By Kevin Sweeney
In some ways, it was a bad thing for the MAC that Buffalo won the conference tournament in Cleveland a season ago. In a world where mid-major conferences are doing everything they can to give top seeds a competitive advantage and ensure their best clubs get into the Big Dance, the MAC was in the rare spot where their conference champion had no questions about getting an at-large. Still, UB plowed through the league, just as it had every year under Nate Oats. With Oats gone, the league looks wide-open again, which should further highlight the depth in this conference that was slightly overshadowed by Buffalo’s dominance of the past few seasons.
#1. Buffalo (#1 East)– The Bulls may not have the potential at-large juice they had the last two seasons under Nate Oats, but Jim Whitesell inherits a strong roster that he augmented nicely in the late signing period. His Tuscaloosa-bound predecessor left behind two gifts in transfers Gabe Grant (Houston) and Antwain Johnson (MTSU), who were recruited by Oats with the goal of helping keep the Bulls at the top in the post-CJ Massinburg era. Grant and Johnson should plug into the rotation nicely, and returners Jayvon Graves, Davonta Jordan, and Jeenathan Williams could be primed for huge years as they step out of the shadow of a loaded senior class. Add in pieces like LaQuill Hardnett and David Nickelberry– savvy late signings by Whitesell who’ll solidify the frontcourt– and you’ve got a roster that is on paper the best in the conference. I was skeptical of the Whitesell hire, one that felt reminiscent of Siena hiring Mitch Buonaguro after the Fran McCaffery years, but Whitesell has recruited well so far and given Bulls fans hope that they can continue to perennially compete for MAC titles.
#2. Bowling Green (#2 East)– The Falcons broke through in year four for Michael Huger, winning 22 games and legitimately challenging Buffalo throughout the MAC season. They’ll have to contend this year without their steady interior force from a season ago, Demajeo Wiggins, but have one of the best backcourts in mid-major basketball. Justin Turner is a legit stud– a guard with good size who can create for himself or others. Someone will need to help clean the glass in Wiggins’ absence, but you have to love the direction of this program under Huger as he enters his fifth year at the helm.
#3. Akron (#3 East)– The 17-16 record doesn’t necessarily show it, but Akron was a very tough out in year two under John Groce. The Zips were a fringe top-100 KenPom team and were elite on the defensive end, and in most years would have been a legit contender for the conference’s automatic bid to the Big Dance. The one thing that held them back was an anemic offense, and having to replace Daniel Utomi and Jimond Ivey won’t help in that area. Still, I’m optimistic that the addition of Dayton transfer Xeyrius Williams can spark that unit and give the Zips a chance in the MAC. Williams didn’t fit well with Anthony Grant at UD, but as a sophomore averaged 8 points and 5 rebounds per game while shooting 42% from 3 on an NCAA Tournament team. If he returns to that form, he’ll contend for all-conference honors.
#4. Toledo (#1 West)– After three East Division teams get us started, we finally get to our West Division champs in Toledo. Tod Kowalczyk’s bunch has averaged 24 wins per year over the past two seasons, and another 20+ win campaign seems within reach despite the graduations of Jaelan Sanford and Nate Navigato. Point guard Marreon Jackson seems poised to step into the alpha-dog role after two successful seasons as a rotation piece, and the frontcourt duo of rebounding extraordinaire Willie Jackson and stretch 5 Luke Knapke should be one of the league’s best. The loss of high-upside rim protector AJ Edu to a torn ACL during the FIBA U19 World Cup is a blow and leaves more stakes for freshman Luke Maranka to serve as a steady backup. Watch out for RS freshman wing Keshaun Saunders, a Canadian import who was an impressive recruit out of high school and could be a big piece this season.
#5. Kent State (#4 East)– Rob Senderoff has yet to finish under .500 since taking over at Kent State in the 2011-12 season, and I don’t see that streak changing this year. Senderoff has traditionally given his guards lots of freedom to make plays, and despite the graduation of shot-making stud Jaylin Walker has the personnel to thrive in that system once again. New Mexico transfer Troy Simons should fit well being plugged into a similar role to Walker’s– like Walker, he can really make shots, but has also never met a shot he doesn’t like. UNLV transfer Tervell Beck should be useful in a combo forward role.
#6. Miami Ohio (#5 East)– The core of a pesky crew from a year ago is back as Jack Owens enters his third year on the job, and some improvement should be expected despite the loss of starting point guard Darrian Ringo. Ringo was an excellent passer and defender, fitting nicely next to dynamic scoring guard Nike Sibande. His replacement, Mekhi Lairy, is wired more to score, but showed a lot of promise as a freshman despite his diminutive stature. Sibande has to be more efficient to lead a team to the promised land, but if Owens continues to recruit well the Redhawks will be well-positioned for the future.
