This isn't the biggest place (pop. 8,832) to begin with, known most prominently to a lot of west-siders as the town where the Seattle Seahawks...

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CHENEY — This isn’t the biggest place (pop. 8,832) to begin with, known most prominently to a lot of west-siders as the town where the Seattle Seahawks train in summer.

And in a state in which the burgeoning college-basketball interest is hogged by Washington, nearby Gonzaga and even by the coaching transition at Washington State, the fourth NCAA Division I program in the state is easily obscured.

Not for long, says Mike Burns, the second-year coach at Eastern Washington.

“I look at the caliber of the player we have, and the age,” says Burns, antsy to head to a practice, “and we have a chance to be pretty special for quite some time.”

Burns, 43, is an upbeat sort, a helpful attribute after Eastern went from its first NCAA-tournament appearance in Ray Giacoletti’s final season to an 8-20 record in Burns’ first season.

Not only that, the Eagles lost three-time All-Big Sky forward Marc Axton, and No. 2 scorer Matt Nelson of Issaquah’s Skyline High transferred to Boise State.

“Most importantly, our players are extremely excited about the future,” insists Burns, an ex-assistant to Giacoletti at EWU and to Dick Bennett at Washington State. “They have the aura of their own belief in themselves.”

The Mission

Eastern hopes to contend for a conference championship. Failing that, the Eagles aim to develop enough to be a serious factor in the Big Sky tournament.

The Star

It could be a bit early for this, but at some point, it will be Rodney Stuckey, an engaging player who, when asked what he likes best on a basketball floor, says, “I love playing defense.” While Stuckey downplays the difficulty of sitting out his freshman year, coach Mike Burns lights up at the academic work he turned in, saying his cumulative GPA is 3.45.

“All I know is the kid I worked with academically over the past year,” says Burns, “and he possesses the wherewithal to succeed.” That goes for hoops as well.

“He has a chance to be special,” says Burns. “He has a great feel for the game, in addition to having great basketball talent.”

The Newcomer

Kellen Williams, a 6-5 forward, played on a 2003 state-champion Franklin team dominated by guard Aaron Brooks, now at Oregon. Says Burns of Eastern’s workouts, “It’s not a surprise that Kellen has asserted himself in terms of work ethic. He’s just going to compete. He’s physical and he rebounds — He’s got a nose for it. Tell him to run through a wall, and he’s not going to go around it.”

The Question Mark

With so many new faces, the Eagles could be a year or two away from returning to the glory of Ray Giacoletti’s final season.

Bud Withers

With the transfer of another starter, guard Danny Pariseau, to Santa Clara, Burns has five players back from his first season, including three who started — forwards Jake Beitinger (a 6-foot-8 South Kitsap product) and Henry Bekkering and guard Deuce Smith, the team’s only senior.

Beitinger interested some bigger schools as a prep player, and Burns says he’s “a rare combination of size and skill” who has bulked himself to 240 pounds.

But it’s an influx of newcomers, particularly 6-4 guard Rodney Stuckey of 2004 state 4A champion Kentwood, that will draw interest to the Eagles. Stuckey, ineligible last year at Eastern, had 95 points in that tournament to win MVP honors and was accorded some state player-of-the-year honors.

“He’s an extremely versatile kid,” says Burns. “He can handle it, shoot it and pass it. He possesses all the skills.”

Two other Seattle-area players — 6-1 guard Nick Livi of Eastlake and 6-5 forward Kellen Williams of Franklin and Highline Community College — join Stuckey as non-qualifiers a year ago who should help immediately.

Some of Williams’ skills call to mind those of ex-Eastern guard Alvin Snow.

The sole incoming freshman academically is 6-9 Brandon Moore of Bethel.

“Mention him,” urges Burns. “He got offers from Nebraska, the Big West, the WCC.”

Two holdover players, forward Paul Butorac and guard Tim Scheffler, should give Burns significant minutes, though Scheffler has missed time with a knee injury. A junior-college forward recruit, 6-8 Derek Risper, is mainly a defender and rebounder, while JC guard addition Neal Zumwalt was a 53 percent shooter at the lower level.

“He’s got a chance to become as good a shooter as we’ve had around this place in some time,” Burns says.

Much of Burns’ practice emphasis has been in developing a mindset that will allow his team to function better in close games. The Eagles went 1-8 over their final nine games, and six of their nine Big Sky losses were by 10 points or fewer.

Says Burns: “We’re tough and we’re talented, but we’re only going to be as good as our ability to grind daily, because that’s what really wins — the 12 best grinders.”