Lucas Gulotta, Associate College Basketball Editor
OUTLOOK: The Mid-American Conference is filled with great rivalries due to the short distances between the majority of its members. The MAC has never been known as a power conference, but the mid-major league has shown as recently as last season it is highly capable of harboring programs that can play with anyone in the country.
After its run to the Sweet 16 which grabbed the nation's attention, Ohio University will try to punch its ticket to the Big Dance for the third time in four years. The Bobcats are no longer under the watch of John Groce and will have to repeat under coach Jim Christian.
Akron will do its best to seize its revenge after losing to the Bobcats by just a single point in the MAC Championship game. The Zips return four starters and a handful of key reserves from that team.
Eastern Michigan, Buffalo, and Toledo are all capable of making a jump to the top tier of the conference. Rob Murphy had losing record but salvaged his first year as a head coach by leading the Eagles to a first place finish in the West Division. The Bulls have won 20 games or more in three of the last four seasons. The Rockets have a talented squad but are postseason ineligible due to a poor Academic Progress Rate.
Bowling Green, Kent State, and Ball State are all middle of the road teams. Louis Orr led the Falcons to surprising upsets of Temple and Ohio, but finished in just fifth place in the East Division. The Golden Flashes are coming off a 21-win season, but will have a completely different look with just one returning starter. The Cardinals improved every season under sixth- year coach Billy Taylor until they followed up 2010-2011's 19-13 finish with a 15-15 overall record last year.
The remaining four programs have plenty of work to do to rise out of the basement of the MAC. Miami-Ohio is under new management as John Cooper replaced Charlie Coles, who was the RedHawks' head coach for the past 16 seasons. Western Michigan lost four different players with double-digit scoring averages from a team that finished 14-20 overall. Central Michigan is starting from scratch with Keno Davis after ending the Zeigler era, while Northern Illinois hopes its crop of newcomers yield better results.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Ohio University
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Ohio University, 2. Akron, 3. Eastern Michigan 4. Buffalo, 5. Toledo, 6. Bowling Green, 7. Kent State, 8. Ball State, 9. Miami-Ohio, 10. Western Michigan, 11. Central Michigan, 12. Northern Illinois.
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
OHIO UNIVERSITY Although John Groce left to coach Illinois on the Big Ten stage, the Bobcats have all five starters back and a coach with MAC experience in Jim Christian. OU's newest coach led Kent State to three NIT appearances and two NCAA Tournaments before migrating to TCU. Christian only led the Horned Frogs to one winning record in four seasons before returning to the MAC to coach Ohio fresh off its trip to the Sweet 16, where it lost in overtime to North Carolina. The Bobcats start and go with their do-everything point guard, D.J. Cooper (14.7 ppg, 5.7 apg). The senior guard enters the season as the school's all-time leader in assists (592) and needs just one more steal to become the program's career leader in thefts. Cooper is accompanied by fellow senior Walter Offutt (12.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg) in the backcourt. Nick Kellogg benefits greatly from his teammates as it creates more space for the marksman to launch three-point attempts. Ivo Baltic (8.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and Jon Smith (4.5 rpg) both start at forward and battle on the boards consistently. With no key components from last season lost besides Groce, there is no reason to doubt Ohio.
AKRON The Zips will be looking for their seventh straight MAC Championship game appearance this season after suffering a one-point setback in 2012's edition. Keith Dambrot coached Akron to MAC Tournament Championships and NCAA Tournament appearances in 2009 and 2011, but lost to Ohio in two of the last three games with the league title on the line. The Zips were second in the MAC in scoring offense with 70.2 ppg in 2011-202 and should scorch the nets again this season with their array of options. Akron is sound on the other end also with its shot-blocking center Zeke Marshall (10.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg). The reigning MAC Defensive Player of the Year has led the conference in blocks (256) each of the past three seasons and needs just 53 more blocks to set the league's career-mark. Chauncey Gilliam (6-5, 230) and Quincy Diggs (6-6, 215) are both decent three-point shooters and fill in at the forward positions to complete the team's frontcourt. Alex Abreu is a speedy floor general and will be looking to build upon his sophomore season averages of 9.6 ppg and 4.8 apg. Akron is very deep and it would surprise very few if it made it back to the MAC Championship once again. However, it may need to take down Ohio to punch its ticket.
