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Montana men's hoops rolls into rivalry week, starting with new-look Eastern Washington

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Griz vs. Weber State men's basketball

Montana’s Derrick Carter-Hollinger (35) celebrates during the college basketball game between Montana and Weber State at Dahlberg Arena, Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022.

MISSOULA — When a team loses its head coach, the league MVP and six others who were consistent starters or played the bulk of the minutes, usually things go south the year after.

Eastern Washington lost former head coach Shantay Legans to Portland after he took the Eagles to the 2021 NCAA Tournament and gave No. 2 seed Kansas a slight scare in the Round of 64.

Legans took a few players with him to Portland between Michael Meadows, Jack Perry and Tyler Robertson. Others like the 2021 Big Sky player of the year Tanner Groves and his brother Jacob (Oklahoma), along with Kim Aiken Jr. (Arizona) and Jacob Davison (Cal Poly) all left for other Division I opportunities.

But the Eagles haven't bottomed out this season.

In fact, it looks like the team has reloaded surprisingly well. Key transfers, adding 12 newcomers and in-program development of players who stayed to play for first-year head coach David Riley, who was promoted to head coach after he was an assistant on Legans' staff, has the Eagles in a good spot through 14 games.

At 8-6 overall and 2-1 in the Big Sky Conference, the Eagles have a win over Washington State and nearly upset Colorado as well in a 60-57 loss. The Eagles opened Big Sky play last weekend with a sweep over Portland State and Northern Arizona while playing shorthanded due to COVID-19 protocol, and lost to Southern Utah by 13 back in early December.

The Eagles have won three straight over Montana (10-5, 2-1 Big Sky), all last season, as Grizzlies head coach Travis DeCuire is 8-8 all time against Eastern Washington.

Heading into Thursday's game in Cheney, Washington, the preparation remains the same, even if the Eagles look a tad different.

"Systematically they are very similar to what they have been in the past," DeCuire said Wednesday morning at Dahlberg Arena before film and practice. " ... Your scout is always based off what you see in film. Even Weber State brought back a healthy number of players from last year, well some of those guys aren't playing. But they run the same offense they ran last year.

"You address the system — the things they do offensively and the things they do defensively — based on what you see on film," DeCuire continued. "They changed their defense, but at the same time you have some familiarity with some of the returners so you address those and the new guys you just watch as many games as you can and make yourself familiar with them."

Between players who have led the reload like 6-foot-7 wing Steele Venters, in his second season at EWU, averaging 17.3 points per game on 49% field-goal shooting, 46% 3-point shooting and a 80% clip from the charity line, and Division-II transfer Linton Acliese snagging 15.8 points per contest, the Eagles have been solid.

The Eagles play pretty much the way they have the past few seasons. Riley has added his own niche to the Eagles, but the basics remain the same. EWU ranks among the best in the Big Sky in offensive efficiency and pace.

Montana knows what to expect. A team that likes to score, get into you on the other end and play fast. 

"They really on it a lot, and they have really talented players, but that system has been the same the last couple years," Grizzlies forward Mack Anderson said before practice Wednesday morning. "It really just comes down to us executing our game plan defensively and playing harder than them."

Of course, though, Thursday's game against EWU is the first of a loaded week. It is hard to not look too far ahead to Sunday's game in Bozeman against Montana State, but that is what the Grizzlies are doing. As always, the focus is on the Thursday game, then Montana will start prepping for Montana State first thing Friday.

"Just like any weekend, on Thursday we deal with Thursday," DeCuire said. "We don't really address our Saturday or Sunday game with our team until Friday morning."

Tip off is set for 7 p.m. (MT) at Reese Court in Cheney, Washington. 

Lance Hartzler covers Griz men's basketball and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter at @lance_hartz or shoot him an email at Lance.Hartzler@406mtsports.com.

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