All Conference Awards
POY: Thomas Wilder, G, Sr., Western Michigan
Coach of the Year: James Whitford, Ball State
Newcomer of the Year: Tre'Shaun Fletcher, G, R Sr., Toledo
Freshman of the Year: Isaiah Coleman-Lands, G, Miami (OH)
1. Ball State
Key Returners: Taylor Persons, Trey Moses, Francis Kiapway, Sean Sellers, Tahjai Teague, Jeremie Tyler
Key Losses: Franko House, Ryan Weber
Key Newcomers: Jontrell Walker, Zach Gunn, Ishmael El-Amin, Blake Huggins
Postseason Projection: 14 seed, first round exit
Outlook: I’ve got the Cardinals one slight red feather above Buffalo (and a few ahead of WMU) in my overall MAC rankings, and we’re going to find out pretty quickly if that’s a poor choice. Ball State opens its season @ Dayton, with games @ Oklahoma, @ Oregon, @ Bucknell (they’re gonna be awesome folks), and @ Notre Dame all in the season’s first four weeks as well. This year is a significant step up from last season, when the Cardinals played the 350th-best nonconference schedule (aka second-worst). This year’s is a rough, road-heavy slate (why wouldn’t you want to be in Muncie?!), and while they may not win those games, I’d like to see them be competitive in a few of them to reinforce my confidence in Ball State’s progress this year.
Coach James Whitford cranked the tempo last year, going from 311th to 49th nationally, and the team’s bombs-away attitude from deep benefitted greatly. Returning gunners Taylor Persons (a high-usage star lead guard), Francis Kiapway, and Sean Sellers will all continue the barrage, and in perhaps the most on-the-nose recruiting get in the country, Whitford brings in smooth-shooting wing Zach Gunn to complement the veterans.
BSU also has the ability to get to the line frequently with Persons’ penetration and the versatile interior games of Trey Moses and Tahjai Teague. Those free points are crucial to the offense, as they help offset the team largely eschewing second chances and a general shakiness with the ball (Whitford’s teams always seem to play sloppy). Teague is a budding MAC star, a versatile 6’8 forward who may already be one of the conference’s best defenders with a developing offensive game to boot.
On the other end of the floor, Ball State isn’t quite as bad as some run-and-gun teams often are (looking at you, Central Michigan). Teague and Moses are an excellent interior combo, and Incarnate Word transfer Jontrell Walker gives them another athletic guard with which to attack opponents.
Whitford isn’t going to press to speed up the tempo, instead opting to play a surprisingly conservative man-to-man that tries to play off the frequent iso-ball that other MAC teams exhibit. The defensive rebounding of Teague and Moses should help spark the transition offense, getting Persons, Walker, and 3-star freshman Ishmael El-Amin into the open court to attack the rim or find shooters on the wings.
Bottom Line: With the quality of talent that Ball State returns and adds, even the loss of aspiring NFL tight end Franko House (sadly, the Bears waived him after their season opener) shouldn’t derail them from challenging for the conference crown. The MAC is wide open at the top (it seemingly always is), and Whitford has the program trending up after two nightmare seasons to open his tenure. If the outside shots continue falling and Teague is able to elevate the mostly-average defenders around him, Ball State could find itself dancing for the first time since 2000.
2. Western Michigan
Key Returners: Thomas Wilder, Reggie Jones, Brandon Johnson, Drake Lamont, Seth Dugan, Bryce Moore
Key Losses: Tucker Haymond
Key Newcomers: Michael Flowers, Jason Whitens, TJ Clifford
Postseason Projection: NIT
Outlook: After ripping off eight straight MAC wins to close the regular season last year and returning five of their top six scorers, the Broncos appear poised to make a run at the league title this season. My colleague Matthew picked them atop the league last year, but awful transition defense (among other flaws on that end) ended up thwarting a promising campaign.
The primary reason for that abysmal transition defense was the offense’s focus on attacking the basket via drives plus attacking the offensive glass. Because offensive centerpiece and point guard Thomas Wilder constantly drives from the top of the key, leaving that area abandoned, the Broncos’ transition defense sets up poorly before opponents even have the ball. And while the team frequently got free points via the offensive glass proficiency of Brandon Johnson, Drake Lamont, and Seth Dugan, those three were also constantly out of position getting back on defense, which causes a lot of issues in a transition-heavy league.
When it’s clicking, though, the Bronco offense is excellent (#3 in the MAC last year). Wilder is a devastating driver, and very few players in the conference (or even the country) can consistently stay in front of him. His main cohort, Tucker Haymond, graduated, but Reggie Jones looks primed to fill the role of secondary ball-handler and creator. Jones and Bryce Moore give Wilder some shooting options when the team does choose to take threes – their selectivity from deep led to a teamwide 38.2% conversion rate, 39th in the country.
