July 17, 2001 11:00 pm

By C.J. Gish

Observer Staff Writer

Eastern Oregon University will receive a taste of what its like to play one of the top mens basketball teams in the nation this season.

On Dec. 21, the Mountaineers will travel to Spokane and take on Gonzaga, a team that has advanced to the NCAA Tournament three years in a row.

Obviously, were excited about playing a team the caliber of Gonzaga, Eastern Athletic Director Rob Cashell said. Itll be a good experience for our players, our coaching staff and the university.

Playing a Division I school that has advanced to the Sweet 16 the last two years and the Elite Eight in 1999 wasnt by chance, either.

This is something that has been brewing the last four years, Eastern mens basketball coach Art Furman said. Ive known (Gonzaga head coach) Mark (Few since) when he was an assistant there in 1990 and I was an assistant in Portland.

Furman said the two schools were originally supposed to play two years ago the season Gonzaga advanced to the Elite Eight. Instead, scheduling conflicts prohibited them from meeting until this season.

There are a few concerns about playing Gonzaga. First, it will cut short the Eastern players Christmas break from seven days to four; second, the game falls right after the Mountaineers open up Cascade Collegiate Conference play; and third, Furman hopes no one will get injured playing a bigger school.

I know what were getting in to and the guys know what were getting in to, he said. Well be playing in an unfriendly environment.

It will be like a 1A (high school) team going against a junior college team. Itll be a great experience.

Eastern will also benefit financially, receiving approximately $3,000, Furman said.

I like our guys to play at least one Division I school a year, Furman said. Plus, Division I schools are always looking for an NAIA school to beat up on.

Division I schools Furman has scheduled in the past include Portland State, Idaho State and the University of Portland.

Gonzaga will be far and away the best team Eastern has faced during Furmans eight years as head coach. Since the Mountaineers only have a handful of preseason games to play, he doesnt want to take on a slate full of Division I schools, but playing a good program once in a while helps Eastern.

You want success in preseason, but at the same token you have to play a couple games that let you know where you are as a team, Furman said.

We have four home games and three on the road (in preseason), plus an Australian All-Star team that was pretty tough last year, he said.

I like our conference, but its so dang tough, you cant have guys beat up mentally going into the league play with only one or two wins. You dont want to do that to your guys.

The memories of the Gonzaga trip will be one of the primary benefits.

Our whole philosophy for football, mens basketball and all of our sports is not only to provide an education experience for our students but to go play bigger teams, Cashell said.