Eagles hope to soar past 23rd-ranked Bulldogs

The 23rd-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs open the 12 season tonight against a familiar foe as in-state rival, the Eastern Washington Eagles, come to the McCarthy Athletic Center in Spokane.

Eastern Washington comes into the campaign with a new head coach in Jim Hayford, who is making his Division I coaching debut after a stellar run at Division III Whitworth University (Spokane, WA) where he compiled a record of 217-57 in 10 seasons. The Eagles, who play their basketball out of the Big Sky Conference, went 10-20 last year, and finished tied for fifth in the league standings with a 7-9 mark. As a result, EWU participated in the Big Sky Tournament for the first time in five years.

As for Gonzaga, it enters Mark Few's 13th year as head coach, seeking its 12th straight West Coast Conference regular-season title. The Bulldogs have never won fewer than 20 games in any season under Few, and they are shooting for their 23rd straight home-opening win. This is Few's 400th game in charge of the GU men's basketball program, and he is the winningest coach in school history (150-18), and the active winningest mentor in the WCC. Gonzaga is an eye-popping 61-5 in non-conference home games with Few at the helm.

Gonzaga owns a commanding 52-7 lead in the all-time series with Eastern Washington, and the Bulldogs have won the last 23 meetings. The Eagles last topped the Zags back in 1990.

Completely revamping things, Hayford could set this team back a bit at the outset, but the Eagles are an experienced bunch hoping to take the next step in 2011-12. Four starters are back in the fold, and Cliff Colimon is the leading returning scorer (10.4 ppg). Tremayne Johnson should see an increase in minutes after posting 10 points and 5.1 rebounds per outing last year, despite starting just eight games. Kevin Winford and Jeffrey Forbes also return to bolster the backcourt, with Winford averaging 9.9 ppg and shooting 82.9 percent from the foul line, while Forbes chipped in with 9.8 points and two assists per game.

The Bulldogs won 25 games last season, giving them a share of the WCC title, and they reached their 13th straight NCAA Tournament. The team lost versatile veteran guard Steven Gray from that squad, but a strong recruiting class could pay immediate dividends and help the supporting cast that remains. Gray's departure in the backcourt will allow Marquise Carter to become the focal point he was at the end of last year. The prize of the recruiting class is 6-2 freshman Gary Bell, a versatile playmaker who can both score and set up his teammates. Fellow freshman Kevin Pangos could see plenty of time at the point. The frontcourt has more proven commodities in 7-0 center Robert Sacre (12.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and 6-7 forward Elias Harris (12.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg). Harris burst on the scene as a freshman, but failed to live up to the hype last season despite posting decent numbers.