EMU preview: ‘D’ has Eagles in the zone

Terry Foster
The Detroit News
Guard Raven Lee (0) averaged 16.7 points per game last season for Eastern Michigan.

Head coach: Rob Murphy, fifth season (73-65 overall, 34-34 MAC)

Last season: 21-14 overall, 8-10 Mid-American Conference

Why they are dangerous

Central Michigan coach Keno Davis: “You can’t mention anything without their zone defense. And not that it is unique but the way they play it. It is not a fluke for them to be able to compete in the conference but to also beat some of the better teams in the non-conference in their past because of how well they execute on the defensive side of the court.”

Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins: “There are three things you must mention about Eastern. Number one is their zone defense, No. 2 is their special guard Raven Lee and No. 3 they bring in a ton of newcomers. They go the junior college route and you just never know who is coming in. But they are always athletic and they play defense really well.”

Outlook: It is well documented that Eastern uses Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone defense that Murphy learned under Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, where he was an assistant for seven years.

Here is the dirty little secret. The Eagles continue to stockpile talent to the point where opponents are not quite sure what to expect. They lose guard Mike Talley and forward Karrington Ward to graduation but their wing play might be better because Murphy added junior college players who can play.

Raven Lee, a 6-foot-3 junior guard, is a dangerous scorer who is on everybody’s radar. Tim Bond, a 6-7 sophomore forward, replaces Ward and excites his coach because he is more of a playmaker even though he lacks Ward’s athleticism. And Brandon Nazione, a 6-8 forward who was a backup last season, will be asked to use his toughness to make this team percolate.

Murphy is making believers of the Eagles faithful and players. He took over a 9-22 team in 2011 and has finished 22-15 and 21-14 the past two seasons. The 22 wins were the most since the 1996-97 season.

“We were taking over a program that had not had much success but was starving to win and (players) that were ready to be coached,” Murphy said. “My coming from Syracuse gave validity to the guys who were here. The day I stepped on campus, these guys believed I was the guy to take over the program and move it forward.”

He preached defense and rebounding, but now Eastern is bringing in better talent and will focus more on scoring. It would love to boost the 69.4 points and 41.1 percent shooting it averaged a year ago.

Eventually 6-10 freshman James Thompson IV of Baton Rouge will fill that role. Murphy also brought in two experienced junior college players who can also score in guards Willie Mangum IV and Ty Toney.

The challenge for them is learning the ins and outs of the 2-3 zone, which Murphy said can take six to eight months to fully understand.

Teams must really be aware of Lee, who on good nights can hit for 30 points. He once scored 31 in a half against Ohio.

“Any time you have that one guy who can get you 20 points or 30 when he really gets going, I am excited to bring that experience back,” Murphy said.

This program has recent victories over Purdue and Michigan but now wants to win MAC titles and go to Cleveland to earn an NCAA berth.

“There is so much parity at the top of the conference,” Murphy said. “We want to be one of the top four teams in Cleveland to put ourselves in position to win the conference.”