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Preseason poll tabs Eastern as MAC West favorite

David Goricki
The Detroit News
EMU coach Rob Murphy

Ypsilanti — Eastern Michigan coach Rob Murphy sat behind his desk in the basketball office Friday afternoon feeling the Eagles’ program is getting respect by being named MAC West preseason favorite in a poll of league coaches and media members.

EMU, which finished 18-15 last season (9-9 MAC), received 178 points and 12 first-place votes to finish atop the West with Ball State picked second (158, 12), followed by Northern Illinois (148, 5), Toledo (100, 1), Western Michigan (95) and Central Michigan (77, 2).

Akron was picked to win the East with 194 points, including 15 first-place votes, followed closely behind by Ohio (190, 16). Defending MAC tournament champion Buffalo (144, 5) was third, followed by Kent State (116), Bowling Green (63) and Miami (49).

Akron is the pick to win the conference championship, getting 15 votes, followed by Ohio (11) and the Eagles (3).

“I think we’re in pretty good position since we have our core unit of guys with a lot of experience coming back,” Murphy said. “This is the first time during my six-year tenure that we were able to return the core of our team just because early on we took a lot of transfers and we were taking grad students that had one year so our turnover every year was four or five guys so we never had a real chance to build it so we’re excited to have our core unit back.

“I think our new guys are kind of competing as well and with the mixture of our experience and new guys I think that will help us as we continue to get better and compete for a MAC championship.”

The Eagles last won the MAC title 20 years ago with Earl Boykins leading the way.

Murphy has reason to be optimistic with arguably the top inside-outside combination in the conference in 6-foot-10 sophomore forward James Thompson IV (14.8 points, 10.7 rebounds) and senior guard Ray Lee (15.1 points). They combined to average 30 points last season to help the Eagles advance to the MAC quarterfinals, falling to Akron, 65-63. They also return guards Willie Mangum (12 points) and Ty Toney (11.2 points), along with defensive specialist Tim Bond.

Thompson earned a spot on the preseason All-West team and was named best NBA prospect in the MAC by The Sporting News.

“He’s long, athletic and has the ability to do things you just can’t teach,” Murphy said of Thompson. “He’s a great rebounder on both ends of the floor, is a great finisher. To have somebody like him that you can throw the ball in the post and demand the double team — and if he’s one-on-one we feel he can score — so to have that presence on both ends of the court has been great for us.

“I think James and Ray Lee are one of the best 1-2 combinations in our conference. Ray is a dynamic scorer, a guy who can score in bunches and he’s gotten better at the defensive end of the floor, so when you have two guys like that who can keep you in any game and then you have other guys like Ty Toney who is an unbelievable guard, Willie Mangum who is an unbelievable shooter and Tim Bond is a defensive specialist, and then you add in 7-footer Baylee Steele, (6-9) Nick Madray and (6-9) Lamar Wofford on the back line and they bring a lot of length and athleticism.”

While Murphy knows the Eagles are talented, he said he was surprised they were picked to win the West since division rivals Ball State (19-13, 10-8) and Northern Illinois (21-12, 9-9) returned their entire starting lineups.

Western Michigan junior guard Thomas Wilder joins Thompson on the All-West team, along with Toledo senior guard Jonathan Williams, Northern Illinois senior center Marin Maric and Ball State senior forward Franko House.

The All-East team consists of Akron senior center Isaiah Johnson, Buffalo senior forward Blake Hamilton, Kent State senior forward Jimmy Hall, Ohio senior forward Antonio Campbell and Ohio junior guard Jaaron Simmons.