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