Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: The parity in the Mid-American Conference in 2013-14 was about as great as any other conference across the country. Teams in the MAC that finished at or near the top of the standings in the regular season all entered the conference tournament on roughly equal ground, and it was anyone's postseason to win. The Western Michigan Broncos ended up becoming the team that was left standing after finished the 2013-14 campaign with a 14-4 in- conference mark, salvaging a trip to the NCAA Tournament with a strong core of players. The 2014-15 campaign doesn't look a whole lot different, with player changeover occurring across the board. But a strong nucleus of contenders has emerged, and programs that are getting key members back for the upcoming season are the ones with the greatest chance at making a run for the coveted automatic tournament bid.
In the East Division, it was Buffalo last year that had the best regular season record with a 13-5 mark. But the loss of some key members has possibly sunk the Bulls down toward the bottom this season. With a solid combination of crucial returning players and incoming talent, Akron and Ohio figure to be at the top of the MAC East this season, and the in-state rivalry will continue to go down as one of the more heralded ones in the conference.
Meanwhile over in the West Division, both Toledo and Western Michigan - last year's champs - will return for the upcoming season reloaded and ready to compete yet again. It was the two West teams that finished with the MAC's best in-conference records last season at 14-4.
East Division challengers Bowling Green and Kent State suffered through mediocre 2013-14 campaigns, as each squad concluded the regular season with losing conference records. But Bowling Green returns star forward Richaun Holmes, who led the league in blocked shots, and gets versatile guard Chauncey Orr back from injury. Kent State was used to being at or near the top of the MAC before last season's fallout. Not much has changed for the Golden Flashes headed into 2014, which could mean another year of being on the outside looking in. In the West, Eastern Michigan and Northern Illinois get some solid pieces back, but the level of talent between Toledo and WMU versus Eastern Michigan and Northern Illinois drops off significantly. Still, it wouldn't be shocking to see either EMU or NIU win plenty of games to at least contend for top-5 spots in the MAC this season.
Buffalo experienced tons of changeover in the offseason, and the loss of MAC Player of the Year Javon McCrea hurts more than anything. The Bulls are in danger of experiencing the greatest turnaround from their 13-5 conference record, unless the team can jell quickly. Miami-Ohio finished with an average 8-10 mark in MAC play last season, but the departure of leading scorer Will Felder and point guard Quinten Rollins sets the team back considerably. It's Central Michigan (3-15 MAC play in 2013) and Ball State (2-16) that will bring up the rear this season. Big-name players like Chris Fowler and Zavier Turner return for CMU and Ball State, respectively, but too many other questions remain. As was the case last year, get set for a roller coaster ride in the Mid-American Conference.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Toledo
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: East Division: 1. Akron, 2. Ohio, 3. Bowling Green, 4. Kent State, 5. Buffalo, 6. Miami-Ohio; West Division: 1. Toledo, 2. Western Michigan, 3. Eastern Michigan, 4. Northern Illinois, 5. Central Michigan, 6. Ball State
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
AKRON: The Zips (21-13, 12-6 MAC) ended their 2013-14 season on a bit of a high note in the regular season, competing hard down the stretch with expectations of returning to the conference tournament title game. However, for the first time since the 2006 season, Akron did not make it to the MAC's championship contest, ending their hopes of playing in the NCAA Tournament. The team lost some big names in the offseason like versatile scorer Quincy Diggs (12.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.6 apg) and the helpful but off-the-court troubled Nick Harney (8.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg). The biggest positive for the Zips this season is that last year's star forward Demetrius "Tree" Treadwell (15.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg) was granted a second senior season after meeting academic requirements. He's the go-to player for Akron, and will be helped along by contributors Jake Kretzer (7.5 ppg) and Reggie McAdams (6.3 ppg). The Zips struggled to find a true ball handler last year, so the addition of true freshman Noah Robotham (Nevada's high school player of the year) may be a blessing in disguise. Add in impact players like Carmelo Betancourt and Nyles Evans, and the Zips appear to be the team to beat in the MAC East Division.
