So far the MAC has kind of been a one-horse race with everyone else falling in line. Toledo has been leading the way in both the win-loss column as well as national attention, gaining numerous mentions and articles after being one of the final few teams in the country with an undefeated record. That ended on December 30th with a loss at Kansas, but that close loss showed the nation how good the Rockets can be. It also put the rest of the conference on notice. These aren't the same Rockets of three and four years ago. This is a team that can go to the Big Dance.
MAC play gets underway Wednesday night (all games are at 7 p.m. ET, which is the most frustrating thing ever). Before we delve into that, let's look back on non-conference play and what transpired.
(Note: CBS Sports' College Basketball team put together 'Conference Resets' for the major conferences, so I'm going to follow a similar pattern for the MAC because they didn't do one =(, jerks).
MAC Representative in the NCAA Tournament: Toledo
Teams that are capable of making the NIT: Ohio, Akron
Teams that will make another post-season tournament (CBI or CIT): Ohio, Akron, Kent State, Buffalo, Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan
No postseason: Bowling Green, Northern Illinois, Central Michigan, Miami, Ball State
Best wins so far: New Mexico State (Western Michigan); Cleveland State (Eastern Michigan, Toledo, Akron); Temple (Kent State); Richmond, Northern Iowa (Ohio); Drexel, St. Bonaventure (Buffalo)
Worst losses: Wilmington (Miami); Jacksonville State (Central Michigan)
Coach on the hot seat: Bowling Green's Louis Orr has been on the hot seat for the past couple years or so. Orr led the Falcons to a MAC regular season championship his second year at the helm, but hasn't done anything sense. He's 94-108 (.465) at Bowling Green, and if you take out the only winning season he's just 75-94 (.444). His situation is similar to how Billy Taylor's was last year. Taylor had been leading Ball State for awhile and just could not field a winning team. The Cardinals were in a state of annual mediocrity, and Ball State fired him last season. Orr's contract is up after this season, and the results on the court are not really warranting another year. Add on to the fact that a new AD is in town, and the stage is set for a coaching change.
Team better than its record: Akron is just 8-5, which is weird to see from the powerhouse program of the conference. They've played a tough schedule and have lost to good, solid teams. The Zips aren't really playing all that well right now, but it's never smart to count them out. I could also throw Ball State in here; they're just 3-8 but have played many really good high-level opponents.
Team not as good as its record: Central Michigan sits at 7-5, but they haven't beaten anyone with a KenPom rating over 250 and have two wins against non-D1 competition. There is a cause for hope in the Chips program with Keno Davis in charge, but their record is inflated against pretty awful competition.
Five must-watch games:
1. Akron vs. Ohio (January 12)
2. Toledo vs. Akron (January 18)
3. Toledo vs. Ohio (February 1)
4. Toledo vs. Eastern Michigan (February 15)
5. Buffalo vs. Kent State (February 22)
Player of the Year favorite: This is tough, but I'll give it to Javon McCrea. McCrea has been playing lights-out lately and is really becoming a true NBA prospect. Here are his stats and rankings in the conference so far this season: 17.7 points per game (2nd), 9.6 rebounds per game (2nd), 1.7 steals per game (6th!), 2.5 blocks per game (3rd), and 57.4% field goal percentage (2nd). Not to mention he leads the league in Player Efficiency Rating, which takes into account everything a player produces on the floor and spits out a number. Looking at his statistics he's the best all-around player in the conference which makes him the favorite for player of the year.
Freshman of the Year favorite: This one is actually pretty easy. Zavier Turner, Ball State's freshman point guard, is the one guy that's producing in bunches that you haven't heard about because he's on an underwhelming team. Turner's numbers are terrific, and when you throw in that he has the best free throw percentage in the nation (97%), it's pretty amazing what he is doing in Muncie. He's also lethal from beyond the arc, co-leading the MAC in three-pointers made with 27. A point guard's true mark of success is his assist numbers and Turner excels in that area as well. He's sixth in the league in assists, which is tough to do as just a freshman.
Storylines for the rest of the season:
1. Can anyone beat Toledo?
I only see four potential losses on Toledo's conference slate: at Akron (1/18), at Ohio (2/1), Ohio (2/12) and at Eastern Michigan (2/15). The Rockets have shown in the non-conference that they'll take care of lower-level teams, beating most teams pretty badly. But, the early part of the season didn't go without a few hiccups, as both Cleveland State and Detroit had good chances of knocking the Rockets off. Toledo doesn't play defense that well and that's major problem when their shooters aren't hitting. I'm picturing a massive struggle their first game against Eastern Michigan where that zone totally fazes them out of their rhythm. Ohio matches up well with the Rockets and Akron is always a tough place to play.
2. Will Akron be able to repeat as conference regular season champions?
This is a tough one. The Zips have had stretches where they look like the best team in the conference. Then there's the ugly Akron team that turns the ball over, shoots way too many threes and doesn't get back on transition defense. If the team that beat Oregon State shows up 75% of the time, they'll have no problem getting twenty wins and being a top-two seed in the MAC Tournament. However, if "Ugly Akron" comes to play, they can be beaten by anyone.
3. Can Kent State get to their coveted twenty-win season and make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament?
The Flashes currently sit at 9-4, and an 11-7 record in the MAC is more than likely to happen. They get Northern Illinois, Bowling Green, Miami, and Central Michigan twice and get Ball State at home. That's (likely) eight wins there, so they'd only need to go 3-6 against the top six teams in the conference. Now as far as the Flashes winning the conference tournament, I think that may be a stretch. They're talented but I don't think they are deep enough to contend. Kent State is going to play in the postseason, but it just might be the CBI or College Insider Tournament.
4. Is this Eastern Michigan's year to take the next step?
The Eagles have been constantly just a little better than mediocre, which isn't a bad thing but also isn't a good thing. They're playing better this year and are actually scoring a lot of points which is a nice change. The sharp rise of Toledo has to be disheartening to the Eastern Michigan fans; this really could have been their year to win the MAC West and have a shot at the NCAA Tournament. Now, with the Rockets in the fold, they're back to being number two in the division and will need to knock off the Rockets at some point during the year. They have all the talent they need, and the addition of Karrington Ward has been huge. Da'Shonte Riley has been playing much better and Mike Talley and Ray Lee have formed a great backcourt tandem. Eastern will go as far as their offense takes them, but it probably won't be enough to top Toledo in the division.
5. What are the chances Northern Illinois doesn't finish in last?
Actually they are pretty good. The Huskies have looked vastly improved and have beaten teams that are on the same level as them, which they were never really able to do. Northern Illinois won't score a lot of points, but they can play defense. In non-blowout losses (ten games), they only allowed an average of 61.4 points per game. That's pretty good and they only went 6-4 in those games. Those close losses eventually turn into wins, and now that they've had some time to play together things might start clicking. Only having to play Akron and Ohio once certainly helps out and they'll get Ball State and Central Michigan twice. I could see them knocking off a top-tier team this season, and finally the Huskies won't be an automatic victory.