Even though it’s still “early” in the season, relatively speaking, the arrival of the Mid-American Conference schedule usually brings some clarity to the standings.
By the time the calendar turns to January, there seems to be at least some separation between teams. Usually by now the top contenders are clear, the bottom-feeders are obvious, and the MAC schedule needs to deliver only shades of gray.
This season? Wow, that’s not the case. I’m pretty sure I’ve got the top two teams right (although you may disagree with the order), but the rest? I’m willing to listen to any argument you have … because I’m not sure I have the middle of the pack properly separated from the rest of the field. And the order? Well, I’m happy to listen to discussion on that as well.
For those of you new to the rankings, the premise is simple: If the MAC didn’t have divisions, how would the league’s 12 teams be ranked? These rankings are based on on-court performance, RPI rankings … and gut feelings.
So here they are: In time for the start of MAC play, here are my Power Rankings for MAC men’s basketball (The “LW” that normally stands for “last week” in this case stands for the final rankings last season) …
1. AKRON (8-5, 0-0 MAC) (LW #1): Rocket fans can argue all they want about this one … and, frankly, they may be right. But the Zips just ran through an unholy gauntlet of games and were generally competitive against nationally ranked competition. And yes, I’ve got the Jan. 18 game against Toledo circled on my calendar, although the Zips face a tough game at Ohio on Jan. 12 first. RPI: 121.
2. TOLEDO (12-1, 0-0 MAC) (LW #4): Yes, 12-1 is impressive. But what was perceived as a big win at Boston College has lost some luster as the Eagles have gone 3-11, and the Rockets have beaten only three teams with a winning record. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying UT is overrated or will fall to earth. I’m just saying a strength of schedule rank of 222 does take some shine off the record. And yes, I’m looking forward to the Jan. 18 game at Akron, although I’d caution the Rockets to not look past the opener at Western Michigan. RPI: 43.
3. OHIO (10-3, 0-0 MAC) (LW #2): Remember last year’s highly regarded senior class? Well, the Bobcats seem to have overcome their departure quite nicely, thank you. Two of this team’s losses are to nationally ranked Ohio State and UMass, and I’m a big fan of OU’s win at Richmond just before Christmas. Losing Ricardo Johnson to a leg injury is a blow, but this team has the horses to replace him. Opening MAC play with games against Kent State and Akron will show if those horses are stepping up to the challenge. RPI: 66.
4. EASTERN MICHIGAN (8-5, 0-0 MAC) (LW #8): If you want my pick for a dark-horse candidate to do damage in league play, the Eagles are it. Don’t be deceived by the .500 record: Four of the losses are to Kentucky, UMass, Duke and Syracuse. EMU also has beaten Cleveland State and Wisconsin-Green Bay, although both of those games were at home. This team will need to be better on the road to fulfill its promise, and the MAC schedule provides an early opportunity to do just that with games at Bowling Green and at Buffalo. RPI: 59.
5. WESTERN MICHIGAN (7-5, 0-0 MAC) (LW #3): The Broncos opened the season with a promising win over New Mexico State, but there haven’t been many eye-openers since. Worse, there was that cover-your-eyes loss at Northwestern where WMU managed just 35 points. But outside of the loss to the Wildcats, the other defeats are to a collection of good teams (Hawaii, North Dakota State, Missouri and Drake, with all but the NDSU setback coming on the road). WMU will get a shot at Toledo out of the gates, then play an important contest at EMU on Jan. 14. RPI: 189.
6. BUFFALO (6-4, 0-0 MAC) (LW #6): The season had a bumpy start with an acceptable loss to Texas A&M and then an unacceptable loss at Niagara. But since that time the Bulls have played better, and their most-recent result was a very good victory at Drexel. This team is positioned to move up these rankings quickly as their first two games are winnable home contests against NIU and EMU, but a tough test at Toledo Jan. 15 looms on the horizon. RPI: 122.
7. KENT STATE (9-4, 0-0 MAC) (LW #5): I would be tempted to rank the Golden Flashes higher, despite their graduation losses, if they would have posted a signature win. The only loss that really bothers me is the home loss to Bucknell in early December, although there are several other red flags: One is that the schedule was stacked with home games (nine of first 13 were at the MAC Center), and the other is the Flashes enter MAC play having lost three of their last four. Opening at home against Ohio will give KSU an early litmus test. RPI: 157.
8. BOWLING GREEN (6-7, 0-0 MAC) (LW #7): Up until the last week or so I have been impressed by the Falcons this season. Picked by many to finish last in the East, BG instead has played hard against a challenging schedule. And although the Falcons haven’t earned a signature win, they certainly gave Xavier everything it wanted and then gutted out a nice victory at Morehead State. The “road” is set for this team to get off to a fast start in MAC play as BG is at home for its first three games against EMU, NIU and CMU. RPI: 152.
9. NORTHERN ILLINOIS (6-6, 0-0 MAC) (LW #11): The Huskies have won the games you would expect them to win, with the exception of the early home loss to James Madison. And the schedule has included its share of heavyweights, including UMass and Iowa State. The MAC schedule-maker has done NIU no favors, though, as the Huskies open with road games at Buffalo and Bowling Green, then come home to host Kent State and Ohio before traveling to Toledo. Ouch. RPI: 186.
10. CENTRAL MICHIGAN (7-5, 0-0 MAC) (LW #12): The Chippewas are young, so some early season missteps shouldn’t be a surprise. But the home loss to Montana State can’t just be explained away like that. Also CMU enters MAC play coming off a loss to a not-so-good Jacksonville State -- and not having played since Dec. 17. I’d hate to say the MAC opener at home against Miami is must-win, but … RPI: 251.
11. BALL STATE (3-8, 0-0 MAC) (LW #9): The Cardinals have been blistered by a strong schedule that has them limping into MAC play on a seven-game losing streak against Division I opponents (BSU’s last game was an easy win over Oakland City). There is some talent in the starting lineup, but very little depth and a penchant for turning the ball over. And those problems must be solved quickly, since the Cards open MAC play against Akron, then are at Kent State and at Ohio. RPI: 310.
12. MIAMI (4-7, 0-0 MAC) (LW #10): Make sure you bring a program when you watch this team play, because the RedHawks are turning over the roster even thought it's only mid-season. Reggie Johnson and Blake McLimans are out, but talented Oregon transfer Willie Moore is in. Moore will need to be instantly productive for a squad that is showing improvement -- enough improvement that it may escape the basement soon. RPI: 141.
Click here to read the MAC men's basketball preview by The Blade sports writer Ryan Autullo.