We’re on to week four of preview season with the MAC. That means we are halfway through our preview series. I appreciate everyone’s support thus far – it’s been fun to dive deep on every league in the country, and I can’t wait until November 25 when we finally get to see these teams on the floor. The MAC continues to recruit well league-wide and made some big moves this offseason to make things incredibly intriguing in 2020-21. Let’s jump in:
- Bowling Green – A common adage today in mid-major basketball is that you have to re-recruit your best players every year. But few coaches have to do it quite like Michael Huger had to with Justin Turner this spring. Turner went in the portal and quickly became one of the hottest grad transfer names available after averaging almost 19 points per game in 2019-20, but Huger was able to convince a guy who has helped alter the trajectory of this program to come back for one more year and finish the job. The return cements the Falcons as the league’s preseason favorite in what should be a wide-open conference race, pairing a terrific combo guard in Turner with experienced wing/forward Daeqwon Plowden at the top of a talented roster. Losing a veteran point guard like Dylan Frye is always a challenge, though I’ve heard good things about freshman Josiah Fulcher at that spot. More concerning is a dearth of options in the frontcourt – center wasn’t a strength last season, but the transfer of a starter in Taylor Mattos at that spot raises questions. Duquesne transfer Dylan Swingle struggled to crack the rotation last season and his game doesn’t really fit Huger’s up-tempo system. Meanwhile, JUCO import Jacob Washington’s stats weren’t overly impressive at Cerritos College for a guy who needs to make a significant early impact. Perhaps some smaller lineups with Plowden at the 5 to get another impressive freshman in Cameron Young could be in the works? Regardless, Huger has proven himself to be one of the league’s sharpest coaches and having a future 2,000-point scorer is a heck of a place to start.
- Buffalo – It’s hard to call a 20-win season in the first year of a new coach disappointing, but I was often left wanting more when watching the Bulls last season. The talent was certainly undeniable – I’d argue UB had the best roster in the league – but the consistency was never there (see losses to Dartmouth, Army, Miami-OH and EMU). That was slightly concerning given my questions coming in about the hire of Jim Whitesell to replace Nate Oats, but Whitesell continues to add talent to the mix to keep the Bulls looking dangerous long-term. UB returns three excellent players in Jayvon Graves, Jeenathan Williams, and Josh Mballa: Graves is a terrific scorer, and both Williams and Mballa are high-level athletes who present matchup problems and are still refining their all-around games. Mballa was hugely impactful after transferring in from Texas Tech, a menace on the offensive glass and excellent around the rim. The graduation of Davonta Jordan is significant though – despite his flaws as a player (turnover-prone and inexplicable free throw struggles), Jordan was the heart and soul of this team and a terrific point-of-attack defender. Ronaldo Segu should be able to replicate much of his offensive game, but the terrific energy Jordan brought on D will be tough to replace. JUCO PG Malik Zachery has the potential to make an impact at the point, but after a September arrest for allegedly stabbing Canisius big Scott Hitchon, I’m skeptical as to when and if he’ll ever wear a UB uniform. On the other hand, the departures of Antwain Johnson and Gabe Grant may be addition by subtraction: the duo shot a combined 55-218 from 3 (25%) and really tanked the team’s offensive efficiency.
- Ball State – This is a very intriguing Ball State team loaded with backcourt talent. Ishmael El-Amin elected to return to school for his senior season after testing the transfer waters, teaming up with a pair of excellent young guards and a grad transfer familiar with the MAC in Reggie Jones. Sophomore Jarron Coleman’s versatile skillset opens up so much for a team that will be very interchangeable 1-4: At 6-5 with the ability to be a primary creator, Coleman frees up El-Amin to go score while still having the ability to attack on his own. I’m high on shooter Luke Bumbalough getting it going in year two after some impressive freshman year moments, and Tulsa transfer Reggie Jones was an impactful wing scorer at Western Michigan to begin his career. The big loss is without a doubt Tahjai Teague, an athletic frontcourt player who really blossomed playing primarily at the 5 in 2019-20 who keyed what was a top-40 defense nationally per KenPom. There isn’t a clear replacement on the roster: Brachen Hazen likely moves up a spot to play as a smaller 5, but he’s not the defensive playmaker Teague was.
- Ohio – Perhaps no player in the country benefited more from a coaching change than Jason Preston did in 2019-20 with Jeff Boals taking over in Athens. Preston went from a glue guy point guard who couldn’t shoot to one of the more dynamic ball-screen creators in the country and a potential NBA prospect. Preston became just the third player in recent college basketball history to average at least 16 points, 6 rebounds, and 7 assists, joining Denzel Valentine and Jason Kidd. Can Preston lead this program back to the top of the MAC? It starts with consistency: the Bobcats never won more than two games in a row in conference play a season ago, struggling to find a rhythm despite having one of the best players in mid-major basketball. Boals has a core to build around in Preston, skilled big man Ben Vander Plas, and two-way wing Lunden McDay. Sophomore Ben Roderick could also get there: the in-state product flashed promise as a freshman with his ability to space the floor. A waiver for James Madison transfer Dwight Wilson would be huge: Wilson averaged 10 points and 9 rebounds per game last season and would give the Bobcats an experienced post presence to pair with a skilled 4 in Vander Plas.