OHIO: The Bobcats (25-12, 11-7) had a bumpy road last season after suffering from several untimely losses when the team seemed poised to make a run toward the top of the conference. The offseason wasn't too kind to Ohio either, as the team lost top scorer Nick Kellogg (15.5 ppg, team-best 109 assists) and role player Travis Wilkins (6.6 ppg). But it certainly wasn't all bad for the Bobcats, who hired former North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips to the same position. Phillips is fresh off a record season at NDSU, which beat fifth- ranked Oklahoma in the NCAA Tournament's second round. The excitement Phillips brings into Athens is multiplied with the return of All-MAC preseason selection Maurice Ndour. The 6-foot-9 forward averaged 13.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg and had a team-best 55 blocked shots in 2013. He returns to the lineup with guard Stevie Taylor (7.2 ppg, 2.4 apg) and pure shooter Javarez Willis, a Texas Tech transfer that started 12 games for the Bobcats last season. Expect a boost in the team's conference record this season, and for the Bobcats and Zips to renew a strong rivalry.
BOWLING GREEN: Like Ohio, Bowling Green (12-20, 6-12) is in the midst of a coaching change. The Falcons went with Chris Jans as the man to replace Louis Orr, who couldn't seem to get the team into the upper echelon of the conference. Jans was an assistant at Wichita State for years, so the Falcons' athletic department is hoping he can bring some of the Wichita magic to Ohio. The Falcons are boosted by the return of Holmes (13.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg, league- best 88 blocked shots), who finds himself on the All-MAC Preseason First Team, and for good reason. Holmes was a defensive wizard last season in the paint, and guarded players like Ndour, Treadwell and McCrea on numerous occasions. Holmes is joined by scorers Anthony Henderson (10.4 ppg), Spencer Parker (12.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and Jehvon Clarke (12.5 ppg, 4.7 apg) in the lineup. Also, Louis's son Chauncey Orr, who played in one game last season (and scored 14 points in 13 minutes) before injuring himself for the season, returns healthy and ready to go. Expect a much-improved Bowling Green lineup this season after getting plenty of experience last year.
KENT STATE: It was a bit of a down season for Kent State (16-16, 7-11), which finished toward the bottom of the MAC East Division. One of the biggest needs for the Golden Flashes in the offseason was to obtain size to a lineup that was very guard-heavy in 2013. That's exactly what Kent State and coach Rob Senderoff did, so the Flashes will trot out some height and solid returning marksmen this upcoming season. The team's top three scorers from last year return in Kris Brewer (11.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.8 apg), Derek Jackson (10.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.0 apg) and Devareaux Manley (9.7 ppg), while players like junior college transfer Marvin Jones (6-foot-10) and freshman Raasean Davis expect to see the court early. Graduate transfer Blake Vedder (Indiana, Pennsylvania) is now eligible to play. He stands at a gargantuan 7-foot-4. Also, Hofstra transfer Jimmy Hall is eligible to play after sitting out last season. It's clear the Golden Flashes wanted to reload in the offseason, and now they'll make another push for the conference crown, if they can get a bit more scoring.
BUFFALO: Last season it was Buffalo (19-10, 13-5) that had the momentum going into the conference tournament at regular season's end. But the Bulls were known for dropping games they probably shouldn't have lost, considering the lineup was as strong as any other team in the league, and ended up bowing out before the conference title game. This year, the Bulls are without McCrea (18.5 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 65 blocked shots), Joshua Freelove (13.5 ppg) and starting point guard Jarod Oldham (8.5 ppg, 153 assists), so the uncertainty of what lies ahead is palpable. Forward Will Regan is the team's returning scorer, having averaged 10.6 ppg and a healthy 5.8 rpg. He's joined by key reserves from 2013 Shannon Evans (8.5 ppg, 95 assists) and Jarryn Skeete (5.5 ppg). Xavier Ford, who started 17 games last season, also returns, and coach Bobby Hurley believes freshman Lamonte Bearden will become a fixture with the team almost right away. But there's just too much uncertainty here, especially without a staple like McCrea to warrant the Bulls making another run at the MAC title in 2014.
