The greatest thing about MAC men's basketball over the past two seasons is that there has been a rise in parity. It's no longer a case of Akron and Ohio playing for the MAC championship seemingly every year. The biggest surprise of all this past season was the emergence of a Central Michigan team that improved its conference win total by nine to go from being an 11 seed in the tournament to taking the regular season championship in the next season.
The 2015 tournament was shocking as well. It was the first time in a long time that people overlooked the Akron Zips. The seven seeded Zips won three games in four days before losing by nine to Buffalo in Akron's tenth consecutive trip to the MAC semifinals. With a win over arch rival Kent State in the quarterfinal, Akron became one of just five current Division I programs to win at least 21 games in each of the past ten seasons.
Let's not forget about the champion, the Buffalo Bulls. For the first time ever, the Bulls won the MAC tournament and played in the NCAA Tournament. The Bulls were the two seed in the MAC tournament, beating Akron and Central Michigan to become a 12 seed in the NCAA tournament, where they lost to West Virginia in the second round. Shortly after the college basketball season concluded, head coach Bobby Hurley was hired for the same position by Arizona State. Standout guard Shannon Evans then followed Hurley to Tempe to continue playing for his beloved coach.
I'll keep this preview short, after all, a lot can happen in a span of five months. I'll count down each team in order of where I think they'll be seeded after the regular season. Here goes:
12: Bowling Green Falcons
The Falcons finished last season with a conference record of 11-7 (The top three seeds all went 12-6) and made it to Quicken Loans Arena for the first time in four years after beating 12 seeded Ball State in the first round. Unfortunately, head coach Chris Jans was fired after one year for an incident at a local bar. Program alumnus and Jim Larrañaga disciple Michael Huger was hired as the new head coach, and he has a big job ahead of him.
11: Ohio Bobcats
I believe they call it #SaulBall. Well, if #SaulBall means winning just five league games and ten overall, I don't think many Bobcat fans are thrilled with the job that Saul Phillips did in his first season as head coach of Ohio. Ohio used a seven to eight man rotation down the stretch of the season and ran out of gas in many games. At least two good young players will return in sophomores Ryan Taylor and Mike Laster. Plus, Ohio baseball and women's basketball went from bad to great in one year, so men's basketball should too, right?
10: Ball State Cardinals
It was looking good for the Cardinals after one week of MAC play. An overtime road win and and 18-point beat-down of Central Michigan helped the Cardinals match their previous season's conference win total. Sadly, 16 losses in a row kept the Cardinals from improving their MAC win total. They are 4-32 in league play since the start of the 2013-2014 season. The Cardinals should win some more games this upcoming season, and MAC freshman of the year Sean Sellers could be the one to lead them to contention in the next few seasons.
9: Eastern Michigan Eagles
I don't think I've ever seen a 21-win team as an eight seed in the conference tournament. The Eagles were able to win at Michigan during nonconference play, and even beat Bowling Green to advance to the MAC quarterfinals in the tournament. In between those games, there's a whole lot of confusion. With guards Mike Talley and Raven Lee along with forward Karrington Ward, it's safe to say that this team didn't reach its full potential. Lee could be one of the top guards in the MAC in this upcoming season, but I don't think Rob Murphy's 2-3 zone defense matches up well in a jump-shooting league like the MAC.
8: Northern Illinois Huskies
Last year was supposed to be the year that Northern Illinois took the next step in the MAC. Jordan Threloff's great junior season led many to believe, including myself, that the Huskies had a legitimate shot at a MAC title in 2015. An 8-10 finish in MAC play was overshadowed by late wins over Toledo, Central Michigan, and Western Michigan, which led to some people to believe that the Huskies could make a tournament run. Well, the ten seed Huskies lost by 26 at Akron in the first round, ending their season. Jordan Threloff is done, but Mark Montgomery was able to land a 4-star guard in Marshawn Wilson for the upcoming season. Wilson could help this team contend for the west, but they may not be ready to yet.
7: Miami RedHawks
John Cooper is slowly turning Miami into a scary team to play. Last season, Cooper started three to four guards in nearly every game. Will Sullivan won't return next season, but Eric Washington and Geovonie McKnight could end up being the best guard combo in the MAC. The guards force turnovers and orchestrate a fast break offense in ideal situations, as Miami could once again struggle against big teams due to having a center that is just 6-foot-10 and weighs about 190lbs. They may not be a contender, but the RedHawks could spoil championships for other teams down the stretch like they did to Akron last year.
