What is a cupcake? It is, distilled to its simplest form, simply a vessel for transferring icing from where it was to where it needs to be. It’s a cake, separated from the herd, to plucked and devoured without a great deal of thought. Empty calories. A snack. Almost useless for telling you much of anything, or doing anything to help you in the long run. Maybe, a break between healthy meals as you train for something serious down the road.
That last one is the role that Eastern Washington is filling for Xavier this year. Most of the non-conference schedule is a brutal trip across the continent to play some of last year’s best teams. There’s not a break for a solid month from the Missouri game on November 17th until visions of sugarplums are well and truly dancing by the EWU game on the 20th of December. It becomes a matter of simple pragmatism at that point: Xavier needs a quick intake of breath before the Big East and the Eagles are available. Bring on that holiday snack food.
Jim Hayford is the coach of Eastern. He has previously coached, well, nowhere. In his time with EWU they have gone dancing once, in 2015, and been below .500 on aggregate other than that. Last year was their only other winning year in the five seasons Hayford has been there, and 18-16 overall and 10-8 in the Big Sky wasn’t quite enough to garner an at large bid.
If there is one thing Hayford’s teams hate doing, it’s playing defense. The best they have finished in defensive efficiency was 219th in the nation, and that was the year he was coaching someone else’s players. Since then, the Eagles haven’t cracked the top 280 and finished a sterling 335th last year. Think of a facet of defense and I promise you that EWU is bad at it. Teams did only take 27% of their shots from deep against the Eagles last season, but that’s likely because they were converting 53.3% inside the arc, the third worst defensive rate in the nation. When three pointers did go up, those went in as well, dropping 37% of the time.
You can’t win any games playing defense like that if you aren’t semi-proficient offensively, and the Eagles are. Actually, they are quite good. 62nd in the nation in offensive efficiency they made 55.4% of their shots from two point range, and 38.4% from deep, where they let fly early and often with nearly half of their shots. Essentially, EWU is going to score a lot and dare you to score more. It’s a fun strategy, at least.
Only two guys leave, but oh what a loss it is. Austin McBroom played over 37 minutes game last year, scored 21 points per game, chipped in a steal, three rebounds, and four assists, shot 40.3% from behind the arc, 83.2% from the line, and posted and offensive efficiency of 114 to go with a usage rate of 27%. In short, he was the offense.
Unless Venky Jois was. Venky played 33 minutes per game, dropped in a line of 16.4/8.7/2.5 and shot 68%(!) from the floor. His effective field goal percentage was sixth in the nation, his defensive rebounding rate was 25%, the same as James Farr, his block rate was 4.9%, and he only committed three fouls per 40 minutes. Those two players are all that the program loses, but they had the two highest usage rates on the team by quite some margin.
The Eagles are totally without returning talent. 6-5 junior Felix Von Hofe logged 33 minutes per game and took most of the shots that McBroom and Jois didn’t. His line of 13.0/3.5/.9 came on, most notably, 42.3% from deep. Bogdan Bliznyuk also played 33 minutes (never let it be said that Hayford doesn’t ride his guys) and managed 12.4/6.8/3 on 44.7% from the floor and 80% from the line. His usage rate on the team was third behind the graduating seniors, so it’s safe to assume that he will be the big gun for the Eagles this year.
Julian Harrell is a whip thin 6-5 swing man who got most of his 8.3 points per game by shooting 61% inside the arc. Harrell also knocked down 38% of his three point attempts, so he also figures to flourish in an offense that should give him far more chances. Sir Washington
of Nevelor is the only other returning player that averaged more than 10 minutes per game. Sir, frankly speaking, didn’t do a great deal of note with that time but did enough well to not join the eight other guys who logged time in at least 15 games but didn’t average more nine minutes. It was a top heavy team.
EWU enrolled three new two star players. Jacob Davison is a 6-4 guard who profiles mostly as a shooter, and a good one, with some explosiveness. What he isn’t is very big at 175, he’ll struggle against guys built like, say, Quentin Goodin. Joining Davison are 6-8 forward Mason Peatling out of Australia and 6-5, 190 pound Serbian Luka Vilikic. Vilikic’s size makes him intriguing at the point guard spot, as he’s built much more like a high major guard.
EWU is never going to challenge for much more than a Big Sky title. They lost some serious talent last year that they will struggle to replace, but do have some good pieces coming back. Insofar as they impact Xavier, they absolutely will run and jack threes. They remain a cupcake, but sometimes even those turn out to have a bit of carrot in them.
Ed. note: I’m not sure where I was going with that last line. They aren’t terribly good but a hot night could cause problems.