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MAC Basketball Preview: Eastern Michigan Eagles at Syracuse Orange

Eagles face tough test on big stage in nationally televised game

James Thompson
James Thompson
Kenneth Bailey

Sometimes when a team that runs the 2-3 zone faces another zone team, they can struggle on the offensive end. That was partially true last season as the Syracuse Orange demolished the Eastern Michigan Eagles.

For the Eagles to have a chance this season, they will need to step up the defensive intensity. They have given up over 80 in 5 of their last 6. Syracuse has a couple of slashers that can score on anyone, but against a 2-3 zone playing with intensity, they can be forced out of their comfort zone.

EMU will also need to figure out the zone and get some points of their own. James Thompson IV could really help his draft stock by coming out to the elbow and either dropping the jumper or passing to open guys on the wings. The Eagles have multiple shooters, but most are streaky. At least one of them will need to be hitting Wednesday night.

Point guard Paul Jackson has been impressive this season but will face his biggest test on the season. Many points guards that aren’t the best outside shooter have fallen victim to the 2-3 zone. He has the quickness to break the zone down, but it will be interesting to see how he handles the different attack points and passing lanes.

A place where the Eagles have the ability to gain an edge is on the offensive glass. With the addition of Elijah Minnie, that is another long and lean body. Crashing the boards against the 2-3 defense can be effective for a couple of reasons. It’s difficult to box out from the defense and usually the weaknesses are on the perimeter, allowing for longer rebounds.

In basketball, I never place a whole lot of emphasis on just one game. However, I very interested in this game to see exactly where the Eagles are at. If everything above happens for the Eagles, they could pull off the upset. Syracuse isn’t as good as their 10-2 record, and quite frankly got lucky to escape their game against Buffalo. The Bulls just weren’t clicking. Massinburg, Harris, and Clark shot 7-30 from the floor and were mostly getting good looks. The Orange were able to penetrate and get good looks, which shouldn’t happen nearly as often against a 2-3.

Game Details

  • When: Wednesday, December 27th, 7p.m.
  • Where: Carrier Dome, Syracuse, New York
  • Watch: ESPN 2
  • Stream: Via the Watch ESPN app pending cable provider participation
  • Listen: WEMU 89.1 FM in Ypsilanti
  • Syracuse SB Nation Site
  • Line: Syracuse -12

Players to Watch

  • James Thompson IV, EMU: The 6’9 center is a NBA caliber talent averaging 17.7 points and 12.4 rebounds on the season. His ability to play outside his comfort zone and deal with the frustrations of a 2-3 zone will be key in this game. As a freshman, I wouldn’t have given it much hope, but he has grown quite a bit since then as a player.
  • Tim Bond, EMU: The lanky do-everything player could be a key in this game in many different areas. It might be slashing for rebounds, cutting in front of the passing lanes for steals when Syracuse slashes to the basket, or hitting threes.
  • Tyus Battle, Syracuse: The 6’6 guard is impressive to watch, but it will be interesting to see how he handles the EMU zone. Last season he was able to knock down threes against the Eagles, but this season he has been streaky. I am not sure he can be effective against EMU without a jumper.
  • Matthew Moyer, Syracuse: The 6’8 sophomore from Gahanna is only averaging 4.6 points and 4.9 rebounds, but is capable of some big moments, like his first half against Buffalo. In the two losses this season, he only had 2 points and 3 rebounds combined.


If EMU plays well, I could see them pulling off the upset. I could also see them getting blown out of the gym, like last season. If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t touch this game, however if I were forced to place a wager, I would take the Eagles. Against two MAC opponents this season, the Orange beat them by a combined 15. Toledo only shot 33% from the floor and Buffalo struggled as well. Both teams had the looks, they just couldn’t knock them down. Chucking up jumpers is basketball gambling. That’s really the crux of a 2-3 defense. If a team, pretty much any team, gets hot against the defense, they can win. That’s why Syracuse was on the losing end of some of the most monumental upsets in NCAA tournament history. If the other team isn’t hitting, they generally aren’t getting any easy baskets to keep it close.

Even though this game is a complete crap shoot in my eyes, this is the prediction section, so I will say EMU breaks the MAC cold streak against the Orange, and wins by 6.