The landscape of Mid-American Conference basketball has been dominated by a handful of teams, and an even smaller handful of names, over the past four or five seasons. The Akrons and Ohios have ruled the MAC, while once prestigious programs such as Kent State and Miami have struggled to gain footing.
Of course in college basketball, as in life, nothing is forever. Seasons end, players graduate and coaches move on. Such was the case after the 2012-2013 season when two of the conferences most decorated players ever, D.J. Cooper and Zeke Marshall, ran out of eligibility. A season later their former programs have gone from the class of the MAC to the second and third best squads in their own division. Meanwhile a new crop of teams have risen to the top, with Western Michigan, Toledo and Buffalo all stepping up to take over for Akron and Ohio atop the conference standings.
But as was the case a season ago, the top teams are going to lose some major pieces. In this case each squad is losing a leader. For Western Michigan it's Shayne Whittington, one of the best offensive minded centers the MAC has seen in some time. For Toledo it's Rian Pearson, a player who though only spent a few short seasons in Toledo, sparked the revitalization of a program that seems poised to sit atop the MAC for some time. Then there's Buffalo's Javon McCrea, one of the best players this conference has seen in the past 25 years.
With these teams leaving, there's sure to be
So who's poised to lead the conference in the future? Let's take a look:
If there's any team currently poised to have a long run atop the conference it's the Rockets. Owners of the best overall record (and co-MAC regular season champs) this season the Rockets lose just three seniors after this year, only one of which (Pearson) is a serious contributor.
Tod Kowalczyk has built his program up on transfers, such as Pearson, which allowed his team to transform into one of the better programs in a relatively short time. Transfers Justin Drummond and J.D. Weatherspoon are only juniors, while fellow starters Julius Brown and Nathan Boothe are a junior and sophomore respectively.
With that much returning talent, and a ton of fresh pieces coming in next season, Toledo is poised for what should be a nice long run atop the MAC. Here's some of those newer pieces
The All-MAC freshman guard was a 3-star recruit (Scout) in the Rockets 2013 recruiting class, and somehow managed to make an immediate impact on a team that almost exclusively avoided more than minor use of its bench. Williams has a nice touch from behind the arc, though he could get more consistent. With added minutes next season Williams could develop into one of the conference's better shooters and a true offensive threat for Kowalczyk's full-court up-tempo offense
Cuyler "Stuckey" Mosely
This 2-star guard out of Orlando is another potential big-time scorer in the Rockets offense. He's not as big as Williams, but has competed in a talent-rich area as a prep and will provide the Rockets with another 3-point marksman off the bench, until he can develop more parts of his game.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound forward is a redshirt transfer from Mississippi State who will be eligible for the Rockets in December. The former 3-star recruit signed with the Bulldogs back in 2012, and after redshirting the 2012-2013 season he played in a handful of games before deciding to transfer to UT. With Pearson leaving a void at the three, White has the size, and post presence to make an immediate impact for Toledo once he's eligible to play.
After years of middling performances Buffalo burst onto the MAC scene as a force in 2013-2014, winning the East and coming within a win of getting the top seed in the tournament. With the exciting young head coach (Bobby Hurley), the Bulls are moving in the right direction, but they are losing their best player, ever, and several key pieces. McCrea, Jarod Oldham, and first-year transfer Joshua Freelove will all be gone. That's a lot to lose, but still, the Bulls seem to be in a position to make some noise for some time.
One of the top freshman in the MAC this season, Evans burst on to the scene for the Bulls in a big way. The former 2-star recruit finished his debut season fourth on the team in scoring, and second in assists. Evans shot efficiency isn't good—he hit just 35 percent from the field, and 29 percent from 3-point range—but he can create his own shot and with better decision making could see those numbers drastically increase. Evans could be the focal point of the Bulls offense in a year or two if he can become more efficient and get better at creating his own shots.
Not only is Hurley winning immediately, he's having success on the recruiting trail too, surely do to his name (not a knock on him, use what you can to get the kids attention, but you have to win to keep it). His first recruiting class was among the best in the MAC, and featured the best incoming player (on paper) out of them all in 3-star point guard Lamonte Beardon. This is one of the nation's top prep point guard prospects. A high 3-star (4-star via Scout and ESPN) player who chose Buffalo over the likes of Oregon State. Beardon has the potential to develop into a dynamic point guard, capable of running Hurley's offense to a T, but will obviously need to adjust to the college level of play. Unless he's an absolute bust, Beardon will be the anchor of a program that is heading in all the right directions.