MIAMI-OHIO: The RedHawks (13-18, 8-10) came back from a dismal season in 2012-13 to finished with a barely sub-.500 conference record in Mid-American play. Miami-Ohio was still plagued by inconsistency, but John Cooper's squad ended up winning its first-round MAC Tournament game, which sent the program to Cleveland. The RedHawks endured an offseason in which they lost top scorer Will Felder (14.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and said goodbye to starting point guard Quinten Rollins (6.9 ppg, 122 assists). But the top three other scorers return to the lineup, including playmaker Geovonie McKnight (9.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 71 assists), who should be the go-to guy this season in Cooper's system. Willie Moore (9.2 ppg, 3.4 rpg) and Will Sullivan (9.0 ppg, 40.8 percent shooting touch from 3- point range) are the other two that will be big names in the Miami offense. The RedHawks also landed a talented freshman guard in Zach McCormick, from Cincinnati, who should figure into the equation. The uncertainty here lies with the forward positions. Cooper is hoping the handful of junior college transfers his program landed will help out quickly, but it's a risk.
TOLEDO: Toledo (27-7, 14-4 MAC) hasn't made an NCAA Tournament appearance in 35 seasons, but this sure looks like it could be the year. The Rockets have a strong mix of seniors and veteran talent along with young up-and-comers in coach Tod Kowalczyk's system. Toledo returns all-conference point guard Julius Brown to the lineup one year after he led the team in scoring (14.9 ppg), and bring back talented guard/forward combo player Justin Drummond (14.2 ppg). The biggest loss the Rockets suffered in the offseason was shooter Rian Pearson, but with such a strong contingent of playmakers, Toledo might not even need him. Throw in forward J.D. Weatherspoon (10.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and center Nathan Boothe (9.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 38 blocked shots) and the starting lineup from last year's successful regular season starts to come together once again. Although Pearson is gone, the Rockets will get Mississippi State sophomore transfer Dre Applewhite about midway through the season when he is determined eligible, not quite in time for the start of conference play. There's plenty of offense to go around here, especially considering the team averaged an eye-popping 79.2 ppg last season. If the team can come together and play defense, there may be no stopping the Rockets.
WESTERN MICHIGAN: The Broncos finished up the season last year on top. Western Michigan (23-10, 14-4) made it all the way to the MAC championship game and defeated Toledo for the conference crown, and the right to play in the NCAA Tournament. This season, the Broncos are slightly worse off without dominant big man Shayne Whittington (16.1 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 47 blocked shots), who is now playing at the next level. But that doesn't mean the team's chances to repeat have dwindled heavily. The Broncos return preseason All-Conference First Teamer David Brown, who scored a MAC-high 19.1 ppg, after he was granted eligibility to return for a sixth season. Whittington may not be back, but the rest of last season's championship-winning team is. Shooting guard Connar Tava (11.8 ppg, 5,7 rpg, 2,9 apg) and point guard/scoring guard combo Austin Richie (7.9 ppg, 2.3 apg) should fill out the guard positions around Brown, while Tucker Haymond (7.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg) will help out at the forward position. Incoming freshman big man Drake LaMont (6-foot-10) could be inserted into the lineup to fill Whittington's void, though he may take some time to develop. The Broncos are in excellent shape moving forward this season, and will easily challenge for repeat title champs.
