It's still painful to know that the Eastern Michigan Eagles looked so impressive in the first couple of months of the season last year, then fell apart in MAC play to settle for an 8-seed in the conference tournament. Neither that team nor this year's team pales in comparison to the 2013-14 squad had, but it's still going to be as defensive-minded and relentless as they've been coached to be.
This isn't the only team that loses some star power, now without speedy point guard Mike Talley, jack-of-all-trades Karrington Ward and depth in the paint with Lekan Ajayi. But there's still plenty here to maybe get Eastern Michigan to where they need to be.
Head Coach: Rob Murphy, 5th year (73-65 overall, 34-34 MAC)
Western Michigan head coach Steve Hawkins probably said it best. In a post-game press conference, he said that Rob Murphy isn't like most coaches. Most coaches recruit offense and teach players defense, but Murphy recruits for defense and then teaches offense later. It didn't take long for Murphy to have a reputation around the conference that his Eagles would be such a defensive threat with the 2-3 zone.
After going from Detroit to Kent State in his coaching career, he found himself working under Jim Boeheim at Syracuse for seven seasons. In Murphy's first season, the Eagles won their first MAC West title ever. Took the following year's team to the MAC tournament semifinals and is now coming off of back-to-back seasons with at least 20 wins. It's all be through the same three principles: play defense, play defense, and absolutely no slacking on the court.
|at Michigan State
|at Penn State
|at Coppin State
|at Central Michigan
|at Northern Illinois
|at Kent State
|at Western Michigan
|at Ball State
Expectations should not be soft
For emphasis, being an 8-seed last year was disappointing and was EMU's worst seeding in the Murphy era. But you know what else was bad? The 2011-12 MAC West champions fell in the opening round to 12-seed Northern Illinois. Then the following year they fell to 7-9 in conference play, fought their way into the quarterfinals before losing by 15 to Western Michigan. Murphy's third season was probably the best team that EMU has rolled out in over a decade, made it to the semifinals before losing by 15 to Toledo.
There's been a divisional title, there's been a couple of wins over Big Ten schools, he's had team entered into the CBI and CIT (1-2 in these postseason tournaments), but it's still not nearly enough to get Eastern Michigan to where they need to be.
This program is in a much better place than it was during the Milton Barnes, Jim Boone and Charles Ramsay eras, but at this point in Murphy's tenure, the goal can't be about the process of putting EMU on the map. It's come to a point where fans shouldn't be saying "I hope we can win the MAC tournament," because now's the time where he should be putting out a team that actually goes out and does it.
The importance of Raven Lee
Basketball's cool in a way where, as much of a team sport as it is, it can still be greatly influenced by one player catching fire. And for all the defense that the team will be committed to, it's comforting knowing that there's been a real offensive threat from Lee since his redshirt-freshman season.
Coming off of a season where he was second in the MAC averaging 16.7 points per game in 32 starts, Lee's shown the ability to show up in big moments and have big stretches of just getting buckets after buckets. He's put up at least 20 points in ten games last season and a pair of games with at least 30. Against Ohio last year, he had 33 points but 31 of them came in the second half.
A healthy and still serviceable Lee will help out this EMU offense immensely, but his game has to be on his game for his team to pull out some close wins.
Win those road games
This has been a really low point for the Eagles during the the Murphy era for whatever reason. During his tenure, the Eagles are 10-24 on the road in conference play, including last year when they started off 0-6 on the road against MAC teams. From close losses to big comebacks from the home teams, EMU's had way too many opportunities slip by them on the road, which is something that needs change for this team to progress.
Keep an eye on these three players
The transfer forward plays with solid energy and does have a knack for getting boards. He was third on the team with 124 total rebounds last year, but he'll be expected to have more this year now that Ward, and Ajayi are gone
One would think that the River Rouge, Michigan would get some playing time this year. If nothing else, the freshman could be an offensive spark plug for the team. Here's a video you might like:
This team is without a lot of the big men from last year's team. Thompson's going to have to get the blocks and be a defensive force, maybe not to the extent that Da'Shonte Riley was, but an impact nevertheless. While there are no guarantees if he'll be the kind of player that gets into [early] foul trouble, one would hope that Thompson can also bring an offensive presence in the paint too. Here's another video: