Season Opener: Saturday, 5:05 pm PST, at Wichita State (KEWU 89.5).
Home opener Dec. 1 vs. Cascade at EWU's Reese Court.
Tickets: (866) 4GO-EAGS.
2003-04 Record: 17-13 overall, 11-3 Big Sky Conference (first). Won conference tournament, 0-1 in NCAA Tournament.
2004-05 Polls: Unranked nationally, 1st by Big Sky coaches.
Key Players (2003-04 statistics): F Marc Axton, 6-7, sr. (12.9 points per game, 4.6 rebounds per game); F Matt Nelson, 6-9, so. (7.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg); PG Danny Pariseau (5.9 ppg, 2.7 assists per game); G Kenny "Deuce" Smith, 6-3, jr. (11.4 ppg, 3.6 apg in junior college); F Paul Butorac, 6-10, so. (4.0 ppg, 2.5 rpg).
Coach: Mike Burns (first season).
The Good News: Axton is one of the best all-around players in school history, an unselfish team leader and ferocious competitor. Nelson, the Big Sky Freshman of the Year last season, loves to bang down low with the big guys. Coach Burns is a fiery hoops fanatic who jumped at the chance to return to Eastern (where he assisted Ray Giacoletti for three years) after assisting Dick Bennett at Washington State last season. Burns and Giacoletti think and coach alike, which should make for an easy transition for players, many of whom were recruited and coached by Burns before Giacoletti left for Utah last spring.
The Not-So-Good News: The Eagles are no longer the lovable underdogs after qualifying for the NCAA Tournament for the first time and throwing a scare into third-ranked Oklahoma State in the first round. Burns will be learning on the job; his only previous experience as a head coach came in a co-head coach position nine years ago in high school. The Eagles must make up for the loss of guard Alvin Snow, the first AP All-American (honorable mention) in the school's 21 seasons in NCAA Division I. Snow led the Eagles in points, rebounds, steals and assists last season and was Most Valuable Player in the Big Sky. Opponents will force Nelson to prove he can hit free throws, since he shot a sizzling 57 percent from the field and a frosty 51 percent from the line last season.
Coach's Quote: "We believe we should compete for and win the conference championship. That is where our focus is, and when you focus on those sorts of goals, there is pressure. You have to perform."
Big Game Early: No. 25 Gonzaga at the Spokane Arena on Dec. 21.
Betcha Didn't Know: Henry Bekkering, a 6-8 redshirt freshman from Taber, Alberta, has a 39-inch vertical jump and showed off his dunking skills on The Best Damn Sports Show on Fox Sports Net earlier this year. Bekkering averaged 35 points per game his senior year in high school, and he also played football as a wide receiver, safety, kick returner, right-footed kicker and left-footed punter. He kicked for EWU's football team in 2003.
Season Opener: Friday, 7 pm, vs. Portland
State at GU's McCarthey Athletic Center (KHQ 6, KGA 1510).
Tickets: 323-4202. All 6,000 seats at Gonzaga's stunning new arena have been sold as season tickets or reserved as free single-game tickets for GU students, faculty and staff (all home and away games will be televised locally for the first time). If any single-game tickets are not picked up by Tuesday for that week's games, a notice will be posted at www.GoZags.com that night. Bulldog Club members may purchase tickets with a VISA or MasterCard by phoning 323-4202 after 9 am Wednesdays. Any remaining tickets would go on sale to the general public at noon Wednesdays by phoning 323-4202 and ordering with a credit card.
2003-04 Record: 28-3 overall, 14-0 West Coast Conference (first). Won WCC Tournament, 1-1 in NCAA Tournament. No. 3 in final Associated Press media poll (end of regular season), No. 12 in final USA Today/ESPN coaches poll (end of NCAA Tournament).
Key Players (2003-04 statistics): F Ronny Turiaf, 6-10, sr. (15.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg); F Adam Morrison, 6-8, so. (11.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg); F Sean Mallon, 6-9, so. (5.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg); G Errol Knight, 6-7, jr. (5.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg); PG Derek Raivio, 6-3, so. (3.1 ppg, 1.0 apg).
Coach: Mark Few (133-32, 6th year, all at Gonzaga).