EASTERN MICHIGAN The Eagles failed to finish above .500, but they still come into this season as the reigning West Division champions after a 9-7 tour through the MAC. Coach Rob Murphy nearly left to take a front office position with the NBA's Orlando Magic, but opted to return for his second season instead. Although EMU lost its leading scorer and playmaker Darrell Lampley (13.3 ppg), the team's talent pool improved as Division I transfers Glenn Bryant (Arkansas) and Daylen Harrison (Wyoming) become eligible. Bryant and Harrison will add to EMU's frontcourt which already featured Jamell Harris (6.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Syracuse transfer Da'Shonte Riley (4.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg). Junior guard Austin Harper and freshman Jalen Ross will share minutes at point guard until one of the two earns the job on a full-time basis. EMU has a tough non-conference schedule to prepare it for conference action. The Eagles are not far from being a contender for the MAC's top spot.
BUFFALO The Bulls are once again led by the league's longest tenured coach Reggie Witherspoon, who is entering his 14th year at Buffalo with a 184-208 overall record. Witherspoon may have a sub .500 career winning percentage, but he has led Buffalo to just under 20 wins per season over the last four years. It suffered a three-point loss to the eventual champion Ohio Bobcats in the conference playoffs before playing a pair of games in the CIT. The Bulls have three starters back from last season's unit, including second-leading scorer and rebounder Javon McCrea (14.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg). UB will have to make up for Mitchell Watt's 16.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per game and Zach Filzen's 97 made three-pointers. The Bulls will revolve around point guard Jarod Oldham (4.7 ppg, 5.9 apg) as he aims for his second straight MAC assist title. Corey Raley-Ross played only 85 minutes last season, but his work ethic and improvement over the off-season did enough to earn him the starting shooting guard job. Buffalo has a few new pieces in place and how those new parts function will determine the team's fate.
TOLEDO The Rockets would be a dark horse to win the MAC this season if they were not ineligible for postseason play. Coach Tod Kowalczyk, now in his third season at the helm of the program, has access to 13 scholarships for the first time of his tenure. Kowalczyk still managed to lead the program to its first postseason bid since 2006-2007 despite having only eight players on scholarship for more than half of the season. Toledo retained all five starters from last season, including Second-Team All-MAC honoree Rian Pearson (16.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg). Pearson finished just three points shy of the MAC scoring title last season and is the leader among returners in rebounding average despite being only 6-4. Reese Holliday (7.1 ppg), Julius Brown (11.9 ppg, 4.9 apg), and Dominique Buckley ( 9.7 ppg, 2.7 apg) give Toledo one of the deepest and most dynamic backcourts in the conference. The balanced attack should help the Rockets to another decent record, but Kowalczyk will have a tough task keeping his squad, that has only one senior on the roster, focused without any hope of postseason play.
BOWLING GREEN The Falcons ended with a 16-16 overall record after being upset in the first rounds of the MAC Tournament and CIT. Coach Louis Orr will have a great deal of difficulty in his search to find replacements for Scott Thomas (12.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and Dee Brown (10.8 ppg, 2.4 apg). With the Falcons' senior one-two punch of last season no longer around, Second-Team All MAC selection A'uston Calhoun (13.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg) is the top option. The only other lock to see significant action is 5-6, senior point guard Jordon Crawford, who averaged 11.3 points and 4.8 assists per contest last season. BGSU added the shot blocking Richaun Holmes to its front line and Luke Kraus is expected to start after showing flashes of potential at different points during the first three years of his career. Bowling Green is deep at nearly every position, but does not have an obvious starting five. The Falcons may need some time to get off the ground until Orr figures out the best rotation.
KENT STATE Rob Senderoff began his career at Kent State with a thrilling road upset of West Virginia and a 19-6 overall start, but the Golden Flashes stumbled in six their final eight games and lost in the opening round of the CIT. Senderoff's second season will be even more trying with four starters and six of the team's top eight scorers gone. Kent State fans have high expectations as the team has averaged 23.3 wins and made five trips to the Big Dance over the past 14 seasons. The fan base may need to be patient as the program regroups this season. The only hold over from last year's starting five is the three-point loving Randal Holt (12.7 ppg), who is coming off of surgery on his meniscus. Playing alongside Holt in the backcourt will be Tulsa transfer Bryson Pope (6.3 ppg, 2.3 apg in 2010-2011) and freshman Kellon Thomas (5-11). Senior forward Chris Evans (9.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg) will have a chance to start and provide inside toughness. JC transfer Melvin Tabb (6-9, 240) can also help inside on both ends of the floor.