EASTERN MICHIGAN: Try getting to the rim against Eastern Michigan this season. Go ahead, try. It won't be easy going against the Eagles (22-15, 10-8), who have added some serious size to the lineup. Eastern Michigan was solid last season, finishing conference play with a winning record, but it didn't get the team anywhere in the postseason. Nine players on this year's EMU roster are either junior college transfers or four-year college transfers, including big men Mike Samuels (6-foot-11, 285 pounds), Jerome Hunter (6-foot-9, 250 pounds) and Olalekan Ajayi (6-foot-11, 245 pounds). Not many teams can penetrate a defense that physically takes up the entire key area. The Eagles strategically added these players to combine with last year's standout scorer Karrington Ward (12.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg). Guard Raven Lee comes back for another season (10.6 ppg, 1.6 apg), as does senior Mike Talley (10.2 ppg, 3.6 apg). Combine the big bodies added during the offseason and previous offseasons with the already implanted guards, and Eastern Michigan could absolutely surprise everyone this season.
NORTHERN ILLINOIS: The Huskies (15-17, 8-10) raised their bar last season after finishing with five wins in each of the two previous campaigns. Mark Montgomery's squad will be better with the addition of Michael Orris, a Kansas State transfer, and Anthony Johnson, a Purdue transfer, coming in during the offseason. Northern Illinois also gets back talented scorer Dontel Highsmith, who tore his ACL 11 games into the season and was sidelined for the year. Prior to his injury, Highsmith was averaging 10.5 ppg - the only player on the roster last year to average a scoring total in double digits. Darrell Bowie (9.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and Jordan Threloff (9.2 ppg, 7.0 rpg) return to the lineup as the favorite big men, while role players Aaric and Aaron Armstead, and Travon Baker come back for another shot at the league title. Baker served mostly as the team's point guard on a roster that lacked a true on-court quarterback, and finished the season with 8.4 ppg and a team-best 78 assists. There's plenty returning for the huskies this season, but can it all come together and improve further than last season's mark? That's the question.
CENTRAL MICHIGAN: The Chippewas (10-21, 3-15) were pretty awful in 2013, despite the fact that they had some talented players on their roster. The reason for the disastrous season was most likely due to the team's youth, as then-sophomore Chris Fowler led the team in scoring with 17.4 ppg, and added a team-high 163 assists and 60 steals. He's back for his junior season after starting all 31 contests in 2013-14, as is John Simons, a 6-foot-8 junior forward that ended his campaign with a 10.8 ppg mark and a team-best 5.7 rpg average. They'll team up with last season's stud freshman Braylon Rayson (10.7 ppg, 2.4 rpg) for another shot at improving. The problem for Central Michigan was mostly on the defensive end last year, as the Chippewas allowed opponents to shoot 49 percent from the floor. The team grabbed a mere 31.3 rpg as well, which was one of the worst numbers in the MAC. Simons and forward Blake Hibbitts (9.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg) will be tasked with improving the down-low defense, and perhaps redshirt 7-foot freshman Milos Cabarkapa will contribute. It will still be a down year for the Chippewas again, but it should be improved from last season's disaster.
BALL STATE: Talk about a grueling season in Muncie. The Cardinals (5-25, 2-16) finished dead last in the MAC last season thanks to one very large, glaring reason: turnovers. The Cardinals had a turnover margin almost four times worse than any other conference opponent in 2013, and that needs to change immediately if Ball State wants any sort of relevance this season. A big reason for the turnovers was coach James Whitford starting freshman Zavier Turner at point guard. Turner dished out 110 assists in 2013, and turned the ball over 118 times. He was the greatest culprit on a team that gave the ball away 505 times in 30 games (and registered just 375 assists). Turner was the second-leading scorer on the Cardinals last year with 12.1 ppg. He's back, but the other three leading scorers are gone, including three-point specialist Jesse Berry and leading scorer Chris Bond. Franko House (6.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and Mading Thok (2.7 ppg, 2.2 rpg) should see plenty of time in the starting lineup. It's a huge boost for Ball State knowing Jeremiah Davis, a Cincinnati transfer, will not only be immediately eligible, but was granted an extra year to play. Still, the Cardinals are not in very good shape entering the new campaign.