The Good News: Turiaf, an honorable mention All-American last season, could make a run at first-team honors this time around. Morrison is a shameless gunner with lights-out shooting skills. Mallon improved markedly in the second half of last season, and now he's stepped it up another notch. Knight is a springy, long-armed defender. Raivio, a flashy ballhandler and passer who sometimes gets too fancy for his own (or the team's) good, has immense potential after backing up All-American Blake Stepp last season. Second-team junior college All-American J.P. Batista, whose transfer credits were being checked out by the NCAA to confirm his eligibility, is a 6-9, 269-pound banger who plays with tremendous energy. Texas Tech transfer Nathan Doudney can be lethal from 3-point range, and freshman guard Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes adds valuable quickness and athleticism. North Carolina's Everett Case (137 wins from 1947-51) is the only coach in major college men's basketball history who won more games than Few in his first five seasons.
The Not-So-Good News: Turiaf and little-used guard Brian Michaelson are the only seniors on a team bidding for its sixth straight NCAA Tournament. The inexperience could be costly when playing eight games the first three weeks. Turiaf must improve his rebounding to make up for the loss of rugged Cory Violette, and Raivio must fill the enormous shoes of Stepp, the only Bulldog to earn back-to-back AP All-America honors (he made the second team last season and honorable mention in 2002-03). Spokane prep legends Morrison (Mead) and Mallon (Ferris) must adjust from being role players to key players.
Coach's Quote: "I think for the first time in my 16 years at Gonzaga, we can honestly say we can absorb a loss of this magnitude (five seniors, including three starters). We have the players in place to fill the void."
Big Game Early: No. 5 Illinois in Indianapolis on Nov. 27.
Betcha Didn't Know: Four of the five seniors on last year's team are playing pro ball overseas. Stepp wound up in Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro after being released by the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves. Violette plays in Jesi, Italy; Kyle Bankhead in Schwelm, Germany; and Richard Fox in Madrid, Spain. Tony Skinner was invited to a pre-training camp free-agent tryout by the (Nampa) Idaho Stampede of the Continental Basketball Association, but he was cut.
Season Opener: Friday,
7:15 pm PDT at Boise State (KVNI 1080, KHTR 104.3 and other Vandal Radio Network stations). Home opener: Nov. 30 vs. Washington State.
Tickets: (888) 884-3246.
2003-04 Record: 14-16 overall, 9-9 Big West Conference (4th), 1-1 in BWC Tournament.
Key Players (2003-04 statistics): G Tanoris Shepard, 5-11, sr. (8.0 ppg, 2.5 apg); G Tihon Johnson, 6-3, jr. (19.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.9 apg in junior college); G Jerod Haynes, 6-1, fr. (16.5 ppg, 8.0 apg in high school); F Armend Kahrimanovic, 6-6, sr. (5.1 ppg, 2.4 rpg); F-G Dandrick Jones, 6-4, sr. (7.6 ppg, 3.0 apg).
Coach: Leonard Perry (36-50, 4th year, all at Idaho).
The Good News: Perry seems confident that Johnson and Haynes can solve Idaho's problems at point guard. Those two have also shown a knack for scoring, something in short supply at Idaho in recent years. Perry has praised the work ethic of his team, and that means something coming from the demanding Perry.
The Not-So-Good News: The Vandals still lack size and shooters. Last season, Idaho shot just 41 percent from the field and scored only 64 points per game, even though the Big West is one of the weakest Division I conferences in the country. Next season, the Vandals move up the Western Athletic Conference. Shepard, who will earn a "second" senior year if he earns his degree by next spring (he was a partial academic qualifier out of high school), is the team's top returning scorer with a measly 8.0 ppg. He's the only full-time starter back. The Vandals were hurt when 6-8, 245-pound JC transfer Desmond Nwoke suffered a bruised heart in an off-season auto accident. He will be forced to redshirt, Perry said.
Coach's Quote: "We finally have two point guards [Johnson and Haynes] who can dribble from one side of the court to the other without throwing the ball into the third row. We would like to play a little faster this season."
Big Game Early: Home opener vs. Washington State on Nov. 30.
Betcha Didn't Know: The Vandals return seven lettermen, but the hard-nosed Johnson -- a late signee out of junior college -- has already been named a co-captain with Shepard.
WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS
Season Opener: Friday, 8 pm vs. Montana State at WSU's Friel Court (KXLY 920 and other Cougar Radio Network stations).
Tickets: (800) GO-COUGS.
2003-04 Record: 13-16 overall, 7-11 Pacific-10 Conference (tied for seventh), 0-1 at Pac-10 Tournament.