BALL STATE The Cardinals underachieved by going 15-15 in a season when they were expected to compete for the West title. Billy Taylor had amassed a 69-84 record in five seasons as Ball State's head coach and his record is not going to be improving unless he can figure out a way to replace Jarrod Jones (14.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg), Randy Davis (8.2 ppg, 5.0 apg), and Tyrae Robinson (8.0 ppg, 3.8 apg) in the starting lineup. The Cardinals' leading scorer among returners is sixth man Jesse Berry (9.3 ppg), who could change positions and start at point guard this season. The starting forward duo of Chris Bond (7.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Tyler Koch (6.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg) remains in place in Muncie. Freshman guard Marcus Posley could be the MAC Freshman of the Year if given enough minutes to produce. BSU underachieved last season, but Taylor's bunch that is filled with new faces could easily catch a few unsuspecting opponents off guard.
MIAMI-OHIO A new era in Oxford is set to begin as John Cooper replaces the program's long-time coach, Charlie Coles. Cooper spent the past three seasons coaching Tennessee State, where he led the Tigers to an upset of the previously unbeaten Murray State Racers late in the 2011-2012 regular season. Cooper inherited a Miami team that finished 9-21 overall, 5-11 in league play, and lost its leading scorer and rebounder. Quinten Rollins (7.7 ppg, 3.2 apg) is the only true point guard on the roster, which makes him vital to the transition to Cooper's up-tempo philosophy. The RedHawks could make strides towards the .500 mark using the services of Allen Roberts and Will Felder. Roberts averaged 7.9 ppg as a sophomore before missing all of last season to recover from knee surgery. Felder produced 11.1 points, 6.7 boards, and 1.3 blocks for St. Francis (PA) before sitting out last season to satisfy the NCAA's transfer rules. Junior Josh Sewell (6.3 ppg) and Drew McGhee (5.2 ppg, 2.3 rpg) provide additional depth at guard and forward, respectively.
WESTERN MICHIGAN The Broncos were expecting to have a strong season after sporting a team filled with seniors in 2011-2012. However, WMU failed to capitalize on its experienced lineup and finished six games below .500 and 6-10 in MAC games. Coach Steve Hawkins has even more work to do after center Matt Stainbrook (11.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg) transferred to Xavier in the off-season. WMU's rebuilding process will feature eight freshmen, including forward Darius Paul (6-8, 220), whose brother Brandon starts for Illinois. Kellen McCormick (6-7, 200) is another rookie to keep an eye on due to his European like approach to the forward position. The Broncos will rely on their only returning starter, Nate Hutcheson (9.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg) to set the tone with his mid-range and post-up ability on the offensive end. WMU struggled in a year it was projected to finish near the top of the conference. It will be interesting to see how the Broncos perform when picked to finish near the bottom.
CENTRAL MICHIGAN The Chippewas begin the post-Ziegler era this season with former Providence coach Keno Davis on the sidelines. CMU fired Ernie Zeigler after he managed to win only 76 games in six seasons. Soon after, the coach's son and the team's star shooting guard Trey Zeigler (15.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg) transferred to Pittsburgh. CMU lost another key asset when Austin McBroom (10.9 ppg, 2.7 apg) decided to bolt to play for Saint Louis. Davis had to scramble to find seven new players to make up for the loss of 79 percent of CMU's scoring. One very helpful addition will be senior point guard Kyle Randall, who averaged 9.5 points and 3.0 assists per game while starting for UNC Greensboro during his freshman and sophomore campaigns. The Chippewas' new coach has experience at the mid-major level and was named the 2008 National Coach of the Year after leading Drake to a 28-5 record, but that type of success will take time to achieve in Mount Pleasant.
NORTHERN ILLINOIS Mark Montgomery's first season as NIU's head coach was far from a walk in the park. The Huskies were third to last in Division I with a 37.1 field goal percentage, multiple players were dismissed from the team, and NIU managed just a 3-13 MAC record. Although Tim Toler (10.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg) graduated, sophomore Abdel Nader (10.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and junior Aksel Bolin (10.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg) return after serving as bright spots to the team's nightmare of a season a year ago. Team captain Antone Christian (5.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg) is the leader of this squad and will be helpful in the development of the freshman point guard committee made up of Daveon Balls 6-0, 165) and Travon Baker (5-10, 155). NIU has lost at least 20 games in each of its past six seasons. That number is not expected to change until its current group of underclassmen develops into a seasoned group of veterans.