There are hundreds of different methods people use to pick their favorite potential Cinderella team in March. Some will see a television story in the middle of the season that catches their eye, others will wait for our annual Championship Week Primer to become informed, and still more will simply pick a name or a mascot they find enjoyable once the brackets are unveiled on Selection Sunday.
If you fall into one of the last two groups, this is the year you need to make an exception. Now I'm not saying you need to close the door on any other potential rooting interests or that you're not allowed to pick up a new tertiary favorite if this one falls through, I'm just saying that there's one team you should absolutely be pulling for to make the field of 68 this March.
That team is the Eastern Washington Eagles.
Why Eastern Washington, you ask. I'll give you five reasons that'll have you staying up late to stream Big Sky basketball on your laptop for the next month.
1. They play the most exciting brand of basketball in the country
In a season that is becoming at least partially defined by a "why are defenses dominating the sport?" storyline, Eastern Washington is a glaring exception. The Eagles are the nation's sixth-highest scoring team in the country at 82.6 ppg, and they also have the nation's 314th most efficient defense, according to Ken Pomeroy. That's probably not a combination that's going to win you a national championship, but it's good for holding an audience's attention.
In their last four conference victories, EWU has posted point totals of 89, 92, 95, and 102. They also haven't held an opponent to fewer than 86 points since Jan. 3. So, yeah, fun to watch.
The signature win of Eastern Washington's season so far came against their closest major conference equivalent, Indiana. The Eagles shot 61.3 percent from the field in the second half, dropped 56 points after halftime, and dealt the Hoosiers a stunning 88-86 defeat. The win snapped IU's 43-game home winning streak, was Tom Crean's first November loss in 33 games at Assembly Hall, and improved EWU's all-time record in games when the attendance is 10,000 or more to 1-20.
It's also worth noting that the Eagles' offensive prowess isn't the product of some gimmicky philosophy. EWU is getting just 13.1 percent of its production from points in transition, and, according to Synergy Sports, Notre Dame is the only Division I team that has a more successful half-court offense. My man Jim Hayford can coach a little bit.
2. They have the nation's leading scorer, and he has one of the nation's most unbelievable stories
As we near the end of January, there are just 16 Division I players who are averaging 20.0 ppg or better. You've probably heard of guys like Stanford's Chasson Randle, Providence's LeDontae Henton, and BYU's Tyler Haws. None of them are scoring more than Eastern Washington sophomore guard Tyler Harvey. Harvey isn't quite running away with the national scoring title, but his 24.0 ppg average is a full 1.2 ppg ahead of his nearest competition, Incarnate Word's Denzel Livingston.
Harvey's lofty average isn't the product of a couple of outlying 50-point barrages, it's more about his unreal consistency. In 20 games this season, Harvey has yet to score fewer than 16 points, and he's been held under the 20-point mark just five times. In consecutive games against Lewis-Clark State and Weber State, he scored 34 and 39 points, respectively, and went a combined 15-of-20 from behind the three-point line. He leads the nation in made three-pointers with 88, and is shooting a ridiculous 48.6 percent from deep. For comparison's sake, second place Damon Lynn of NJIT has made 84 three-pointers, and it's taken him 48 more attempts than Harvey to reach that number. He's also one of the nation's best free-throw shooters at 85.8 percent.
The most amazing thing about all of this? Harvey came to Eastern Washington as a walk-on, and might not have had the opportunity to play college ball anywhere, at any level, had it not been for a chance encounter between his father, a college basketball official, and his current head coach:
In 1991, Hayford was launching his own career as a coach at Azusa Pacific as Frank Harvey was trying to break into officiating. They met that summer.
In the meantime, young Tyler grew up watching his dad, and wondering whether he'd ever grow past his dad's 5'8 frame. As a high school freshman at Bishop Mongomery High in Torrance, Calif., he was behind the curve at 5'4.
Then came the growth spurt, more painful than most. En route to growing 10 inches in three years, he had to sit out part of one season "because my bones weren't catching up," Tyler Harvey said.
A late bloomer in every sense of the word, Harvey was overlooked by almost everyone.
But in 2010, Hayford -- then the coach at Whitworth -- was on the same plane flight as Frank Harvey, who had officiated a Gonzaga home game the night before.
Old ties were rekindled, giving Hayford a chance to bring Tyler, then a senior, to Whitworth for a visit.
"We thought he might fall through the cracks," Hayford said of Harvey, who was rail-thin at 6'2, 150 pounds.
"I liked Whitworth, but my dream was to play Division I basketball," said Tyler Harvey, for whom the planets aligned again when Hayford took over the program at Eastern.
Harvey then redshirted his first year at EWU and played sparingly at the beginning of his freshman campaign. In the 13th game of his sophomore season, he became the school's all-time leader in made three-pointers. Now he's on pace to a shatter a myriad of school records, including several set by the program's most notable alumnus, current Indiana Pacers guard Rodney Stuckey.
3. THEY HAVE A FRIGGIN' BASKETBALL ZAMBONI
OK, maybe I buried the lead a little bit here:
Of course this won't be seen at any point in the Big Sky Tournament or, Lord willing, the NCAA tournament, but I mean ... BASKETBALL ZAMBONI. C'MON.
4. They could actually get to the big dance and make some noise there
This isn't just a random team with some cool stories that we're drawing out of a hat here. There's a very real possibility that Eastern Washington is going to make the field of 68 and scare the bejeezus out of at least one team once they get there.
The Eagles will enter this Saturday's home game against Idaho at 6-1 in conference play and just a half-game behind league-leading Sacramento State. The Hornets (that's Sacramento State) are the only Big Sky team to get the best of EWU so far, pulling away late for a 90-77 home win on Jan. 17.
The bad news is that the road to the NCAA Tournament is going to be more difficult for Eastern Washington than it would have been in past seasons. The Big Sky had always been one of those conferences that tried to protect its best teams in the postseason. The format of the league's tournament had long been just a six-team field with the top-two seeds receiving automatic byes into the semifinals. This season, however, the conference has opted to go to a standard eight-team, no byes format. It's a move that had long been clamored for by the coaches and fans of the conference, but one which comes at an awful time for a team like EWU.
5. The Eagles have next-to-no postseason history
One of the best parts about March in college basketball is rooting for the teams that are making program history by achieving things that no squad before them had been able to accomplish. While they're not a member of the "never been dancing club," Eastern Washington could still be one of those stories.
The Eagles have been to the NCAA tournament just once, a 2004 trip as a 15 seed in which they received a 75-56 drubbing at the hands of Final Four-bound Oklahoma State. The only other postseason appearance EWU can claim as a Division I program came the year before when they were beaten by Wyoming in the first round of the NIT. Overall, Eastern Washington has been playing basketball since the 1903-04 season, and it has just two regular-season conference championships, and a single postseason conference title to its credit.
For the next two months the bandwagon will be open and waiting. Eastern Washington for 2014-15 national champion.