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Ypsilanti — Ty Groce has been a role player in his first two years at Eastern Michigan with the trio of 6-foot-10 James Thompson, 6-9 Elijah Minnie and point guard Paul Jackson counted on to do the bulk of the damage for the Eagles.

Thompson, Minnie and Jackson are now gone, leaving Groce with the opportunity to step up and showcase his talent.

Groce, an Ypsilanti native, plans to take advantage of his opportunity with the Eagles, who suffered through a mediocre season (15-17, 9-9) last year after being expected to win the West Division and challenge Buffalo for the MAC championship.

“I have high expectations even though we almost have a new team,” said Groce, who played his high school ball at Ypsilanti Lincoln. “I think a lot of people will sleep on us, but I expect us to show up and play well.

“I think my impact will be mostly on defense. They expect me to be the best defensive player in the MAC, so it will start there. But it will transition to offense too, where I’ll play a larger role and expect to score more and rebound more, look to facilitate more and just be more aggressive in general.”

Still, defense is Groce’s calling card.

“I pride myself on defense, I think that’s where my game starts, I think that’s what gets my offensive going, really it’s my intensity on defense and activeness everywhere.”

Groce, who can play multiple positions, has bulked up since last season, putting on 15 pounds on his 6-7 frame.

“I think I’ll be most impactful at the four (power forward),” Groce said. “They consider me a stretch forward where a lot of games you’ll see me against a big man, and I think I can make an impact going up against a big man, or when a smaller person or somebody my size guards me I can either stretch them out from the perimeter or even take them inside.”

The Eagles also return 7-0, 240-pound senior center Boubacar Toure (8.6 points, 7.8 rebounds) and have talented junior college transfers in 6-9 Thomas Binelli, 6-5 Yeikson Montero and 6-3 Darion Spottsville.

“I think we will run our offense around Boubacar Toure, our center,” said Groce, who averaged 5 points and 3.2 rebounds. “We’ll just play off him and look to attack off of him, and that will create more openings inside the paint with just having one big man in there, where we had two last year (with Thompson).

“With having two bigs inside last year, the lane was just clogged up, and having just one guy in there will open up the paint more, it will just create driving lanes, kicking lanes, giving us more options.”

Newcomers Spottsville and Montero are expected to make up the Eagles’ backcourt.

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“Darion is a pass-first point guard, but he looks to attack too, and Yeikson is an all-around scorer who can shoot the 3 and attack,” Groce said.

“This team is much more unselfish than last year. We all look to play off each other and make each other better. We look to facilitate much better than last year. Noah Morgan’s game is similar to mine and Thomas Binelli is our best shooter.”

Eastern Michigan was picked to finish last in the MAC West in the preseason coaches’ poll.

“We were picked to finish dead last and that’s fine, but I’ve been coaching 24 years and I’ve never finished last ever, anywhere – JV coach, high school coach, Kent State, Syracuse, Eastern, and we’re not going to finish last, that’s impossible,” said Rob Murphy, who is now in his ninth year as head coach of the Eagles.

Murphy knows the Eagles don’t have much experience, but likes the improvement of holdovers in Toure, Groce and 6-10 junior forward Jalen King.

“Experience is always the best teacher and we don’t have a lot of it,” Murphy said. “My staff and I have been pleased with Boubacar, Ty and Jalen. Boubacar, obviously being the anchor of our zone, being 7-feet and going through the MAC one time around, now he understands what it really takes to compete at a high level night in and night out. Ty is really improved, as well; he will be a better off the bounce and he’s an improved shooter.

Murphy thinks the Eagles will be a better shooting team with the addition of Montero and Binelli.

“We’re extremely talented and we have better shooters, but implementing a system and having them understand the culture and philosophies that we’re teaching and preaching every day has been a challenge, just because they are new,” Murphy said. “It will take time, but these guys have bought in for the last six to eight weeks that we’ve been together, so I’m excited with what they bring to the table.”

Eastern Michigan

► Coach: Rob Murphy (ninth season, 144-127, 70-70 MAC)

► Last season: 15-17 (9-9 MAC)

► Top returning players: Boubacar Toure, 7-0, Sr., center (8.6 points, 7.8 rebounds); Ty Groce, 6-7, Jr., forward (5 points, 3.2 rebounds)

► Who can’t have a bad season? Toure, who needs to average a double-double and stay on the court so he can be a force in the middle of the Eagles’ zone.

► Others to watch: Groce who is now an upperclassmen and go-to player with the departure of James Thompson and Elijah Minnie from last season’s team. Yeikson Montero will be one of the Eagles’ top scorers, possibly their top scorer, with his ability to put the ball in the basket in multiple ways.

► EMU can win the MAC if: Toure becomes a 15-point, 13-rebound player, Groce averages 12 points and becomes MAC defensive player of the year and 6-9 Thomas Binelli becomes sixth man of the year.

david.goricki@detroitnews.com

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