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OUTLOOK: While many of the leagues in Division I experienced face lifts due to realignment, the Mid-American Conference stayed in tact with all 12 members from last season making up the field for the 2013-14 campaign. The product on the floor will have a different appearance though, as many teams have a new look due to roster shake-ups and coaching changes.
The Ohio University Bobcats and Akron Zips were at the top of the conference last season. The Bobcats were unable to return to the Big Dance following their run to the 2012 Sweet 16 though, as the Zips prevailed in the conference tournament. Akron was shorthanded due to the arrest of its starting point guard Alex Abreu, and suffered a lopsided loss to VCU in the second round of the Big Dance.
The Zips have a strong chance of winning the league once again despite a few departures, as coach Keith Dambrot has been one of the best at the mid-major level since his arrival. The Zips are not going to have an easy time repeating though, as they will have to overcome Toledo, Kent State, Western Michigan and Buffalo to reach their goal.
The Rockets return nearly everyone after clinching their first West Division crown, and will now try to take the next step. Buffalo has high hopes under its new head coach, Bobby Hurley, who showed off his elite understanding of the game as a player at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski. WMU is also going to be a factor after notching 22 wins and making a run to the CBI Tournament semifinals last March.
The middle of the MAC pack consists of Bowling Green, Ohio University and Ball State, which could all easily wind up on top. The Falcons have a must-win mentality as coach Louis Orr is on the hot seat after experiencing his third losing season in four years. The Cardinals hope to make significant strides under first-year head coach James Whitford, who was once an assistant at Arizona.
Eastern Michigan will not be far behind if it manages to repeat its tremendous defensive performance from a season ago. The Eagles are clearly ahead of conference bottom dwellers, Central Michigan, Miami-Ohio and Northern Illinois.
CMU will be under the rule of coach Keno Davis for the second year. Davis inherited an inexperienced team with the exception of senior guard Kyle Randall, who graduated after winning the MAC scoring title last year. Inexperience kept NIU from winning many close games last season, and it has a long way to go after tallying a mere five wins.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Toledo
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Toledo, 2. Kent State, 3. Western Michigan, 4. Buffalo, 5. Akron, 6. Bowling Green, 7. Ohio University, 8. Ball State, 9. Eastern Michigan, 10. Central Michigan, 11. Miami-Ohio, 12. Northern Illinois
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
TOLEDO: Coach Tod Kowalczyk's team will be eligible for postseason play this season and it has as good a chance as any to win the wide-open MAC. The Rockets went 15-13 overall and return four of their top seven players in terms of minutes played. Toledo did very well in league play, going 10-6, despite finishing near the bottom of the conference in scoring defense (68.2 ppg). MAC Player of the Year candidate Rian Pearson (17.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg) is back after leading the team in scoring, rebounding and steals in each of the past two seasons. He is often set up by point guard Julius Brown (13.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg), who contributes in a variety of ways and handed out a team-best 168 assists in 2012-13. Matt Smith (9.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and Nathan Boothe (8.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg) will both be present in the starting lineup again, while Loyola-Maryland transfer Justin Drummond is expected to round out the group. Drummond was voted as the MAAC's Sixth Man of the Year in 2012 after helping the Greyhounds reach the NCAA Tournament. Ohio State transfer J.D. Weatherspoon should also play a big role for Toledo as it attempts to establish itself as the class of the MAC.
KENT STATE: The Golden Flashes will be a contender as well with three starters returning from last season's 21-win team. Coach Rob Senderoff's fast-paced system helped KSU put up 71 ppg, but it also allowed 67.8 ppg to the opposition. The squad reached the second round of the CIT after a strong run at the end of the regular season with six straight wins before a tough loss to Akron in the MAC Tournament. Although KSU lost its top-two scorers, junior guard Kris Brewer (9.1 ppg, 2.7 apg) is back to provide steady leadership. Darren Goodson (8.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg) an Mark Henniger (4.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg) also return to the fold. The Golden Flashes will need help on the interior from some of their talented newcomers, which include Tyler Scott and Devin Carter, both of whom should provide versatility for Kent State, which has averaged 23.1 wins per season over the past 15 years.
