Picked to finish third in the MAC West, new look Eagles prepare to start regular season

Last season, the Eastern Michigan men’s basketball team finished with a 22-15 record and a second round exit in the CollegeInsider.com tournament against Columbia University – this year the Eagles will look almost completely different, losing eight players from the 2013-14 squad.

Returning for 2014-15 are four players who saw consistent playing time – Karrington Ward, Ray Lee, Mike Talley and Olalekan Ajayi.

Ali Farhat, a fan favorite who saw limited time off the bench will also be back.

Coach Rob Murphy spoke two weeks ago in the Mid-American Conference’s preseason teleconference about his team – picked to finish third in the West Division in the conference’s preseason poll.

“[It’s] always tough when you lose that many guys,” he said.

He said despite Ward and Talley – starting at power forward and point guard, respectively – the other three starting spots are up for grabs.

“We have our freshmen pushing those guys [Ward, Lee and Talley] to the max,” Murphy said.

Ward was named to the 2015 All-MAC West preseason first team. The 6-foot-7 senior forward finished his first season as an Eagle with 12.5 points per game and 6.4 rebounds per contest – both near the middle of the MAC.

Murphy said it would be difficult to replace four key defensive players from a year ago – Da’Shonte Riley, Glenn Bryant, Daylen Harrison and Anthony Strickland.

“We’ve got a nice combination of players – different ages, different classes,” he said. “We’ve brought in three grad transfers. Anali [Okoloji] being the first one from George Mason – who I think [will] put in a lot of minutes from our four spot. He’s a very versatile player. Mike Samuels is a grad transfer from Indiana State who is a 6’11” center. [He’s] a strong, brute guy who brings a lot of activity in the paint defensively and rebounding and then Jerome Hunter who’s another grad guy who came from Alabama State who’s 6’9” and kind of versatile as well.”

Murphy mentioned a junior college transfer – 6-foot-8 junior forward Brandon Nazione from Howell, Mich.

“He plays very, very hard,” Murphy said.

The Eagles also have three freshmen on the roster. 6-foot-6 guard Tim Bond, 6-foot-1 guard Ethan Alvano and 6-foot-9 forward Jordan Nobles will all compete for starting spots this season.

Bond won the dunk contest at Rock the Rec two weeks ago, while Alvano won the three-point contest.

Playing consistently

Murphy said Lee – who scored a career-high 38 points against the University of Texas-Arlington last year – has yet to be consistent. The 6-foot-3 redshirt sophomore guard finished 26th in the MAC with 10.6 ppg.

“I think he has the unbelieveable ability to score the ball, but [has] a lot of inconsistency,” Murphy said.

He cited Lee’s season-ending foot injury two seasons ago as being a contributing factor – with last season essentially being the junior’s first on the court.

In the zone

Murphy reiterated that his team’s focus remains on its defense.

“To finish as the number one field goal defense in the country last year – a lot of that was due to the way we were able to protect the paint,” he said.

Murphy said the team’s centers – Ajayi and Samuels – would be the anchor for the 2-3 zone he runs.

“I believe for our defense that’s the most important position,” Murphy said. “You have to anchor the ball, protect the paint, contest blocked shots, rebound the basketball and be kind of the intimidator.”

He also mentioned the forwards – Ward, and co. – as being important too.

“I think [with] our forwards – with their size and athleticism – we won’t lose much,” he said. “We’ll lose some shot blocking, because we don’t have a Glenn Bryant who’s super athletic to make up for mistakes. These guys understand angles and [are] really learning our system. It takes a little time to really learn the zone and how we teach it and how we play it.”

The Price is right

Murphy said 6-foot-7 sophomore guard/forward Jodan Price – who redshirted last season at DePaul University in Chicago – is arguably the team’s best three-point shooter.

“He’ll be one of the best three-point shooters in the MAC,” Murphy said. “If he can play and have consistency at the top of the zone – and he can also play the back of the zone – but with his offensive capabilities and his length in our zone, he can also add some fire on both ends of the floor.”

Looking Ahead

The regular season begins Friday afternoon against the University of St. Francis. Tip-off is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. as the second game of a doubleheader at the Convocation Center.

Friday is also Education Day – children from area schools are expected to be in attendance.

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Follow Al Willman on Twitter: @AlWillmanEcho

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