A couple newcomers to watch are guards Michael Flowers (great name for Wisconsin Badger fans) and Jason Whitens. Both were highly productive for excellent high school teams (Whitens was a Mr. Basketball finalist in Michigan), and both could help the already-dangerous offense right away. Flowers, in particular, is an athletic driver who should thrive in the team’s spread-and-slash offensive attack.
To win the league, though, Western Michigan must make improvements on the defensive end. Opponents shot 63% at the rim against them, 271st in the nation, despite the presence of Lamont (6’10) and Dugan (7’0) anchoring the paint. The guards need to do a much better job of keeping defenders in front of them – Jones and Wilder have real defensive upside, but they need to gamble less and focus on being in the right position. WMU is one of the most man-to-man-heavy teams in the country (over 99% of the time per Synergy), so the importance of winning individual matchups is even more important. If any of the perimeter players show weakness, most teams in the MAC will take advantage of that immediately.
Bottom Line: With so much talent back from a team that seemed to have the proverbial “light flips on” moment last year, I’m sure many publications will have WMU winning the MAC this season. It’s definitely possible, particularly with the likely conference player of the year in Wilder leading the potent offensive attack, but I want to see a little more from the defense before I perch them at the top of the totem pole.
3. Eastern Michigan
Key Returners: James Thompson, Tim Bond, Jordan Nobles
Key Losses: Raven Lee, Willie Mangum, Ty Toney, Baylee Steele
Key Newcomers: Paul Jackson, Elijah Minnie, Isaiah Green, Terry Harris, Tariq Silver, Kevin McAdoo
Postseason Projection: CBI
Outlook: Do you like Syracuse basketball, but can’t stand watching the quality hoops of the ACC? Well then, come on down to Ypsilianti, Michigan, and check out Syracuse West! Coached by longtime Boeheim assistant Rob Murphy, the Eagles imitate nearly all of the Orange’s stylistic tendencies, right down to the heinous defensive rebounding and refusal to defend the three-point line.
Not all of the similarities are bad, though – both teams use the 2-3 zone to force a plethora of turnovers with their athleticism and length.
One of the more bizarre on/off splits I’ve seen on hooplens.com involves EMU; specifically, their star big man, James Thompson IV. Thompson is, by far, the team’s best defensive rebounder and a solid shot-blocker, a paint presence on the back line of the zone. That said, it’s a bit baffling that the team’s defense completely cratered with him on the court, while it was completely elite with him on the bench:
On the bright side, Thompson’s ability to score one-on-one in the post and be one of the country’s best offensive rebounders did boost the offense up to respectability. As important as Thompson is to the team’s success, Murphy will need to figure out a way to repair the defense with Thompson on the court for Eastern Michigan to reach its full potential – that likely involves playing Thompson next to 6’8 Robert Morris transfer Elijah Minnie. Minnie should fit into the 2-3 zone perfectly with his defensive versatility.
The offense loses several other key pieces (Ray Lee and Willie Mangum were the team’s highest-usage players), meaning weapons will need to emerge on the perimeter. Paul Jackson arrives at the right time as a transfer from Eastern Kentucky – he’s a true distributor, something last year’s team lacked. Thompson, Tim Bond, and Jordan Nobles will all benefit from having a distributor in the lineup, although the glaring issue with the Eagles offense now is a lack of shooting. Jackson, Nobles, and Bond can hit on occasion, but some perimeter contributions from 5’8 Mark Ellison and fellow freshman Tariq Silver would be greatly welcome.
Shooting isn’t necessarily crucial, though – the Eagles derive a large portion of their production in transition, which is another reason they rebound like a heartbroken ex (not well). Murphy likes to have multiple ball-handlers on the floor to ignite the attack, and to that point, Bond’s versatility merits mention. He was the team’s best passer, and his playmaking on D exemplified the team’s approach.
Bottom Line: The curveball that EMU throws by playing 2-3 zone over 90% of the time always makes them a challenging matchup. Thompson is probably the best big man in the conference, but the defense’s complete collapse with him on the court leaves major concerns going forward. Murphy’s teams have hovered around .500 in the MAC for his entire tenure, and I don’t see this season as the year that drastically changes.
Key Returners: Jaelen Sanford, Nate Navigato, Luke Knapke
Key Losses: Jonathan Williams, Steve Taylor, Jordan Lauf
Key Newcomers: Tre’Shaun Fletcher, Willie Jackson (in December), Dwayne Rose, James Gordon, Marreon Jackson
Postseason Projection: CIT
Outlook: After facing a very dour outlook at the start of 2016-17, Toledo was able to claw its way to a tremendously mediocre 17-17 (9-9) finish. The now-departed duo of Jonathan Williams and Marquette transfer Steve Taylor proved to be an effective inside-outside combination, and with their graduations, much larger burdens will fall on Jaelen Sanford and highly-efficient big men Nate Navigato (more of a stretch four) and Luke Knapke.
