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Ypsilanti — Eastern Michigan has all the ingredients needed to earn its first Mid-American Conference championship and NCAA Tournament bid since Earl Boykins thrilled fans more than 20 years ago.

Buffalo is expected to be the preseason favorite, returning the majority of its starters from a MAC title team that upset Arizona in the NCAA Tournament.

But, the Eagles can certainly challenge the Bulls for the conference championship. Eastern Michigan was picked to finish first in the West Division by the league coaches and media members.

The Eagles showcase one, if not the tallest, front lines in all of college basketball in fifth-year senior forward Elijah Minnie (6-foot-9), senior forward James Thompson IV (6-10, 245 pounds) and redshirt junior center Boubacar Toure (7-foot, 250 pounds), a transfer from Grand Canyon.

Minnie averaged 16.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game while playing at power forward and Thompson averaged a double-double (14.5 points, 11.2 rebounds) at center last season for the Eagles, who finished 22-13 overall (11-7 MAC).

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The Eagles also return starting point guard Paul Jackson (14.9 points, 4.6 assists), who is arguably the top player at his position in the conference after earning a spot on the all-tournament team last year.

“We finished strong a year ago, losing a really close game to Toledo in the semis (of MAC tournament), so we’ve been thinking about that breakdown in the last two minutes and how we would have gave ourselves an opportunity to play Buffalo in the championship and go on and play in the NCAA Tournament,” said Eastern Michigan coach Rob Murphy, who is entering his eighth season.

“Just understanding how close we were, understanding how we closed out the season, we just continued to build in the offseason. Having three guys in Paul, James and Elijah back, James has been with me for four years now and the other two guys being in the program for three years, sat out one and now they’re playing their senior year, we’ve been really fortunate to have that experience.

“I feel experience is the best teacher. They’ve been through the wars of the MAC. They’ve been able to bring the young guys along and they understand what’s at stake. Anytime it’s your last go-around you seem to work a little harder, and with the recognition and expectations they are really looking forward to really carrying us through the year with hopes to win a MAC championship.”

Murphy is excited to put Toure in the lineup.

“The way we play we’ve always gone out and recruited and evaluated somebody who can anchor our (2-3) zone defense and we were finally able to put a 7-footer on the floor, and he’ll be the best center we’ve had since Da’Shonte Riley, who was (MAC) Defensive Player of the Year in 2013-14,” Murphy said. “He alters shots, he blocks shots and he’s a really good finisher. He understands the importance of defense. He loves playing defense and he loves to rebound. Scoring is not his forte, it’s not really important to him and that’s what we’ve been looking for.

“We’ve been able to put a 7-footer in the middle, move James to the four spot and Elijah to our three spot gives our zone really good lift and size. If we can get you to take one shot and be able to rebound the basketball and get into transition pretty quick, that’s what we’re looking to do.”

Eastern Michigan is deep with 6-7 forward Ty Groce, who is expected to be one of the top sixth men in the league with his ability to play multiple positions, along with sophomore guards Malik Ellison and Kevin McAdoo, who played valuable minutes last season.

So, how talented are Thompson and Minnie?

Thompson is one of 21 members named to the 2019 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award preseason watch list, which recognizes the top centers in men’s college basketball, and Minnie is one of 20 watch list members for the 2019 Julius Erving Award, which recognizes the top small forwards.

Thompson declared for the NBA Draft two years ago, displaying his talent to find out what he needed to work on, and Minnie tested the NBA Draft waters this offseason, also returning after working on his game during the summer.

“I declared and then went through a few workouts, trained in Atlanta and made the decision with my family that it was best for me to come back, get my degree and finish out my senior year,” Minnie said.

Minnie was forced to sit out two years ago after transferring from Robert Morris, but he still practiced with the Eagles and learned their zone defense that Murphy took from his time as an assistant at Syracuse.

“Me and Murph had multiple conversations about me coming in and making an immediate impact on the season,” Minnie said. “He knew my talent. He knew what he had coming in and gave me the utmost praise every day. He put it in my head that I had NBA talent. He really helped me with that. When the season started and I had 20-point games and showed all the talent I had, he was always right there, giving me the praise so when I stepped on the court I wanted to dominate.

“I feel like I shoot the ball well, that’s my strength, but I’ve worked on my game a lot and know I’m doing a better job of penetrating, handling the ball well and my passing has gotten better. My IQ of the game got better, seeing the floor well and knowing my personnel.”

Minnie talked about his move to small forward with Toure on board.

“Boubacar takes a load off, you know rebounding and blocking shots for me and James, which helps us on offense, gives us more breathing air for offense,” Minnie said. “James worked on his game as well all summer long so putting him at four was a smart decision by Murph. He’s shooting the ball well, he’s penetrating well so he has expanded his game, and as for me I expanded my game and I’m naturally a three anyway.”

Thompson is looking forward to playing power forward after earning All-MAC first team honors last season.

“I’ve been waiting for this — finally get to step out and take some shots,” Thompson said. “We’ll have a mismatch because our center is a 7-footer, so they’ll put their big man on him and end up putting a forward on me and since I’m used to playing the post it’s going to be like a mismatch.

“We’re pretty stacked. We have people coming in every day battling. We have Ty Groce coming off the bench and Ty can make the open 3-pointer, can jump out of the gym, get a lot of help side blocks. We have Kevin coming off the bench. We have Tariq (Silver) who sat out last year. He can shoot, drive and has an edge to him. We have the four-star recruit (6-9 freshman wing Andre Rafus Jr.) coming off the bench.

“Everybody is set to play their role and it’s also important that our chemistry is great. We’ve been great since the summer, everybody came together like we’ve been knowing each other forever. Boubacar and I would work out early in the morning, working on different moves. We’ve been building that chemistry, going to movies, hanging out with each other. Everybody’s ready to get out and play because there’s been so much hype.”

No doubt, Minnie, Thompson and the Eagles will get the opportunity to put their talent up against some of the premier teams in the nation, playing Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Nov. 14, traveling to TCU on Nov. 26 and facing Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse on Dec. 29.

“I watched Buffalo (in the NCAA Tournament) and felt like, ‘That should have been us,’” Thompson said. “It motivated me because everybody knows how tough it is in the MAC. I’m glad that Buffalo had its run so now there’s more exposure for the MAC, but it’s our time now and we have the team to do it.

“We have a great schedule — TCU, Rutgers, Kansas and Duke. We have the high major size and skills to compete with all these teams. We’re coming to win, put ourselves on the map. We’re getting the hype, but we have to prove it. We want to show we deserve this hype.”

Eastern Michigan Eagles

Coach: Rob Murphy (eighth season, 129-110, 61-61 MAC)

Last year’s record: 22-13, 11-7

Top returning players: James Thompson, 6-10, Sr., forward (14.5 points, 11.2 rebounds); Elijah Minnie, 6-9, Sr., forward (16.8 points, 6.1 rebounds); Paul Jackson, 6-2, Sr., guard (14.9 points).

This player will surprise everyone with a big season: Ty Groce, an athletic 6-7 sophomore who can play multiple positions and is capable of hitting the perimeter shot, driving to the basket and blocking shots.

EMU can win the MAC championship if ... The Eagles stay free of injuries and 7-footer Boubacar Toure, a grad transfer from Grand Canyon, can be a dominant defender in the middle in Murphy’s 2-3 zone. That will allow Minnie (small forward) and Thompson (power forward) to flourish while playing their natural positions.

Toughest opponent: Take your pick. The Eagles play at No. 4 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Nov. 14 and play at Allen Fieldhouse on Dec. 29 against top-ranked Kansas.

david.goricki@detroitnews.com

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