If there’s a West Division team capable of breaking the East’s dominion over the Mid-American Conference, it’s Eastern Michigan.
They played an ambitious schedule to prepare for the rigors of the MAC, use a distinctive style defensively that’s difficult to prepare for and are coached by Jim Boeheim disciple Rob Murphy.
So upgrade the Eagles from sleeper to MAC contender much like the University at Buffalo, which hopes its stellar defensive play against Northern Illinois on Wednesday lingers for a bit longer.
“We’re approaching this game like we’re playing a team that’s going to have a lot to say with how things shake out in the league,” said UB coach Bobby Hurley, whose team (7-4, 1-0 Mid-American) hosts the Eagles (9-5, 1-0) at 2 p.m. Saturday at Alumni Arena. “They’ve got talent, probably as talented a team as we’ve played.”
Elsewhere in the Big 4, Canisius (9-6, 3-1 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) plays Rider (7-6, 3-1) at 7 tonight at the Koessler Center. Also tonight at 7 at the Gallagher Center, Niagara (4-11, 1-3) hosts Monmouth (7-8, 1-3). St. Bonaventure (11-4, 1-0 Atlantic 10) tries to extend its win streak to five games on the road against No. 19 Massachusetts (13-1, 1-0) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
In Big 4 women’s basketball, Canisius (5-9, 1-4) travels to league newcomer Monmouth (2-13) at noon today in the first meeting between the two schools, while Niagara (3-10, 1-3) is also on the road at Siena (6-7, 1-3) at 5 p.m. this evening. St. Bonaventure (12-5, 1-1), winners of four of five, plays at Dayton (8-4, 1-0) at 5 p.m. Saturday.
The UB women (7-6, 0-2) suffered back-to-back losses to Bowling Green and Western Michigan to open MAC play but hope to break the string when they host Central Michigan (5-8, 0-1) at 2 p.m. Sunday.
Meanwhile, Eastern Michigan’s five losses have been to four ranked opponents – Kentucky, UMass, Duke and Syracuse – and a five-point loss at Purdue. They hang their hat on defense, which has enabled them to stay competitive against better teams for long stretches. The Eagles will play a diamond defense, apply pressure with a 2-2-1 press, but their base defense is the 2-3 zone.
The Eagles create 16.1 turnovers a game while holding opponents to 37.3 percent shooting.
“They have real good athletes with length and athleticism and they do a good job at creating turnovers,” Hurley said. “It’s a unique defense and you don’t really see it that often.”
In the past, Murphy preferred a slower pace and would milk the shot clock into the final seconds but in guards Raven Lee (11.2 ppg) and Mike Talley (9.2) and leading scorer Karrington Ward (14.1), the Eagles are capable of pushing the ball quickly.
“We want to be selective when we decide to push the ball and try and tempo the game,” said Hurley, who played against Talley’s father, Mike, a former point guard at Michigan during the Fab Five era. “We’re going to try and continue what we’ve been doing defensively and try and get stops and try and get a shot every time on each possession.”
After a slow start, the Bulls have emerged defensively with Wednesday night’s 67-46 victory over Northern Illinois the latest example. They sprinted to a 16-0 lead and held the Huskies to 2 of 13 shooting from long distance and 15 of 55 overall (27.3 percent). Javon McCrea blocked eight of the team’s 10 shots and they also had 10 steals.
Hurley said the Bulls have remained true to their defensive concepts. They’re not getting spread out as much, not gambling for steals in the passing lanes and are more focused on preventing dribble penetration and rebounding.
“We’ve had the personnel to do that,” Hurley said. “Jarod Oldham is an elite defender on the perimeter and Shannon Evans is learning to be that guy, too, and he can pressure the ball. Will Regan is very smart and a good position defender and Javon gives us a presence to correct some mistakes when they happen.”