Sanford likely takes over as primary ball-handler after being more of an off-ball shooter during his first two seasons, with Justin Roberts a candidate to play a lot more (hello, freshman-to-sophomore leap). Tod Kowalczyk, the Rockets’ coach, rarely plays a very deep rotation, so the team’s newcomers will need to prove themselves immediately to earn minutes alongside (or in front of) those two returners.
Tre’Shaun Fletcher should have a strong final college season. A big wing that wasn’t going to crack the starting lineup last year at Colorado, Fletcher comes to the MAC after sitting out a year, and his PAC-12 size and shooting on the wing will be a difficult matchup for many opponents. He’ll shoot more than Jordan Lauf did last year, but he should fill a similar role in the rotation. Dwayne Rose, Jr. (Derrick’s nephew) is another candidate to get time on the wing and help fill Lauf’s minutes.
Two Jacksons could also be significant pieces this year: Willie Jackson, a Mizzou transfer eligible in December, and Marreon Jackson, a high scoring point guard, both attended Garfield Heights in Cleveland – I’m 98% sure they aren’t related, though. Willie is a versatile forward who could fill Steve Taylor’s role (but be better on defense) – an energetic rebounder and effective finisher who can occasionally initiate the offense from the high post. Dylan Alderson is yet another freshman that could (should?) play minutes right away.
On the other end, well…I’ve spent countless hours in a feverish, delirious state trying to decipher last year’s Rockets defense based on these three facts:
1. They forced turnovers at the 349th-highest rate in the country (they didn’t gamble)
2. They allowed the 4th-shortest possessions in the country (teams got quick shots)
3. They allowed the 16th-fewest three point attempts (by rate) in the country (they extend and take away the perimeter)
It’s a crazy confluence of stats that doesn’t lend itself to obvious analysis (no turnovers/gambling normally = long possessions, etc.). Like many other MAC teams, they struggle mightily in transition, consistently getting gashed by opponents who push the pace and get quick lay-ups (hence the short possessions). If they do manage to get back and set up, they play a strange, semi-extended version of man-to-man that’s geared towards forcing two-point jumpers (but again, not even sniffing at steals). Knapke showed some promise as a rim protector during his inaugural season, further influencing opponents to pull up before getting to him, but the defense as a whole didn’t really hold up.
Bottom Line: With the loss of some crucial pieces, Toledo may struggle a bit again this year unless 1) Sanford proves to be comfortable as a go-to guy, or 2) Fletcher and Willie Jackson immediately seize control of the offense. I like both transfers’ games, but it is asking quite a bit of them to lift a middling roster up towards the top of the league. I wouldn’t be shocked by another 9-9-type season.
5. Central Michigan
Key Returners: David DiLeo, Cecil Williams, Luke Meyer, Josh Kozinski, DaRohn Scott
Key Losses: Marcus Keene, Braylon Rayson
Key Newcomers: Gavin Peppers, Shawn Roundtree, Matt Beachler
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: RIP to the Marcus Keene segment of the 3 Man Weave podcast, as the little dynamo has moved on to…something called the Cagliari Dinamo Academy, a second division Italian team. I hope those Italians know how lucky they are…I will be tracking Keene’s probably-hilarious scoring output quite closely this year.
The departure of both Keene and fellow minutes-eater Braylon Rayson leaves Central Michigan with a Marianas Trench-sized hole in the backcourt. Think that’s an absurd statement? Well, Keene and Rayson played the 3rd- and 4th-highest share of minutes in the entire country:
Not only did they play nearly every single minute of the season, those two took nearly 64% of the team’s shots when on the court. Sixty-four percent! That’s absurd! You have to respect the other three players for continuing to play despite touching the rock as often as I touch a girl (that’s never!).
All that is to say – the new and returning players will have myriad minutes and shots to take over. The obvious pick to take over primary ball-handling duties is Cleveland State transfer (by way of JUCO) Gavin Peppers. Peppers will lead the inevitably three-point heavy attack, as Keno Davis offenses always revolve around taking care of the ball and chucking from deep. He tweaked the approach last year to his personnel (played fast and used a LOT more isolation), but I expect a slightly more conventional approach this year (spread the floor with shooters around a pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop).
And shooters…there will be shooters. Josh Kozinski has one of the most unique/hilarious KenPom profiles ever - also note that his closest player comparable is himself in 2015 and 2016:
He’s led the country in turnover rate all three of his collegiate years so far, as his role mostly amounts to “run to the three point line and if the ball comes near you, shoot it.” He’s taken 29 twos in his whole career (compared to 614 threes) – aka he’s a basketball hero and Keno Davis’s vision of utopian hoops. David DiLeo, Cecil Williams, Luke Meyer, and newcomers Shawn Roundtree (JUCO) and Matt Beachler (freshman) on the bomber squad.