The 2012-2013 All-MAC freshman took over the PG position a season ago and showed all the signs of being a star in the making. But he regressed heavily in 2013-2014. His points-per-game fell by almost two a game, his assists fell by almost one a game, and his field goal percentage actually fell from its already poor 35 percent a season ago. He played about six minutes less a game this season, surely due to the addition of Joshua Freelove, but still, when he was on the court he clearly wasn't as effective as last year. But, Skeete still has great potential. With a year under Hurley and Beardon to provide solid competition Skeete can still develop into an All-MAC point guard, but he'll have to develop better pacing and a higher basketball IQ
A year removed from losing the most successful senior class in program history, which included three of the most accomplished players ever to step foot in Athens, the Bobcats completed a 21-win regular season. How did Ohio manage to avoid a big drop off despite losing so much? Through a mix of transfers and star recruits. Maurice Ndour showed that not only is Jim Christian willing to dip into the transfer ranks, he knows how to get some of the best JUCO players in the country to come to Athens. But Ndour only has one more season of eligibility left, meaning Ohio is going to have to rely on a whole new crop of talent in the coming years.
Good news, Christian, one of the MAC's most successful coaches ever, has shown he can find those pieces.
The freshman big man took some time to make an impact, but over the course of the final two weeks of the season Campbell showed what made him one of the most successful Kentucky prep players before he signed at Ohio. A big body, with a fantastic offensive skill set, he's the type of big that can dominate in the MAC. He has a fantastic touch, and can be a dynamite asset in the pick and roll, especially with a point guard like Bean Willis, who specialty plays right into Campbell's skill set. If Campbell can continue to develop offensively while improving his conditioning he's the type of player that christian can build a championship team around.
It's clear that Christian, owner of the best career conference winning percentage in MAC history, has a plan for this team: to be bigger and more athletic than the rest of the conference. Owens was a steal for the Bobcats when he signed back in November. A consensus high 3-star prep player, and a 4-star and top 100 prospect according to Scout, Owens is considered one of the best power forwards in the 2014 class. He's raw, there's no denying that, but at 6-foot-9 and growing, Owens possesses fantastic athleticism and a true talent for shot blocking. His offensive skill set still needs to develop, but as a compliment to a player like Campbell, Owens could turn into a dominant prototypical MAC center (which is really just a defensive minded stretch 4).
Another member of the 2013 recruiting class, Wingfield redshirted this season while recovering from minor preseason ankle surgery. Wingfield is a big 6-foot-5 guard who possesses great athleticism and the ability to play multiple positions. In high school Wingfield would run point occasionally, and possesses excellent court vision, he's also got an above average inside game. The problem with Wingfield is his jump shot leaves much to be desired. But a year of practice should have help him in that area.
The Best of the Rest:
These teams currently seem to be in the best position for long term success, but that's not to say they're the only teams out there with promising new or young talent. Here are some other names that should develop into some of the beter players in the MAC over the next few seasons
Isaiah Johnson, Akron freshman center
Johnson is a giant of a man. At 6-foot-10, 285 pounds he's about as big as you'll get in the MAC (outside from the random 7-footer who serves as little more than a big body or a shot blocker). Johnson is big enough to bully the average stretch four that pretends to be a center in the MAC, and has the skills to hold his own on the offensive end. He's already showed he can control the boards, but needs to develop a better inside game. He has the skills, the execution just isn't quite there yet. If he can take the necessary steps in the offseason he could easily be one of the better bigs in the MAC as a sophomore.
Zavier Turner, Ball State freshman point guard
The MAC Freshman of the Year, Zavier Turner showed he's going to be a force in the MAC for the next three seasons. He's already one of the conference's better 3-point marksman, can run an offense with the maturity of a much more experienced point guard, and has all the intangibles. Really the only thing Turner needs is more time, and pieces that compliment his style better. Like most young players, Turner's shot efficiency needs improvement. He could get better at creating shots and not just taking what the defense gives him, but as Ball State builds around him he has the potential to become one of the league's top stars.
Braylon Rayson, CMU freshman shooting guard
Braylon Rayson showed his potential as a dynamic offensive weapon with a 30-point performance in CMU's triple overtime win over Ball State late in the conference season. Rayson possess a nice jumper, and is more patient than some of his MAC contemporaries. He's undersized, but is the kind of natural shooter you can't teach. He will always be a bit streaky by nature, but if CMU can actually develop a post presence, he and All-MAC point guard Chris Fowler could combine to be one of the best backcourt duos in the league over the next few seasons.
Drake Lamont, Western Michigan center, class of 2014 signee
Losing Shayne Whittington is going to be a big blow to the Broncos, but with Drake Lamont they have a player with the potential to develop into one of the MAC's better bigs in a couple years. At 6-foot-9, 225 Lamont isn't as big as Whittington is now, but isn't far off from where Whittington was as a freshman. With some time to bulk up and develop in Hawkins' system Lamont could turn into a great cornerstone for WMU. He already has a nasty hook shot, and may be more defensively-blessed than Whittington, a big which has never been a dynamic shot-blocker.
Logan McLane, Zach McCormick, Miami PF SG, class of 2014 signees
This duo should give John Cooper a nice base of young talent to continue to build from. Both will have to sit for awhile as Miami's deep at their respective positions, but both are 3-star recruits with great offensive skill sets and immense upside.