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First Place…How Did We Get Here? (Part I)

January 23, 2012

When the decision to hire Rob Murphy was announced, I have to admit I was a little surprised but overall pleased.  I just assumed that Todd Lickliter, the ex-coach at Iowa and Butler as well as a short stint as an assistant here at EMU, was a shoo-in.  While Lickliter is a competent coach and may have done a fine job, I felt we needed someone with Murphy’s Detroit connections to succeed.  Add to that his time and experience at Syracuse, the fact that he was bringing the 2-3 zone with him, and the early, promising news that a couple of transfers from major programs were headed here seemed to vindicate my optimism.

But nothing provides more vindication than winning.

We are just about two-thirds of the way into the season, and Murphy’s 2-3 zone, as well as the obvious enthusiasm of his players for it, is not only keeping us afloat but at his moment it is keeping us in first place.  We ran through the first MAC West round-robin with a 4-1 record.  I see no reason why we can’t continue to surprise.

You see, this year’s band of Eagles have completely bought in to what Murphy has taught them, and not only do you see the effort, but you can also see the defensive confidence in these players.

In two posts I am going to give an analysis of the team to date, starting today with the big men.

Jamell Harris continues to be a monster defensive presence inside.  But his most impressive moment of the Toledo game was when late in the 2nd half, with the Eagles desperately needing a bucket, Harris coolly knocked down a turnaround jumper.  His emphatic dunk (off a beautiful dish from Darrell Lampley) provided the exclamation point.  Harris’s overall play could move him into consideration for All-MAC recognition at the end of the season, if the voters can get past an obsession with statistics.  A lot of what Harris does fails to show up in a box score.

Rob Murphy has said that sophomore transfer Da’Shonte Riley is practically a freshman due to his year of sitting out and limited playing time at Syracuse.  The evidence on the court backs up what Murphy says, but Riley can be a factor this year and will no doubt be a menace to the MAC for years to come.  Riley is almost as disruptive defensively as Harris.  A little more experience and these two will strike serious fear into opposing players.  Already I can see our opponents altering their shots in the paint due to the length of Riley and Harris.  What Riley needs to learn is to effectively dish the ball to the open shooter when double-teamed.  Once he gets that down and stops trying to fight through the double-teams, his turnovers will drop.

During last Wednesday night’s game, I noticed Matt Balkema on the end of the bench.  I couldn’t help but think the guy had to be down.  Early in the season he was starting games, getting big time minutes and lots of scoring opportunities.  Against Western, Kamil Janton had surpassed him as the first option off the bench.  Balkema got minimal playing time.

Did he sulk?  No.  Balkema was the first guy to congratulate teammates on a big play during a time out.  He was involved and enthusiastic.  I remember thinking to myself that above all else, Balkema is a character guy.

Saturday proved that Matt Balkema will have more to say on the floor as the year goes on.  His 7 points and 8 rebounds off the bench were huge.  He will be needed to contribute more in the future.  As for now, I can’t help but root for him.  His attitude is a credit to him and Rob Murphy for keeping him engaged.

Finally, Kamil Janton rounds out the big men.  Three years of warming the bench have left Janton hungry, and his effort has been total.  When I think of guys buying in, Janton is one of the players who come to mind.  Having a 6-10 senior come off the bench and contribute can only help us as we try to defensively intimidate our way to a MAC title.

Harris, Riley, Balkema, and Janton are a significant reason why Eastern has been able to have success in the MAC this year.  Considering that Riley is so raw and unpolished, Harris continues to get better with every game, and the attitude and enthusiasm off the bench from Janton and Balkema, not only there is a lot for EMU fans to cheer about now, but the future looks very bright.

Later in the week—guard play.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Bobby Wicks permalink
    January 26, 2012 9:32 pm

    I had to go back and read it twice to make sure I read it right. You actually wrote that Jamell Harris should be considered for All-MAC! WTH? Besides having the worst set of hands that I can ever recall seeing among EMU players through the years, Jamell Harris shoots .392% (unbelievably bad for a big man), a paltry 58% from the line, averages a whopping 5.5 ppg, and has turned it over almost twice as much as he assists–28 to 15. Oh, and in his last game, versus Buffalo, he crashed the boards to the tune of 1 rebound. Are you sure we’re watching the same Jamell Harris?

  2. emujeremy permalink
    January 26, 2012 9:51 pm

    I understand that particular comment was a bit of a stretch. I should have specified that by All-MAC, I meant second team or honorable mention. I did state, however, that Harris’s contribution is not measurable by statistics. When on, he can be a game changer. I will stand by that. When he is off, yes, he can be atrocious. My hope is that improvement continues and his game continues to evolve. My larger point is that Harris has a skill set in blocking and altering shots that sets him well above most MAC big men. A lilttle offensive improvement and aggressiveness on the glass could very well propel him to All-MAC status. Whether you believe that is likely or not is another story. I certainly have my doubts as well, but as Eastern fans we need to cling to optimism while we can.

    How can Harris have the worst hands you recall seeing among EMU players when Matt Balkema is on the same team? My goodness, Balkema’s hands are made of stone. Both need work, but I see Harris gaining confidence. Let’s see how the season plays out, if I’m wrong, I will be the first to admit it. But I still have hope…

  3. Bobby Wicks permalink
    January 27, 2012 7:57 am

    Jeremy, you mean well. You want to see EMU do well and so do I, but you have to be objective and realistic. First off you CANNOT be honorable mention All-MAC if you play periodically “atrocious” basketball mixed in with moments of mediocrity. I have completely given up on Harris being a good player. The guy cannot catch the ball. Don’t believe me? Watch Saturday’s game and see how many passes and rebounds slip through his hands. I can forgive all that if he just hustles and does his best. Sleepwalking vs Buffalo where he grabbed 1 more rebound than you and I has convinced me that he just doesn’t have the drive to be great. By contrast, Kamil Janton, who has very little natural talent, gets out there and busts his butt.

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