Defensively…uh-oh. The Chippewas finished a disastrous 345th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive rankings last year, meaning they were worse at defense than 344 other teams. You’re welcome for doing the math! The Chips don’t force turnovers, they don’t rebound, and they don’t make you take tough shots. They just…kinda stand there until they can play offense again. The team’s upside will always be capped as long as they ignore one end of the floor.
Bottom Line: Central Michigan is going to look completely different this year without Keene and Rayson firing ludicrous isolation threes. It’s possible defense improves while not playing two 5’11 offensive-minded guards on the floor at all times. The Chips will continue to fire threes (and they have shooters that can make them); their success likely hinges on whether Peppers and Roundtree can take over the playmaking in a more conventional offense.
6. Northern Illinois
Key Returners: Eugene German, Levi Bradley, Jaylen Key
Key Losses: Aaric Armstead, Dontel Highsmith, Austin Pauga, Laytwan Porter, Marin Maric
Key Newcomers: Dante Thorpe, Rod Henry-Haynes, Marlo Brown, Owen Hamilton, Gairges Daow
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Today I learned that Northern Illinois is less than a 70 mile drive from my house, and I laid on the floor of a dark, cold room, sadly thinking about how I could have easily seen Marcus Keene (Central Michigan gunner) live in person on Saturday, January 7th. Then I remembered I was in Ames, Iowa, experiencing Hilton Magic for the first time, and I decided to get up, put some clothes on, and write the NIU preview.
The Huskies, like most other MAC teams, were extremely reliant on getting to the rim and playing volleyball on the glass. They were one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country last year (thankfully, they smartly didn’t take many), instead feeding the post with Marin Maric and slashing with LaytwanPorter and Dontel Highsmith, all of whom were due to be back this year. But then…all three of them transferred this offseason, leaving the Huskies with significantly fewer pieces than expected.
As the year wound down last year and the inevitable became clear, coach Mark Montgomery turned the team over to rising sophomore Eugene German, a developmental move that met with poor on-court results. NIU started featuring German on February 4th and inserted him into the starting lineup three games later; the team went 2-8 down the stretch with German being the primary ball-handler. He can get to the rim and score (right in line with the team’s offensive attack), but he also had zero assists in four of those 10 games, illustrating the team’s collective inability to create for others.
Despite the loss of Maric, pounding the ball inside is still an option. Jaylen Key and Noah McCarty is a nice post rotation, with Levi Bradley slotting in the starting lineup as more of a perimeter, driving four-man who can attack opposing bigs. Key ranked in the 84th percentile nationally in points per possession on post-ups per Synergy, so expect him to get fed the ball regularly. Redshirt senior Andrew Zelis (torn ACL last year) and freshman Owen Hamilton give Montgomery the option of playing a true center like Maric, if desired.
He may prefer to avoid playing a true center at times, though, as the team’s defensive strategy is a scramble-type man-to-man with some run-and-jump thrown into the scheme. This end of the floor is where 5’11 sophomore Justin Thomas earns his keep (it’s certainly not his 0/14 three-point shooting). His 3.7% steal rate was 42nd in the country (bumped up to 4.3% in MAC play, 2nd in the league), and at times he can completely take away the opposition’s point guard. The Huskies give up a TON of threes (Coach Montgomery apparently despises threes on both ends), but in a league where few teams consistently hit them, it’s not a bad strategy.
The wing rotation suffered with all of the offseason roster turnover, but JUCO guard Dante Thorpe (a First Team All-American in NJCAA D2) and freshmen Rod Henry-Haynes, Marlo Brown (his name is his name), and Gairges Daow all have a chance to contribute right away. Thorpe and Brown shot 45% and 46%, respectively, at their previous stops, so expect Montgomery to find a place for their shooting.
Bottom Line: The MAC is making me go insane, because I feel like I write “needs to get to the rim, transition-reliant” about every team, but it’s especially true of NIU. If the newcomers can add some shooting, that would be a great lift to a struggling offense, but in the tougher MAC West, I don’t have high hopes. Maybe I’ll check out a home game though!
Key Returners: CJ Massinburg, Nick Perkins, Dontay Caruthers
Key Losses: Blake Hamilton, Willie Conner, David Kadiri
Key Newcomers: Wes Clark, Jeremy Harris, Brock Bertram, Montell McRae, Jayvon Graves
Postseason Projection: NIT
Outlook: After a two-year reign as the MAC’s tournament champion and NCAA Tournament representative, Buffalo fell to eventual champion Kent State in the quarterfinals last year. Nate Oats has continued the momentum that Bobby Hurley built, though, and the Bulls seem primed to make another run at a tourney bid this season.
