Ready or not, its time for MAC conference play Print E-mail
Written by J. Scott Fitzwater   
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ImageI hate preseason predictions.
Not reading them.  Writing them. 

It's a necessary evil.  I get that.  But one of the worst-kept secrets in sportswriting is that we really don't have any idea how things are going to shake down.  MAC fans - me included - have made a yearly ritual of mocking the preseason predictions made by the media inner-circle.  If anything, it's a guarantee the team tabbed to win the conference will do anything but that. 
It's more interesting to read a prediction than a text-based shrug.  But I don't think getting a prediction wrong makes a person any dumber than getting it right makes that person smart.  After all, if we were that good with our picks, we'd be making bank on our visions.

That said, in November I rolled out these beauties:

East: Akron, Ohio, Kent State, Miami, Buffalo, Bowling Green
West: Central Michigan, Ball  State, Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Northern Illinois, Toledo.   

Yeah, that's looking really good about now.  Central was a homerun swing, and it totally whiffed. 
 The MAC lacks a single top 100 team in the Pomeroy or Basketball State ratings, with Ball State and Kent State barely in the top 100 in the Sagarin.  A late burst of success has propelled the conference winning percentage, as of Tuesday night, to .400.  This should not be entirely surprising, given the ridiculous youth of the conference; only Eastern Michigan (93) ranks in the country's 100 most experienced teams.  The best fans can hope for is that these lumps are taken this season and next season MAC teams start to deal out the lumps instead.  How do things stand now?  On the precipice of conference play, it looks more like this:

East: Kent State, Akron, Ohio, Miami, Buffalo, Bowling Green
West: Ball State, Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois, Toledo.

Let's take a closer look at each team:

With Brett McKnight, the Zips are 5-1 (we're not counting that Milliken game).  Without him, 3-4.  Yes, the teams UA played in his absence were much tougher, but with him they probably would not have needed a buzzer beater to force overtime against Youngstown State.  He's shooting 54.5% on his abbreviated season, much higher than his career 41.6%.

It feels like every year we're talking about an Akron player that has taken a sudden leap.  This year, they have two: Nikola Cvetinovic and Brett McClanahan.  Cvetinovic's impact has been more on the defensive side, though he is second in shot attempts (but only hitting 44.2% of them).  McClanahan, however, has been the best Zip offensively.  A streaky three-point shooter, he is making 57.8% of his attempts inside the arc and is shooting 90% from the free throw line, though he's only averaging 1.42 attempts a game.  He would be well-served in finding a way to get to the stripe more often.

Though some Zip fans disagree, Zeke Marshall continues to progress.  Already one of the best defensive presences in the MAC, he's doing good work on the offensive glass and protects the ball really well for a big man.  He is shooting 52.4% from the field, but needs to work on the foul shooting (54.1%).

Akron is doing everything right on offense except - you know -  shooting.  They hold onto the ball better than anyone in the MAC (17.2% turnover rate) and sport a 1.140 assist/turnover ratio.  But they're shooting 42.5% from the field and haven't been able to make up for it with offensive rebounding.  Last season, they were the best in the MAC at it.  This year, 11th.

Ball State
The Cardinals are not a model of consistency.  They go from a solid home win over Indiana State to getting crushed by Butler to playing really well against St. John's to blowing the game to St. John's to destroying Southern Utah to getting burned by D-II Alaska Anchorage.  They also got thumped by Valparaiso (themselves an enigma) and went on the road and beat DePaul.  So, really, anything is possible from BSU.

The Cardinals under Billy Taylor have generally been a defense-first team, and that is no different this year (61st nationally in D-PPP).  The additional wrinkle is that they are finally putting the ball in the basket.  Jarrod Jones, an early Player of the Year candidate, is an almost-regular double-double (16.2 PPG and 9 RPG).

The problem on offense is that production is coming exclusively inside.  Only three players, Randy Davis, Jauwan Scaife, and Jesse Berry, have hit a three-pointer.  Of those three, Scaife is converting them at the highest rate (34.8%).  Unless they can show some sort of proficiency from outside, they should expect to see a lot of zone thrown at them.

Bowling Green
The Falcons started out absolutely terribly, losing their first eight contests against Division-I opponents, including bottom-feeding Howard and Niagara.  That was followed by a 4-1 stretch, highlighted by what was perhaps the conference's best win, a 67-61 decision at St. Louis Saturday.  As one might expect with a Louis Orr squad, BG has been getting it done with defense.  Since a Dec. 4 drubbing at Michigan State, the Falcons have only allowed a point per defensive possession once.  Not coincidentally, that was a 72-69 loss to Milwaukee.  If the offense had been even remotely productive against Western Kentucky (.731 points per offensive possession), they would have beaten the Hilltoppers.  The defensive effort has produced a pair of performances that dipped below the .9 mark in the last three games.

