When you reside 16 miles from the No. 1 team in the country and you’re opening the men’s NCAA basketball tournament — just the third appearance in school history — Saturday against Kansas, the bluest blood of them all, you know your place in the hoops hierarchy.

“They’re excited to play against Kansas,” Eastern Washington coach Shantay Legans said of his Eagles. “I’ve told people — you know, no one’s waking up as a basketball player saying, ‘I can’t wait to go to Cheney and go to Eastern and play for Coach Legans.’ That ain’t happening. But people do wake up saying they want to go to Kansas. They probably get calls about players all the time.”

That’s not to say that Eastern is just happy to be here, mind you — “here” being the bubble in Indianapolis where all the men’s NCAA teams are housed. Well, they are happy; “crazy excitement” is the term used by Coach Legs, as he is universally known in Cheney. But the Eagles also see this as a golden opportunity to carve their own niche on the basketball scene.

That’s not easy in the gigantic, looming shadow of Gonzaga in nearby Spokane. The Eagles had a one-and-done foray into the NCAA tournament six years ago under current Seattle University coach Jim Hayford, with Legans as his assistant. Legans doesn’t view Gonzaga as a zero-sum rival. He sees an exemplary program from which to learn, maybe even borrow a few tricks; and more than enough glory for everyone to share.

“It’s cool to be around it,” Legans said of Gonzaga’s aura. “It probably gives us a little more attention than we would have if they weren’t very good. We take it all in. We’re able to watch the No. 1 team operate, how they do things. We try to steal bits and pieces from here and there.”

That means, at least in the building process, finding hidden gems on the recruiting trail and milking the most out of their talents. The Eagles are led by the Big Sky MVP Tanner Groves from Spokane’s Shadle Park High School, with considerable help from his younger brother, Jacob. Kim Aiken Jr. from Redlands, Calif., was the Big Sky defensive player of the year.

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Eastern Washington forward Tanner Groves (35) moves the ball around Montana State forward Jubrile Belo during an NCAA college basketball game for the championship of the Big Sky men’s tournament in Boise, Idaho, Saturday, March 13, 2021. Eastern Washington won 65-55. (Otto Kitsinger / AP)
Eastern Washington forward Tanner Groves (35) moves the ball around Montana State forward Jubrile Belo during an NCAA college basketball game for the championship of the Big Sky men’s tournament in Boise, Idaho, Saturday, March 13, 2021. Eastern Washington won 65-55. (Otto Kitsinger / AP)

The 6-foot-9 Tanner Groves joked on a Zoom call Tuesday that it seems like the bulk of his assists come on passes to his 6-7 brother, and vice versa — perhaps a result of endless after-school games on their driveway. Tanner’s nickname is Psycho-T, which is a nod to his demonstrative, intense style of play upon which the team feeds.

“When things may not be going my way, I can get a little crazy,” said Groves, who averages 16.4 points and 8.1 rebound per game. “When things are going my way, I’m bringing a lot of energy, a lot of passion and heart to the team.”

The Eagles have 10 players in their program from the Northwest, including five on their tournament roster from Washington. Legans hopes their success and the growing spotlight will allow him to expand his recruiting base and get on prospective players earlier in the process.

“We try to get the kid that’s perfect for us,” he said. “We recruit the Northwest pretty hard, and we go recruit kids that are sometimes getting looked over. They come here and flourish, because we get them better.”

Legans, 39, is a rising star in the profession, with a 75-48 record (. 610) in four years as Hayford’s replacement. This year’s NCAA breakthrough has been building. The Eagles lost to Montana in the Big Sky title game his first two years, and then last year won the regular season in dominant fashion only to have the conference tournament abruptly canceled by COVID-19. Last week they knocked the door down with a 65-55 win over Montana State to take the Big Sky championship.

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What’s refreshing about the personable Legans is a self-deprecating streak that can be rare in the college basketball coaching world. A two-time tournament player at Cal, he said of the inevitable comparisons with Gonzaga, “If you don’t have an ego, that stuff doesn’t bother you.”

Legans told a great story this week about eagerly going up to Kansas coach Bill Self to say hello when he saw the legend in a hotel lobby at the Final Four shortly after replacing Hayford. He thought Self might recognize a new coaching peer; instead, Self said, “Hey, Chief,” and kept walking.

Now Legans is going up against Self on Saturday, and he couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise. He says he has long studied the sets and defensive principles employed by the veteran coach, whose Kansas team has the longest ongoing streak of reaching the NCAA tournament, at 31 years. Legans has even extensively watched videos of Self’s news conferences to learn from how he discusses his team.

Last year, when Eastern had the eventual Big Sky MVP in the since-graduated Mason Peatling, Legans watched Kansas tape to get some tips on how to integrate two bigs into the lineup.

“And I still couldn’t do it,” Legans said. “Last year I had an MVP (Groves) playing behind another MVP. And that MVP only got nine, 10 minutes, a game. So I couldn’t figure that part out. That’s what makes, I guess, Coach Self a Hall of Fame coach.”

Legans also freely blames himself for reining in his up-tempo ballclub when it stepped up in class this season to play some Pac-12 schools, particularly Arizona. The Eagles had a second-half lead with about six minutes to play but let it slip away.

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“We got really tight, we got really nervous,” he said. “I felt like the whole program, not just the players, but the coaches, too. … You want to have that win. It’s human nature. So I maybe pulled a little bit too tight and didn’t let them just go out and be themselves, like I have in the past.”

Legans put it another way: “I think I joy-sticked it a little too much.”

It’s not a mistake he plans to make against a Kansas team expected to be missing two key players because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“I’m just going to let our guys play,” he said. “They’ve earned this position. They’ve earned the right to go play the way they play, and I’m not going to change that because of who we’re playing.

“Obviously, defensively we’re going to do a lot of things differently. And try to figure out how we’re going to stop them. But offensively I’m going to let our guys go out and hoop.”

The Eagles will be heavy underdogs to Kansas, but even short of pulling off an upset, to be on this grand stage means everything to the program. Legans knows that somewhere, a young basketball player will be watching and thinking, in his words, “We can go to Eastern and be pretty good. We can play well and it could be a lot of fun, because we’re watching guys on TV do it.”

Coach Legs believes there’s more than enough room in eastern Washington (small e) basketball circles for Eastern Washington (capital e) to flourish. And maybe even a day in the future when basketball-loving kids wake up and say, “I can’t wait to go to Cheney.”