MAC Primer: Sifting Through a Crowded Pack of Contenders

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 2nd, 2015

According to KenPom’s average efficiency rankings, the MAC is currently the 12th-best conference in college basketball, behind the Mountain West and Missouri Valley and just ahead of the Ivy League and Big West. But unlike most other mid-major conferences in its class – Harvard in the Ivy; Wichita State in the MVC; Green Bay in the Horizon – there’s no clear-cut favorite, or even clear pecking order in the MAC; seven of its top eight teams are ranked within 57 spots of each other. As conference play tips off this weekend, let’s take our best shot at separating true East and West Division contenders from those squads likely to fade in the muddled MAC pack. Remember, the top two seeds in this league receive a triple-bye in the MAC Tournament.

Teams to Believe In: MAC East

Justin Moss and the Buffalo Bulls should compete for the MAC East crown. (Chad Cooper, The Spectrum)

Justin Moss and the Buffalo Bulls should compete for a MAC East crown. (Chad Cooper, The Spectrum)

  • Buffalo. Buffalo lost three seniors from last season’s 19-10 unit, including MAC Player of the Year Javon McCrea, yet – at 8-3 – looks to be legitimate. The Bulls are currently the conference’s highest-ranked unit in both KenPom and Sagarin (71st and 49th, respectively) with its three losses all coming on the road to respectable opponents – including Kentucky and Wisconsin, of which it led both at halftime. Bobby Hurley’s defense is much-improved from an efficiency standpoint (allowing well under a point per possession), and big man Justin Moss has almost immediately morphed into a poor man’s (or even a middle-class man’s) McCrea, averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds per contest. Likewise, guard Lamonte Bearden has emerged as one of the conference’s top freshmen (9.4 PPG, 4.0 APG). And while Jarryn Skeete’s scorching-hot three-point shooting (50% 3FG) may come back to earth a bit (the guard has missed the last two games with an injured ankle), the fact that preseason all-MAC East forward Will Regan has considerably underperformed to this point makes offensive improvement seem more likely than regression.

  • Kent State. The Golden Flashes are the most experienced team in the MAC and 13th-best three point shooting team in the country, led by three senior guards – Kris Brewer, Derek Jackson and Devareaux Manley – who each shoot between 41 and 46 percent from behind the arc. And even if or when the shooters go cold, forward Jimmy Hall – in his first full season at Kent State since transferring from Hofstra – has been something of a revelation underneath (13.7 PPG, 7.7 RPG). Plus, unlike Central Michigan (a similarly three-point-reliant squad), the Golden Flashes play defense; their adjusted defensive efficiency ranks fourth-best in the league. That balance should keep Rob Senderoff’s club in it till the end.

Teams to Believe In: MAC West

  • Toledo. Toledo received the most first-place votes in the preseason and should be every bit as good as advertised despite suffering a pair of curious losses to Detroit and Oakland around Thanksgiving. The Rockets boast the nation’s 29th-most efficient offense, led by an experienced, balanced attack in which all five starters average between 9.7 and 16.2 points per game. Like last season, defense could be an issue – Toledo gave up a whopping 98 points on 1.32 PPP in its loss to Western Michigan in the MAC Tournament last March – but Tod Kowalczyk’s group has already shown substantial improvement on that end of the court, especially in the paint (surrendering 48% 2FG, down from 52% a year ago).
Toledo is arguably the MAC West's top unit. (Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports)

Toledo might be the MAC West’s top unit. (Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports)

  • Eastern Michigan. “I think that zone could frustrate the Spurs,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after his team beat the Eagles on December 17. Fact is, Eastern Michigan opened eyes when it upset Michigan earlier this season – Rob Murphy’s 2-3 zone stifled the Wolverines in Ann Arbor – and established itself as a bona fide MAC West contender. On a per-possession basis, EMU’s defense is actually slightly less impermeable than is was last year (although at just under 0.94 PPP, it remains excellent), but Murphy’s group is scoring with more ease than it has in any of the coach’s three previous seasons in Ypsilanti. Sophomore guard Ray Lee (15.2 PPG) has become a reliable shooter and go-to scorer, and his offensive presence – along with Karrington Ward (13.8 PPG, 6.8 RPG) in the frontcourt and Mike Talley (9.7 PPG) off the bench – makes it seem as if this team can turn stops into enough points to push Toledo for the division.

