Just realized Sac State is at Eastern on Thurs. Biggest game in 10 years for EWU. Biggest game in Sac State history. @bigskybball
— Weber HQ (@WeberHQ) February 8, 2015
Not hyperbole re Sac St. Never made NCAA tourn. At 15-6, next Sac St W gives Hornets most single season Ws in its D-I history @bigskybball
— Weber HQ (@WeberHQ) February 8, 2015
Now, I know there's a chance that Tyler Harvey won't play. He is questionable for the game, and he missed both games last weekend.
First Matchup: In the first meeting between these teams, Sac State won 90-77 at home, though it must be noted that Venky Jois missed that game due to injury. In his absence, the Hornets were able to get anything they wanted inside, as they shot 24/36 on two-point shots (Note: Even accounting for no Jois, that is an incredible impressive number... you just shouldn't be able to shoot that well, and the Hornets did). They were also 7/13 from downtown, with sophomore Dreon Bartlett going 4/4 from deep - the only game this year he scored in double figures.
EWU was OK offensively, scoring 1.10 PPP which is a good mark, but below what they've been used to this Big Sky season. The Hornets did a good job contesting from deep, as EWU was just 9/27 from downtown. The game was tied at the half, but the Hornets took control early in the second half and never looked back.
Keys for Sac State: Even with Jois back and healthy, it will be tough for the Eagles to slow down Sac State. Mikh McKinney had 12 assists (and six steals in the first game), and you don't need me to tell you how good he is. Dylan Garrity has also been very good lately, scoring in double figures in each of the last four games. He draws so much attention from defenses with his shooting ability. We know what the Hornets have in those two guys, and they will bring it.
A key for them is the secondary guys. Chief among them is Cody Demps, one of the more improved players in the conference this year. He scored a very efficient 22 points in the first meeting, a career high for him. It's not reasonable to expect that again, but it would be important for him to reach double figures. The other three guys that can reach that mark are Eric Stuteville, Nick Hornsby, and Zach Mills. The Eagles have been susceptible to teams that can rebound the ball offensively, which could bode well for Stuteville and his 10.2% OR Rate (Alex Tiffin could loom large too, as he is also very good on the offensive glass). Getting a few cheap baskets would be a big thing for a road win.
Overall, however, we know Sac State will get buckets. The biggest key will be slowing down the Eagles, which can put up points even if Harvey is unable to go. The Hornets are third in the Big Sky forcing turnovers in conference play, but nobody takes care of the ball better than the Eagles. One reason for hope is that the Hornets have generally played good perimeter defense, holding opponents to 36% shooting from downtown in Big Sky play, second in the league. That helped them win the first meeting (when EWU was 9/27), and will be a big stat in determining if they win this one.
Keys for Eastern Washington: In the first meeting, as mentioned, Sac State dominated offensively, scoring 1.29 PPP and getting anything they wanted. The Eagles hope that the return of Jois (one of the best shot blockers in the conference) will help there. For their many defensive struggles, one area of relative strength is that teams don't shoot too well at the rim against them. Though the Hornets have capable shooters (they are shooting an absurd 46.5% from deep in BSC play), the Eagles can't allow guards like McKinney to penetrate and either dish or get to the rim for an easy basket. The biggest key for them will be slowing down Mikh McKinney, and the myriad of ways he can hurt you.
Offensively, shots have to fall. Tyler Harvey is their best shooter obviously, but all is not lost if he can't play. Parker Kelly is an elite spot-up shooter, and Bogdan Bliznyuk has been outstanding offensively. Harvey can create shots from nowhere, so if he can't go then there will be added emphasis on their ball movement, and finding guys for the open shot.
In that regard, Drew Brandon will be a key, as he is their best playmaker. He has been playing great basketball of late, and can literally do a bit of everything out there. He needs to create shots for others, and he is able to do that. Venky Jois has been back three games since his injury, and they need him to play at the star levels he played at earlier in the year. Against Montana, he was that guy - 12 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 blocks, 4 steals - but he struggle din the other two games since his return. He should be able to have his way down low, and the Eagles need that from him.
Who Wins: No matter the outcome, a lot of points are going to be scored in this game. They combined for 167 points in the first meeting, and we could match that again. In Cheney, the edge goes to the Eagles, as we know the edge that home court has. The availability (or lack there of) makes it a bit impossible to predict, however.
So, I'll hedge my bets. If Tyler Harvey is healthy and playing, I like the Eagles in this game, and I like them win by 8-10 points. If Harvey sits, I think it's closer to a pick'em... in that case, I'll take the Hornets in a close one to use some of the magic they have shown so far this year. It should be a great game.
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