EMU preview: Eagles have a lot to replace
Ypsilanti — How do you replace eight players from an Eastern Michigan team that had one of the best defenses in the Mid-American Conference?
That's the challenge coach Rob Murphy will face with just five lettermen and three starters coming back this season.
The good news is Eastern returns its top three scorers and main perimeter players in point guard Mike Talley (10.2 ppg, 3.6 apg), shooting guard Raven Lee (10.6 ppg) and small forward Karrington Ward (12.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg, preseason All-MAC West selection), along with junior forward/center Olalekan Ajayi (6-foot-11) and sophomore guard Ali Farhat (6-0).
The key to Eastern's success was its ability to suffocate opposing offenses with its 2-3 zone and overwhelming length on its way to a 22-15 season, the most wins since 1996-97 and tied for fourth-most in program history.
It led all Division I teams in field-goal percentage defense (36.9), and led the conference in turnover margin (plus-3.57), scoring defense (61.4 ppg; ranked No. 16 in Division I) and blocked shots (222; seventh-most in Division I).
The centerpiece for Eastern's stingy defense was 7-foot, 240-pound center Da'Shonte Riley, who was named MAC defensive player of the year and led the conference with 96 blocks. Wrecking havoc alongside Riley was 6-8 forward Glenn Bryant (54 blocks), 6-6 forward Daylen Harrison (22 blocks) and 6-5 forward Anthony Strickland.
But the bad news is all four have graduated. Now, Murphy will be relying on a mix of transfers to step in and solidify the backcourt, including 6-11 center Mike Samuels (Indiana State), 6-9 forward Jerome Hunter (Alabama A&M), 6-8 forward Anali Okoloji (George Mason), 6-8 forward Brandon Nazione (Des Moines Area Community College) and 6-7 guard/forward Jodan Price (DePaul).
According to Murphy, the trio of Samuels, Hunter and Ajayi will battle for the pivotal center spot, while either Nazione or Okoloji will start at power forward.
"Those centers are the most important position because you have to anchor the zone, protect the paint, contest and block shots, rebound the basketball, and be the intimidator," Murphy said. "Mike and Olalekan are the two guys I think are best equipped to do that.
"I think with our forwards size and athleticism, we won't lose much. We'll lose some shot blocking because we don't have a Glenn Bryant who is super athletic, but these guys understand angles and are really learning our system. ... I think our front line won't be as experienced as we've had last year because those guys were together for two years, but I think in some way we'll still be as effective defensively."
Murphy added that Price probably is the team's best 3-point shooter and has the potential to be one of the best in the conference. And with his versatility and length, Price can sit at the top or back of the zone and contribute on both ends of the floor.
Filling out the roster is transfer Jordan Martin, a 6-3, 195-pound guard from Oakland Community College; redshirt freshman Trent Perry, a 6-4, 175-pound guard from Franklin, Tenn.; true freshmen Tim Bond, a 6-6, 170-pound combo guard from Baltimore, Md.; Jordan Nobles, a 6-9, 190-pound forward from Canton; and Ethan Alvano, a 6-1, 170-pound guard from Corona, Calif.
"For us, losing eight guys from last year's roster is tough," Murphy said. "But I'm optimistic about the tools that we have to be able to continue our success here at EMU."
Eastern has gradually improved in the win column each year under Murphy, and will look to continue that trend when it hosts Saint Francis in its season opener on Nov. 14 and Ball State in its league opener on Jan. 7.
A closer look at Eastern Michigan
Coach: Rob Murphy, fourth season (52-51 overall, 26-24 MAC)
Last season: 22-15 overall, 10-8 MAC (third in MAC West)
Notable losses: C Da'Shonte Riley, F Glenn Bryant, F Anthony Strickland, G/F Daylen Harrison, G Darell Combs
Notable newcomers: C Mike Samuels, F Brandon Nazione, F Anali Okoloji, F Jerome Hunter, G/F Jodan Price, G Tim Bond, G Ethan Alvano
Best nonconference game: Dec. 17 at Michigan State
Outlook: Eastern's bread and butter is its defense, but how effective it'll be depends on how quickly the newcomers are able to learn the intricacies of the 2-3 zone. Despite losing eight players, Eastern returns its core of perimeter players in senior Karrington Ward, redshirt senior Mike Talley and redshirt sophomore Raven Lee. Ward, Eastern's leading scorer and rebounder, can do it all, but the team will need more consistent play from Lee. Expect Eastern to be battle-tested come league play after it completes a tough non-conference schedule that includes games at Dayton (Dec. 6), Michigan (Dec. 9) and Michigan State.
James Hawkins is a freelance writer.