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Cardinals could rule as favorites in competitive MAC

Greg Peterson
VSiN.com

November 5, 2017 03:15 AM

What might come as a surprise to many is that eight of the 12 teams in the Mid-American Conference had a record of .500 or better last season. The conference was hurt by Ohio's season being derailed by the injury of star forward Antonio Campbell and several teams choking in the league tournament. When the smoke cleared, Kent State, which had the sixth-best record in MAC play, made the dance as a 14-seed.

Akron is coming off a season in which it went 27-9 and won the regular season by three games. The team lost coach Keith Dambrot to Duquesne during the offseason but got one of the biggest names on the market in recently terminated Illinois coach John Groce.

Groce previously coached in the MAC for Ohio, so he knows the area well and has a power-five starter coming to the conference with him in former Oregon State point guard Malcolm Duvivier. Although Duvivier did not play last year due to personal reasons, he averaged 6.1 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists during the 2015-16 season, when Oregon State made the NCAA Tournament as a 7-seed.

The Zips’ best returning player is Jimond Ivey, who had 10.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Akron had eight players transfer out of the program during the offseason, and with there being four seniors on last year's team, it means there are 12 players to replace from a season ago.

With Duvivier being the only of the D-I transfers eligible this year, it will likely be a long season filled with losses for Akron. Things will pan out for Groce at Akron, but it will take a year or two to get more of the players he wants in the program.

Kent State is the team that represented the MAC, but with losing workhorse in forward Jimmy Hall, a team that ranked second in the nation in total offensive rebounds will likely become more of a guard-orientated team. Hall had 19 points, 10.6 redounds, 2.6 assists and 1.4 blocks per game, all of which were tops on the team.

The is a ton of production to replace, so the keys to the team will likely be turned over to guard Jaylin Walker, who is the Golden Flashes’ top returning scorer after he had 15.8 points to go with 4.4 rebounds per game.

The team added a major weapon through transfer in former South Alabama guard Taishaun Johnson. He averaged 12.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per game as a freshman for the Sun Belt school during the 2014-15 season. He likely will have some rust as he played in just five games during the 2015-16 season and had to sit out the 2016-17 campaign due to NCAA transfer rules.

Kent State will be a very uneven team. It might have the MAC's best backcourt but also one of its worst frontcourts. The guards should get this team in the vicinity of 20 wins.

During the first half of the season, it appeared as though Ohio would be a team that would contend for the automatic NCAA Tournament bid, but an injury to star forward Antonio Campbell 16 games into the season derailed those plans and has the program trying to find its next go-to guy.

Jordan Dartis, a 6-foot-2 junior guard, could be the team's workhorse in the backcourt. He registered 13.5 points along with 3.6 rebounds

After making the NCAA Tournament in 2015 and 2016, Buffalo had a 17-15 record last year with a squad being very top heavy in regards to production. The Bulls are hoping a star junior-college transfer can have a monster year for the program.

Six-foot-7 stretch player Jeremy Harris — 247Sports' second-rated JUCO transfer in the 2017 class, can do it all. Harris nailed over 44 percent of his 3s last year while going for 18.7 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game while doing a good job of not turning the ball over.

Guard C.J. Massinburg is the better of the two returning double-digit scorers, averaging 14.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while hitting just over 33 percent of his threes.

The addition of Harris is monstrous and should get Buffalo into the upper-half of the MAC standings, with its ceiling being 20 wins and a big run in the conference tournament to make the field of 68.

Ball State won 21 games last year, giving it back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time in since doing it five straight years from the 1988-89 season through 1992-93. The Cardinals are still looking for their first NCAA Tournament trip since 2000, and their sharp-shooting guards could take them to the dance.

Taylor Persons should be a MAC Player of the Year candidate after he went for 15.5 points 4.9 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game all while making nearly 42 percent of his 3s.

With Incarnate Word transfer Jontrell Walker now eligible, it gives Ball State perhaps the best stable of guards in the conference. In two seasons at the Southland school, Walker averaged 13.1 points per game and nailed 35 percent of his 3s.

In regards to Ball State’s bigs, it will build around junior Trey Moses, who had 9.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Tahjai Teague stepped up as a 6-foot-8 freshman as he had 7.3 points and 5.8 boards per game and provided versatility as he hit 41 percent of his 3s.

The Cardinals could be the MAC favorites. Western Michigan had a slow start to the season, starting out 3-8, but won nine straight games late in the year before being bounced by Ball State in the MAC Tournament.

Do-it-all point guard Thomas Wilder considered the NBA, declaring for the draft, but decided to come back after going for 19.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game while hitting 44 percent of his 3s as a junior.

The Broncos are a scary team. They should compete for the MAC title, though the depth of teams like Ball State may overwhelm them and prevent Western Michigan from getting to the dance for the first time since 2014.

Sticking with the .500 teams from the state of Michigan theme, Central Michigan was 16-16 last year but could be one of the conference's most putrid teams this year.

