Eagles are Soaring under Second Year Head Coach


Photo taken by Photographer Emily Powers

By Luke Pickett, Reporter

If there’s one moment that may have turned around the season for the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team, it may have come in a hotel conference room in Brookings, SD following a devastating loss. 

The Eagles were a mediocre 4-6 and had just lost to South Dakota State, blowing a 12-point halftime lead on Dec. 10. Just when the feelings of doubt from last season started creeping in, the team came together and held a meeting, says head coach David Riley.

“You grow the most in tough times,” Riley said. “The locker room at Washington State, the conference room in the hotel after the South Dakota State loss. There’s been some times where we had to come together and look in the mirror, and that’s where you build chemistry.”

The Eagles lost the next game to Texas Tech 77-70, but have since been on a tear, winning 17 straight games. 

Riley, who spent seven years as an assistant coach for the Eagles, is enjoying the longest winning streak in Eastern Washington University program history in his second year as head coach. 

The Eagles (21-7, 15-0) picked up their 17th consecutive victory Saturday in a 89-77 win over Northern Colorado (10-18, 5-11). EWU clinched a share of the Big Sky regular-season championship with the win. 

“It’s been really fun,” said Riley, ESPN’s Week 14 NCAA Division I Coach of the Week.

Photo taken by Photographer Emily Powers

After being promoted to the head coaching role following the departure of Shantay Legans, the then 32-year-old Riley spent the 2020-21 offseason fine-tuning the EWU basketball program. He brought in four new coaching staff members and 11 new players to the team roster.

The Eagles were coming off of two of the best seasons in program history, winning 39 of 55 games. In 2020-21, the team won the Big Sky Conference Championship, and made the NCAA tournament for the third time in school history. 

EWU finished the 2021-22 season with a record of 18-16, losing in the second round of the Big Sky Conference tournament.

Though Riley’s first year in control of the program appeared to be a rebuild, it’s unlikely that many could have predicted the Eagles’ impressive turnaround. 

“Continuity is the key to success in college basketball,” Riley said. “You’ve got to have guys that have been through the fire before with the system.”

This season, Riley says he’s seen those guys take a big leadership role. The six returning players from last season are Steele Venters, Ellis Magnuson, Ethan Price, Angelo Allegri, Casey Jones, and Imhotep “Tap” George.

It’s not just the dynamic trio of Allegri, Venters and Price that has led to the team’s improvement, Riley said. The team’s continuity, he says, translates far past any statistical category. 

“All six of them are important to us,” Riley said. “Ellis (Magnuson) has stepped up big for us by preparing guys, talking before games about what to expect. That kind of leadership that those guys have shown has been a huge key to our success.”

The newcomers to the Eagle program paid dividends to the success in chemistry. With the new additions, Riley describes the team as a tough, together, smart team.

Tyreese Davis, who had a season-high nine assists Saturday against Northern Colorado, has helped bring new energy to Cheney in his first season with the program after playing three years at Jacksonville University. 

Other first year Eagles, Cedric Coward, Deon Stroud and Dane Erikstrup have provided mismatches off the bench all season for Riley. 

“The numbers match up to what your eyes see,” Riley said. “We’ve got the most assists in the league, and shoot the most threes in the league with the highest 2-point percentage. Very multidimensional.”

If you ask Riley, there wasn’t any luck involved in landing those players in the 2021-22 offseason recruitment process. There is a standard at EWU that he plans to establish in any player who suits up in Eagle red.

Riley and his coaching staff told the new recruits just that, he said. 

“We let them know straight up that if you don’t love basketball, then you’re not going to love it here,” Riley said.

That group of guys has shown that they love winning. 

The Eagles have won 17 straight, including an undefeated run against Big Sky opponents which started Dec. 29. Riley says there’s no doubt that the new players have played a large role.

“Those guys knew what to expect when they walked in the door,” he said. “They fit. They’re high character kids and have done great things for us.”

As the Eagles found stride in late December, the focus remained “one day at a time”. “Ironing out the kinks” as Riley puts it, cutting down on turnovers and inconsistency proved to be crucial.

Photo taken by Bridget Mayfield at EWU’s game against Montana State

In the last few weeks, Riley has emphasized the importance of worrying about what the team can do better. Despite having the longest winning streak in all of Division I basketball, the Eagles remain steadfast on making adjustments as opponents attempt to “poke holes in the system”. 

“Target on our back or not, we’re trying to enjoy the moment and play the best basketball we can,” said Riley. 

The Eagles play two games on the road against Weber State (15-13, 10-5) and Idaho State (9-19, 6-9) before the final game of the year at home versus Montana State (19-9, 12-3). 

Riley and the Eagles play at Weber State on Thursday Feb. 23 at 6 p.m. PST.

The Big Sky Conference Tournament takes place March 4-8 in Boise, ID. 

While EWU has beaten all three of their upcoming opponents, Montana State and Weber State are still the second and third in the conference behind the Eagles. 

Riley says the goal has not changed from the start of the season. Even during the tough times earlier in the season, the Eagles set out a plan to bring the Big Sky title back to Cheney. 

“When we were struggling, I remember roadtrips where I was just having so much fun with these guys,” Riley said. “If you can sleep at night and you’re losing, you understand that you’re going to be a pretty good program.”