Buffalo’s calling card for the past few years has been its athleticism and, by extension, its suffocating defense. Dontay Caruthers is the linchpin of that style, an absolute ballhawk whose 4.8% steal rate ranked 7th in the entire country. His presence often forces opponents to facilitate offense through a secondary ball-handler, immediately putting them at a disadvantage. Fellow returnees CJ Massinburg and Davonta Jordan are solid fits in the scheme as well, and though Massinburg isn’t a steals maven like his cohorts, he’s quick and strong enough to guard bigger wings if need be.
Caruthers and Mizzou transfer Wes Clark, who should look reborn after a move out of Kim Anderson’s oppressively strict system, will form a nice dual-PG combination that should spark Oats’s transition offense. Both guys are capable of pushing the ball via the dribble or a long outlet pass, a dangerous asset to have for a team that already has several potent weapons. The wing attack in transition should also continue to be strong with Massinburg, Caruthers, JUCO transfer Jeremy Harris, and freshmen James Reese and Jayvon Graves (of St. Vincent-St. Mary’s fame, LeBron’s school). Harris is the #2-ranked JUCO recruit by jucorecruiting.com and, at 6’7, gives Buffalo a theoretical replacement for Blake Hamilton’s do-everything game. Graves, more of a combo guard, is someone I have my eye on – he has star potential in the MAC as someone who can attack the rim and finish with authority (he can shoot a bit, too).
A big question offensively is what Oats will do with scoring big Nick Perkins. Perkins was a terror off the bench as the conference’s Sixth Man of the Year, but the graduations of Raheem Johnson and David Kadiri make a move to the starting lineup seem inevitable. At 6’8, 260, Perkins is an intriguing combo of bowling ball and willing shooter (although his jumper was streaky last year), and his versatility should make him an all-conference players this season if he seizes his opportunities.
Perkins is probably a must-start due to the team’s lack of proven big men. Redshirt freshman Brock Bertram was a highly-regarded 3-star recruit last year, and after a year of development battling the senior starters in practice, I expect him to be an immediate impact player in the paint on both ends of the floor. The other options to maintain the Bulls’ strong interior defense are junior Ikenna Smart and lanky JUCO transfer Montell McRae. Both have potential, but if Perkins and Bertram assert themselves, they may only need to be minute-eaters off the bench.
Bottom Line: Oats once again may have the most athletic team in the league, as Clark and Graves infuse some serious new talent to help replace a strong graduating class. Massinburg is probably a first-team guy, and Perkins could join him there if he’s more efficient in a starting role. The Bulls may have the highest upside in the league, and if the athleticism gels on defense, they could get there – which would likely coincide with a return to the Big Dance.
2. Kent St.
Key Returners: Jaylin Walker, Jalen Avery, Kevin Zabo, Mitch Peterson, Desmond Ridenour
Key Losses: Jimmy Hall, Deon Edwin
Key Newcomers: Jonathan Nwankwo, Taishaun Johnson, Akiean Frederick, BJ Duling
Postseason Projection: CBI
Outlook: After reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008 (a 9-seed under then-coach Jim Christian!), Kent State looks to build on its success and secure a second straight ticket to the Big Dance. To do so, they’ll need to replace one of the most important big men in the country (do-everything Jimmy Hall), but coach Rob Senderoff has enough talent in Kent to make a run at it.
Offensively, the Golden Flashes relied heavily on the offensive glass, with Hall being one of the better assets in that regard in the entire country. Returning big men Adonis De La Rosa and Danny Pippen showed excellent potential in that role as bench players, but the true high potential post guy on this roster is junior college transfer Jonathan Nwankwo. Nwankwo started his collegiate career with a redshirt year at VCU, but he then transferred to JUCO powerhouse College of Southern Idaho, where he averaged 9.8ppg and 7.7rpg for a team that went 27-7. I think he’s capable of averaging those numbers in the Golden Flashes system, where his rebounding prowess will be featured extensively on both ends.
Around Nwankwo/De La Rosa/Pippen, Senderoff will likely spread the floor with four guards to allow for more driving lanes. Kent State needs to get to the rim due to their abysmal three-point shooting (under 32%, 311th nationally), so spacing is crucial. Mitch Peterson played most of his minutes as a nominal stretch-four, although the “stretch” term is used loosely after he exemplified the team’s shooting issues (29% from beyond the arc). Freshman BJ Duling could be a rotation player as a freshman if Senderoff opts to play a true forward at the four spot, and another JUCO transfer, Akiean Frederick, is a more conventional option too. He shot 33% from deep at his former stop, and both guys will push the incumbent Peterson for minutes if they prove capable right away.
The rest of the perimeter attack is in good hands with Jaylin Walker, Kevin Zabo, Jalen Avery, and South Alabama transfer Taishaun Johnson. Walker is here to shoot threes – he took 260 last year (that’s a lot!), while Zabo is more of an attacker and creator. Avery is an efficient guard who was nearly invisible – he used a team low 10.5% of possessions and committed only 1.1 fouls per 40 minutes, the second-lowest rate in the nation. Senderoff may have trouble keeping Johnson off the floor due to his ability to get to the rim. Deon Edwin’s penetration was vital last season to draw attention away from Hall, and Johnson is by far the most potent driver of the perimeter corps.
