by HOWIE STALWICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & E & lt;/span & ASTERN WASHINGTON EAGLES & r & & r & Predicted finish: seventh place, Big Sky Conference
2006-07 record: 15-14 overall, 5-5 Big Sky (tied for fifth; no postseason)
Top returners: 6-4 sr. F Kellen Williams (8.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg); 6-9 so. C-F Brandon Moore (5.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg); 6-3 sr. G Marcus Hinton (6.0 ppg, 0.7 apg)
Top newcomers: 6-2 jr. G Milan Stanojevic (17.8 ppg in junior college); 5-11 jr. G Adris DeLeon (8.4 ppg, 3.9 apg in JC)
Coach: Kirk Earlywine (first year)
Season opener: At Washington State on Friday, 6:30 pm (KHQ 6; KGA 1510)
Home opener: UC Riverside on Nov. 15, 7:45 pm (no TV; KGA 1510).
Tickets: (866) 4-GO-EAGS
Outlook: Where do you begin? The coach (Mike Burns) gets fired long after recruiting should be finished; the best player in school history (Rodney Stuckey) turns pro after his sophomore year; the other starting guard (Michael Taylor) transfers after one season to Big Sky rival Montana; and five of the seven recruits who originally signed letters of intent backed out of their deals after Burns got the ax. Williams, Moore and Hinton are the lone returning lettermen, and only Williams started regularly (16 games). Oh, and did we mention that nine of the first 11 games are on the road?
Howie sez: The Eagles have very little size, depth, experience or hope, but the capper came when Earlywine -- the ink barely dry on his contract at Eastern -- looked into the Ball State job this summer. Now that's how to build credibility in your program.
Outlook: If Heytvelt's fragile foot comes around, the Bulldogs go from good to great in an instant. On a given night, every starter is capable of a big-time performance. The Bulldogs present match-up problems at both ends of the court with their talent and length, but rebounding and defense could be question marks against elite teams. The 6-4 Brown won't be able to board like he could in the juco ranks, but he's an athletic, high-energy sort despite being 25 years old and a former minor league baseball pitcher (including 2002 with the Spokane Indians). Ranked 14th in the preseason USA Today/ESPN coaches poll, Gonzaga looks like a lock for a ninth straight trip to the NCAA tournament.
Howie sez: Don't just casually nod at Few's career record of 211-52 -- bow down and shake your head in amazement. Even more impressive is the fact that Few and his wife, Marcy, spearhead off-season events that have raised almost $3 million to fight cancer since 2002.
Predicted finish: ninth place, Western Athletic Conference
2006-07 record: 4-27 overall, 1-15 WAC (last place; lost in first round of WAC tournament)
Top returners: 6-10 sr. F Darin Nagle (9.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.9 bpg); 6-7 sr. F Clyde Johnson (4.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg); 6-8 jr. F Mike Kale (6.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg in 2005-06)
Top newcomers: 6-1 jr. G Brandon Brown (18.4 ppg in JC); 6-3 jr. F-G Jordan Brooks (14.2 ppg, 8.7 rpg in JC); 6-0 jr. G Mike Hall (18.8 ppg, 45.2% 3-point FG at national JC tournament)
Coach: George Pfeifer (second year, 4-27)
Season/home opener: Cascade on Friday, 7:30 pm (no TV; KVNI 1080)
Tickets: (208) 885-6466
Outlook: After another year of never-ending personnel changes, the Vandals are left with 10 former junior college players on a 13-man roster. That's not counting point guard Mac Hopson, who starred at North Idaho before playing a reserve role at Washington State last season. Hopson is redshirting to satisfy NCAA transfer rules, so newcomers must make the difficult transition to Division I point guard. Nagle, an athletic NIC and Potlatch High product, may blossom now that departed guard Keoni Watson isn't shooting the ball every split second. Brooks and Hall made all-tournament at the National Junior College Athletic Association Division I Championships, and that tournament is stuffed with talented players.
Howie sez: The Vandals have improved their athleticism, but it's virtually impossible to bring a team together on and off the court with so many new faces. Bank on an eighth straight losing season, which ties the school record. However, it's worth noting that the last time the Vandals suffered through eight losing seasons in a row, they followed up with four consecutive banner seasons -- with plenty of help from JC transfers -- under coach Don Monson.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & ASHINGTON STATE COUGARS
Predicted finish: second place, Pacific-10 Conference
2006-07 record: 26-8 overall, 13-5 Pac-10 (second place; 1-1 in Pac-10 tournament; 1-1 in NCAA tournament)
Top returners: 6-2 sr. G Derrick Low (13.7 ppg, 39.9 percent 3-point FG); 6-6 sr. PG-W-F Kyle Weaver (11.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 4.6 apg, 2.2 spg); 6-10 sr. F Robbie Cowgill (8.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg); 6-7 jr. F Daven Harmeling (8.9 ppg, 43.0 percent 3-point FG)
Top newcomers: 6-3 fr. G Stephen Sauls (14.0 ppg, 3.0 apg in high school)
Coach: Tony Bennett (second year, 26-8)
Season/home opener: Eastern Washington on Friday, 6:30 pm (KHQ 6, KXLY 920)
Tickets: (800) GO-COUGS
Outlook: The Cougars, arguably the biggest surprise in college basketball last season, will sneak up on no one this year. WSU is ranked 10th in the preseason coaches poll of USA Today/ESPN, and Bennett was the national coach of the year in his first season as a college head coach. The Cougars have a little bit of everything: size, depth, experience, inside muscle, perimeter quickness, outside gunners and low-post scorers. Low and Weaver, all-conference picks a year ago, make up one of the premier backcourt tandems in the country. Key for the Cougars is continued improvement from 6-10, 270-pound center Aron Baynes (5.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg), who has been plagued by injuries, fouls and inconsistency. Baynes can be dominant down low, and the Cougars -- despite tying a school record for victories to halt a 10-year string of losing seasons -- were out-rebounded in 22 games last season.
Howie sez: The Cougars appear certain to win at least 20 games and return to the NCAA tournament if they can deal with the pressure inherent when one is the hunted instead of the hunter. Except for a Dec. 5 game at Gonzaga, WSU's schedule is soft until league play begins, and the Pac-10 is widely recognized as the best conference in the country this year.