With the new season on the horizon, Sports Editor Luke Gremban and sports columnist Caleb Burlingame spoke with Rob Murphy, EMU’s Men’s Basketball coach. Murphy discussed his journey to Eastern Michigan, players to watch, and expectations for the year. Listen to the full interview above, or read some of the highlights below.
Murphy’s journey to Eastern Michigan
Coach Murphy started as a high school coach at Central High School and Crockett High School in Detroit.
“Throughout that process, I was able to build a countless number of relationships at the college level, starting with Coach Izzo, Tommy Amaker while he was at Michigan, Brian Elembe, and Perry Watson at U of D,“ Murphy said. "From there it just stretched out. It was very helpful for me to have helped start one of the top AAU programs in the state and in the country in that time in the Michigan Hurricanes.”
The Eastern Michigan Men’s Basketball team will match up against Izzo’s Spartans on Nov. 25 at the Breslin Center at 6 p.m.
Murphy then got his "big break" at Kent State University, where he worked with Jim Christian. Christian now serves as the head coach at Boston College. Later, Troy Weaver, the assistant coach at Syracuse and the current General Manager of the Detroit Pistons, recommended him to Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim. Murphy stayed at Syracuse for seven years, during which he was able to watch renowned coaches Mike Krzyzewski, Mike D’Antoni, and Nate McMillan.
Finally, Murphy was brought to EMU by Dr. Derrick Gragg, EMU’s athletic director at the time, as well as other member’s of EMU administrative team.
“Everyone asked me how did you get here, or how did you get there?” Murphy said. "I just stuck my feet in the sand wherever I was and worked as hard as I could and built as many relationships as I could. My high school relationships always led me to the next opportunity.”
How do you find the players you want?
“We recruit to our system, which the principles of our program are built on,“ Murphy said. "Defense, rebounding and the 2-3 zone, which we have been able to use to stifle people over the last nine years, especially during my seven years at Syracuse.”
He notes that one difficulty in recruiting to EMU is that many players who grow up in Michigan dream of going to U-M or Michigan State, making EMU fourth of fifth option on their list of schools. Murphy is grateful for his recruiting staff, which manages to find solid talent despite challenges.
“I can’t say enough about my staff,“ Murphy said. “They do an unbelievable job of identifying talent, identifying what we need, and they do an unbelievable job of selling Eastern and selling myself as a head coach and the program as a whole.”
What is the tone in the locker room with COVID-19?
According to Murphy, no one on the team has tested positive for COVID-19 in these first two months of regular testing. He lauds the players and staff for living responsibly, and masking up for each practice. Murphy is happy with where the team is, even with the shorter practice time.
"Without the summer,“ he said, "the first two weeks were really hard to implement our philosophy and making sure the returning guys understand how to get better in what we’re doing and the new guys learning what we’re doing and coming together and being of one accord."
Who are some players that you are looking to step up for the team?
"Two guards and two bigs, Drew Louder and Bryce McBride being our guards,“ Murphy said. "They can shoot really well from the outside, they’re very quick and crafty off of the dribble, they understand playmaking in how to get themselves involved and how to get others involved.”
The two bigs include James Love III, who played at Kansas State, and seven- footer Axel Okongo, a transfer from Missouri University.
“With the additions of those guys we have coming back, I think as the season develops we will continue to improve,“ Murphy said.
What would you say to a fan who may feel dissatisfied with win totals in years past?
“We brought in ten new players last year, which is really tough when you flip a roster of ten,“ Murphy said. "The expectations have always been to win the MAC title, and if you don’t it’s like you’re a failure, but not many teams can flip ten guys and go win the Jamaican Classic. Looking back at our MAC play, we lost six or seven games by four or five points. Whether it came down to not getting a key stop or making a one-and-one to close a game, or not getting a turnover.”
Murphy is confident in his accomplishments at EMU, saying that he would put up his body of work against a head coach at any level.
“When you look at the big picture in its totality from what the program was to where it is now, it’s just as good as any other program in the MAC conference,” he said. "If you don’t get to the NCAA tournament, you’re judged, but the reality of the situation is that we are in a one bid league, so it’s twelve teams in our league, but only one team is going to the NCAA tournament. That’s the bottom line.”
While the team is constantly striving for wins on the court, Murphy believes there is a far greater goal that he hopes to encourage and aid each player in attaining.
“Our goal is to win the MAC championship, our goal is to have a successful season, but there is nothing more important to me, and I promise each student athlete, and their families that there is nothing more important than graduation,“ he said. "We have the highest percentage rate in the conference and one of the top twenty in the country and we are going to win games while graduating our student-athletes.”
How bad are the Q-tips from the Covid tests?
“It is something I will never get used to, “ said Murphy. "It makes me cry every time. . . It all depends on who you get to be honest. We have some great nurses downstairs that are testing us, but every time, I wait for five or six people to go in front of me. I’ll pick the one that seems like they’re being the easiest on the people who are going up to get tested.”
According to Murphy, beginning the week of Nov. 15, testing for the players in staff will increase from two tests each week to three. They’ll also be tested the night before and the day of their game against Michigan State. But to Murphy, the tests are a small price to pay for a season.
“I’m forever thankful that we’re having a season, so whatever is necessary, even if it’s five tests a week, I’m willing to do it, my staff is willing to do it, the players really want to play, so whatever it takes to get it done we’re all for it,” he said.
Are you moving towards running without a traditional center?
Murphy stated that the team would not be moving towards a small-ball direction, despite having no center listed on the official roster.
“Axel is similar to Boubacar,“ Murphy said. “He just doesn’t have the scoring ability, great defender. James Love III is also six foot eleven and he’s a center. We have Luis Pacheo who is six foot eight. We have three centers who are traditional, what you might see is we may move Ty Groce into that spot because of his athleticism and his ability to alter and block shots.”
Does this season not really count?
Despite the pandemic, Murphy doesn’t see this as a throwaway season.
“At the end of the day, everybody is playing under the same circumstances,” he said. "It’s like injuries, if we didn’t have a few guys injured last year at the beginning of our MAC season, I think we would have gotten to a better start and had a better finish, but that is part of the game.”
Web Article: Luke Gremban
Podcast Hosts: Caleb Burlingame, Luke Gremban
Producer: Ronia Cabansag, Danny Murphy
Editor: Ronia Cabansag