The squad relied so heavily on Marcus Keene, who led the nation with 30 points per game and also chipped in 4.9 assists and 4.5 rebounds. Throw in the graduation of guard Braylon Rayson, who had 21.2 points per game, and it leaves the team without 58 percent of its scoring from last year with two departures alone.

The team was third in the nation last year in scoring at 88.3 points per game, but with two star guards out of the picture, it will likely cause Central Michigan to play a slower style that is centered around its forwards.

It helps that Cleveland State transfer Gavin Peppers has entered the program, after he notched 15.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and three assists per game at the JUCO level in 2015-16. He received a medical redshirt last year, so exactly what coach Keno Davis is getting is unknown.

If 6-foot-9, 195-pound freshman A.J. Bullard and 6-foot-11 senior Luke Meyer can be impact players, it gives this team perhaps the most size in the MAC. There is no chance this team leads the nation in made 3-pointers, which it did last year, but that size will also improve a defense that was third-worst in regards to points per game allowed. This year's team is quite different from last year's yet the result will be the same. This will likely be a .500 team again.

Toledo also went .500 last year with a 17-17 record and is hoping roster turnover pans out. Rockets coach Tod Kowalczyk brought in three-star freshman point guard Dwayne Rose, who was one of the better prospects in the Midwest. He can distribute and defend with pretty good efficiency and should pair well with former Colorado stretch player Tre'Shaun Fletcher.

The Rockets do have a pretty prolific returning player in the backcourt with Jaelan Sanford coming off a season in which he scored 13.6 points per game and added 3.1 assists. Toledo might be the team in the conference with the largest gap between its ceiling and floor. This season could be a disaster where it struggles to get to 13 or 14 wins, or it could eclipse 20 wins and be in the hunt for a good seed in the MAC Tournament.

The last of the three directional Michigan schools, Eastern Michigan, has seen its win total dip in each of the past four years, with the 2016-17 season mark being 16-17, ironically.

The team loses two guys who both averaged 15.7 points in Willie Mangum and Ray Lee, but does retain main post presence iJames Thompson IV. The 6-foot-10 center proved he could be a highly efficient player as a freshman when he tied a then-NCAA record with a stretch of 26 consecutive made field-goals during the 2015-16 season. He continued off his great start by recording 14.8 points and 11.2 rebounds per game as a sophomore.

A lot of the team around Thompson from last year is gone, so it will be up to a trio of transfers to give the junior a helping hand. Thompson should be in the running for MAC Player of the Year and lift this team toward the top of the MAC standings.

Northern Illinois finished 15-17 and went 4-8 in games decided by seven points or fewer last season. The Huskies need freshman Owen Hamilton to grow up quickly.

Hamilton, a 6-foot-11, 265-pound three-star recruit, was ranked as the 37th-best center in ESPN's recruiting class of 2017, and with the team's returning bigs being vanilla, he should be not only a starter, but perhaps the team's focal point.

The team's guard play will need to also step up, and it all starts with Laytwan Porter, who made over 40 percent of his 3s last year. He must put the ball in his hands more and get Dontel Highsmith going.  

Bowling Green coach Michael Huger is looking to do something that neither Dan Dakich nor Jim Larranaga could — take this team to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1968.

The Falcons finished 13-19 last year and are without their top two scorers from a season ago. The team is bringing in five true freshmen. With bigs Derek Koch, Matiss Kulackovskis and Joniya Gadson all entering the program as freshmen, Bowling Green will have one of the deepest stables of forwards in the MAC.

Expect plenty of growing pains this year. Hauger is doing a great job of recruiting and has the team trending in the right direction, but this young unit will take it's lumps.

The Miami (Ohio) RedHawks, once one of the better mid-major teams in the country in the early 2000s, have now endured eight straight losing seasons. Miami fired coach John Cooper after he had a 59-100 record in five seasons and replaced him with former Purdue assistant Jack Owens.

As is the case with most coaching changes, there was roster turnover, and Owens will have to move ahead without sophomore brothers Marcus and Michael Weathers, who was the MAC Freshman of the Year while notching team-bests 17.4 points, 1.9 steals 4.7 assists and 1.4 blocks per game.

That means it will be 6-foot-9 forward Logan McLane's team as he is the team's leader among returning players in many categories. He averaged 11.8 points and 6.5 rebounds last season.

To be blunt, it won't be a good year for the RedHawks, who might be lucky just to get to 10 wins.

As it normally is, the MAC should be extremely competitive, though many of the traditional powers are retooling for future years. Teams like Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan and Ball State should be in a dogfight for the conference crown along with recent riser Buffalo and perennial league powers Kent State and Ohio a bit behind the curve but still in position to get the conference’s NCAA bid.

Greg Peterson’s Mid-American Conference forecast:
1. Ball State
2. Western Michigan
3. Kent State
4. Eastern Michigan
5. Buffalo
6. Ohio
7. Akron
8. Toledo
9. Northern Illinois
10. Central Michigan
11. Bowling Green
12. Miami (Ohio)

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