On the defensive end, Kent State is mostly unremarkable. Senderoff will mix in a little zone but generally prefers man-to-man, and his teams play a relatively reserved style (not reliant on pressure). If he does choose to crank up the pressure, reserve guard Desmond Ridenour is a great piece to have – he had a top 150 steal rate nationally (he’s a disastrously bad shooter, though). Like the offensive end, the Flashes were hugely dependent on Hall’s rebounding, so Nwankwo, De La Rosa, or Pippen will need to pick up that mantle (and team rebounding becomes even more crucial).
Bottom Line: For a team that returns so much talent from a NCAA Tournament team, Kent State will rely heavily on the contributions of its newcomers. If Nwankwo and Johnson can step into their roles immediately (Nwankwo on the glass, Johnson as a driver and creator), then Kent State could theoretically repeat last season’s successes – or even exceed them (only finished 6th in the conference last year). I don’t think they’ll quite get back to the Tourney, but I’m intrigued to watch the Flashes play this year.
Key Returners: Jordan Dartis, Jason Carter, Gavin Block, Mike Laster
Key Losses: Jaaron Simmons, Antonio Campbell, Kenny Kaminski
Key Newcomers: Teyvion Kirk, AJ Gareri, Zach Butler
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: In a league that is not known for its stout defenses (to put it lightly), Ohio stood out as a beacon of hope. The best defense in the league by nearly two full points in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency rankings, the Bobcats clawed to a four-way tie for second in the MAC last year. The offseason saw major overhaul to the roster, though, and coach Saul Phillips will need to find new stars to fill the voids left by Antonio Campbell, Kenny Kaminski, and Jaaron Simmons.
Ohio already had to learn to play without Campbell last year, though, as he broke a foot in January and missed the season’s final 16 games. At that point, Jason Carter emerged and began to show star potential as a dominant inside force on both ends of the court. He ranked in the 77th percentile in post-up scoring, per Synergy, and he should only get better this year as he gets comfortable as the featured interior scorer.
The bigger questions for the Ohio offense are on the perimeter. Kaminski was a perfect stretch four, a 43% shooter from deep on high volume. There aren’t a ton of candidates to fill that role and give Carter space to function, though the easiest solution is probably just to slide Gavin Block down a position from the wing. That would leave Jordan Dartis and Mike Laster as the starting wings, and both should be able to shoot enough to open up the floor. Dartis is the leading returning scorer, and despite his low usage last season, Phillips will need him to step into a more central role for the offense to thrive. Two freshmen, Ben Vander Plas and AJ Gareri, are also candidates to fill the Kaminski role.
Even more crucial than the shooting, though: who is going to make all of this work? Simmons’s surprising transfer to Michigan left a cavernous void at the point guard spot, as he played nearly every minute at PG. Two freshmen combo guards, Teyvion Kirk and Zach Butler, will get the first crack at primary ball-handling duties, and based on my limited review of each guy’s tape, Butler is the more likely candidate. Kirk is probably a slightly better scorer, but Butler has more distribution instincts, and he’ll need to get the rest of the team involved. Dartis can play some PG if both freshmen have disastrous results, but that is strictly a “break in case of emergency” option.
Defensively, Phillips is as devout a man-to-man disciple as you’ll find. Ohio has played a grand total of 0% of its possessions in zone over the past three years (since Phillips arrived), and that will certainly continue this year. He plays a disruptive, semi-extended scheme that’s designed to limit ball movement and force isolated drives, where guards struggled to finish against Campbell/Carter. If the opponent has talented athletes and skilled finishers inside, they can give Ohio problems. The Bobcats also excel at finishing possessions with team rebounding, another area where Carter and bench big man Doug Taylor will be vital.
Bottom Line: Saul Phillips is one of the best coaches in the MAC, and although this year’s team will be young, there’s a lot of talent at the 2-through-5 positions. If one of the freshman guards exceeds expectations and proves to be a force right away, the upside is there for a top-3 finish, but I’m bearish on either of them being overly productive off the bat.
4. Bowling Green
Key Returners: Demajeo Wiggins, Antwon Lillard, Rodrick Caldwell, Dylan Frye, Rasheed Worrell, Jeffrey Uju (hurt last year)
Key Losses: Wes Alcegaire, Zack Denny, Ismail Ali
Key Newcomers: Nelly Cummings, Derek Koch, Daeqwon Plowden
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Completely unrelated tangent: back when I used to play video games (freshman year in the dorms – man, I wish I had that much time on my hands…), I built a long NCAA Football dynasty at Bowling Green, elevating the Falcons to a national power and shunning all offers to move on to a more historic school.
