The Eastern Washington University men's basketball team has been invited to play in the College Basketball Invitational and will open play on Tuesday (March 13) at Utah Valley in Orem, Utah, at 6 p.m. Pacific time.
The Eagles and Wolverines have met twice before, with EWU winning the last meeting on Nov. 17, 2014, in Cheney, Wash., by a 75-50 score. Eastern lost to them previously 86-83 on Nov. 20, 2012, on a neutral court at the CBE Classic in Santa Clara, Calif.
Eastern will be making it sixth appearance in a national postseason tournament in school history and fourth-in-a-row. Eastern advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 2004 and 2015, were in the NIT in 2003 and have played in the last two College Basketball Invitational (CBI) tournaments. In the 2016 CBI, Eastern recorded its first win in a national postseason tournament with a 79-72 home win over Pepperdine.
The Eagles are 20-14 on the season and finished 13-5 in the Big Sky, and have won 17 of their last 23 games after a 3-8 start. The Eagles are 11-1 at home, 6-11 on opponent home courts and 3-2 at neutral sites this season, finishing 5-4 on the road in the league season and 8-1 at home.
Last weekend, the Eagles beat Portland State 78-72 in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Conference Tournament, defeated Southern Utah 82-70 in the semifinals, then fell to regular season champion Montana 82-65 in the championship.
"Although it was disappointing we did not make it to the big dance, getting a chance to play more basketball is always exciting," said first-year head coach Shantay Legans. "It is another chance for this group of guys to get out there together and represent the EWU community. Whenever we get on the court, our goal is to play hard and win, and Tuesday won't be any different. I am excited that the staff and I get to coach these incredible seniors and this team at least one more time."
Utah Valley is 22-10 this season – including a 15-1 mark at home – and were 10-4 in the Western Athletic Conference. The Wolverines beat CSU Bakersfield 81-74 and lost to Grand Canyon 75-60 at the WAC Tournament. They were 4-1 versus common opponents with EWU, while the Eagles were also 4-1.
Both teams lost to Seattle and former Eagle head coach Jim Hayford. The Eagles lost in Seattle 84-65 on Dec. 3, while the Wolverines lost there 55-54 during the WAC season. Utah Valley ended the regular season with a 73-47 win over the Redhawks in Orem. Eastern defeated North Dakota twice and Idaho State and Weber State once each, and Utah Valley beat each team once.
Big Sky Conference MVP Bogdan Bliznyuk is averaging 21.0 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game, and was the only player in the league to rank in the top 10 in all three categories. In a semifinal win over Southern Utah, he broke the 24-year old league all-time career scoring record of 2,102 points set by Orlando Lightfoot from Idaho in three seasons from 1991-94. Just five players in the 55-year history of the league have hit the 2,000-point mark, and he stands above them all with 2,142 points in 137 career games.
At 20-14 on the season, Eastern has 20 victories for the second-straight season and the third time in the last four, with EWU achieving that mark just one other time in the school's 35 seasons as a member of NCAA Division I. Since 1983-84, the only other times EWU has won 20 games came in 1985-86 (20-8), 2014-15 (26-9) and last year in 2016-17 (22-12). This year's team is just one of six in the school's 35-year NCAA Division I history to have at least 18, including the last four seasons in a row.
"Twenty wins is a great season and we deserve to play more," said Legans. "We're going to take it, have fun and we will go out there and try to win it. We have a really solid team and I wanted them to play more in March. I want our younger players to get experience and I want Bogdan and our seniors to go out on a high note. Whatever we do, I want to go out and do it and do it big. I want to win it and I want to keep pushing forward with our team."
With an 82-70 victory over Southern Utah in the semifinals, Eastern extended its winning streak to eight games – its longest in 14 years. Eastern has won 101 games in the last five seasons and 85 in the last four to achieve program bests in EWU's Division I era.
The Eagles beat every Big Sky team other than second-seeded Idaho this season, and finished third after being predicted to finish sixth by the media and seventh by the coaches in the league's preseason polls. Included in this year's league triumphs was the school's first road sweep in two years in late February, including a win over Weber State to give EWU a tiebreaker advantage in the league. Eastern snapped the nine-game winning streak of the Wildcats, and one game earlier handed regular season champion Montana its first league loss after 13 victories.
"I told the team in the locker room to keep their heads up – they did everything they possibly could this year," Legans said after the loss to the Grizzlies. "We had injuries, but they kept battling. They never hung their heads, never complained about anything or were upset about the travel early in the season. They were always asking 'what's next?' When you get a group of players like that and you enjoy coaching, it's not a job – it's fun."
Bliznyuk scored 82 points in three 2018 tournament games, making 31-of-46 shots overall (67.4 percent), 6-of-8 from the 3-point stripe and 14-of-18 free throws. His points, field goals and field goal attempts were Big Sky single tournament records as he was named to the All-Tournament team. He also holds Big Sky Tournament career records for games played (10, 7-3 record), minutes (333), points (193), field goals (72) and field goals attempted (126). He shattered the previous scoring record of 165 set by current Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak from Montana from 1983-86. Bliznyuk made 77 consecutive free throws in an 18-game stretch from Dec. 31 to March 8 to set a new NCAA Division I single season record.
Bliznyuk and Sir Washington will end their careers as EWU's winningest players in EWU's 35-year history as a member of NCAA Division I. Eastern has won 86 games overall and 50 in the Big Sky Conference. Washington redshirted in the 2013-14 season, then they both played as freshmen in 2014-15. Eastern has won 26, 18, 22 and 20 games since then for the best four-year stretch in EWU's Division I history, and most since winning 106 from 1942-43 to 1945-46. The Eagles have had Big Sky Conference win totals of 14, 10, 13 and 13 since Washington and Bliznyuk were freshman – again, the best four-game stretch in 31 seasons as a member of the Big Sky. Former Eagle Felix Von Hofe was formerly the winningest Eagle with 81 overall wins and 47 league wins from 2013-14 through 2016-17.
Legans is the 18th coach in Eastern history, and has made history of his own. His 20 wins is the most by a first-year Eastern coach in EWU's NCAA Division I era, besting Ray Giacoletti with 17 in the 2000-01 season. Joe Folda also won 17 games in 1982-83 as an interim head coach during Eastern's rise from NAIA to NCAA Division I. Thus, you have to go back to the 1942-43 season when Bob Brumblay won 27 games in his debut season to find a rookie Eastern coach with more than 18 victories, which is also the only time it's happened.
Legans was a an Eastern assistant for eight years before becoming EWU's 10th coach at the NCAA Division I level this season. Legans spent six years on the staff of Jim Hayford (now head coach at Seattle), and two previous seasons under former head coach Kirk Earlywine (now an assistant at Idaho). Legans was associate head coach under Hayford for the final three of those eight seasons.
He has been a part of Eastern teams from the 2013-14 through 2017-18 seasons which have win totals of 15, 26, 18, 22 and 20 games. The three 20-victory seasons are the top three win totals in EWU's 35-year history in NCAA Division I (Eastern also won 20 games in 1985-86). The combined 101 wins in five seasons, 85 victories in four seasons, 66 in three and 44 in two are also the most since EWU became a member of NCAA Division I in the 1983-84 season. The same can be said of EWU's stretch of league victories -- 10, 14, 10, 13, 13 -- in that five-year span.
A former player at Cal and Fresno State, Legans is married to former Eastern women's basketball player Tatjana Sparavalo. Their daughter, Zola Lee, was born June 16, 2016, and they have a son due to be born later March 29.
More on the 2018 CBI Tournament . . .
The 16-team field for the 2018 College Basketball Invitational is finalized. The 11th annual CBI will begin with one eight First Round game on Tuesday, March 13, and seven First Round games on Wednesday, March 14.
Eastern Washington at Utah Valley
Miami (Ohio) at Campbell
Colgate at San Francisco
UTRGV at New Orleans
Central Arkansas at Seattle
North Texas at South Dakota
Mercer at Grand Canyon
Jacksonville State at Canisius
The CBI is a single-elimination tournament up until the best-of-three Finals, with all games played at campus sites. After the First Round games, the Quarterfinal Round will take place on Monday, March 19, followed by the Semifinal Round on Wednesday, March 21. Prior to the semifinals, the remaining teams will be re-bracketed. The Finals series is a best-of-three in which one team will host two of the three games. Those games will be played on March 26, March 28, and March 30.
Past CBI champions include Tulsa, Oregon State, VCU, Oregon, Pittsburgh, Santa Clara, Siena, Loyola Chicago, Nevada, and Wyoming. Teams from nearly every conference have participated in the event. Twenty-eight teams have used the CBI to springboard to the NCAA Tournament the following year, while another 18 have gone on to the NIT.
ESPN is again the official television home of the CBI. ESPNU will televise each game of the best-of-three Championship Series. Roy Philpott and Jason Capel will serve as the broadcast team.
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