WESTERN MICHIGAN: After claiming at least a share of the MAC West Division title for the fourth time in six years, the Broncos will make another attempt following their 10-6 finish in league play. WMU also played in the postseason last season and won two overtime games against North Dakota State and Wyoming before falling to George Mason in the CBI Tournament semifinal. Senior center Shayne Whittington (13.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg) is a force at both ends of the floor, and while he was not expected to be much of a factor last season, he exploded on the scene by nearly tripling his career scoring average. Austin Richie (6.1 ppg, 3.0 apg) also returns as does David Brown (11 ppg) who made 33 shots from beyond the arc and was named the 2012-13 MAC Sixth Man of the Year. Freshman forward Mario Matasovic (6-foot-7) could be in the starting five to begin his collegiate career.
BUFFALO: Hurley's tenure in Buffalo is going to get off to an excellent start as the team returns nearly all of its key personnel from last season's 14-20 squad. The former Duke point guard spent the past several seasons as an assistant at Wagner and Rhode Island, and is expected to excel as a head coach. The inexperienced Bulls struggled away from home last year, going 4-10 on the road, but the now veteran group should be able to overcome that issue. The Bulls have one of the leading candidates to win the MAC Player of the Year award in Javon McCrea (18.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg), who was honored as an All-MAC First-Team selection for his consistently exceptional play at the forward position. Will Regan (11.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg) is also back after a solid showing as a starting post player. Hurley has a playmaker at point guard in Jarod Oldham (10.1 ppg, 4.4 apg), who missed the majority of last season with a wrist injury. Jarryn Skeete and Justin Moss should also provide support as the Bulls hope to make a run at an NCAA Tournament berth.
AKRON: Dambrot, who coached LeBron James during his high school career, will have to replace the top-two players from last season's 26-win squad, and dominant shot blockers like Zeke Marshall are not easy to find. With Marshall in the middle, the Zips held the opposition to only 62.8 ppg and they went 15-1 on their home floor. Sophomore center Pat Forsythe will do his best to fill Marshall's large shoes, although a significant drop in production is likely to occur. Freshman center Isaiah Johnson may get a chance to play in the middle as well. Akron does a return a player capable of leading the team in Demetrius Treadwell (11.5 ppg, 7.9 rpg), and he will be joined in the frontcourt by Nick Harney (9.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg). The backcourt is a big question mark, as Carmelo Betancourt failed to impress after filling in for Abreu last season. Junior college transfer Nyles Evans may end up with a starting job.
BOWLING GREEN: The Falcons are hoping to propel themselves toward the top of the MAC after finishing in the bottom half of the East Division in four straight seasons. Orr's team went just 13-19 overall, which included a 1-12 mark on the road, as it produced only 62.8 points and 12 assists per game. Defensively, the Falcons were sound as they held foes to only 63.5 ppg. BGSU will need to locate some scorers in a hurry as A'uston Calhoun and Jordon Crawford both graduated after accounting for 47.9 percent of the team's points last season. Chauncy Orr (7.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and Cameron Black (3.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg) both return to starting roles and while both are terrific defenders, neither has shown the ability get it done at the offensive end. The Falcons did make a huge splash with the signing of Zack Denny, who led the state of Ohio in scoring as a junior in high school (28.8 ppg), and again as a senior (34 ppg). Junior forward Richaun Holmes (6.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg) should also be able to add some scoring punch as he is expected to have an expanded role.
OHIO UNIVERSITY: The Bobcats are in rebuilding mode after their 24-10 finish in the first year of the coach Jim Christian's tenure in Oxford. The team suffered a huge loss with the graduation of D.J. Cooper, who became the first guard in Division I history to tally over 2,000 points, 900 assists, 600 rebounds and 300 steals. Three others starters also graduated leaving spot-up shooter Nick Kellogg (8.0 ppg) as the only returner entering his senior year. Christian's roster will be bolstered by a few transfers as Javarez Willis (Texas Tech) and Treg Setty (Southern Illinois) do their best to replace what was lost. Senior forward T.J. Hall (4.8 ppg, 1.6 rpg) could find himself in the starting five after three years as a reserve, but he needs to do a much better job on the glass or the Bobcats will be in trouble.
