EMU Plays And Dresses Quite Well
Posted: February 27, 2013
HARRISONBURG — This offseason, the Eastern Mennonite University women’s basketball team switched to Jordan-brand uniforms, becoming what coach Kevin Griffin believes is the only Old Dominion Athletic Conference school to wear His Airness.
The uniforms, selected by team vote, are light and stylish — and, of course, they have name recognition. A home-and-away set cost about $250, and Griffin said one opposing coach told him she fancied a set for her squad.
But the Jordans, while fashionably utilitarian, serve another purpose.
“Look good, feel good, play good,” Griffin said with a smile.
This season, the Royals went three-for-three, and their reward was a berth in the NCAA Division III tournament for the first time since 2004, thanks to a 21-6 record. EMU, which won the ODAC regular-season title, lost in the conference tournament title game — their first loss in 15 games – last weekend but still received an at-large bid to the national playoffs.
Eastern Mennonite will play Marymount (23-4) in the first round at 5 p.m. Friday at Christopher Newport University. If the Royals win, they will play either CNU or ODAC champion Guilford in the second round at 7 p.m. Saturday.
EMU’s niche in the ODAC is definitely about style, but it has nothing to do with the Jordan uniforms — although Griffin admitted that top-shelf gear certainly aids recruiting.
The Royals have nine players who have average nine or more minutes per game, and only one player averages more than 30 minutes. Eight players average more than 10 minutes, and with that depth, Eastern Mennonite has run all over the ODAC, going full-court, up-tempo all the time and forcing opponents to play its style.
“They make you adjust,” said Bridgewater’s Jean Willi, who just finished her 17th season coaching the Eagles. “On the offensive end, they probably make you hurry. They make you run your offense quicker than you want to, because they’re pressing — they’re pressing and now you’ve got 15 seconds on the [shot] clock, because of their quickness and their defensive intensity.”
Willi said Guilford, which beat EMU 61-59 in the ODAC title game Sunday, runs a style similar to the Royals.
Balance has been crucial for Eastern Mennonite. The Royals don’t have a single player averaging double-figure points, but they have seven netting 7.5 or more per game and three over 9.1 points per game. EMU’s leading scorer is 5-foot-8 sophomore forward Shakeerah Sykes, who’s averaging 9.9 points.
The lack of a superstar scorer hasn’t hurt the Royals. As a team, Eastern Mennonite is averaging 70 points per game, which ranks 49th out of 432 D-III teams listed on NCAA.com. North Central (Ill.) leads the country at 87.7 per game. EMU led the 12-team ODAC in scoring offense. The Royals were fourth in scoring defense, yielding 56.9 points per game.
“It just works for us,” Sykes said before practice Tuesday. “… I think it’s kind of hard to defend, because most teams have a standout player and, ‘We have to stop her and take the team out of it.’ With ours, five people on the court can do five different things.”
EMU’s style developed organically. Griffin said he just recruited the best available players to fit his high-speed system, and that he intended to have a normal rotation. It just worked out another way.
“It’s not by design, I don’t think,” said Griffin, whose team has gone 43-10 the past two seasons. “We have multiple players with multiple skills and options, and the parts are interchangeable. Some of them play multiple positions. It certainly wasn’t by design; we just went and tried to recruit kids who were good fits for the style we wanted to play. Then the rest just sort of fell into place.”
Griffin said his rotation is based on feel and situation — foul trouble, opposing personnel, who’s hot, etc. Unusual and unplanned, it’s worked — and against a tough schedule that included three opponents ranked regionally by the NCAA. One foe, Messiah, is ranked 19th in the most recent D3Hoops.com Top 25 poll. Ferrum, another of EMU’s non-conference opponents, received votes and would have been ranked 26th.
It’s helped the Royals make just their second-ever postseason appearance, even though they lost to both Messiah and Ferrum.
“Last year and this year, we, kind of, not were expected, but had a good chance to win the ODAC,” said 5-8 junior guard Steph Rheinheimer. “And both years, we kind of fell short, so this year, it’s just nice that we get a second chance.”
And they’ll do it with their style.