6: Toledo Rockets
The Rockets were incredibly underwhelming last year given the fact that they probably had the most talent in the MAC. A starting lineup of Juice Brown, Jonathan Williams, Justin Drummond, JD Weatherspoon, and Nathan Boothe should have dominated the MAC. Their 11-7 conference record was only good enough for the four seed in the tournament, where they beat Eastern Michigan and then lost to Central Michigan in the semifinal. Brown, Drummond, and Weatherspoon have all graduated, leaving two starters and a deep bench with little skill. Tod Kowalczyk is capable of making Toledo a champion, he just hasn't done it despite having talented teams.
5: Kent State Golden Flashes
Kent State was a bit of a surprise last year. A season after going 16-16 overall, the Flashes won a share of the MAC East regular season title and got the three seed in the tournament. Hofstra transfer forward Jimmy Hall became one of the best big men in the MAC as a sophomore. The senior guards Derek Jackson, Kris Brewer, and Dev Manley led many to pick Kent State as the favorite going into the tournament. They shot well, they had a great post presence, and they played some pretty good defense. So, why did they lose to seven seeded Akron in their first MAC tournament game? I, for one, believe that Rob Senderoff is still far from being a great coach in the MAC. Pair that with losing all three of the top guards, and I don't see the Flashes being any better than a five seed next season.
4: Western Michigan Broncos
No more David Brown or Austin Richie? No problem! The Broncos did have a tough season last year without Shayne Whittington and an injury to Austin Richie, but with good young players like Drake LaMont and Thomas Wilder paired with veterans like Tucker Haymond, Connar Tava, and Taylor Perry, don't be surprised to see the Broncos back in the MAC championship game.
3: Buffalo Bulls
Finally, the Bulls were able to win a MAC championship and go dancing for the first time. However, head coach Bobby Hurley and star guard Shannon Evans are now soaking up the sun in Tempe, Arizona at Arizona State. Will Regan and MAC tournament MVP Xavier Ford have finished their careers at Buffalo with a MAC title. Even with a few big losses, MAC player of the year Justin Moss returns as one of the best mid-major power forwards in the country. Sophomore guard Lamonte Bearden also returns as does Jarryn Skeete. Rodell Wiggington is also coming back. The only concern I have is new head coach Nate Oats. I don't know what his style of play is, but if he replicates Hurley's style of play, the Bulls may dance again.
2: Akron Zips
Before you call me a stupid homer, let me tell you why Akron will be back atop the MAC next year.
The Zips have what they didn't have a year ago, and that is experience. Keith Dambrot has an extremely young team that happens to be talented as well. Akron returns two sophomore point guards in Noah Robotham and Antino Jackson. Jackson's incredible performance down the stretch of last season showed that he can play in tough situations when Robotham can't (foul trouble, bad game, etc). Akron also has a great center in Pat Forsythe, who began to blossom last season, but likely has yet to show his full abilities. Forward Kwan Cheatham may have been redshirted last year if not for the domestic incident involving Demetrius Treadwell. Cheatham was a 6-foot-9 guard in high school, and he is still transitioning to the power forward role. One freshman that will likely play immediately in Joshua Williams from St. Vincent-St. Mary high school. Williams is part of one of Dambrot's best recruiting classes since he has gotten to Akron. A difficult nonconference schedule could prep the Zips for a run in March, similar to Buffalo's from a season before.
1: Central Michigan Chippewas
I really have no choice here. The Chips return nearly every member of their previous team that shot their way to a MAC runner-up. The issue I have with Central is that they chuck threes like crazy. That makes them really inconsistent. They lost to Ball State by 18 points in a game last year, but also beat Miami 105-77. The only time that I recall seeing them get away from the three-point shooting mentality was in the MAC championship game when Chris Fowler thought isolation hero ball would win his team a title. I have to admit, 6-foot-8 forward John Simons is a great shooter, but that's all he does. Again, I'm ranking the teams by how I think they'll be seeded, and I think Central Michigan will be able to shoot their way through the MAC West on their way to a second consecutive regular season title.
Again, a lot can change in five months, but I expect MAC basketball to be a fun ride once again.