Conference Outlook: Ohio, Akron, Kent State Atop MAC

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Current Illinois (and former Ohio) head coach John Groce used to say every team is 0-0 once Mid-American Conference play begins. If such is true, call the scorekeepers and tell them to open up a clean notebook because Wednesday, Jan. 9, the MAC tips off its conference schedule.

By record, Akron, Kent State and Ohio remain the league’s elite. However, the MAC has gathered so much positive national attention because of its competitiveness, not only with “power conference” teams but within the MAC itself. Although the Zips, Golden Flashes and Bobcats are on top for now, the nature of the conference indicates that it’s all up for grabs.

Akron (9-4)

Head coach Keith Dambrot, in his ninth season, touts one of the best teams in his history at Akron this season. That says quite a bit about the talent level of the Zips considering Dambrot’s 184-87 record through his first eight seasons. Akron, much like Ohio, brings back several of its most talented players including Bobcat-killers Alex Abreu and Zeke Marshall. Marshall continues his dominance over what is mostly an undersized league of opponents. At 7 feet tall, Marshall is fifth in rebounding in the MAC and leads in blocks. He has also poured in 13.3 points per game. In the conference, Abreu is second only to Ohio’s D.J. Cooper in assists. Akron also returns scorers Demetrius Treadwell, Nick Harney and sharpshooter Brian Walsh.

Ball State (6-6)

Ball State suffered a meltdown of epic proportions last season, starting with a 4-1 conference record only to lose nine of its next 10 games. Jarrod Jones, Randy Davis and Tyrae Robinson earned the most minutes for the Cardinals last season and were three of the team’s leading scorers. All three are gone. Jones in particular provided Ball State with 14.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, both team-leading. New recruit Majok Majok from Australia, however, is making Jones no more than a fond memory. Majok at 6 feet 9 inches is averaging double figures in points and rebounds. He leads the MAC with 10.2 rebounds per game.

Bowling Green (5-8)

Ohio fans get a sour taste in their mouths at the thought of Bowling Green, who, last season, spoiled the start of conference play for the Bobcats. Having lost Dee Brown and Scott Thomas this offseason, the Falcons’ offense is concentrated, for the most part, around two players. A’uston Calhoun and Jordon Crawford account for more than half of Bowling Green’s points this season. The Falcons faced a tough nonconference schedule this season including tournament regulars No. 22 Michigan State and Temple along with hopefuls South Florida and Cleveland State.

Buffalo (5-9)

The Bulls, Ohio’s first MAC opponent, were the No. 2 seed in the MAC Tournament last season, but lost in a struggle with the Bobcats in the semifinals. Buffalo lost big man Mitchell Watt at the conclusion of last season, leaving a gaping hole in its frontcourt. Javon McCrea, Watt’s fellow bruiser in the paint, has had to step up to fill the void. McCrea is fourth in the MAC with 15.8 points per game and also leads his team with 6.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. However, there is still something missing from the Buffalo team keeping it from getting over the hump. The Bulls have lost three games by less than five points and two more games by less than 10.

Central Michigan (7-6)

The Chippewas have been missing senior center Zach Saylor all season. Saylor, 6 feet 8 inches tall, is an extra body helping fill a crucial role on Central Michigan’s team. In a conference that, as mentioned, lacks tremendous size, someone like Saylor can be dearly missed. Olivier Mbaigoto leads the charge for the Chippewas in the post, but at only 6 feet 6 inches tall, he struggles against much larger opponents. Conference season typically brings out the physicality of many teams, which could plague the Chips’ depleted frontcourt. Central Michigan is also without its four leading scorers from last season, Trey Zeigler, Derek Jackson, Austin McBroom and Andre Coimbra. The Chippewas, to their benefit, have recovered fairly well from such big losses to stay above .500 heading into conference play.

Eastern Michigan (7-7)

Eastern Michigan endured perhaps the toughest nonconference onslaught of any MAC school. No. 2 Michigan, No. 7 Syracuse and Kentucky all received visits from the Eagles and all donated 89-point party favors on average. Aside from those three poundings, Eastern Michigan has played well enough to stay in the MAC West conversation. Head coach Rob Murphy reaches deep into his bench each game. Ten players have played 10 or more games for Eastern Michigan this season.

Kent State (9-5)

Led by seniors Chris Evans and Randal Holt on a team with weapons galore, Kent State finds itself in prime position to run with Ohio and Akron atop the MAC East this season. Head coach Rob Senderoff can run his finger down the roster card with his eyes closed and pick a starting lineup. Ten different Golden Flashes have made starts this season and all have contributed to the cause when given the chance. Kent State has 10 players averaging four points or more per game with Evans and Holt scoring 16.5 and 13.4 points per game, respectively, to lead the team. The Flashes rival Ohio in depth and will threaten for the MAC East title once again.

Northern Illinois (2-10)

The Huskies have fallen on hard times yet again on the hardwood, quite unlike their gridiron comrades. Northern Illinois’ only victories have come against Judson College of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Division II and Southern Illinois Edwardsville. The Huskies won only five games last season and have not had a winning season in six years.

Miami (OH) (5-7)

In the Redhawks’ first season in the post-Charlie Coles era, which lasted all of 16 seasons, head coach John Cooper has led the team to five wins. Miami, like Eastern Michigan, faced two of the nation’s top teams in No. 20 North Carolina State and No. 3 Louisville, suffering punishing losses. But not only is Miami missing out on Coles, the Redhawks are sans Julian Mavunga, who has played the most games in Miami history. Miami is a young team with just one senior, Vince Legarza, who averages just 6.5 minutes per game. The Redhawks certainly miss Mavunga not just for his leadership, but his rebounding prowess as well. Miami is last in the MAC in rebound differential, being outrebounded by opponents by almost nine boards per game.

Toledo (4-7)

Rian Pearson is the leading scorer in the MAC and Julius Brown is ninth. Toledo is fourth in the conference in scoring with 68.6 points per game. Thus, the Rockets must point to poor defense as the cause for their 4-7 record. The Rockets allow the third most points in the MAC, despite their scoring prowess, causing five of their seven losses to be by less than 10 points. However, the poor record does not spell the end for Toledo. The MAC West, historically, has not lived up to the talent of the East, illustrated last season. Toledo finished second in the division with a 7-9 conference record, which would have landed the Rockets in sixth in the East. Therefore, there is plenty of room for a turnaround with Toledo’s talented scorers.

Western Michigan (8-5)

The Broncos are not far and away the best team in the MAC West, but do tout the best record heading into conference season. Western Michigan’s start was extremely promising for a team that underperformed last season, finishing with a 14-20 record overall. Head coach Steve Hawkins, in his tenth season, directed his team to a 6-1 start including wins over South Florida and Oakland. But a 73-41 loss to No. 2 Michigan has the Broncos in a slump. Western Michigan has gone 2-4 since. The Broncos have early chances in MAC play, however, to turn things around with signature wins. They start with Akron and Ohio, arguably the MAC’s two best teams.