Posted: 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013
By Brandon Hickey
It never seems like the Eastern Michigan basketball team can ever get over the hump. Mired in a strain of mediocrity since the days of Earl Boykins, the Eagles have had just one winning season since 2000. That was the 2009-2010 year when they finished 17-15 and bowed out to Akron in a wild 97-89 double overtime shootout. Rob Murphy was brought in to right the ship that Charles Ramsey led astray and has only come away with mixed results. A 30-36 record in the first two seasons isn't bad (ask Mark Montgomery), but with all the talented transfers Murphy brought in you'd think he'd be able to crack the .500 mark. Add on to that the style of basketball Murphy has instilled, and you wonder why it hasn't led to more successful seasons.
The win over Purdue was the crown jewel in last year's oh-so Eastern Michigan-like season. Other than that, they beat the teams they were supposed to and lost to a couple teams they shouldn't have. Such is the norm in Ypsilanti.
Most remember that epic showdown with Northern Illinois that most people saw as total ineptitude by the Huskies. Nobody talked about how suffocating Eastern Michigan's defense was. The Eagles gave up under sixty points per game, good for 26th in the country. They were also in the top 50 nationally in field goal % against, 3 point % against, free throw % against, and blocks.
What obviously trumps that is their complete inability to score points. They ranked 340th in points scored nationally, one of the worst in the country. Eastern Michigan was basically Northern Illinois with a really good defense. The Eagles won games 47-44, 42-25, 50-49 (IN OVERTIME!), 45-44 and 53-41. It's hard to not score fifty points a game, it really is, even against high-level competition. Eastern Michigan did it seven times in a 34-game season.
The Eagles actually don't lose a whole lot from last year. They return the third most minutes (67%), fourth most points (65%), and fourth most rebounds (67%). The most glaring loss is Derek Thompson, who accounted for 19% of the team's points and was the leading scorer. Up front, the Eagles lost Jamell Harris and Matt Balkema, who didn't put up a lot of points but were better than average rebounders. The main cogs return though, and that's a huge positive.
Five of the top six Eagles in minutes played return, including Glenn Bryant and Daylen Harrison. Bryant has all-MAC first team potential and Harrison was recently profiled in our Top 25 men's basketball players countdown. Da'Shonte Riley, Jalen Ross, J.R. Sims and Anthony Strickland also return, giving the Eagles a solid starting five and a decent bench. Added to that is Duquense transfer Mike Talley, who should push to be the starting point guard. Karrington Ward, Lekan Ajayi and Darell Combs also joined the Eagles this offseason, and while not much is known about them they will likely be expected to contribute right away.
As usual, Eastern Michigan's schedule is loaded. The main names include Syracuse, Duke, Kentucky, and Purdue, all road contests. The Eagles will host decent mid-majors Cleveland State and Robert Morris in November in the Keightley Classic. They also play Oakland, the newest member of the Horizon League, and UMass as a part of a conference agreement with the school to require them to play MAC teams. Green Bay, another quality Horizon League member, comes to Ypsilanti on December 10. Unfortunately, the Eagles will play three non-division one teams this year: Concordia, Albion, and Rochester.
As much as I want to say that Eastern Michigan will be improved this year, I just can't see it. They'll lose a lot of games in the non-conference, score an upset or two in the MAC and lose to Central Michigan or Northern Illinois at least once. It's how Eastern Michigan's basketball season has always gone, and I don't see any reason why that will change. Maybe they'll get over .500, maybe they won't.
I could be way off base though. Bryant may turn into the best player in the conference. Harrison could become a very good second option and Talley may likely be a large contributor. The talent is there to make a deep run in the conference. Rob Murphy will need everyone to take the next step, and maybe learn how to score some more points.