St. Louis aside, the schedule hasn't been exactly impressive, but a win over the Billikens will give BG some confidence heading into the East gauntlet.  They will need it, as computer models predict a winless initial run through the division.  The offense has started to show some promise and looks quite balanced.  In the last 8 games, the Falcons have had seven different leading scorers.  Dee Brown has cut down on the three-point attempts, which is good because he's bad at it (28.9%).  He is a good slasher, however, converting 48.5% of his attempts inside the arc.

Scott Thomas is a decent defender and rebounder, but he's a complete liability on the offensive side.  He can pass and get to the line, but that's not a great thing because he's only 56.3% from there.  From the field?  He shoots 43.9% from two and 29.6% from three, a fact made worse by the fact he's made the most attempts on the team, - 17 more than Brown.  Freshman Cameron Black is showing promise and should get more of an opportunity.  Finally, what happened to Joe Jakubowski?  He has always been a steady, if unspectacular, point guard and can shoot the long ball.  Still, he's barely getting any run.


Yes, the Bulls have had a nice early run.  They played BYU close at Alumni Arena.  Few people would have pegged them at 8-4.  But we've seen a Buffalo team come into MAC play with a good record then promptly fall behind the leaders.  None of UB's wins stand out and they have an 11-point to a bad Youngstown State team on their docket.  Plus, the Bulls have rarely been able to get road wins against East rivals Right now, Buffalo looks like a paper tiger.

Still, there are things to like about this team.  Last year, I was really high on the inside tandem of Mitchell and Max Boudreau, and they were disappointments.  This year, however, Watt has taken a step up as both an offensive threat and a rebounder.  Together with Titus Robinson, they have helped make Buffalo second in the conference with a 35.5% offensive rebound rate.

Witherspoon is working with a tighter rotation than normal.  In previous years, UB would have 10 or 11 guys with 10 minutes or more a game.  This season?  Just eight with freshman Jarod Oldham next at 9.2.  The Bulls are also a much better shooting team than in previous years.  Led by deadeye Zach Filzen, they are the best in the MAC in FG%, 3FG%, eFG%, Points Per Weighted Shot, True Shooting%, and as a result are the leaders in offensive efficiency.  They are drawing fouls like crazy, too.  Watt, Robinson, Byron Mulkey, and Javon McCrea are drawing 5 fouls or more per 40 minutes.  The downside?  They're not sharing the ball much, earning an assist on 55% of baskets and .889 assists per turnover.  The surprise weakness is defensive rebounding.  Normally among the MAC's best at pulling in opponent misses, they are 7th in defensive rebounding percentage (66.5%).

Central Michigan
The Chippewas had one of the most celebrated recruiting classes in recent memory.  The season, though, has been the Trey Zeigler show.  It's been a hard show to watch, too.  Remarkably, CMU has gotten less competitive as they went along.  They dropped three straight at home to Wright State, Detroit, and South Dakota State.  Decent teams all, but by no means a slate a team should fail to beat at home.  The low point might have been barely squeaking by Cornerstone University, of the NAIA Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference, 63-60.  Then again, the Golden Eagles did score 100 on Grace Bible College.

The Chippewas own a 304 ranking in O-PPP (.876).  It doesn't help that there's no size on the team.  Senior William McClure is playing center and he's listed at 6'7.

Eastern Michigan
The Eagles are basically Brandon Bowdry and little else.  It's a shame, because Bowdry might be the best player in the conference.  He's averaging averaging a double-double (21.4 PPG and 10.2 RPG) and drawing fouls at an insane rate: 7.6 per 40 minutes.  Think about that, he's fouling one and a half players out a game.

The Eagles play above-average defense.  Opponents are shooting 42.8% from the field but just 30.4% from three.  They lead the conference in defensive rebounding percentage (75.5%), so if they can ratchet up the defense and find someone, anyone, to help Bowdry out, they could have something.

Kent State
The Golden Flashes were dealt a blow when Carlton Guyton, second on the team in minutes, ran afoul of the law.   Since his arrest Dec. 18, Kent State dropped 2 of the next 3, and he surely would have made a difference against James Madison.

The Flashes are playing their usual tight defense (.935 D-PPP), but have been struggling to score (.972 O-PPP).  Justin Greene, however, has been awesome.  He has been the anchor on defense and offense both, shooting 55.2% from the field, getting to the line often (4.85 attempts per game), and converting 77.9% of those chances.   Someone will have to fill the Guyton void, most likely Rodriquez Sherman.

Kent State is first in offensive rebounding percentage (37.6%) but 11th in defensive (64.9%).  Sherman needs help in the backcourt.  Aside from a 7-12 from three-point land outburst from Randal Holt, he hasn't impressed in increased minutes.  Michael Porrini is a poor shooter (36.7%).  Eric Gaines has potential, but is not asserting himself yet.

