Eagles Basketball Goes National This Weekend - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Eagles Basketball Goes National This Weekend

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by EWU Athletics Media Relations

Big Sky Conference play is around the corner, and so is an East Coast swing to wrap-up the non-conference portion of the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball schedule.

The Eagles play at Seton Hall and Connecticut before opening Big Sky Conference play on Jan. 2. On Sunday, Dec. 22, the Eagles play the Pirates, then spend Christmas in New England before taking on Connecticut on Dec. 28. Tipoff Sunday at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., is 2 p.m. Pacific time. The game will be televised live nationally on Fox Sports 1, and may also be heard on ESPN 700-AM.

Seton Hall is 7-4 on the season following an 83-80 loss in overtime to Saint Peter’s, which snapped a three-game winning streak for the Pirates. Eastern is 5-4 on the season following last Sunday’s 70-61 loss to UC Irvine.

Eastern head coach Jim Hayford said his team’s goal is to get to six victories before conference play begins. Right now, only Northern Colorado with six victories has more overall wins in the league than EWU. 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.

“This game will make us better,” Hayford said of the loss to the Anteaters, who also defeated EWU in November. “We will use it as coaches to teach and to make us better. One of our goals is to have a winning conference season. That means we have to win one of these next two road games if we are going to get to six wins. Last year only one other team had that (heading into league play).”

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.

Seton Hall has four players averaging in double figures, led by 6-foot-2 senior guard Sterling Gibbs with an average of 16.1 points and 4.0 assists per game. A fifth player, 6-foot-9 senior center Eugene Teague, averages 9.6 points and 9.3 rebounds.

Connecticut is currently 9-0, and has games against Stanford and Washington prior to hosting the Eagles. Hayford’s team will do everything it can to use the two challenging contests to prepare the Eagles for the rigors of the Big Sky Conference. Two of Eastern’s first three games are against pre-season favorite Weber State, as well as Montana, which is picked to finish second by the media and third by the coaches.

“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.”

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