Unfortunately, that is not the destiny of the Bowling Green basketball squad. Under coach Mike Huger, the Falcons want to attack the rim and get out in transition offensively, and extend some pressure defensively to try and speed opponents up.
Though the team loses its starting backcourt, the “blitz the rim” strategy should be in good hands with wing slasher Antwon Lillard and post scorer Demajeo Wiggins. Lillard (no relation to Damian, familial-wise or in jump-shot prowess) is in line for a much bigger role this year, and if he avoids shooting from deep (or improves – 24% from beyond the arc last year), his efficiency could spike in a meaningful way due to his ability to get to the rim. Wiggins is a load in the MAC – at 6’10, 240 with decent touch, few post defenders can truly contend with him when he’s engaged. The return of Jeff Uju from a season-ending injury after just two games promises to be a boost as well. Uju is a strong rebounder who went to high school at Oak Hill Academy (ever heard of it?); after two years in junior college and a year off for injury, he’ll be chomping at the bit to get some real D-I playing time. Dylan Frye and Matt Fox will space the floor a little bit, but neither guy is a true high-volume threat from deep.
The defensive end is where I have major concerns about the new backcourt. Zach Denny and Ismail Ali will sticky-fingered thieves, capable of both pressuring the ball and jumping passing lanes off the ball, keying the team’s transition attack. No one returning has shown that ability to date, though former 3-star recruit Rodrick Caldwell has some potential as he takes over at point guard. He’ll need help from the newcomers if the team’s defense is to maintain the same intensity.
Nelly Cummings, a 6’0 guard from Midland, PA, is the most likely to help in that regard. He has quick hands (plus solid passing instincts), and though starting a backcourt of Cummings and Caldwell would be small, it would best approximate the pressure that Denny and Ali put on last year. Justin Turner, who redshirted last year due to injury, is another high upside young guy who could make an impact in his first full collegiate season.
The other option, of course, is to play more conservatively on this end, as the Falcons did in 2015-16. That necessitates a strong interior defense, and Rasheed Worrell (the team’s best-rated player by plus/minus) and freshman Derek Koch can aid Wiggins in that regard. Despite his size, Wiggins isn’t a prolific shot-blocker, but Worrell has shown flashes of that ability when on the court. If Huger does opt to rein his guards in and emphasize protecting the paint (not a bad idea in the largely rim-reliant MAC), he has some flexibility in the frontcourt. Plus, as much as the guards got beaten off the dribble last year, a more pulled-back defensive style might make sense.
Bottom Line: Bowling Green will be young this year (Fox is the only scholarship senior on the roster, and he’s a former walk-on), so this year needs to be a stepping stone to something bigger in 2018-19. Huger needs to sort out who of the freshman and sophomore classes will be a real building block, and if so, making a run at the MAC title next year behind Wiggins, Lillard, and the youngsters is not out of the question.
5. Miami (OH)
Key Returners: Logan McLane, Jake Wright, Abdoulaye Harouna, Rod Mills
Key Losses: Michael Weathers, Marcus Weathers, Dion Wade
Key Newcomers: Isaiah Coleman-Lands, Bam Bowman, Jalen Adaway, Darrian Ringo, Dalonte Brown
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: After a disappointing year with one of the country’s youngest teams, Miami (OH) looked poised to build around the Weathers brothers and slowly rise up the MAC rankings. Alas, both Michael (the team’s best player and #3 nationally in usage) and Marcus (the team’s most efficient player) transferred in the offseason, leaving new coach Jack Owens to start over once again.
Owens is a longtime Matt Painter assistant at Purdue, and I expect Owens to install a similar system on both ends. That means taking care of the ball on offense and spreading it around to shooters, a welcome break from the isolation-heavy previous regime (Weathers used a monstrous 37.5% of possessions). The shooting part could be a problem, though, as the RedHawks ranked a dismal 325th nationally in three-point percentage. Luckily, Owens has assembled a strong class of newcomers to help alleviate the offense’s many concerns.
Serbian sophomore Milos Jovic handled the point last year when Michael went to the bench, but the most likely option to run the show is highly touted freshman Isaiah Coleman-Lands. Part of the Dick’s National Champion La Lumiere powerhouse, Coleman-Lands (brother of Jalen, who transferred to DePaul from Illinois this offseason) is a smooth shooter and capable creator who will immediately get plenty of chances to handle the ball. In this offense, he won’t gobble up the same level of shots that his predecessor did, but with his silky-smooth pull-up jumper, I expect him to carry a significant offensive burden right away. Junior college transfer Darrian Ringo, who averaged over 7 assists per game at Eastern Arizona, is on hand if Coleman-Lands needs some time to develop.
Elsewhere, Jake Wright, a transfer from The Citadel, is an effective bomber (how badly does he wish he had stayed and played DuggarBall??), but no one else really proved themselves as a true marksman last season. As a result, expect several of the other freshmen to earn quality playing time right away – Jalen Adaway, Nike Sibande, and forward Dalonte Hall all filled it up in high school. With better ball movement, there’s hope that the returners will also be more effective from deep.
