Unselfish play gets EMU rolling into MAC quarters

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

In Rob Murphy’s first two years as head coach at Eastern Michigan, his team was dead last in the conference in offense.

Then he started making some recruiting strides, and brought in some firepower.

And, yet, oddly ...

“We tried to get better offensive players, and that poses another challenge,” Murphy said Tuesday night, after checking into his Cleveland hotel ahead of this week’s Mid-American Conference tournament.

“Now, you’ve gotta get them to buy in and play together.”

It’s been a struggle at times this season, said Murphy, acknowledging some “turbulent times” as there were too many “me over we” moments — especially during a seven-game losing streak late in the season, the first seven-game losing streak Murphy has ever been a part of in all his years coaching college basketball.

The Eagles (16-16, 7-11) have righted the ship a bit, winning three of their last four, including their MAC opener Monday at home against Northern Illinois, to advance to Cleveland.

Eastern Michigan plays top-seeded Akron (24-7, 14-4) at noon Thursday at Quicken Loans Arena.

“We have some guys that can really play basketball and really score the basketball,” Murphy said. “The challenge has always been, it’s not always gonna be your night, are you gonna make that extra pass? When we play that way and get 15, 16, 17 assists, more times than not, we win.

“Where we struggle is when we get caught up in ourselves.”

Eastern Michigan is led by three seniors — Willie Mangum IV (15.7 points), Ray Lee (15.6) and Ty Toney (10.2) — and a sophomore — James Thompson IV (14.7).

Sometimes with so many prolific scorers, it can be a fight to “get yours,” so to speak.

And Murphy has battled that, especially lately. He had preached unselfish play, but it occasionally fell on deaf ears, especially during most of that losing streak, that spanned from late January to late February.

It finally hit home with the team, he said, Feb. 21 at Ball State. Eastern Michigan led, 35-31, at the half.

“And the second half,” said Murphy of the eventual 79-72 loss, “we went back to playing selfish basketball.”

The next day of practice, he showed the team the tape, and showed them how the first half was good basketball, and the second half was bad, selfish basketball.

He told his Eagles, if you play like the first 20 minutes, then things will turn around.

And if not, well, you know.

“It really started at Ball State,” Murphy said.

Eastern Michigan won the next game, at home, against Northern Illinois, then blew away Central Michigan on the road, 109-81. After a narrow loss to Toledo to close the regular season, Eastern Michigan held on for a 72-69 victory over Northern Illinois to reach Cleveland and the MAC quarterfinals.

The task doesn’t get much easier Thursday, against league champion Akron.

That said, the Zips haven’t exactly closed strong. They’ve lost three of their last five games, to Kent State, Bowling Green and Miami (Ohio). They were undefeated in conference play until February.

Still, Akron is the heavy favorite to earn the conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid, so one more unselfish game by No. 8 seed Eastern Michigan — and an upset win — certainly would earn the Eagles some fans, especially among the other teams remaining in the MAC tournament field.

“Obviously, Akron is the premier program in our conference,” Murphy said. “But they can be beat. As good as they are, they are beatable. We go in with a game plan and stick with it for 40 minutes ... this is anybody’s tournament.”

No. 5 seed Western Michigan (16-15, 11-7), the MAC West champion and winners of nine consecutive games, play No. 4 Ball State (20-11, 11-7) at 2:30.