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Soar On

Eastern Washington lost its all-time leading scorer, but isn't ditching its trademark style

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Felix Von Hofe (with ball) is one of three returning starters for EWU.
  • Felix Von Hofe (with ball) is one of three returning starters for EWU.

When you enter Reese Court on the campus of Eastern Washington University, there's no guarantee you're going to see the Eagles win. You can be assured, however, that you're going to see some entertaining basketball.

Coach Jim Hayford has spent his coaching career crafting a style of hoops whose hallmark is full-court presses, an absurd amount of three-point shots and a whole lot of points. The style opens up the court, also allowing for drives to the basket. Over the past few seasons, at least, this has meant more dunks than you'd see elsewhere in the Big Sky Conference.

But are Hayford and his Eagles — a program that has produced a national scoring leader in Tyler Harvey and a Big Sky scoring leader, Austin McBroom, in the past two seasons, respectively — obsessed with style over substance?

"I think that that's a really interesting question, and that's what I'm trying to figure out," says a contemplative Hayford, taking a break last week from reviewing film from the Eagles' 80-69 exhibition win over Saint Martin's.

"You don't want to be a slave to your own style, but we've recruited guys who want to play that way. On the other hand, you need to be loyal to the scoreboard and we need to ask ourselves, who do we need and what we need to do to move the scoreboard in our direction?"

Hayford does plan to adjust his style for the 2015-16 Eagles, though perhaps not by much. After all, Eastern returns three starters in shooters Julian Harrell, Felix Von Hofe and Bogdan Bliznyuk, as well as sparkplug guard Sir Washington. But you have to remember that the Eagles lost Venky Jois, EWU's all-time leading scorer who got a look from NBA scouts and is now playing professionally in Europe. At Eastern, Jois was a rebounding force and a freakish athlete known for sensational dunks.

To fill the massive set of Adidas left empty by Jois, Hayford was able to find a guy with a size and game that's eerily similar to that of the Australian big man. Jacob Wiley, a 6-foot-7 power forward, was able to use the NCAA's graduate transfer rule to head to EWU from Lewis-Clark State in nearby Lewiston, Idaho. As hardcore Inland Northwest hoops fans may remember, Wiley was a standout at Newport High School, scoring 26 points per game as a senior, and was a prized recruit for the University of Montana. He played only one season in Missoula, leaving the court to join the Grizzlies' track team, but eventually came back to basketball at Lewis-Clark.

Wiley made an immediate and impressive impact at Reese Court in the exhibition against Saint Martin's, scoring 25 points (making 8 of 9 shots) and hauling down 14 boards.

"Jacob is probably going to be compared [to Jois] all season, but the comparison can be fairly made," says Hayford. "People always said Venky was an unbelievable athlete, and you can say the same about Jacob."

The Eagles got a chance for some extra team building with a trip to Australia — the home to five of the players on their roster — over the summer. The games Down Under gave Hayford a look at a team that will have to adjust not just to losing Jois, but also McBroom, a graduate transfer whose 21 points per game led the conference in scoring last year. Hayford's team will be tested by road games against big-name schools Northwestern, Texas, Xavier and Colorado between now and Christmas. Those will be challenges, but also give Eastern national television exposure and toughen up the Eagles for conference play.

With all of this ahead, and having lost more than half of last season's total offensive output to graduation, Hayford says his guys can compete.

"We've lost two stars, but we return three starters. How these guys step up into new roles is going to be the question. My hope and my confidence is that these guys are ready to step up," he says. ♦