If you had attended the last game of the Eastern Michigan Eagles season last year, you would have encountered numerous restless locals about the state of Eastern Michigan basketball.
A season where the Eagles were expected to challenge the 2018-19 Buffalo Bulls (a team many consider one of the best to come from the conference), the Eagles' season came to a lifeless end in Ypsilanti instead, losing to the Ball State Cardinals and failing to advance to Cleveland for the MAC tournament.
Fans bemoaned the zone defense, their lack of in-conference successes, as well as Murphy’s community engagement. Despite all that, Eastern Michigan athletic director Scott Wetherbe stayed the course with Murphy.
I understand the frustrations from the Eastern faithful, but it is hard for me to believe that any coaching move would have resulted in hiring a better coach to guide the Eagle program and the early returns from 2019-20 season would seem to agree.
I don’t want to call it a Revenge Tour, (as Washtenaw County has had one too many of those recently), but the Eagles' redemption begins with Murphy.
After Murphy’s first year, he came close to accepting a job with the NBA’s Orlando Magic and he would spend his time split between Syracuse and Ypsilanti. This rubbed some fans the wrong way.
This year, has seen Murphy release a new book “DEEP” about his life and his detailed orientated coaching style. The book and his impact within the city of Detroit, (an important market to EMU) has brought national attention to Murphy and Eastern.
(Side-note: Once this semester ends here shortly, I am hoping to read DEEP and write an article on it. What I have read of it makes it a must read for any MAC hoops fan.)
The off-season news cycle led to strong reviews of Murphy’s coaching and character from the likes of Oklahoma City Thunder assistant general manager Troy Weaver, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and even Michigan State’s Tom Izzo.
Murphy also operates a non-profit within the Detroit area called the Rob Murphy Foundation.
Murphy has a seemingly strong relationship to EJ Bates, the father of Emoni Bates. Bates is considered a generational talent from Ypsilanti who has been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. While it would seem to be fantasy land to picture Bates playing any home games at Eastern’s Convocation Center beyond his high school career, his ties to Murphy reflect well.
Murphy has also advocated on Twitter about the possibility of returning to historic Bowen Fieldhouse, on the campus of Eastern Michigan where the Eagles played before the Convocation Center. While this idea would seem to be a long ways a way, it's a possibility which is likely to excite former Eagles and generate some interest.
In an off-season which saw the departures of numerous Eagles including starters Elijah Minnie, Paul Jackson and James Thompson IV, the narrative shifted towards how many games the Eagles would lose. In fact, most preseason polls featured the Eagles near or at the bottom of the conference.
Murphy remade the Eagles roster with numerous experienced transfers and players who fit well into the style of play Murphy wished for his Eagles. The remix appears to be working with strong floor spacing and a stifling defense.
The Eagles rank as the best defense is the MAC and 17th in the nation, allowing 58.1 points per game. The Eagles are seventh in the nation with 96 steals on the season. They are 16th nationally in turnover margin. Simply put, the zone is alive and well in Ypsilanti.
Offensively, an impressive five Eagles are averaging in double figures.
Ypsi local forward Ty Groce is showing a return on his immense potential and is a sleeper all-MAC candidate. Another transfer, Noah Morgan, has added a capable scorer and is severely underrated within the conference. Big man Boubacar Toure looks much better in his second year in Ypsilanti, as he currently leads the conference with a .680 field goal percentage. At times last year, it seemed as if the Eagles lost something with both Toure and Thompson on the court, which is no longer an issue. Yeikson Montero flashes a defensive potential unseen in the green and white since the days of Tim Bond. Incoming Italian sharpshooter Thomas Bellini may be one of the best pure shooters in the MAC, with a style of play which reminds this author of that of former Oakland Grizzlies star Travis Bader.
It is still awfully early in the season, and wins against schools like Michigan-Dearborn, Siena Heights, or Goshen won’t move the needle towards believing. Regardless, Eastern is 8-1 with several wins over mid-major opponents like Conference USA’s North Texas and a Valparaiso squad which beat one of the MAC favorites in Toledo, and trounced another in Central Michigan. The Eagles have already won something this season that most schools have not: winning a in-season tournament on foreign soil.
The Eagles most recently beat in-state rival Detroit Mercy on Saturday.
Their 8-1 record is currently the best in the MAC but tough games are on the horizon before conference play including a trip to the Breslin Center to face preseason favorite #1 Michigan State.
I understand that at this point any Eastern team will be graded by how they do after Christmas, when the conference season tips off in full, but if you speak to anyone around the program, there is a growing sense of belief. The Eagles more closely resemble the 2017-18 squad which was a MAC semi-finalist than the underachieving squad from a year ago.
As Eastern broadcaster Chad Bush would say, “there’s a lot of meat left on that bone” for this season, but it's time to start paying attention to the Eagles as a potential sleeper in the MAC hoops race.