Despite losing their last two games of the regular season, Ray Giacoletti's EWU Eagles will host the Big Sky Conference Tournament in Cheney this week, March 9-10. To get there, the team had to win 13 of its last 16 games.
If successful, EWU will advance for the first time ever to the NCAA Basketball Championship Tournament. Yet it wasn't long ago -- Dec. 31, to be exact -- that this season was on the verge of spinning out of control. In front of a sold-out Spokane Arena crowd, EWU was crushed by Gonzaga 70-49. It was their ninth loss in 12 games. Even worse, senior star Alvin Snow was benched because he showed up late for the pregame shootaround. "I was crushed," says Snow. "It was such a simple mistake."
But Giacoletti was in no mood to deal with his senior leader being late for the biggest game of the year. "I told him to leave, that he wasn't going to come in and disrupt our shootaround," says Giacoletti. "I take the coaching game seriously. It's how we keep a roof over our head and food on the table."
Giacoletti has been through this kind of simmering tension before. In one of his defining moments as a young assistant coach at Illinois State, the team had come home on charter plane after another crushing defeat. Bob Bender, the head coach at the time, turned to Giacoletti and his other assistant -- current Philadelphia 76er GM Billy King -- and said, "I've talked enough. You and Ray talk to 'em."
"I'm thinking, what the hell's going to happen at three in the morning," says Giacoletti. "The next thing you know, once the doors are closed, one of the sophomores gets up and goes after two seniors because he didn't think they were holding up their end of the bargain by showing leadership. Basically, an all-out brawl happened."
The whole experience -- including how the team responded -- was bizarre to Giacoletti. Illinois State won nine of its next 11 games, earning a spot in the NCAA tournament, where they lost in the first round to defending national champion Michigan by just six points.
The image of that team coming apart at the seams, then rallying to make a spectacular run into the NCAA tournament, was in the back of Giacoletti's mind as he made his way into the Eastern locker room after the Gonzaga game.
"I knew it was going to be the bottoming out for us," recalls Giacoletti. "It wasn't so much Alvin; I wouldn't put the blame on him. We just needed someone to step up and take a leadership role."
Giacoletti closed the doors and immediately confronted his team. He challenged someone to "step up" -- an offer that was met with deafening silence. "That's the problem," snapped Giacoletti. "We don't have anybody that wants to be a leader."
That's when junior forward Marc Axton said, "Fine, I'll do it." Giacoletti wasn't surprised that Axton was willing to lead, but he was concerned about how his seniors would react. "I knew Brendon Merritt wasn't happy that I was talking about leadership, because he thought he was doing all he could. And I knew I was challenging Alvin," says Giacoletti. He remembers saying something like this to Axton: "Fine -- then you need to make sure these guys are on the same page, and the most important time is when the coaches aren't around. Deal with the problems in the locker room."
As Giacoletti turned his back on the team and began walking away, Snow and Axton started talking. "I had mixed feelings. Part of me was frustrated, thinking it's all bad," says Snow. "Yet I knew Giacoletti was trying to make us better."
"Once that got voiced, it was almost like a sigh of relief," says Axton, who has started for Eastern since his freshman year. "I'd been thinking of ways to take the pressure off the seniors, so that each of them would get back to playing their own game. I told them it felt like it was the natural thing for me to step up, to help them and the team out."
Each Eastern player knew the special burden Alvin Snow and the other seniors were carrying. For four consecutive years, Eastern has finished second in the Big Sky Conference. Since Giacoletti arrived in 2000, his Eastern teams have lost the Big Sky Conference Championship game three times.
For Snow and the other seniors -- Brendon Merrit, Josh Barnard and Gregg Smith -- this was their last shot, and they were 3-9. "It had been a rocky start, something had to change," says Axton. "It felt like what was happening in the locker room that night would put us on the right path."
What Axton didn't know is that Giacoletti was about to seek help in order to change things.
"You have two choices," says Giacoletti. "To keep fighting or to quit. Quitting isn't an option, so you keep trying to find ways to get better."
Sensing Eastern needed help with the mental aspects of the game, Giacoletti began meeting twice a week with sports psychologist Jon Hammermeister. World-renowned for his work with the U.S. Olympic Ski team, Hammermeister works in Eastern's physical education department.
"One thing we did that he has grasped with both hands is this concept of control," says Hammermeister. "I told him to make a conscious choice of what he's going to control. Let's not get hung up on what a ref does, or if that guy makes a 3-pointer with two of our guys hung all over him."
Giacoletti says it's been amazing how much the work of mental imagery with Hammermeister has helped the Eagles become more disciplined in their thinking on and off the court. "I've never believed in it more than this year," says Giacoletti. "I think he's helped give me direction on how to help the team break through the next barrier."
After the clearing of the air in the Arena locker room, the Eagles got their first road win of the year at Santa Clara, with Snow pouring in 28 points. Their next step? Losing the Big Sky opener to Montana. Still, Giacoletti didn't panic. He simply told the team they couldn't afford to lose their first two conference games at home. Eastern didn't, beating Montana State -- the start of an improbable 11-game winning streak for the Eagles.
At about the halfway point of that streak, on Jan. 30, Giacoletti invited Hammermeister to address the team. It'd been a month since the Gonzaga game. They'd just played their most complete game of the season in a 100-73 win over Idaho State, and defending Big Sky conference champion Weber State would be in Cheney the next day.
"There was magic in the bottle in the ISU game. They captured the idea of sacrifice -- they'd figured it out," says Hammermeister. "I wanted to reemphasize how great teams sacrifice. So I said there is no doubt in my mind if you do this, you will be conference champions."
Giacoletti remembers Hammermeister telling them that he would come back and address them after they were Big Sky Conference champions. "I thought 'Don't put that pressure on them,'" remembers Giacoletti. "But he's been amazing on how he's handled us in each set of circumstances. He's played a huge role. It's been powerful."
"We're a lot more calm," says Snow. "We're not so uptight. We're more confident, and we don't go into a panic when we're behind."
Now the Eagles get ready for the new season. Just two games in the Big Sky Conference Tournament separate them from their dream of going to the Big Dance. This year, they play those games at home. After four years of finishing second, they might have enough control to rewrite the script - all because of the changing circumstances of "a season on the brink."
"I know now that every player and coach has the same goal," says Snow. "No matter what happens on the floor, or what is said in the locker room, we have faith and trust in each other. Winning is chemistry."