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What we've learned about MAC basketball heading into conference play

Could Akron win 25 games this year? How good does Miami have to be in MAC play for John Cooper to keep his job?

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Akron is the best team in the conference, but can't coast to the championship

The Zips are tied for the best record in the MAC with Northern Illinois at 11-2 and are the highest ranked team in the conference per KenPom (58th). Akron has the MAC's best win (at Arkansas) and losses at only current #16 Villanova and 8-5 Green Bay. So that means the Zips will be the #1 seed right?

Not so fast. The Zips won't run away with the title, and it's partly because of their schedule. Yes the East might be the weaker division, but the West cross-over games don't give Akron any favors. They'll have to face Central Michigan (last year's co-regular season champ) and upstart Northern Illinois twice, while traveling to probable West favorite Toledo and rebounding Ball State. It's of very little doubt that the Zips will get a top four seed, but their schedule and recent play show that Akron will have to really earn it if they want the regular season championship.

They're still #3MU, but this time they're unimpressive

They're still shooting it more than anybody else around the MAC. The Chippewas currently rank 17th nationally with 384 3-point attempts, they're just making their shots a little less frequently than they did a year ago. It's not a huge difference though; last year they made 37.2 percent of these shots and have only dipped to 36.2 percent through the first 13 games on the year.

Central Michigan finished their turnaround season going 23-9, ending with a loss to Louisiana Tech in the opening round of the NIT. Through their first 13 games then, they started off going 11-2 which is a vastly different look for where the team is now: a near-300 RPI squad. They're rebounding less, Chris Fowler's injury showed that the team isn't the same without him, John Simons' shooting has dipped, teams that they should beat by 15 are turning things into nail-biters. They'll definitely have to polish up real quick.

Western Michigan really misses Connar Tava

Every couple of seasons Steve Hawkins has an off year and this one certainly looks like it'll be a struggle to get to .500 in conference play. The team has good talent - Thomas Wilder and Tucker Haymond have been putting up all-MAC numbers - but it sorely misses Connar Tava. The Broncos are just 6-7, but at least they haven't had any bad losses.

Tava was the heart and soul of the team, and after suffering a broken left foot in October, is out indefinitely after surgery. The senior forward was a jack-of-all trades for the Broncos last season, leading the team in rebounding and assists, while finishing second in scoring behind David Brown. As an undersized power forward, he was a match-up problem for opponents. He could handle the ball well and make a lot of basketball plays, not normally characteristics of a 245-pound forward.

A.J. Avery has started in his place, but just can't reproduce exactly what Tava gives to the Broncos. He's averaging a respectable 8 points and 6 rebounds per game in 23 minutes of play. It'll be a rough go to try and replace what Tava meant to Steve Hawkins' squad, but guys like Avery and Kellen McCormick will have to step up in conference play. If they can't fill Tavas' shoes, a sub-.500 season could be in the cards.

Toledo isn't going to fall off from losing three top scorers

"Juice" Brown, J.D. Weatherspoon, Justin Drummond. All three of them averaged a half hour on the floor per game, shooting percentages all over 45 percent, and all were double-digit scorers on a consistent basis. Half of the current roster is made up of freshmen, so it's no wonder why Toledo didn't get a lot of heavy praising in the preseason polls.

But they're just still better than you expected them to be. Nathan Boothe might be the most effective big man in the conference, who went from averaging 10 to 18 points per game since last season. The Rockets also have Jonathan Williams whose average is a MAC-best 19.7 ppg. As a team, they're the best at scoring, commit the fewest turnovers, share the ball well, getting solid play from their freshmen like Jaelen Sanford and Nate Navigato.

Eastern Michigan can still win games when James Thompson fouls out, it's just much harder to do

Dude's a beast. Had it not been for some legal issues, the 18-year old would probably be playing for the undefeated South Carolina Gamecocks right now. Thankfully for Eastern Michigan fans, they'll get to appreciate the talents that the SEC is missing out on right now, as well as the foreseeable future. It's still extremely early in his collegiate career, but he's already the best center with offensive game in the Rob Murphy era.

Unfortunately, he fouls out of some games here and there, which was almost to be expected before the season even began. The depth at the 5 has been a huge question mark coming into the season with only redshirt-freshman Jordan Nobles and starting forward Brandon Nazione as real replacements behind him. Nazione is also aggressive on the boards (nine games with at least seven rebounds), but when it gets to be crunch time, ideally you'd want both of those guys out on the floor together. Nobles is still learning on the fly, has good height at 6-foot-9, but his sub-200 pound stature puts him in a disadvantage with other centers around the MAC (Boothe 250 lbs., Luke Meyer 225 lbs., Martin Maric 250 lbs.).

Ohio, Ball State and Northern Illinois are better than last season - but aren't championship contenders yet

These three teams are already well on their way to eclipsing last season's win total - Ball State already has - and are hungry for more. Ohio, at 9-3, has won all of the games they were supposed to, but didn't come up with that signature non-conference win. Antonio Campbell has been a revelation this season averaging nearly a double-double. Newcomers Jaaron Simmons and Kenny Kaminski have been fantastic and will give coaches a headache in conference play. Depth is an issue though, and the Bobcats have shown the ability to play down to their competition.

Ball State might have the second-best win in the conference - at home over Valpo - and their nine wins are already two more than last season. Franko House, Bo Calhoun and Ryan Weber have all been solid, but all of the Cardinals' wins save Valpo have been over sub-200 Ken Pom or non-D1 teams. Things will get much tougher in MAC play, and we'll see early on if these Cardinals are for real or not.

Northern Illinois is kind of in the same boat - a nice record at 11-2 but not many great wins. This is also a young team, with most of the bench and some starters being freshmen or sophomores. How they will hold up in conference play is a major story - and who knows maybe they will carry over their stellar play into the MAC season. They won't be vying for a top-four seed, but they'll be higher than the were last season.

The time to win is now for John Cooper at Miami - or he may not be in Oxford much longer

Cooper is in the fourth year of a five year contract he signed when being named head coach in 2012. During those four years (including this season), the former Tennessee State leader has a 41-66 record. It's obviously a tough job to follow a legend like Charlie Coles, but RedHawk fans are used to winning seasons and Cooper hasn't yet gotten over the 13-win mark.

This season has been a wildly inconsistent one. Miami has a good win over Northeastern and a one-point loss at Dayton. But, they also lost to Florida Atlantic (2-12) and South Carolina State (6-10) at home and IUPUI (5-12) on the road. Cooper can't have that, and those teams are worse than any team in the MAC.

Bringing in transfers like Willie Moore and Dion Wade hasn't worked, and the best player he's had during his tenure is playing cornerback for the Packers. Getting a .500 record or above in conference play is a must, and with this teams' inconsistencies that could be a major problem. It'll be interesting to see how this situation shakes out at the end of the season.