There's something so captivating about a slow-moving train wreck. Maybe it's the impending carnage. Maybe it's the way time seems to almost stand still before everything falls apart. Or maybe we just can't help but watch something so uniquely horrible.
For the past few seasons it's been easy to compare Eastern Michigan vs. Northern Illinois men's basketball games to slow-moving train wrecks. The two match ups in 2012-2013 were among some of the worst Division I basketball games in history. The first game of this season between the two didn't feel much better.
2014 MAC Tournament Coverage
2014 MAC Tournament Coverage
It took two overtimes to decide, with NIU eventually beating EMU 61-59, but the teams shot a combined 28 percent from the field, made just three 3-pointers, turned the ball over 35 times and had 57 personal fouls called. It took nearly three and a half hours to complete. This game epitomized the train-crash analogy.
Then they met up again a little more than a week later in a game that was decidedly better, if still not a fun event. EMU won that game 56-52 in regulation, and the pacing was far better. Now we get a third installment of this unique match up as No. 7 NIU and No. 6 EMU square off Wednesday night in The Q.
Per usual this game factors to be a defensive struggle. It's not that these squads are bad. Obviously they're pretty good, even if that hasn't always been the case. It's just that both of these teams were built on defense first, with offense as an after thought.
Statistically speaking EMU and NIU are Nos. 1 & 2 in the conference in scoring defense, holding opponents to 61.8, and 63.2 points-per-contest respectively. They're also among the best at holding opponents to poor field goal percentage. EMU leads the nation having held opponents to 36.5 percent from the field this year. NIU is fourth in the conference with a 41 percent field goal percentage against mark.
The difference, believe it or not, is in their offenses. I know, this makes absolutely no sense. But when you have two seriously defensive squads, you won't win because your opponent got lazy and took a few possessions off, you'll win by grinding it out and forcing some buckets to go that otherwise wouldn't. And here is where EMU holds the advantage. The Eagles have the better offense, averaging 67 points-per-game compared to the Huskies 62.7 (worst in the conference). The difference-maker here seems to be EMU's more experienced guards.
The Huskies are insanely young, which is great news for next season, but causes some issues this year, especially in the post-season. NIU lacks the real-world experience of having played in these types of games. Whereas EMU, though made up of some transfers, is full of veteran players.
Mike Talley is a prime example. The first-year Eagle is no stranger to big games, having spent his first two seasons at Duquesne before transferring to EMU last season and becoming eligible to play this season. In both games this season Talley won the battle with NIU freshman point guard Aaric Armstead, and was the main reason EMU won the second game thanks to his 21 points, six rebounds, four steals and three assists.
While WMU has some better athletes (Karrington Ward, Glenn Bryant, Da'Shonte Riley) those players are almost canceled out thanks to the Huskies stifling defense. But EMU's superior guard play is the key here. EMU's guards have the patience to wait things out and are better at creating their own shots and not settling for what the defense is giving them.
If NIU is going to win Wednesday night it will need Armstead and Darrell Bowie to step up and play one of their best games this season, while also holding Talley and Darrell Combs. The attention may be paid to the blocks of Riley, the dunks of Bryant, and the grit of NIU's Jordan Threloff, but the game will be won or lost on the play of the guards.
The action is set to tip off Wednesday night in Cleveland, 30 minutes after the conclusion of the Miami-Ohio game. It can be seen on TWC Sports Channel and WatchESPN.
The winner advances on to the Quarterfinals of the MAC Tournament where it will face No. 3 Buffalo Thursday night.