Football season isn't always the best time to talk about Eastern Michigan athletics for obvious reasons, which is why writing this basketball preview isn't too much of a chore for me to do. The MAC West was a fun roller coaster to be a part of last season and this year shouldn't be any different, especially with these Eagles still in the mix.
Rob Murphy's third season in Ypsilanti was a very fun time for Eagles fans. Didn't win the MAC West, wasn't a very highly-seeded team in the MAC Tournament (six-seed), but they didn't make things easy for the other side. Going 22-15 overall (tied for fourth-most wins in a season in school history) and 10-8 against in-conference opponents, the Eagles made things difficult by playing exhaustive zone defense and inviting everybody to impromptu block parties down low in the paint.
Even after making it to the semifinal round of the MAC Tournament and falling to Toledo 59-44, the Eagles were only able to make it to the Collegeinsider.com Tournament (CIT), only making it out of their opening round.
"Last year we were contenders," point guard Mike Talley said in an interview, "but I think we can actually win it this year."
"Losing eight guys is always tough," Murphy said in the preseason MAC teleconference. "To finish as the number one field goal defensive team in the country last year, a lot of that was due to the way we were able to control the paint," Murphy said. Out of the eight, the most notable losses from last year's roster include Glenn Bryant, Da'Shonte Riley (2013-14 MAC Defensive Player of the Year) and Daylen Harrison, who are all responsible for 77 percent of the 222 blocks that EMU had last year.
And just from a fan's perspective, it's going to suck not having Bryant around. Extremely energetic, brought a lot of swagger to the team and had the highest field goal percentage out of all of last year's starters too. Riley was only four away from reaching triple digits with his blocks total, but was only averaging just over four points per game. And Harrison added versatility as a guard and forward. He wasn't spectacular at any one thing, but he didn't need to be, either. Shooting 42 percent from the floor and 80 percent from the free throw line, he definitely fit the system Murphy was trying to run on defense while getting the job done on the other end of the floor too.
"No knock to them... but we're not really losing that much," Talley said. We'll talk more about the replacement players in a little bit.
For the starting five, it's pretty clear that Talley, Raven Lee and Karrington Ward will fill the 1-3 spots. Ward was last year's leading 3-point shooter, rebounder and scorer. He also led the team with 52 steals. Talley was fifth in the MAC with 132 assists while Lee was second on the team in assists (56), points (380) and 3-point percentage (.336).
The three leading scorers from last season are easy picks for those spots, but picking the four and five starters is where it gets hard for Murphy.
It's not farfetched to think that Lekan Ajayi will get some playing time at center this year, even after a forgetful season, where he only made two field goals in 277 minutes last year, while still committing 55 personal fouls. But another year under Murphy's coaching and maintaining his 6-foot-11 and 245-pound frame are both good enough reasons to think that he could have a huge season for the Eagles, especially on defense (but that's a given, because it's still a Rob Murphy-coached squad). He only had seven blocks last year.
Other players that could earn some playing time at the five include Mike Samuels and Jerome Hunter. Samuels transferred from Indiana State with two years of eligibility left, but didn't play for the Sycamores, sitting a couple of seasons out due to injury. Hunter is at EMU as a graduate student after playing for Alabama A&M, where he played in 85 games, starting 65 of those. He averaged just over three points and rebounds per game with the Bulldogs.
"Anali Okoloji or Brandon Nazione: between one of those two guys, they will start at our four spot" Murphy said. Neither of them played for EMU last season. Okoloji, 6-foot-8, transferred from George Mason with just one season of eligibility left, where he appeared in 50 games and made 18 starts. Nazione is a junior with the same height as Okoloji. The Howell, Michigan-native transferred from Des Moines Area Community College, where he was a NJCAA Second-Team All-American at the Division-II level after his sophomore season, where he averaged 16.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.
"Four and five spots are up for grabs because these guys are playing and competing at such a high level."
Depth at guard
Talley and Lee, as mentioned, are the clear starters for the one and two slots, and on paper, there isn't a huge drop off in talent that these guards have. And that's for a team that's now without Jalen Ross, J.R. Sims and Darell Combs.
"What coaches got when they recruited, they basically filled the positions pretty good," Ward said during the same interview that Talley was included in.
The two true freshmen guards, Tim Bond and Ethan Alvano, will likely earn a lot of good playing time when Talley and Lee need a breather.
Bond is a 6-foot-6 guard from Baltimore is a guy with good scoring abilities and can use his length to expand Murphy's 2-3 zone at the top. Alvano, from California, averaged 23 points per game as a four-year letterman for Corona HS. But maybe the most interesting guard to take a look at this year is somebody who had to sit out last season after transferring from DePaul.
"The guy that's not talked about much is Jodan Price... I believe he'll be one of the best 3-point shooters in the MAC," Murphy said. "With his offensive capabilities and his length in that zone, he can add some fire to both ends of the floor."
A Detroit Country Day alumnus, Price is 6-foot-7 and was recognized as one of the top 25 3-point shooters out of high school (2012) by ESPN. He's listed as a redshirt-sophomore, so a productive year out of Price this year will create a lot of optimism for this program for a few more years.
Offense is going to be a thing
"We've got a much better offensive team," Talley also said. "People know we play defense, but we've got a lot better offensive players guards to forwards."
Returning the top three scorers from last year's roster, plus Price and Alvano at guard with Nazione to potentially have more offensive production than, say, Bryant or Harrison did, there's enough reason to believe that EMU will do better than the 65.5 points per game that the team had last year. These guys already know how to play
good great defense, so creating a better-balanced team with better scorers and shooters will create more headaches for opposing MAC schools.
Holding your opponents to a hair under 37 percent shooting from the floor is almost too good to happen two years in a row, but even without Bryant, Riley and Harrison, the Eagles still oughta be the toughest defense in the MAC. The defense might not be heavily based on how many blocks this team gets in the paint again, but again, we can plan on seeing a much better offense than the Eagles had last year from more angles.
"I think last year we were more athletic, but this year we're more skilled," Ward said. "We're way more skilled."
Losing Bryant, Riley, Harrison, Combs, Ross, Sims, Anthony Strickland and Mo Hughley might seem like a lot, but it's hard to bet against a team that's led by Rob Murphy for his fourth season at EMU.