#7. Ball State (#2 West)– James Whitford’s team has fallen on its face in MAC play in consecutive years after strong non-conference slates, and now will have a different look with the graduations of Tayler Persons and Trey Moses. Persons will be the more talked-about departure, but I’m more concerned with Whitford’s ability to replace Moses, an elite defender and sneaky passer in the post. Persons’ replacement will likely be Ishmael El-Amin, a scoring point guard cut from a similar cloth as his predecessor at the point guard spot. I’d like to see some small-ball lineups with Tahjai Teague at the five and more spacing to give a jolt to an offense that featured too much iso-ball at times last season.
#8. Northern Illinois (#3 West)– The nation’s best unknown star resides in DeKalb, IL, where Eugene German gives opposing teams all kinds of fits with his ability to flat-out score. Despite shouldering an immense scoring load, German was still able to score efficiently, shooting 42% from 3 and 49% overall from the field. The reason he’s unknown? Mark Montgomery hasn’t surrounded his star with enough talent, and the likely 2,000-point scorer will likely end his career with another mediocre team campaign if a newcomer doesn’t step up.
#9. Ohio (#6 East)– The Jeff Boals hire in Athens was rather predictable– his ties to the program made him a great fit, and his success at Stony Brook made it the perfect time for Boals to return to his alma mater. Boals inherits a multiyear rebuild, but that build may be on the fast track thanks to some strong late recruiting after taking the job. In particular, wings Ben Roderick and Marvin Price look like potential future cornerstones, both bringing significant athleticism and upside to the table. Meanwhile, 5th-year shooter Jordan Dartis should be a nice transition piece, but the swing guy is Jason Preston, who showed some flashes as a freshman but needs to improve as a shooter.
#10. Central Michigan (#4 West)– Keno Davis has carved out his niche at CMU, using an explosive offense that has produced one high-scoring guard after another. Last year’s playmaking duo of Larry Austin and Shawn Roundtree graduates, but a next-man-up mentality will likely be deployed by Davis. The biggest beneficiary could be RS freshman PJ Mitchell, a first team all-state guard by the Detroit News as a prep prospect who profiles as the perfect fit for the Davis system. He can flat-out light it up from outside and handles the ball well, and should have a terrific career for the Chippewas.
#11. Eastern Michigan (#5 West)– A massive wave of JUCO prospects enters for EMU and Rob Murphy in what will undoubtably be a transition year for the Eagles. A few names to watch on a roster with just three returning rotation players from last year: wings Noah Morgan, who was excellent for Fairleigh Dickinson before moving on to JUCO power Northwest Florida State, and Yeikson Montero, a top-100 JUCO prospect known for his ability to score the ball.
#12. Western Michigan (#6 West)– There were always going to be growing pains for WMU in 2018-19 after several key departures, but it was flat-out ugly at times for Broncos. Graduating Seth Dugan won’t help matters, and Steve Hawkins doesn’t have a clear replacement for the 7-footer on the roster. Hawkins desperately needs Michael Flowers healthy after a knee injury in the offseason to have any chance of staying out of the cellar.
All-Conference First Team:
- Eugene German (Northern Illinois)
- Justin Turner (Bowling Green)
- Jayvon Graves (Buffalo)
- Nike Sibande (Miami-OH)
- Tahjai Teague (Ball State)
Player of the Year: Justin Turner (Bowling Green)
German is probably the league’s best player, but Turner gets the nod here on total team impact. Both are terrific players– Turner is truly a do-everything guard who impacts winning in a multitude of ways. He earned a spot at the exclusive CP3 camp over the summer and was impressive in that setting, and he should have a terrific RS junior campaign.
Breakout Player: Mekhi Lairy (Miami-Ohio)
Lairy was an accomplished high school player in the basketball-hungry state of Indiana, but wound up at Miami-Ohio because of his physical stature. At 5-8 (even that may be generous), what Lairy lacks in size, he makes up with in skill level and toughness. He’ll step into the point guard role for Jack Owens’ team, and his play will be critical for a team looking to jockey for position near the top of the conference.
Newcomer of the Year: Xeyrius Williams (Akron)
No newcomer in the conference is as important to his team’s upside as Williams. Talent was never the problem for the skilled forward, and if he can tap into that upside he flashed during his time at Dayton, the sky is the limit. The sit one, play one transfer is a market inefficiency in my mind for mid-major teams to recruit– the ability to get a potential star for one year that would have wound up at a higher level had he had more eligibility. Williams could be the latest example of this if he can put it all together for John Groce’s club.