- Akron – The Zips were the only team in the MAC to finish in the top 100 in KenPom as John Groce pulled off a breakthrough season in year three at Akron. Replicating that performance without four starters from a season ago will be challenge though, with a pair of high-major transfers (and potentially a third, depending on waivers) likely to be heavily relied upon. Groce needs guys who can step up around fantastic point guard Loren Jackson, who averaged close to 20 points and shot a blistering 43% from deep in 2019-20 on 3 makes per game. Maishe Dailey (Iowa), Bryan Trimble (St John’s), and Mike Wynn (Wake Forest – needs waiver) will be the primary reinforcements: I’m big on Dailey as a multipositional slashing wing at the MAC level after being a rotation piece for Iowa throughout his career, but I’m less in on Trimble (a shooter who hasn’t shot it well) and Wynn (an aggressive guard who couldn’t get off the bench on bad Wake Forest teams). JUCO import Taylor Currie (who began his career at Wisconsin) put up massive numbers at a low level of JUCO ball and could be critical in the frontcourt. Jackson is about as good a place to start as possible, but piecing together all these unproven newcomers in this pandemic-impacted season will be a challenge if this group has championship aspirations.
- Kent State – Kent State probably isn’t the first name you think of when you think “model mid-major”, but the Golden Flashes have finished over .500 every season since 1998 and have won 20+ games in four of the past six seasons. Expect that .500+ streak to continue, though the transfer of Anthony Roberts from a group already set to graduate four of its top six scorers. Versatile senior forward Danny Pippen is a good place to start: Pippen is a skilled forward who blocks shots, can hit threes, and gets to the line plenty when in the paint. Rob Senderoff will surround Pippen with an incredibly talented stable of newcomers at the guard position, including three top-100 JUCO guards and a guy who averaged over 10 points per game at the D1 level in Portland State transfer Michael Nuga. Polk State import Tekorian Smith is the type of dynamic shot-maker Senderoff loves to set free, while Malique Jacobs is a stat-sheet-stuffer whose versatility should be an asset for a team that will almost assuredly play small at times. Like Akron, it’s a lot of new parts to work in. But there’s enough talent here to make this group incredibly intriguing if some of these JUCO imports pan out.
- Toledo – Fantastic point guard Marreon Jackson leads the way for Tod Kowalczyk’s club after a terrific junior season that saw him average close to 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists per game. He’s a fearless shot creator who can really light it up from deep, and he should be in for a massive senior season. Surrounding Jackson with experienced wings who can shoot the ball in Spencer Littleson and Keshaun Saunders will make it difficult for opposing teams to match up defensively. But replacing a frontcourt that combined to average 28 points and 20 rebounds per game in high-energy Willie Jackson and floor-spacer Luke Knapke will without a doubt be a challenge. Highly-touted JUCO recruit Seth Millner could be an answer as a smaller 4-man: while not a great shooter, Millner is a capable slasher who plays with great energy on both ends. Meanwhile, I’m hopeful that high-upside big man AJ Edu can come back healthy after missing last season with a knee injury suffered in FIBA competition. Edu flashed major upside as a rim protector as a freshman in 2018-19 (12.2% block rate) and would give this defense a major lift. He’s raw as an offensive player but does have the ability to space the floor some, and a healthy return would be a boon for this team. JUCO import Jonathan Komagum will also have to give the Rockets some steady frontcourt minutes. If things break right, this team could be as competitive as any in the MAC.
- Eastern Michigan – EMU had its worst finish in MAC play of the Rob Murphy era in 2019-20, mostly due to an offense that simply couldn’t get out of its own way. The offense was an absolute disaster: the Eagles were 349th nationally in 3PT%, 325th in turnover rate, and 345th in FT%. Murphy didn’t have a true point guard he could trust on the roster, nor did he have someone you could trust to go get you a shot late in games. That overshadowed what was one of the best defenses he’s had: the 70th-ranked unit nationally per KenPom that forced tons of turnovers and made life difficult at the rim thanks to their terrific length in the 2-3 zone. Murphy adds to that frontcourt length this season with a pair of seldom-used high-major imports in James Love (Kansas State) and Axel Okongo (Missouri). That duo will replace Boubacar Toure, who was probably the team’s best player last season thanks to his shot-blocking and work on the glass (though his 44% FT mark didn’t help the offense). The big move to watch in the backcourt is a potential waiver for Holy Cross transfer Drew Lowder. Lowder is exactly what EMU needed from a shot-making perspective, putting up big numbers (albeit in a small sample size) for HC last season. If he can’t play right away, massive pressure lies on JUCO PG Bryce McBride, who put up gaudy numbers at Dyersburg State and can really shoot the ball.
