The Eastern Michigan men’s basketball program is just over two months away from the beginning of the 2020 campaign. The Eagles will hope to bounce back from last season with nine new additions to the program.
With the season quickly approaching, questions regarding the current state of the program need to be answered including why the team struggled in 2019, who will make the roster in 2020, what head coach Rob Murphy is expecting from his team and more.
Eastern Michigan came into 2019 with high expectations. In fact, Eastern was selected by the media to finish second in the Mid-American Conference and was projected to win the MAC West division title. The main reason behind that was because the Eagles were bringing back three high-level seniors: Paul Jackson, Elijah Minnie and James Thompson IV. The year prior, EMU went 22-13 including victories over Arkansas State, South Florida and Oakland.
The Eagles finished third in the MAC with an 11-7 record and ended the regular season on a six-game winning streak. In the 2018 MAC Tournament, the Eagles defeated Akron in the quarterfinals before losing to Toledo 64-63 in the semifinals. Despite the tough loss, EMU rebounded for a victory over Niagara in the first round of the CIT. 2018 was the best season for the Eagles since 1997, so almost everyone expected them to build on that success and be even better the following year.
“Last year, we had high expectations,” Murphy said. “Whenever you have multiple guys who are coming back for their senior year, you think you might have something, but it doesn’t always work out that way. You look at the year before, when those guys were juniors and we overachieved, winning 20+ games and losing a heartbreaker to Toledo in the semifinals. Then you say the next year we should be better, but when you have a lot of inconsistencies, it’s hard to be successful.”
The Eagles struggled to a 15-17 record in 2019, as they went 9-9 in the conference. The season did have some positive moments, including wins over Drexel, Boston University and a historic comeback against Toledo. And the Eagles started to play better down the stretch, winning six of their final 10 games. However, the season came to a screeching halt in the first round of the MAC Tournament when the Eagles fell to Ball State 61-43, ending the year with a loss on their home floor.
“We just never got our feet under us to see what we could do,” Murphy said.
Five months later, a lot has changed within the program, like seniors Isaiah Green, Jackson, Minnie and Thompson graduating. Meanwhile, five other players decided to transfer: Malik Ellison, Bud Jones, Kevin McAdoo, Tariq Silver and Daivon Stephens. The Eagles filled all nine openings with incoming freshmen and junior college transfers of their own. The freshman recruiting class includes Marcus Gibbs, Christian James, Shamar Dillard and more.
“With them bringing in new guys, I think they have an awesome opportunity,” former Eastern Michigan forward John Bowler said. “If they have something that they thought didn’t work last year, then now is the time to do it. I’m not saying I have all the answers because I don’t, but I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for them. I think they have some talented guys coming in, but they’re unproven. When you lose James, Elijah and Paul, you’ll need to find out who is going to be the biggest leaders.”
Aside from the incoming freshmen, there are also multiple junior college transfers who will look to carve out playing time in the upcoming season. Chris Barnes, Noah Morgan, Micah Thomas, Thomas Binelli and Miles Gibson are transferring in to play for the Eagles. Murphy mentioned Morgan as one of the players who has impressed him the most during the summer workouts. Murphy also discussed Boubacar Toure’s improvement.
“Morgan is a really good shooter,” Murphy said. “He has a high basketball IQ and can put the ball on the floor and makes plays for himself and others. Boubacar has really shown that he can be a consistent scorer. He can shoot from the free-throw line in and he has a left and right hand hook that is promising. With Boubacar being the only low post threat, he’ll get a lot more looks. His scoring and rebounding output could double. He’s extremely confident.”
Toure is the only full-time starter returning for the Eagles, but just a few months ago, it didn’t look that way. McAdoo started 19 games during his sophomore season and would have been one of the go-to scorers in 2020 before he decided to transfer to Bradley University. Ellison, Jones and Silver were also projected to get more playing time next season, but they have left the program as well. It certainly raises some eyebrows when five players transfer in one offseason.
“I think kids transfer for different reasons, depending on the circumstances,” Chris Lofton, former Tennessee guard, said. “I was thinking about transferring. If a kid isn’t working hard and isn’t playing because of it, I don’t like the fact he could transfer and play. He needs to work harder and give it some time before deciding to transfer. Then I would have to see if I think they should be eligible right away when they transfer.”
