What have we learned from the pre-season? Well, the only sure thing we learned is that predicting the final MAC standings at this point in the season is as difficult as ever, because the teams are bunched as tightly as ever.
The good news is that, entering conference play, the MAC seems to be highly regarded nationally, ranking 13th among the 31 conferences in terms of RPI. But how will the league’s teams sort themselves out for the league tournament? We won’t know for sure until March.
But that won’t keep us from making a few predictions. In that spirit, here is a look at the league’s 12 teams, with rankings based on performance – and projected development – during the coming season. Here we go. …
1. AKRON (9-4): I know a lot of people expected Ohio to be in this spot now –- and the Bobcats could well be here at season’s end –- but at this point the Zips have earned this position. I’m willing to forgive the hard-to-explain season-opening loss at Coastal Carolina, and Akron deserves credit for a nice win over Middle Tennessee. This remains a deep team, and no other MAC team has a center to match up with Zeke Marshall (13.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg). Over the course of the regular-season, I think this team will finish at the top of the heap. RPI: 95.
2. OHIO (9-5): I know the Bobcats return a ton of starters from last year’s Sweet 16 squad, but it looks as if it’s taking time for new coach Jim Christian and the returning players to mesh. The mid-December loss to Winthrop – at home, no less – is a head-scratcher, and the rest of the schedule wasn’t terribly challenging. In short, for the most park OU beat the teams it was expected to lose to and really didn’t have any wins over teams it needed to upset. We’ll see if things change for D.J. Cooper (14.1 ppg, 8.5 apg), Walter Offutt (12.0 ppg) and company once MAC play begins. RPI: 162.
3. WESTERN MICHIGAN (8-5): Last season this squad probably was the MAC’s biggest underachievers, but this year the Broncos seem to be overachieving a bit. After opening with a tough loss at Cornell, WMU won five straight, including a solid victory over a good South Florida squad (on the road). Nate Hutcheson (12.6 ppg) has become the player everyone expected him to be, and freshman Darius Paul has provided scoring (12.0 ppg) and rebounding (6.7 rpg) help. Are the Broncos for real? Good question. I think it won’t take long to find an answer, since Western Michigan’s first three games are at Akron, home against Ohio and home against Toledo. RPI: 61.
4. KENT STATE (9-5): The Golden Flashes lost a lot of high-profile players from last season, but whispers around the program seemed to indication that cleaning the slate would be a good thing for KSU. The Flashes don’t have any “bad” losses, but it would have been nice to beat tough-but-not-overwhelming teams such as Valparaiso and Princeton at home. Trouncing Nebraska on the road was a good win. Seniors Chris Evans (16.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg) and Randal Holt (13.4) need to keep rolling for KSU to compete against the elite East Division teams such as Akron and Ohio. RPI: 148.
5. EASTERN MICHIGAN (7-7): The Eagles have faced one of the toughest schedules in the MAC, and trying to mesh a new cast quickly has resulted in some bumps along the way. By season’s end the home win over Purdue may not seem so impressive, but a win over a Big Ten school should not be overlooked. Derek Thompson, the transfer from Southeast Missouri State, seems to have adjusted well (12.3 ppg), but watch out for EMU if guys such as Glenn Bryant (10.4 ppg) figure things out. RPI: 155.
6. TOLEDO (5-7): The Rockets deserve credit for a good win over an underappreciated Illinois-Chicago team, but losing at home to Chicago State definitely is a stinker. By season’s end UT may push to a spot with the MAC’s elite teams, but at this point the Rockets have underperformed against a schedule that certainly has its soft spots. Rian Pearson (19.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and Julius “Juice” Brown (13.5 ppg, 4.2 apg) have been solid, but will someone step up to help them? RPI: 246.
7. BUFFALO (5-9): The Bulls also have played a tough schedule, but also have struggled against the competition, with several of their victories coming against non-Division I competition. UB had a nice road win at Evansville early in the season and also beat a decent Niagara team, but losing to Yale on a neutral site is tough to swallow. Javon McCrea certainly has done his part, averaging 15.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. If 3-point shooters Will Regan (60 percent on 3’s) and Tony Watson (43.9 percent on 3’s, making 2.3 per game) continue to have success shooting from the outside, this team will be a handful. RPI: 218.
8. BALL STATE (6-6): The Cardinals have a few “nice” wins, but certainly no spectacular ones. And BSU certainly has a black eye with a loss to IUPUI and a near-loss to Norfolk State in its last two games, both of which were at home. Jesse Berry has stepped up his scoring, averaging 14.3 ppg, while junior college transfer Majok Majok has provided scoring (11.2 ppg) and rebounding (10.5 rpg, tops in the MAC). After opening at Eastern Michigan, the Cards will be truly tested with a home game against Kent State and a challenge at Akron. RPI: 232.
9. BOWLING GREEN (5-8): This seems to be the classic middle-division MAC team: difficult to beat at home (witness the good win over Detroit early in the season) but struggling on the road (with bad losses to IUPUI on a neutral site and at North Dakota). The Falcons have an impressive one-two scoring punch in seniors A’uston Calhoun (16.2 ppg and 7.2 rpg) and Jordon Crawford (15.5 ppg and 3.8 apg), but someone else needs to step for BG to balance the offense. RPI: 292.
10. MIAMI (5-7): For years coach Charlie Coles featured a deliberate offense and a stingy defense. Now new coach John Cooper has the RedHawks runnin’ and gunnin’. It’s going to take an adjustment to seeing this team rank at the bottom of the MAC in scoring defense as Miami currently is allowing 71.3 points per game. One thing that didn’t change was the RedHawks’ tradition of tough scheduling as the team has taken on N.C. State and Louisville, not to mention five teams with an RPI in the top 100. A bad loss to IPFW is balanced by a nice win over Illinois-Chicago. The question is whether players recruiting for Coles’ style can play Cooper’s style for an entire season without wearing down. RPI: 139.
11. CENTRAL MICHIGAN (8-6): Speaking of new faces, here’s another team developing a completely different identity under new coach Keno Davis. The return of just five players, none of whom averaged more than three points per game last season, hasn’t stopped the Chippewas from posting a record above the .500 mark, and there aren’t any “bad” losses on their resume. Senior Kyle Randall (15.5 ppg) has stepped forward, but will a lack of depth eventually slow CMU down? RPI: 103.
12. NORTHERN ILLINOIS (2-10): This continues to be a long-term building project for coach Mark Montgomery as the Huskies continue to struggle on offense. NIU ranks last in the MAC in field-goal shooting (37.5 percent) and 3-point shooting (27.7 percent), so they predictably rank last in the league in scoring (56.9 ppg). The Huskies’ top scorer is a freshman, Akeem Springs (9.8 ppg). NIU continues to play good defense (the Huskies rank third in the league in turnovers forced) and rebound well (they have a positive rebounding margin), but they still need more players to compete in the league. RPI: 329.