Former EWU coach Shantay Legans leads improving Portland against No. 2 Gonzaga

·5 min read

Jan. 28—Shantay Legans' memories of a successful four-year run at Eastern Washington that included a Big Sky coach of the year award, two conference championships and a stirring upset bid against Kansas in the NCAA Tournament last season?

"Beautiful, man," Legans said. "It was the start of my career there, something I'll cherish forever."

Legans' memories from the Eagles' 112-77 loss to Gonzaga in 2019 at the McCarthey Athletic Center?

"That's like the movie "Men in Black" and I got zapped by one of those (neuralyzer) things," cracked Legans, whose Eagles went on to win 23 games and a Big Sky regular-season title. "I don't remember it very well."

Legans left EWU shortly after the first-round loss to the Jayhawks — the Eagles led by 10 in the second half — for the head coaching job at Portland. It'll be a homecoming of sorts Saturday for Legans when he guides the Pilots against the second-ranked Zags at the Kennel.

Legans earned a substantial pay raise taking over the struggling Pilots' program last March. At the time, he was facing contract uncertainty at cash-strapped EWU, which was discussing cost-saving measures that included the possibility of dropping sports programs from the Division I level.

"I loved Eastern, I didn't want to leave Eastern," Legans said. "I didn't have a contract moving forward. It is what it is. I just wanted to make sure I had security. They didn't give me that at the time. I was going into the last year of the contract and I didn't feel really secure."

Legans is already making inroads at Portland, which hasn't visited the Kennel since the 16-game conference scheduling format was adopted after the 2018 season. He overhauled the roster with 14 newcomers — seven freshmen and seven transfers, including former Eagles' Mike Meadows, Tyler Robertson and Jack Perry, the latter out for the season after an ACL injury in November.

"We've lost some games I thought we should have won," Legans said. "It's one of those things teaching a whole team how to win close games and how to battle. We started playing pretty good right before Christmas break, then we had COVID. I want to have a better record, but that's where we're at right now.

"Mike and Tyler are doing great. They're leaders on the team and understand what we want to do out there."

The Pilots are 11-9, 2-3 in the WCC, significant improvements for a program that was 1-42 in conference games the last three seasons under previous coach Terry Porter and hasn't had a winning season since finishing 17-16 in 2015.

The Pilots aren't exactly the high-flying offensive unit that Legans typically had at EWU, but they've had success with a small-ball lineup that includes Meadows, Robertson, 6-8 UNLV transfer Moses Wood, 6-4 Fordham transfer Chris Austin and 6-5, 225-pound center Chika Nduka, a hard-nosed walk-on from Seattle.

Meadows (36.8) and Robertson (36.2) are 1-2 in the WCC in minutes. Austin, who leads the team at 14.5 points, and Wood, second at 14.2, rank in the top 15 in minutes played.

Portland is middle of the WCC pack in scoring offense (72.8) and seventh in defense (70.9), but the defense fueled Thursday's 64-56 home win over Pacific.

"We're leaning on defense big time," Legans said. "If you would have told me, 'Your defense is way ahead of your offense,' because of the way we like to play ... but you have to adapt. We scored 64 points and I'm thinking to myself I remember scoring 80-90 points, but we don't have the depth right now, we've got good shooters but we're not shooting the ball great and we're turning the ball over at too high of a rate."

Gonzaga coach Mark Few is well aware of the challenges presented by a Legans-coached team.

"They're playing that style where they're going to shoot a lot of 3s and play a smaller version of small-ball and try to attack us that way," Few said. "They're more than comfortable shooting 3s in transition. It's going to be a big challenge of our bigs to have to get out and guard on the perimeter and they're going to have to assert themselves at the other end so it's advantageous for us."

Gonzaga routed Loyola Marymount 89-55 on Thursday, but the Lions stayed close for most of the first half with their physical style and work on the glass. The Lions had 12 offensive boards — they had a lot of opportunities with 25 missed shots — at half and finished with 16.

"We were hearing about it the whole game," said Gonzaga forward Chet Holmgren, who grabbed a team-high nine boards.

Legans said he looks forward to competing against the Zags annually as he tries to rebuild the Pilots.

"Coach Few is one of top five in the country and they're up there with the best in the country, a standard held only by blue bloods," he said. "I never watched a lot of film on them, but I watch a lot now as we play other (WCC) teams and see how they do different things. They're really good."