The Running Royals men’s basketball team has started the year hot. After coming off an average season last year, the Royals have begun this season by putting up impressive wins on their way to a 6-1 record. Much of this success is due to improvement in areas that were identified as weak points last year. One of the areas players targeted for improvement was defense.
Sophomore forward David Falk said, “The skill it is going take this year to win is going be defense. If we work hard and get really good at playing defense, we will be a tough team to beat.” Falk’s prediction has been proven correct so far. Over seven games, the Royals have held their opponents 44.3 percent shooting from the field and are averaging over 10 steals per game.
In addition, during their last three games, (two against conference rivals) the Royals’ opponents have averaged less than 70 points per game.
A sign of the Royals’ improved defense came during Monday’s game at Bridgewater with two late defensive plays; one in which EMU drew a charge, the other a game-icing steal by Senior forward Owen Longacre.
This follows Junior guard Adam Burroughs’ prediction that, “our speed will be deadly and our defense will be suffocating.”
Even though the Royals have improved on the court, some of their success may also be attributed to off-the-court bonding. The team often eats meals together and, over several basketball seasons, has had a chance to bond.
According to Burroughs, “Of course we are all great together off the court and on the court. We love playing with each other.” This intangible bond has shown on the court as the Royals have averaged 15.4 assists per game, even as Burroughs, one of last year’s starting guards, has yet to play this year.
Other players have stepped up to fill the gap left by Burroughs. Ryan Yates, a situational player from last season has stepped into the starting lineup and is currently averaging 7.1 points per game to go with 4.5 rebounds and almost 1 block per game.
The Royals have also added depth, with transfer Dorian Valentine contributing significant minutes while averaging 5 points and 2 rebounds per game.
This idea is echoed by Junior point guard Dejon Daniels who said that filling in for Burroughs has been “a team effort. It starts with hard work in practice, and is all about execution in game situations.”
The Royals have only two seniors on the team, and both start. Andrew Thorne, a forward, is leading the team in scoring, and Senior center Owen Longacre has provided important play as the big man. The seniors provide important leadership, but the team’s strength is its returning core of juniors.
Starting guard Dejon Daniels attributes early success to how the team has “Been together for three years. It’s basically the same core guys with some freshmen thrown in.” This familiarity has led to new confidence for many of the players.
Although he wasn’t willing to predict an exact record, Daniels is willing to guess that the Royals’ season will be “better than last year for sure” and said that he was looking to finish in the top three in the ODAC. Daniels’ confidence seems to be contagious, and for a resurgent EMU squad, the sky is the limit.
Last year, the EMU women’s basketball team set expectations high, going on an extended winning streak and finishing the season with a 22-4 record. This year the start has been rockier, with the women falling in three of their first six games. However, a last-second win on Tuesday against Mary Washington, ranked 19th in the country, has shown that the Royals are no pushovers and are still capable of playing basketball at a high level.
Starting point guard Keyla Baltimore said, “This season we want to be better than last year, so we’ve been playing tough teams, tournament teams, so far this year.” The fact that they can play with anyone comes as no surprise to the other members of the Royals’ starting five.
The team is based around a core group of four Juniors including Baltimore, guard Steph Rheinheimer, and forwards Bianca Ygarza and Kala Yoders. These four players and Sophomore Alisa Brown make up a dangerous starting five that combines for 42.5 points per game along with the majority of EMU’s rebounds and steals. In addition to their on-the-court chemistry, this group has created bonds that reach outside of basketball.
According to Yoders, “We’re all friends. We don’t all hang out together all the time, but we are usually in groups of twos or threes… It makes it more fun to play together when you’re playing with your friends.”
Baltimore, who transferred to EMU for her sophomore year, added more about the relationships between the Royals’ starters.
“It’s amazing. I came from a school where the team was totally the opposite; the relationships weren’t there, the team wasn’t there. Coming here and being able to fit in and help this team succeed has helped me as a person and as a player.”
Having a strong starting five does not mean that the Royals have given up anything when it comes to depth. A glance at the stat sheet shows that the Royals play a ten person rotation that includes dynamic players like First-Year Jess Rheinheimer, who is averaging 9 points per game and shooting nearly 47 percent from the field. This deep lineup allows the Royals to play fast hard defense which has been instrumental in their wins so far.
In their most recent game, the Royals forced Mary Washington to give the ball away 27 times, which is well above their season average. The Royals also managed to grab 15 steals, which led to 22 points from turnovers. This fast paced style of basketball seems to fit EMU’s women and is one of the keys to their success.
Although the team does many things well, it also has some weaknesses. Their lackluster start has partially been due to the quality of their opponents, but the Royals have at times come out flat.
In the words of Baltimore, “We need to put 40 minutes of basketball together. We’re a very talented team but we have moments in the game where we look dead.” In games against Virginia Wesleyan and Ferrum, the women have allowed themselves to fall into large holes which they could not dig themselves out of.
In addition, the women have felt their lack of size (Yoders is 5 foot 10 inches and Ygarza is 5 foot 8 inches, but most of the team is listed at 5 foot 6 inches) as they have been out-boarded by over four rebounds per game.
EMU’s problem with rebounding was noted by Yoders, who said, “Rebounding, coach is always talking about rebounding.” Yoders also said that EMU needed to improve its help defense and in-game execution.
However, with a tough non-conference schedule behind them, the Royals can now focus on meeting the expectations that they have set for themselves, and with a win over the nineteenth ranked team in the country, the women have the confidence to do it.
Yoders said, “We just need to get back on the winning track. It’s hard to get confidence while you’re losing, but I think we might be getting back to the way we want to play.”
-David Yoder, Opinion Editor