Defensively, Cooper always valued forcing turnovers above all else, essentially the opposite approach from Painter/Owens, who favor a conservative man-to-man approach that emphasizes discipline, physicality, rotations, and finishing possessions emphatically with a defensive rebound. Logan McLane was an excellent big man defender in the old scheme, forcing steals from the back line and blocking a few shots when opponents broke through the pressure, but he’ll be tested more as a positional defender now. Wings Abdoulaye Harouna, Rod Mills, Adaway, and Sibande will be crucial in the new system, as they (and the PGs) will need to stay in front of would-be drivers while also taking away open perimeter jumpers.
The defensive rebounding is a big question mark after playing a ton of zone last season, so McLane, Darius Harper, redshirt freshman Precious Ayah and JUCO big Bam Bowman must shore up the glass. There’s no Caleb Swanigan on this roster to clean up everyone else’s mistakes, so the guards will also need to contribute in a by-committee approach to the glass.
Bottom Line: Owens brought an excellent recruiting class to Oxford, and if he can keep this group around, the future is bright. This season, like the last, will have growing pains for the youthful roster, but that’s all part of the process. Expectations are low for this season, but if the youngsters show promise, expect some MAC hype to build around this group in the next 2 years.
Key Returners: Jimond Ivey
Key Losses: Antino Jackson, Noah Robotham, Isaiah Johnson, Kwan Cheatham, Josh Williams
Key Newcomers: Malcolm Duvivier, Eric Parrish, Torrey Patton, Virshon Cotton, Jaden Sayles, Marc Kostelac, Sina Gbadebo
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Akron was one of my favorite teams to watch last year, employing my beloved two-point guard system with Antino Jackson and Noah Robotham around a monstrous (and skilled) big man in Isaiah “Big Dog” Johnson. Alas, that team relied far too heavily on the three-ball, and it met its demise in the conference tournament final with a dismal 6/22 shooting performance from deep. And then…it got much worse.
The Zips had one of the more disastrous offseasons I can think of, primarily due to longtime coach Keith Dambrot’s surprising decision to move on to Duquesne. The roster, already losing Johnson and fellow starter Kwan Cheatham, saw both point guards transfer (along with sixth man Josh Williams), and suddenly Akron was starting over. Luckily, the Zips were able to snag MAC veteran John Groce to oversee the rebuild after he was run out of Illinois, but his first year (or two) could be tumultuous.
Groce’s best teams at Ohio (his previous MAC stop) emphasized guardplay – strong ball movement, few turnovers, efficient outside shooting. As thin as this roster is, he’ll have two nice pieces to build around with Oregon State transfer Malcolm Duvivier and the lone returning starter, Jimond Ivey. Duvivier is a tank, and his ability to get to the rim (and finish using his wide frame) should make him an immediate impact player as he steps down in competition. Ivey is a solid defender and jack-of-all-trades on offense who will need to score even more after deferring to the upperclassmen last year. Both players should thrive in Groce’s scheme, although their supporting cast is a complete mystery.
The only other returners are sophomores Daniel Utomi and Emmanuel Olojakpoke. Utomi showed promise as a stretch-four in his freshman season, and his shooting should open up driving lanes for Duvivier and Ivey. Olojakpoke was highly effective as a dunk-or-block lane presence, but when your fouls per 40 minutes (10.9) matches your elite block rate (10.9%), it’s nearly impossible to stay on the floor long enough to make an impact.
Defensively, Groce actually does a nice job getting the most out of his players. Despite the strife of his Illini tenure, Groce had a top 51 defense per KenPom in 4 of the 5 years, using mostly man-to-man and a few zone changeups to put together a stout unit. His teams usually take care of business on the defensive glass and don’t foul, forcing opponents to hit shots to score (they can be very prone to hot shooting as a result).
Due to the lack of returners, Groce will need contributions from a plethora of freshmen, and that opens up major concerns for the defense. Eric Parrish and Torrey Patton will almost certainly play right away on the wing, and if Mark Kostelac and/or Jaden Sayles can pound the defensive boards like their coach demands, one or both could wedge their way into the starting lineup. The other wild cards are 6’1 guards Virshon Cotton and Canadian Sina Gbadebo – with three D-I transfers sitting this year out, the roster will be extremely thin.
Bottom Line: Akron’s (and John Groce’s) model for this rebuild should be Travis Ford at SLU – coach who succeeded in the league before, couldn’t quite cut it at a higher level, comes back to the initial league and brings in talent from all over (transfers, local and national recruits) to rebuild a once-proud program. The transition will not be easy with so much youth and roster turnover, but Groce was a great get for a reeling program; the future seems bright for the Zips, despite a negative short-term outlook.