BALL STATE: The Cardinals could not manage to get over the hump once again as they finished the 2012-13 campaign with a .500 record for the third time in four years. Things may be different this season though, as Ball State enters its first year under Whitford, who inherits a roster filled with three returning starters and a few capable reserves. It will be interesting to see how the team responds to Whitford's new up-tempo system after it averaged only 65.2 ppg a season ago. Senior guard Jesse Berry (12.8 ppg) is a talented scorer with excellent range on his jump shot. BSU also has a forward destined for an all-conference accolades in Majok Majok (10.7 ppg, 9.8 rpg), who was a double-double machine last season. Chris Bond (8.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg) also contributes in both the scoring column and rebounding battle. The new offense will be led by freshman point guard Zavier Turner, who elected to remain in his home state after tremendous career playing at Indianapolis Pike High School.
EASTERN MICHIGAN: Coach Rob Murphy brought what he learned while working as an assistant to Jim Boeheim at Syracuse to Ypsilanti when he took over the Eagles two years ago, and it was apparent last season as the team's zone defense frustrated the opposition and led the MAC with only 59.1 ppg allowed. The stellar defensive effort did not yield the best results though, as the Eagles finished two games under .500 and went a dismal 2-12 on the road. The team returns all five starters though, with senior forward Glenn Bryant (10.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg) standing out among the group. EMU needs its role players to produce more at the offensive end to improve upon 56.6 ppg it averaged in 2012-13. J.R. Sims made his way into the starting lineup late last year and averaged 8.8 points in 10 games as a starter. Although he will not provide a scoring boost, 6-foot-10 LeKan Ajayi will be a force defensively in his first season with the squad after a decent junior college career.
CENTRAL MICHIGAN: A young, inexperienced lineup led the Chippewas to only 11 wins in 31 tries last season, and they went just 2-13 on the road in Davis' first year at the helm. The lack of victories was mostly due to a porous defense that allowed 1.1 points per possession, which was the worst among all MAC schools. The Chippewas have plenty of room to grow as four of their five top guys in terms of minutes were first-year players, and a total of six freshman saw the floor. Replacing the MAC scoring champion will not be easy to accomplish, but Davis has a talented sophomore point guard in Chris Fowler (7.6 ppg, 5.6 apg) and a solid forward in John Simons (7.4 ppg, 7.9 rpg), who is one of the better rebounders in the conference. CMU has plenty of players who tend to launch up 3-point shots, including Austin Keel, Blake Hibbits and Derrick Richardson. Junior college transfer Rayshawn Simmons should help take some of the pressure off of Fowler and provide Davis with another playmaker.
MIAMI-OHIO: Coach John Cooper left Tennessee State to take over the RedHawks last offseason, and he knew it was going to take time to turn the team into a contender in the MAC. After winning two of its first three conference games, Miami finished with a 3-13 league ledger. The RedHawks allowed almost six points more per game more than what they averaged, and the loss of Allen Roberts will surely hurt. However, the team has four starters back in the fold, led by senior forward Will Roberts (11.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and sophomore guard Reggie Johnson (8.4 ppg). Bill Edwards provided a spark off the bench last season with 9.2 ppg and he will most likely remain in a reserve role, as freshman Joshua Oswald is expected to replace Roberts, who transferred to Penn State. Michigan graduate transfer Blake McLimans should help on the interior.
NORTHERN ILLINOIS: Coach Mike Montgomery's first two years in DeKalb have been frustrating as he has gone a woeful 10-51 over that span. The Huskies managed only three MAC wins last season and lost their top player, Abdel Nader, who elected to transfer to Iowa State. NIU had the worst offense in the conference with an average of only 54 ppg and it ended the season on an 11-game slide. NIU hit its lowest point when it scored only four points in the first half of a game against Eastern Michigan, and finished the game a disastrous 1-of-33 from beyond the arc. Montgomery will try to replace Nader and Akeem Springs, who left the team last February before landing in Milwaukee, with Travon Baker and Daveon Balls, both of whom struggled with turnovers last season as freshmen. Sophomore forward Aksel Bolin (7.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg) is going to have a tough time getting open looks in what is shaping up to be another rough year for the Huskies.