Eagles To Face No. 10 Connecticut - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

Eagles To Face No. 10 Connecticut

by EWU Athletics Media Relations

The Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team has had this one circled on their calendars for a long time.

One of the biggest challenges in school history awaits the Eagles this Saturday, Dec. 28, when they play at 10th-ranked Connecticut at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Conn., to wrap-up the non-conference portion of the EWU schedule. The game against the 10-1 Huskies begins at 10 a.m. Pacific time and is televised on SportsNet New York (SNY) and ESPN3, and may also be heard on ESPN 700-AM.

The 5-5 Eagles are coming off a 92-70 loss to Seton Hall on Sunday, Dec. 22, in which Eastern trailed by only two at halftime. Eastern opens league play on the road at Weber State (Jan. 2) and Idaho State (Jan. 4) before hosting Montana (Jan. 9) and Montana State (Jan. 11).

Connecticut is ranked 15th in the Associated Press poll and the USA Today Coaches poll following last week’s road split on the West Coast. The Huskies won at Washington 82-70 on Sunday (Dec. 22) after losing its first game of the season four days earlier to Stanford 53-51. UConn made just 32 percent of its shots against the Cardinal but made 55 percent versus the UW Huskies. Guard Shabazz Napier leads the Huskies with averages of 15.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.9 steals per game.

“They are an athletic team – they play with a lot of pressure and play above the rim,” said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford of UConn. “Stanford did a good job of making Connecticut miss, for whatever reason. But they can shoot the ball a lot better.”

Connecticut finished 20-10 overall and 10-8 in the Big East Conference last season, while Seton Hall was 15-18 overall and 3-15 in the league. However, Seton Hall and six other teams in the so-called “Catholic 7” broke off from the league, but will retain the Big East tag. The remaining Big East teams, plus others in the expanded conference, will now be named the American Athletic Conference.

The storied program has won three NCAA Tournament Championships (1999, 2004 and 2011). The Huskies have participated in four NCAA Final Fours and appeared in the NCAA tournament 31 times. Eastern is just 1-18 all-time against ranked teams, and hasn’t played one since falling to Gonzaga 77-69 in the EWU head coaching debut for Hayford on Nov. 11, 2011.

The Eagles have two common opponents. Eastern lost to Washington 92-80 on Nov. 17 and beat Boston University 80-68 on Nov. 22, while UConn has defeated both by scores of 82-70 and 77-60, respectively.

"We are playing up a level, but it’s a good opportunity and will show us where we need to get better,” Hayford continued. “But what I do like about our team is that we’ll come with a focus that we are going to go get that done.”

The first half of the Seton Hall game featured seven ties and eight lead changes, but Eastern was out of sync offensively in the second half and, as a result, defensively. Nevertheless, Hayford is encouraged when he looks at the league standings and sees only one team ahead of the Eagles with six wins (Northern Colorado), and realizes EWU has two of the Big Sky’s nine victories away from home (9-47).

“We have good basketball in us – we do,” he said. “We’re 5-5 and when you look at our schedule, you try to figure out where we can get the sixth win. Maybe we can shock the world and do it against UConn. Looking across the Big Sky we’re having a little more success than other people, but we have to keep getting better.”

Hayford’s team will do everything it can to use this final game to prepare the Eagles for the rigors of the Big Sky Conference. In Eastern’s first three games, one is against pre-season favorite Weber State and one is versus Montana, which is picked to finish second by the media and third by the coaches. The Eagles were picked to finish fifth by the coaches and sixth by the media.

“As we enter Big Sky play it is going to be tough,” he said. “We just need to keep getting better. It is a long season. This team has the potential, especially because we have no seniors, to be playing as good as anybody in the Big Sky in March. We need to make sure we get enough wins.”

Eastern will be trying for its third Big Sky Conference Tournament berth in the last four years in 2013-14, and its 13th in 27 years as a member of the league. The Big Sky Conference Tournament will take place March 13-15 at the site of the regular season champion. For the second-straight year, it will now include seven teams, with the regular season champion receiving a first-round bye. The tournament will include a quarterfinal round with six of the teams playing, followed by semifinals and the championship game.

“Last year we needed one more win to be a part of that tournament,” added Hayford. “That is where all of our focus has to be for coaches and players. We have to keep getting better every week.”