win at Sam Houston State tomorrow and pull off a surprise at California, these discussions will be even more relevant.***

Recent posts and national attention have brought a feeling of success to this young season.  They will also bring out the doubters, the disparagers and even those who will mask their doubt with off handed compliments:
Their points seem valid, but this team shares some commonalities with teams that have shocked the nation before.

The first thing to remember is that we judge our team based on our standards and not necessarily those of other teams.  Head Coach Jim Hayford is already one of the most successful coaches in Eastern history over his first three years with just 40 wins.  This community went crazy in 2004 when Eastern won its only Big Sky Conference Championship.

It's ok for us to revel in these accomplishments.  It's ok for us to dream about a Big Sky Conference Championship.  Let the big schools bring in their one year players and every year their fans try to remember the new names.  We'll take our team as far as they will go and won't be ashamed if they fall short.

This week the Eagles are ranked 53rd in the RPI, a ratings that takes into account a lot of factors including strength of schedule.  That's an accomplishment for a season just 6 games old.  That's something we can and should be proud of.  The rest of the season is a long time and it is likely the Eagles won't finish there, they still face a very difficult road to even make the Big Sky Conference Tournament.  We will enjoy the ride and I believe these Eagles will make it a good one, but what if that 53rd RPI ranking isn't a fluke based on a too small sample size?  What if the Coach Hayford and the Eagles really are the 53rd best team in the country?

It's been done before.

Just last year the Mercer University Bears made the NCAA tournament and took down Duke in the 2nd round.  Mercer is part of the Atlantic Sun Conference, do you think people were saying, "Even with Coach doing a wonderful job, remember this is still an Atlantic Sun team."  Probably the same people said it about the 2013 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles who danced all the way to the sweet sixteen the year before.  Probably the same people didn't think much of the 2008 Davidson Wildcats who hadn't won an NCAA tournament game in 40 years before they marched all the way to the regional final where the eventual champs barely got past them.  My guess is there were similar things said about the Gonzaga Bulldogs in 1999 before they made it to the Elite Eight and nearly took down eventual champion Connecticut.

Are the 2014-2015 Eagles one of those teams?  Most likely we won't know for another 4 months, but there are things we can look at for clues.  We can compare this team to those teams to find commonalities and areas they differ.

Mercer was a fairly deep team last season, but were led by Langston Hall a Junior Guard and Daniel Coursey a Junior Forward.  Hall led the team in scoring (14.6), assists (5.6), steals (1.4) and turnovers (2.4).  Coursey was second in scoring (10.1), and led the team in rebounds (6.4) and blocks (2.1).  The Bears played a mixed non-conference schedule which included wins over Seton Hall and Valparaiso and losses to Texas and Oklahoma.  They ran through their conference schedule fairly easily notching 14 wins to just 4 losses before earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Florida Gulf Coast was more similar to Eastern, in that they were not as deep as Mercer, 5p players averaged more than 20 minutes per game.  They were also led by a school record setting guard in Sherwood Brown, had a good second guard in Bernard Thompson and a 6'8" Forward in Chase Fieler.  They played a tough non-conference schedule peppered with some winnable games including two DII opponents.  They ended up 8-5 outside the Atlantic Sun including losses to Duke and St John's and wins over Miami and Loyola (MD).  The Eagles would knock off Mercer in the title game before dancing all the way to the sweet sixteen.

The Wildcats had been dominant in the Southern Conference, but had failed to win a single NCAA tournament game since the late 1960's before Stephen Curry and Jason Richards shot Davidson into the Elite Eight.  The Wildcats played a very tough non-conference schedule that saw them losing to North Carolina, Duke and UCLA.  They would finish non-conference play just 6-6 before rolling through the Southern Conference with a 20-0 record and rolled through the conference tournament as well.

Stop me if you've heard this story before; small school from a small town in the remote stretches of Eastern Washington, hires a great men's basketball coach.  The coach takes over a program that had made just one previous NCAA tournament appearance.  A couple years later the coach has put together his team and that team suddenly looks good.  Led by a hot shooting junior guard, a stat stuffing point guard and an over-performing junior forward who held the teams block shots record.  That team went 9-4 in their non-conference schedule including wins over a Pac-10 school and a Conference-USA multiple time NCAA tournament team and losses to teams from the Big 12 and Big 10..  That team was the 1998-1999 Gonzaga Bulldogs who not only went on to win the West Coast Conference Tournament for the second time in school history and advance to the Elite Eight, but have also made the NCAA tournament all 16 years since.

The common threads among these teams are good coaching, great shooting guards, dynamic point guards and athletic forwards.  They were all also doubted by everyone outside their organization.  They came from small conferences that couldn't be expected to field legitimate contenders and they all went on to shock the basketball landscape.

Eastern Washington this year has a very good coach in Head Coach Jim Hayford, they've got a great shooting guard in Tyler Harvey, they've got the dynamic point guard in Drew Brandon and the have the career blocked shots leading athletic forward in Venky Jois.  They have a non-conference schedule that will allow them some confidence wins such as Utah Valley and Texas Southern and some tough opponents on the road with Washington and Southern Methodist they even snagged that signature win over Indiana.

There is no reason that we can't dream big with these Eagles.  They may not suddenly become a perennial NCAA tournament team, they may not even win the Big Sky this season, but it will come as a surprise to this blogger if they don't make a breakthrough soon.

This season, the slipper might just fit.

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