Nasty way to begin your head coaching career.
Washington. Gonzaga. Arizona.
All within the first 11 games of the season.
What mad scientist put this basketball schedule together?
“Part of it was Ray (Giacoletti),” Mike Burns replies, “part of it was me.”
What in the world were you thinking?
Washington, an up-and-comer and, beginning last week, the 14th-ranked team in the country.
Gonzaga, one of the premier programs in the nation the last few years, and the team that bum- ped off the Huskies Wednesday night in Spokane.
Arizona, always strong, always ranked, always the team to beat in the Pac-10.
Burns’ Eastern Washington Eagles get to test them all this month, starting with the Huskies in Bank of America Arena this afternoon. And this is supposed to be a joyful month.
Hey, the Eagles soared in here two years ago with Giacoletti – a former Husky assistant under Bob Bender – at the helm and plucked a 62-58 win, the one and only time in six meetings with the Huskies that they’ve prevailed.
That was then. This is now.
Only one starter off that Eagle team remains. The Huskies have gotten much better.
“They’ve got as good a combination right now of athleticism, toughness, belief, all of those things, as anyone around,” Burns proclaimed the other day. “What concerns you is that they are just so quick to the ball, and they can get up the floor so quickly offensively, and defensively they can swarm all over the floor.”
As if that weren’t enough, Burns also has the Husky anger over the 89-77 loss to Gonzaga to deal with. That setback more than likely will knock them down, if not out of, the top 20. We haven’t even mentioned the packed house the Eagles will face.
You got yourself into something, Mike.
He helped create this schedule, so he can’t be griping.
“Yeah, it’s difficult, but it’s always difficult,” said Burns, who was hired as the Eagles head coach after Giacoletti took the job in Utah over the summer. “It’s part of the landscape over here. It’s also cold here in the winter, you can’t change that either.”
So the Eagles will show up, they’ll play hard, they’ll try to take the Huskies out of their game: That is, slow them down.
“We just can’t run with them,” Burns conceded. “I’m not going to challenge Carl Lewis to a 100-yard dash and I don’t think we should try to make the Washington game a game of possessions, going up and down the court, so that is first and foremost.”
Any other concerns? Yes. How to get the ball once it’s launched.
“One of the things I think has really improved their team is their all-out wholesale, everybody-to-the-glass rebounding attitude,” he said. “They’re coming from everywhere and they’re going to get it.”
Then there’s No. 2. A major headache. Nate Robinson.
Burns has been well aware of him since Robinson was a freshman at Rainier Beach.
“I thought when he came out of high school, pound-for-pound he was the best athlete the state’s ever had in terms of his ability to impact a football game, a basketball game, a track meet, whatever,” Burns said.
“He has that rare combination of physical ability, competitive desire and just an extra gear that you just don’t see guys have. He’s u-nique. And I really believe that. I don’t think he’s ever understood what the word fear is. I think because of his size (5-foot-9, 180 pounds) he’s always had a chip on his shoulder that any challenge, anywhere, anytime he’ll take it. And I think that’s what makes him great. And he is great.”
To replicate Washington’s quickness is impossible, so Burns was contemplating using an extra player or two when working against the press in practice. “The reality is, there’s no way to prepare for the type of athletes they have,” he said.
Burns spent last year as an assistant to Dick Bennett at Washington State after aiding Giacoletti the three previous years at Eastern. The last time I saw Burns before last week was at Snohomish High School last winter. He was there recruiting Jon Brockman, the Panthers’ outstanding big man.
“I’ve known Len Bone (the Snohomish coach) and his brother Ken (a Husky assistant) for a number of years,” Burns said. “We, like everybody else in the country, wanted a shot at Jon, and for a while there we thought we were doing OK. I take my hat off to the Huskies. You can’t beat a brother.”
When Giacoletti took the Utah job on March 31, Burns was hired the next day to lead the Eagles.
Giacoletti did a good job in Cheney, taking Eastern to its first NCAA Tournament last March. He left two starters for Burns, senior Marc Axton of Federal Way, who stuffed in 36 points in a win over Cascade College of Portland Wednesday night, and sophomore Matt Nelson, a sophomore from Issaquah.
That gave his team a 2-2 start on the season, the schedule of which gets easier after this month. “This is a challenge,” he said of the muscle teams the Eagles play in the next three weeks, “and it definitely shows you where your weaknesses are, which is something that’s very useful as you prepare for conference play. It’s also exciting to play in these games.” He talks almost daily with Giacoletti, who undoubtedly gave him some pointers on how to attack the Huskies after losing to them in a first-round game of the Great Alaska Shootout last weekend.
If only words could shoot a 3-pointer.