by Howie Stalwick & r & Basketball at Eastern Washington University (nee Cheney Normal School) began shortly after Dr. Naismith nailed his first peach basket to the wall. Eastern coach Mike Burns, fully aware of his school's long and occasionally glorious basketball past, nonetheless declared prior to the season -- prior to Rodney Stuckey's first college game -- that Stuckey may prove to be the greatest player in school history.
Blatant overkill? Perhaps.
But have you seen Stuckey's game? And his statistics?
"He's got an outstanding feel for the game. It's a gift," Burns says.
"He's just a phenomenal basketball player," Eastern sophomore forward Jake Beitinger says. "You can't say enough about his work ethic."
Burns is so confident in Stuckey's talent and maturity that he's installed the former high school wing -- the 2003-04 Washington Class 4A Player of the Year for Kentwood's state champions -- as Eastern's starting point guard.
Stuckey has responded marvelously to the pressure and responsibility placed on him as perhaps the most high-profile recruit in Eastern sports history.
After pouring in a season-high 30 points last Saturday at UC Riverside, Stuckey was leading the Big Sky Conference with 20.3 points per game. He's also averaging 4.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.1 steals and a respectable 3.6 turnovers on a team with just one senior. He's shooting 48.5 percent from the field, 34.3 percent on three-pointers and 81.0 percent at the free-throw line.
"You tell him something once on the basketball floor, and he can not only incorporate it into his game, but he can articulate it for his teammates," Burns says.
"I kid him that he's got a Ph.D. on the basketball floor. And with the work he's done recently in the classroom, he may be headed to a Ph.D. there, too."
Stuckey was forced to sit out last year after coming up short of NCAA Division I academic standards, but he finished his first year of college with a 3.45 grade point average.
"You watch Rodney play," Burns says, "and it's easy to be proud of what he's done on the basketball floor. But I can honestly say I'm most proud of what he's achieved in the classroom."
"I didn't take high school seriously," Stuckey admits. "In the middle of my junior year, I finally realized, 'All right, my grades are important to me.'"
Stuckey says his SAT score and GPA wound up being good enough for Division I, but he was short on credits. Suitors like Washington and Washington State (where Burns recruited Stuckey zealously as an assistant) had to pass on him because the Pacific-10 Conference does not accept partial academic qualifiers.
Fortunately for Stuckey, the Big Sky does not have such a ban.
"Everything happens for a reason," Stuckey says. "I'm happy here. I love my team. We've got great players here. Our coaching staff is the best you can have in the nation. I love 'em to death."
The feeling is mutual, of course.
"He just understands how to play the game," Burns says. "It's an innate ability he possesses. I think the game is just a little slower for Rodney than for other players. That's the way it is for the great players. Three or four times a day at practice, he does things that just make you shake your head."
The 6-foot-4, 205-pound Stuckey has also made a few heads spin in his first seven games with the Eagles -- and not just with his offense. Mike Efevberha was averaging 26 points before Stuckey helped limit him to eight points in a 70-48 blowout of Cal State Northridge on Dec. 4.
"When I talk about [Stuckey's] feel for the game," Burns says, "it's as good at the defensive end of the floor as the offensive end."
"He's all about making sure that everybody's at their best," Beitinger says.
The young Eastern Washington Eagles (4-3) and national powerhouse Gonzaga (6-2) stage their annual Spokane Arena showdown on Monday, Dec. 19 (5 pm, KHQ 6, KGA 1510, KEYF 1050). The game is sold out. Eastern also plays Friday, Dec. 16, at Washington (7 pm, KEYF 1050), and Gonzaga plays Virginia at home Saturday, Dec. 17 (5 pm, KHQ 6, KGA 1510).