Key Players (2003-04 statistics): G Thomas Kelati, 6-5, sr. (11.1 ppg, 44.4 percent on 3-pointers); PG Derrick Low, 6-1, fr. (14.9 ppg, 8.0 apg in high school); G-F Jeff Varem, 6-6, sr. (9.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg); F Shami Gill (5.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg); C Chris Henry, 6-8, fr. (10.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg in high school).
Coach: Dick Bennett (467-273, 26th year; 13-16 after one year at WSU).
The Good News: Kelati came on so strong last year that he may have passed point guard Marcus Moore as the team's best player by season's end. Moore, whose name is plastered all over the WSU record book, is the only departed starter from last year's scrappy team. Low was a three-time Hawaii prep player of the year, and he looked so good before getting hurt that even Bennett -- notoriously demanding of his point guards -- was raving about Low in a manner rarely shown by Bennett when talking about a freshman. Bennett also loves the potential of Henry, a 248-pound banger on a team that lacks muscle. Varem is one of the best pure athletes to wear a Cougar basketball uniform in years. Bennett will rarely, if ever, get out-coached. Son Tony, promoted to associate head coach in the off-season, is a great head coach waiting to happen, and his dad says he'll be retiring before long.
The Not-So-Good News: Varem was maddeningly inconsistent last season, going from all-world to all-invisible from one game to the next. Low and Henry are currently sidelined with injuries, which has cost the prized freshmen valuable preparation time. Bennett's teams always play grinding defense, but the Cougars still lack the size and athleticism to hang with the big boys most of the time.
Coach's Quote: "We're looking at a non-conference schedule that may be over our heads. I want to get teams to come to Pullman, and to do that you must start on the road. We are on the road a lot, and I have no doubt the Pac-10 will return to elite status this season. That will make things difficult for us. I do feel we will be a better team."
Big Game Early: At No. 7 Oklahoma State on Dec. 4.
Betcha Didn't Know: Low was the league Player of the Year all four years in high school; he played in Hawaii's state title game all four years (winning the last three years); and he did not lose in his last 72 games against in-state rivals. An excellent ballhandler and playmaker, he often sat out the latter stages of blowout victories and averaged about 15 points a game every season.
The Eagles return four starters and four other letter winners off a 13-16 team that finished sixth in the Big Sky Conference. The only letterman not back was one of the best players in school history -- Kathleen Nygaard, who led the Big Sky with 18.6 ppg. She was an Academic All-American on a team that led NCAA Division I women's basketball with a 3.6 average for 2003-04. Stephanie Ulmer (11.0 ppg) nailed 39 percent of her 3-pointers, and 6-foot-2 British import Julie Page (10.6 ppg) was Big Sky Newcomer of the Year. The Eagles open the season Friday at CS-Northridge, then make their home debut Nov. 30 against Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs return all five starters off an 18-12 squad that came within one game of going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. The Bulldogs finished second in the West Coast Conference in the regular season and the league tournament, then lost in the first round of the Women's National Invitation Tournament. Seniors Ashley Burke and Shannon Matthews are returning all-conference players. Burke led the Bulldogs with 14.8 ppg and 53-percent shooting from the field. Coach Kelly Graves continues to make big strides in recruiting. Gonzaga premieres Saturday at 7 pm against visiting Utah Valley State.
Defending NCAA scoring champion Emily Faurholt is one of four returning starters and eight lettermen on the Vandals, who finished 22-7 last season and one win shy of an NCAA tourney berth. Idaho came in second behind perennial Big West champion UC Santa Barbara in the regular season (tied) and the conference tournament. The 5-foot-11 Faurholt, a Kennewick High grad who averaged 25.4 ppg as a sophomore after transferring from Seattle Pacific, is one of five Tri-Cities products on the Vandals. One of the others is dandy point guard Leilani Mitchell, the Big West Freshman of the Year last season. The Vandals debut Friday at 7 pm in a home game against Utah Valley State.
The perennial doormats of the Pac-10 still have too little size, experience and talent to compete in a tough conference. The Cougs finished 6-22 overall and 2-16 in league last season -- and that was an improvement from the previous two seasons, when WSU was a combined 4-53 overall. The Cougars have a good one in 6-2 forward Kate Benz, who averaged 8.8 ppg and a team-high 6.7 rpg as a freshman last year. Keisha Moore, a 6-2 junior center who transferred from Idaho, becomes eligible Dec. 18. She averaged 12 points and seven rebounds at Idaho. The Cougars kick things off Friday at 6 pm against Boise State in the first half of an Apple Cup weekend basketball doubleheader in Pullman.