Defense has defined head coach Rob Murphy’s tenure at Eastern Michigan as the third-year coach has successfully installed the zone principles learned during his seven years as Jim Boeheim’s assistant at Syracuse. In fact, Eastern Michigan led the MAC in scoring defense (and ranked 26th nationally) last year, while also finishing 20th nationally in three-point field goal defense (.299) and 43rd in field-goal defense (.397). Since arriving in Ypsilanti in 2011, Murphy’s squads have allowed just 58.7 and 59.1 points per game, respectively.
Eastern Michigan’s struggles have been on the offensive end of the floor where the Eagles ranked 338th out of 345 Division I teams last year with 56.6 points per game. The Eagles also ranked among the nation’s 50 worst schools in field-goal percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio and three-pointer per game. However, Murphy finally has the requisite depth this season to play a more uptempo style that resembles the one Louisville employs. “We’ll play a lot faster,” Murphy said over the summer. “We’ll look to speed up the tempo. We won’t just sit back in the zone. We’ll play some zone, but look to create pressure and trap.”
The offensive results have been eye-opening so far this season as the Eagles are averaging 76.5 points per game, while also shooting a conference-best 39.5% from beyond the arc. Finding the open man has also become easier with true point guard Mike Talley, who is averaging 3.8 assists per game. Overall, Eastern Michigan is averaging 14.0 assists per game this season, compared to just 10.7 per game in 2012. Karrington Ward, a Division II first-team All-American and one of four redshirt seniors on the roster looking to make the most of their final season, is leading the Eagles in scoring with 16.0 points per game, while also pulling down a team-best 6.2 rebounds per game. Highly touted sophomore Ray Lee, who was ranked as the No. 142 player in the Class of 2012 by Rivals.com, is second on the team in scoring with 15.3 points per game. For the first time in four years, the Eagles have three players averaging double-digits in scoring.
Eastern Michigan also has underrated height protecting the rim in 7-foot Syracuse transfer Da’Shonte Riley, who has compiled 27 blocks through the first five games this season. Overall, the Eagles have blocked 54 shots, which already accounts for 31.9% of last season’s total of 169 blocked shots. Coach Murphy expects a breakout year for Riley after what he observed over the summer. “I think he’s going to have a huge breakout year. He’ll be one of the best, if not the best, centers in the conference.” I agree with Murphy’s assessment as Riley is finally healthy after enduring a plethora of injuries over the last few years, which allowed him to spend 4-5 months during the offseason in the weight room.
Depth is not an issue for Eastern Michigan as coach Murphy has repeatedly stated that he has eleven guys who could start on any given night. Indeed, nine players are currently averaging twelve or more minutes per game, while eight players are averaging 16 minutes or more per game. Let’s also note that Eastern Michigan possesses a solid home court as the Eagles are 27-9 inside the Convocation Center over the last three seasons, including 13-1 in the month of December. The Eagles are a perfect 5-0 at home this season where they are limiting opponents to a mere 59.4 points per game on 33.3% shooting from the field and 27.7% from three-point territory. Eastern Michigan does not shy away from competition as Murphy’s team knocked off Purdue last season, while covering the spread against Kentucky last week. Finally, questions remain as to how Massachusetts will respond to being ranked with a huge home game against BYU on deck.