- Northern Illinois – It was a breakthrough year for Mark Montgomery’s club in 2019-20, riding a superstar in Eugene German who I truly believe will play in the NBA to an 11-7 conference mark to tie atop the West division. NIU really grinded out possessions last season, relying heavily on German to make big plays late in games to steal victories. German helped the Huskies win close games: nine of 11 league wins were by seven points or less. So can Montgomery and NIU continue to move up the standings? I’m not sure I’m buying it. Things will start with three young guards in Trendon Hankerson, Darius Beane, and Tyler Cochran. I’m high on Hankerson, a steady two-way guard who can really stroke it from deep. But is he ready to be a focal point on offense? I’m not sure I buy that, and German made everyone’s life easier a season ago with the attention he constantly drew from defenses. Shot-making guard Tavon Jones (Odessa CC) could also make an impact. Up front, a trio of JUCO bigs will be looked to for immediate help. I’m most bullish on Adong Makuoi, a high-energy big who should protect the rim and be an active rebounder for the Huskies.
- Miami (OH) – The departure of Nike Sibande for Pittsburgh stops the RedHawks from being in complete run-it-back mode, but Jack Owens’ club does return four of its top five scorers as it looks to climb the MAC ladder. Those returners are concentrated in the backcourt, with Dae Dae Grant, Isaiah Coleman-Lands, and Mekhi Lairy all set to return. Lairy is the guy I’m watching: he’s a steady passer, capable shooter, and good decision-maker who made the offense measurably better when on the floor despite being undersized at 5-8. A bigger role in the offense for Dalonte Brown seems likely – the second-leading scorer from last year’s club brings size and versatility for Owens’ club. Oakland transfer James Beck could be a stabilizing force in the frontcourt.
- Central Michigan – Four double-figure scorers depart for Keno Davis and the Chippewas, but we know Davis’ teams always find guys to put the ball in the basket. Senior Devontae Lane seems primed for a massive year as he takes on primary ballhandling responsibilities after averaging 9 points and 3 assists per game a season ago. JUCO wing Meikkel Murray seems likely to make an immediate impact as well after averaging over 16 points per game at Coffeyville CC. The Bronx native is a high-level athlete who will be excellent in transition for CMU’s fast-paced attack. One more intriguing add is Michigan State grad transfer Braden Burke, a 7-footer who barely played for the Spartans but brings touch and size at the center position. With a defense that will likely be a wreck again and not a ton of shooting, it’s hard to buy this team getting out of the bottom of the conference. But we know this about Keno’s clubs: they are certainly a fun watch.
- Western Michigan – After swinging for the fences early in the coaching search with rumors surrounding Saddi Washington, WMU wound up hiring from within with Clayton Bates. Bates, a long-time assistant for Steve Hawkins in Kalamazoo, took a short-term, low-salary contract in what will essentially be a multi-year tryout to be a head coach. But inheriting a roster that finished in last place in its division in 2019-20 and loses its two best players in Michael Flowers (South Alabama) and Brandon Johnson (Minnesota). Growth from youngsters B. Artis White and Titus Wright will be critical to stay out of the cellar, and I’m excited about freshman wing Josiah Freeman. But this is going to take time, and wins this season may be tough to come by.
All-Conference First Team:
- Marreon Jackson (Toledo)
- Jason Preston (Ohio)
- Loren Jackson (Akron)
- Jayvon Graves (Buffalo)
- Justin Turner (Bowling Green)
Player of the Year: Jason Preston (Ohio) – In a league of great guards, Preston shines above the rest. He’s such a terrific creator in ball screens and makes things so easy for others with his ability to put passes right where shooters need them. He’s also improving as a shooter in his own right, and continued growth in that regard will determine whether he can play the next level. But for now, he’s one heck of a mid-major point guard.
Breakout Player: AJ Edu (Toledo) – This is all predicated on a healthy return from the knee injury that kept him out last season, but I’m bullish on Edu’s upside. He’s such an intriguing player with elite physical tools and great instincts. He could make a huge impact on the defensive end for this Toledo club, even if he isn’t always scoring in bunches.
Newcomer of the Year: Tekorian Smith (Kent State) – Rob Senderoff loves having guards who can go get buckets, and Smith is the perfect example of a guy who does just that. He’s capable of lighting it up from downtown or attacking the rack off the bounce, and he’s the highest-rated signee in the conference per JUCORecruiting. There’s a reason he had a laundry list of good mid-major suitors before choosing the Golden Flashes.