McAdoo averaged 8.6 points and 1.5 assists per game last year, while shooting 32.5% from 3-point range, which was the second best on the team. Silver started to show promise towards the end of the season, as he averaged 3.3 points per game. Silver knocked down 39.4% of his 3-pointers. Ellison was the back-up point guard, appearing in 23 games. Silver and Ellison are transferring to Tallahassee Community College and Saginaw Valley State University, respectively.
“I can’t really speak a ton on the transfers or why guys are leaving; I’m not there at practice everyday,” Bowler said. “I don’t want to be misleading or anything like that. If guys are transferring, it could be for a multitude of reasons. They might not be good enough, they might want to go home, they could think they’re better than what they are. I can’t speak personally on that unless I was there on a day-to-day basis.”
Murphy shared his thoughts on transferring as a general topic: “If you feel you aren’t getting enough shots, then you might feel like you can get it at another program. We as coaches make decisions to try and win basketball games, and sometimes that means not everyone can be happy. But that’s the nature of the business, and it’s always going to be like that. Either way, we all deal with it. It’s a huge part of athletics. For us, we have to continue to do a great job of evaluating players.”
The team begins with the head coach, and Murphy is heading into his ninth year in Ypsilanti. The Eagles were at or near the bottom of the MAC for more than a decade before Murphy was hired prior to the 2012 campaign. Although Eastern Michigan has yet to win the conference since his arrival, they have had three 20-win seasons, as well as winning the MAC West title in 2012 and reaching the MAC Tournament semifinals twice. The Eagles are 134-116 under Murphy.
“No one expected us to go from nine wins to winning the MAC West,” former Eagles forward Jamell Harris said. “No one except coach Murphy, and because of his confidence, I believe some of that trickled down to us. I can definitely say coach Rob Murphy has made great strides to turn the program around and will continue to. He is a good coach and recruiter. As far as last season, sometimes things don’t go your way, and I believe that was what happened.”
Harris also touched on players leaving the program: “As far as the team next season and dealing with the transfers, that’s normal, I believe, especially more so now-a-days. Players sometimes want more playing time and want to be more of a focal point, or it simply isn’t working for them, so when that happens, sometimes a change is required or wanted. Players are making decisions that benefit their needs now more so than the team they are with.”
The team hopes to bounce back from last season and compete in every game. To do so, the Eagles will have to lean on returners like Toure, Jalen King and Ty Groce. Toure averaged 8.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 65.1% from the field. Groce put up 5.0 points and 3.1 rebounds per game in 32 outings. Derek Ballad Jr. and Damari Parris are also returning players who are expected to make an impact.
“I think Boubacar can be the best big man in the league and certainly the best defender,” Murphy said. “We really centered our recruiting class around him. Jalen King has gotten a lot better. He’s bigger and stronger, and he’s always been quick. He’ll get a lot more playing time. We’re looking for Ty to have a breakout year. He’s got a lot of athleticism and he’s been in the program for a few years. I think he’ll have a good year.”
The Eagles will begin their season on Nov. 5, 2019 with hopes to win their first division title since 2012 and first conference championship since 1998 when Earl Boykins led the team to the NCAA Tournament.
Boykins explained his view on the upcoming season: “It’s going to be interesting. It’s going to be challenging. There will be more opportunities for the younger guys to step up, and I think all you need is one or two guys to believe you can turn the program around.”
Bowler, who played for Eastern Michigan from 2003-2006, also discussed his view on the state of the program.
“The program is in a much healthier place now,” Bowler said. “We need to take that next step, and I don’t know how that’s going to happen, but I think we can continue to be at that level and compete. We’ve just been climbing and we can almost see the peak of that mountain. We just need to do whatever it takes to get over that hill. We’re on the right path.”
After a disappointing season a year ago, the Eagles have one thing on their mind: competing for a conference title.
When asked to describe his mindset heading into 2020 in one word, head coach Murphy simply said: “Determination. I think we’ll be in a position to compete for a MAC championship.”