Unlike their football counterparts, the Eastern Michigan Eagles basketball team is far from a pushover. They're 8-1 so far this season, and their best win is one you may have heard of. A little more than a week ago the Eagles made the short trip to Ann Arbor to face Michigan. EMU primarily plays a 2-3 zone defense, and one of the classic weaknesses of the 2-3 zone is outside shooting. One would think Michigan would be ideally suited to exploit this weakness and blow out the Eagles.
The Wolverines made only 4 of 21 threes, and could only manage two offensive rebounds for the game as Eastern made 33% of their twos, 31% of their threes, and won 45-42 in a game where using "ugly" as a descriptor would be generous. Eastern hasn't played since then, and the MSU game will be EMU's first game in eight days.
So why the 2-3 zone? Eastern Michigan head coach Rob Murphy was an assistant coach to Jim Boeheim at (where else) Syracuse for seven years, so I think it's reasonable to assume Murphy picked up the 2-3 zone there. Murphy is in his fourth year as Eastern Michigan's coach, and the Eagles have improved every year he has been there: from 14-18 in his first season to 22-15 last season; based on their 8-1 start this season it can be reasonably assumed that this season will be EMU's best yet.
So what makes Eastern Michigan's version of the 2-3 zone so successful? Take it away Travis Trice:
"Usually, with some of these zones, (teams) try and use their length," senior guard Travis Trice said. "But this team seems like they use their quickness against you. And it makes it hard to attack when you're trying to attack a guard instead of big on the wing. It's definitely a different look, and I think they do a great job of it. Mostly when teams go into a zone, they don't have the same intensity. But this team brings the intensity of a man (defense) or even a press to the zone."
Heck also has a great breakdown at his blog, The Cover Four, about how Eastern Michigan's zone was so effective against Michigan. It has GIFs and everything, so give it a view.
While the zone may confuse MSU tonight, at least the Spartans will have another weapon to throw out against it. After being injured for sixish weeks with a broken bone in his right foot, freshman shooting guard Javon Bess will most likely make his debut in the green and white. Izzo said on Monday that Bess is going to play sparingly, but it's great to have another body to throw out there when a couple weeks ago the Spartans point guard depth was Bryn Forbes with a bum left hand, Keenan Wetzel, and one of those huge Jenga towers you see at the bar.
As for the Eagles' offense, it's not terrible, but not great either. They're about average at shooting the ball (three point and two point percentages are 33.8% and 48.4% respectively, which puts them right around the median of D1 basketball for both percentages) and rebounding their missed shots (they recover 32.9% of their misses, 131st in D1). They do well at holding onto the ball (turnovers on 17.3% of their possessions, 49th in D1) and getting to the foul line (four of the Eagles' five starters draw on average 4.5 fouls per 40 minutes).
So how does MSU win? For one, keep up the red hot three-point shooting. MSU's #1 in the land in three-point percentage at 45.6%, and while I think that'll eventually settle around the 40-42% mark (I doubt Forbes, Denzel Valentine and Marvin Clark make 50%+ of their threes all season), a 35-40% shooting percentage from beyond the arc should be good enough to win.
As for the defensive end, the Spartans must check EMU's guards inside the perimeter, Ray Lee in particular. The Spartans have had trouble with guards who can drive this season, and Lee has made 58% of his twos. Mike Talley takes on average about three two-pointers a game, but he draws a foul almost every six minutes he's on the court. So let's not foul tonight, or ever for that matter.
After this game, MSU faces Texas Southern and The Citadel before starting Big Ten play, and neither of those teams should challenge the Spartans in the way EMU will (yes, I remember The Citadel game from years ago where they got hot from three and almost beat the Spartans; I doubt that happens again). Tickets are currently starting at around $8 a pair on StubHub, so if you're home from college and in the area, why not make it a late night and take in the Spartans?