Even by Miami standards, Charlie Coles has put the RedHawks through the ringer.  In 16 games, they played five undefeated teams: Ohio State, Duke, San Diego State, Cincinnati, and Kansas.  This does not include top 100 opponents Xavier, Dayton, and Belmont.  What is worrying is their performance against the lower-ranked teams.  They struggled to beat Towson and Troy and lost to Green Bay, all at home.  The Xavier win, though, is a silver lining.

There have been murmurs of the RedHawks running more and playing a faster pace, but they are still 312nd nationally at 64.9 possessions per 40 minutes.  One departure from Miami tradition is a freshman getting minutes; Quinten Rollins is logging 27.5 a contest.  The other three freshmen are all seeing limited action.  The biggest difference from what we're used to seeing from Miami is the defense... or rather, a lack of it.  Giving up 1.077 D-PPP, they are 308th nationally.  That's not going to win games.  The offense isn't making up for it, either, scoring a paltry .912 O-PPP.  The murderer's row they faced was certainly a factor, but that doesn't explain the sieve of a defense against Troy (1.134 D-PPP) and Wright State (1.106) or the lack of an offense against Towson (.909 O-PPP) or IUPUI (.922).

Most distressing is the effort.  Players really don't seem invested, especially in this latest four-game skid.  Both Julian Mavunga or Nick Winbush, continue to chuck threes.  That's especially distressing in Mavunga's case.  A 51.9% shooter from two, he's taking 3.18 threes a game at a 31.4% clip. 

Northern Illinois
There's not much to be excited about in DeKalb.  All three D-I wins have come against the bottom 100 teams.

Xavier Silas started the year off on fire.  A career 39% shooter, he is connecting on 47% of his shots from the field.  He's making 90.1% of his free throws (compared to 79.2% for his career) and 41.1% of his threes (compared to 34.2% for his career).  He might be cooling off, however.  After going 11-23 Dec. 18 against Temple, he shot 30.5% in the next four games, and that's including a 6-11 night against Utah Valley New Year's Eve.  The cold streak has extended behind the arc during this stretch (4-16) but not the free throw line (23-26).

Remember Buffalo's tradition of playing a lot of men?  Patton has taken the torch.  There are 10 Huskies playing 12 minutes a game.  Silas is the only one playing more than 30, and only two others averaging more than 20.  The substitutions might be contributing to a lack of defensive consistency.  NIU is last in the conference, allowing 1.103 D-PPP.

The Bobcats are a mess.  They're not playing offense (.986 O-PPP) or defense (1 D-PPP) well.  DJ Cooper is great, but he can't do it all himself and he's trying.  A 28.4% three-point shooter, he's launching 6.78 attempts a game.  DeVaughn Washington is not the wrecking force he was down the stretch last season.  Tommy Freeman has battled injuries and sickness.

A typical offensive possession for the Bobcats goes one of two ways: A three attempt, either early in the shot clock or after a few fruitless pass attempts around the perimeter, or a forward gets the ball, tries backing his man down, and shoots it whether open, guarded, double-teamed, or triple-teamed.  It's a marvel of consistency.

Despite not being an especially large team, the Bobcats are fourth in offensive rebounding percentage (34.9%) and, after struggling early, fifth in defensive rebounding (68.3%).  Freshman Nick Kellogg is shooting 42.1% from deep and has been acclimating himself well, but his minutes have been inconsistent.  Ohio is fouling a lot (22.4 a game), too.

What is there to say about the Rockets?  They're actually looking like a D-I team this year.  Tod Kowalczyk has basically had to start over.  How much of a reset is this?  Only Nevada is less experienced than Toledo.  It hasn't helped that UT played four top 100 teams in their first 9 games, then capped non-conference play against Alabama.  Against middling and bottom teams, the Rockets have mostly been competitive.

Still, it's going to be a long season.  Toledo is 327th  nationally with .845 O-PPP and 319th nationally 1.097 D-PPP.

Western Michigan
A Bronco squad that I thought would be terrible is instead mediocre.  Life after David Kool hasn't been easy so far, as WMU is struggling offensively (.984 O-PPP).  Freshman Matt Stainbrook is off to a strong start.  The forward is shooting 60.2% from two and is 96th nationally in offensive rebound rate (13.6%).  Flenard Whitfield has taken the most shots on the team, which is fine so long as they're happening inside the three-point arc.  Inside it, he's 53%.  Behind it, he's just 1-11 on the year. 

Juwan Howard Jr. has shown some flashes of brilliance, shooting 9-15 in the comeback effort against Troy and 6-12 against Eastern Illinois.  (Can anyone else believe his dad is still in the NBA?  What if Juwan Jr. blows up and gets drafted?  They would have to be the first father-son combo in NBA history.  What would the odds of that been?  1-in-a-billion?  Seriously.  Juwan Howard.)

It looks like Demetrius Ward is the point guard.  Many people, myself included, thought Alex Wolf would have taken the reins.  That hasn't  happened.

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