Still Skeptical: MAC East

  • Akron. Akron has finished first or second in the MAC East or won the conference tournament in every year since 2006, but it’s hard to imagine the Zips matching that level of success this season. Despite entering 2014-15 as overwhelming division favorites, the loss of forward Demetrius Treadwell (15.2 PPG, 8.6 RPG) – who left the school in mid-December following a suspension – will be difficult to overcome. Big men Pat Forsythe and Kwan Cheatham have been solid in Treadwell’s stead, but his ability to attack the basket and crash the boards will be sorely missed. Then again, if anyone can overcome the loss of his best player, it might just be Keith Dambrot — the head coach has won 20-plus games in nine of his 10 seasons at Akron.
  • Bowling Green. I’m a believer in Chris Jans (he being a Gregg Marshall disciple and all) and Bowling Green’s profile is very similar to Eastern Michigan’s: subpar offensive numbers and a top-60 defense. And heck, the Falcons are even among the MAC’s most experienced units, with one of its top big men in senior Richaun Holmes (14.5 PPG, 9.1 RPG). But I have a hard time getting past a few things: 1.) no player on the current roster – despite their experience – has finished better than second-to-last in the MAC East during their careers; 2.) in the team’s losses to Western Kentucky and Dayton, it demonstrated a propensity to go very cold (eight points in the final 10 minutes vs. WKU, and just two points in the final 10 minutes vs. Dayton); and 3.) the Falcons recently lost by 14 points… at home… to Division II Ferris State. Jans’ group may take a big leap this year, but it’s not a convincing argument that it can realistically contend for the division crown.

Still Skeptical: MAC West

David Brown and the Broncos can certainly score points...but what about the defense? (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

David Brown and the Broncos can certainly score points…but what about the defense? (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

  • Central Michigan. Yes, the Chippewas are 9-1 and, yes, they currently boast the conference’s most efficient offense. At 42 percent as a team from three, they are also the fourth-best outside shooting team in America. However, only one of this team’s nine victories came against a halfway decent opponent – an 80-67 triumph at Northwestern – and no other MAC squad has been worse defensively to this point. Central Michigan has a great chance to finish above .500 for the first time since 2003, but unless it blitzes opponents from behind the arc night-in and night-out, it feels like Keno Davis’ program is still a year away from true contention.
  • Western Michigan. The Broncos are the reigning MAC champs and led by a pair of senior guards, including West division Player of the Year David Brown. So why am I not sold? I’m not sold because center Shayne Whittington is no longer manning the paint. For two years, the seven-footer was among the league’s premier low-post scorers, rebounders and shot blockers, last season averaging 16.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. With him, the Broncos did a solid job defending the paint; without him, their two-point defense ranks 301st nationally. Even with Brown (13.8 PPG) and versatile forward Connar Tava (15.9 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.8 APG) making things happen offensively, I’m not sure Steve Hawkins’ club can produce enough stops to claim another division crown.

What to make of Ohio?

The hardest team to figure in this league is probably Ohio, which has underwhelmed after being picked second in the MAC East this preseason. At 5-6, the Bobcats have at times been good (e.g., a 21-point win vs. DePaul), at times unlucky (e.g., a two-point loss to Belmont; an overtime loss at Evansville), and at times flat-out dreadful (e.g., down 25 at halftime vs. FGCU, lost by 17; a 28-point loss vs. George Washington). However, every defeat has come against a quality opponent, and few other programs have a player like Maurice Ndour, the 6’9’’ all-conference forward who has a proven menace on both ends of court (15.1 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 1.5 BPG; six double-doubles). Plus, the Bobcats are likely still adjusting to first-year head coach Saul Phillips and his motion-based offense. With a senior point guard in tow – Javarez Willis, who dropped 31 points against Nebraska – along with several young guys who will only improve going forward, Ohio should still be a factor in the MAC East, even if not a true title contender.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

Share this story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *