Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the start of the 2012-13 basketball season, which begins with the first games on Nov. 9, with a countdown of the nation’s top conferences. We will release one conference preview each day, counting down to the top conference. For profiles of every team in each conference, check out the 2012-13 Athlon Sports College Basketball annual available in the online store.
By reaching the Sweet 16, Ohio gave the MAC its most high-profile basketball moment perhaps since Kent State reached the Elite Eight in 2002. The Bobcats wins over Michigan and USF, followed by a hard-fought 73-65 loss in overtime to North Carolina in the regional semifinals, were reasons for the MAC to brag.
Unfortunately, it also all but rendered the regular season moot. Ohio was third in its division before winning the MAC tournament, but at least the Bobcats had a winning record (11-5 in conference) before defeating Akron (with a MAC-best 13-3 conference record) in the league tournament final. Two years ago, Ohio went 7-9 in the MAC before it won the conference tournament and upset Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament.
Despite a coaching change with former TCU coach Jim Christian replacing John Groce, who took the job at Illinois, Ohio has high expectations for a follow up and perhaps an elusive division title. Point guard D.J. Cooper, the architect of Ohio’s NCAA upsets the last three seasons, returns for a senior year.
Ironically, the last MAC division champion to reach the NCAA Tournament was Kent State in 2008 -- a team coached by Christian.
ATHLON ALL-MAC TEAM
MAC FACTS AND FIGURES
G D.J. Cooper, Ohio*
2011-12 regular season champion: Akron (East), Eastern Michigan (West)
G Rian Peterson, Toledo
2012 NCAA Tournament teams: Ohio#
F Javon McCrea, Buffalo
New coaches: Jim Christian (Ohio), John Cooper (Miami)
F A'uston Calhoun, Bowling Green
C Zeke Marshall, Akron
*preseason player of the year
#conference tournament champion
2012-13 MAC PREVIEW
1. Ohio (29-8, 11-5)
The Bobcats’ two runs to the NCAA Tournament — and three wins once they’ve gotten there — over the last three years have come without distinguished regular seasons. In fact, Ohio has finished above third place in its own division only once — a tie for second place in 2000-01 — since the Mid-American Conference split into East and West 15 years ago, let alone since point guard D.J. Cooper arrived in Athens. In many ways, Ohio is an example of what’s become an irrelevant regular season in a league that hasn’t had a second NCAA Tournament bid since 1999. The key is to play well for one weekend in Cleveland in March. The Bobcats replaced coach John Groce (who left for Illinois) with MAC coaching icon Jim Christian. Christian guided Kent State to the postseason five times, including a pair of NCAA Tournament bids, before leaving for TCU in 2008. The Golden Flashes under Christian were different than the MAC’s developing dynasty at Ohio; they finished first or second in the East Division in each of Christian’s six seasons. Now, Christian is at a place that has an invested administration and one of the more dynamic (albeit diminutive) point guards in the country in Cooper. The Bobcats have plenty of talent beyond Cooper (14.7 ppg, 5.7 apg), as well. All nine regular members of the playing rotation return from a team that took North Carolina to overtime in the Sweet 16 — most notably starters Walter Offutt (12.4 ppg), Nick Kellogg (85 3-pointers), Ivo Baltic and Jon Smith.
NCAA Tournament Prediction: One and Done.
2. Akron (22–12, 13–3)
If there’s a team capable of challenging Ohio in terms of talent, pedigree and MAC Tournament grit, it’s the Zips. Coach Keith Dambrot (with a freshly signed 10-year contract extension) has taken Akron to six straight MAC Tournament championship games. They lost in the ’11 title game to Ohio by a point. Dambrot should have one of his better squads this winter. Seven players from the Zips’ nine-man rotation are back, led by 7-foot senior Zeke Marshall (10.4 ppg, 95 blocks) and entertaining junior point guard Alex Abreu (9.6 ppg, 4.8 apg). But the player to watch might be 6-foot-7 junior forward Demetrius “Tree” Treadwell (7.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg), who’s beefed up to 245 pounds. Treadwell, once on the verge of becoming a high school drop out, came on late in his sophomore season after sitting out 2010-11 as a non-qualifier. He and Marshall could give the Zips the top frontcourt in the league.
3. Kent State (21–12, 10–6)
The Golden Flashes are more difficult to read entering this season than perhaps any team in the MAC. So much talent is gone from last season, players such as former league MVP Justin Greene and guard Michael Porrini, one of the most valuable players in the MAC. In all, Kent State must replace 42.2 points per game. The departures of Greene, Porrini and classmate Carton Guyton were expected. It’s the unexpected offseason happenings that may push the Flashes toward their first sub-.500 season in 15 years. Would-be junior defensive force Eric Gaines didn’t have his scholarship renewed and, in late June, senior guard Randal Holt (12.7 ppg) underwent surgery for a torn meniscus, his fourth knee surgery dating back to high school. Kent State is hoping Holt, the Flashes’ only four-year player, will be back in time for the start of the season. If Holt is healthy, Kent State should still have two of the MAC’s better players, with former junior college All-American Chris Evans, a 6’7" forward who averaged 9.5 points and 4.1 rebounds in his first season, perhaps pushing for all-league status. This year’s big junior college addition is another reason the Flashes might survive a large exodus — as they have in other years over the last decade. Melvin Tabb, a 6-9, 240-pound forward out of Midland (Texas) College (by way of Wake Forest), chose Kent State over Temple, Wichita State and Seton Hall.
4. Bowling Green (16–16, 9–7)
The Falcons’ stunning home loss to Central Michigan in the first round of the MAC Tournament last March ruined a solid conference season and, again, left Bowling Green a bit off the radar heading into 2012-13. Seniors A’uston Calhoun (13.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Jordon Crawford (11.3 ppg, 4.8 apg) give the Falcons a terrific tandem, both in playmaking ability and with the sweat equity that comes with years battling for separation in this league. Calhoun, a versatile and strong 6’7" 4-man is a MAC Player of the Year candidate. The issue for BG might be outside shooting, minus Scott Thomas and Dee Brown, who combined to make 93 of the Falcons’ 156 3-pointers last season.
5. Buffalo (20–11, 12–4)
The Bulls lost more than half of their minutes played from last year, with MAC Player of the Year Mitchell Watt (16.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and Zach Filzen (12.1 ppg, 97 3-pointers) the most notable departures. Buffalo, however, does have two more seasons with power forward Javon McCrea. The 6’7", 245-pound All-MAC first-teamer averaged 14.7 points and 6.9 rebounds in 25 minutes per game. He’ll likely need to play 30 this season, while guards Jarod Oldham (4.7 ppg, 5.9 apg) and Tony Watson (6.1 ppg) take a considerable step. Coach Reggie Witherspoon has appeared to win with less during his 13-year tenure, including two years ago, when the Bulls won 20 games after losing their top five scorers. At least this group has McCrea to anchor it.
6. Miami (9–21, 5–11)
MAC basketball without Miami’s Charlie Coles is a strange world. It’ll seem even more weird when the RedHawks take the floor with new coach John Cooper’s more up-tempo style of basketball. It’s hard to question the job Cooper did in three seasons at Tennessee State, which came within a smidge of knocking off Murray State — a second time — for an NCAA Tournament berth last March. The question is, can Cooper’s RedHawks overcome the loss of big man Julian Mavunga (16.4 ppg, 9.0 rpg) and sharpshooting All-MAC freshman Brian Sullivan (10.3 ppg, 79 3-pointers), who transferred to Davdison? This year, in this division, it’s unlikely. Junior point guard Quinten Rollins (7.7 ppg, 3.2 apg) and 6-8 junior forward Jon Harris (8.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg) are critical to make Cooper’s first season competitive, as is guard Allen Roberts, who returns after missing last season with a knee injury.
1. Toledo (19–17, 7–9)
Lost in the hubbub over Connecticut’s Academic Progress Rate-induced postseason ban was the story of Toledo. The Rockets, already hit with scholarship reductions a year earlier, were one of 10 programs penalized by the NCAA for poor classroom performance, mostly brought on by issues with player retention prior to coach Tod Kowalczyk’s hiring in 2010. The shame for Toledo is that it had a legitimate shot at an NCAA Tournament bid for the first time since 1980. Now it can’t even play in the MAC Tournament. Junior wing Rian Pearson (16.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg) might be the MAC Player of the Year, leading a rotation that returns five of its six high scorers. Julius Brown, the MAC’s top freshman last year, is back to run the point. Toledo will try to find solace in winning a weak West Division and competing for the regular-season MAC title. The good news for the Rockets: They should be among the league favorites again in 2014, and the university extended Kowalczyk’s contract this offseason through 2017, a reward for the former Wisconsin-Green Bay coach, who’s quickly brought Toledo back to relevancy after inheriting a mess.
2. Eastern Michigan (14–18, 9–7)
The Eagles were the most compelling story of the West Division last winter. They perhaps are again. In his first season, Rob Murphy coached Eastern Michigan to a division title, and did so amazingly with a roster worthy of its last-place preseason billing. The former Syracuse assistant will have better talent this time around, as his 2011-12 scout team of transfers Da’Shonte Riley (Syracuse), Daylen Harrison (Wyoming) and Glenn Bryant (Arkansas) become eligible. Murphy also lured touted junior college big man James Still and heralded prep point guard Ray Lee. Riley, a 7-foot sophomore, and Still, a 6’10" junior, immediately give the Eagles considerable size and athleticism inside, more so than they’ll see anywhere else in the West.
3. Western Michigan (14–20, 6–10)
This was always going to be a rebuilding year to some extent, with around a half-dozen new faces. But it wasn’t supposed to come on the heels of such a flop. The Broncos followed a surprisingly strong 2010-11 season with a dud in ’11-12 — the result of over-scheduling, a bevy of injuries and a senior class that appeared to lose its hunger. While the roster turnover is somewhat welcomed, the Broncos are replacing their top four scorers. That includes would-be junior center Matt Stainbrook (11.4 ppg. 6.8 rpg), who transferred to Xavier after his scholarship wasn’t renewed. Among the replacements are seven freshmen — an intriguing class headlined by big man Darius Paul, the brother of Illinois’ Brandon Paul, and Connor Tava, a 6’5" forward who might be the most physically ready to contribute. WMU isn’t entirely reliant on newcomers. Senior Nate Hutcheson (9.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg) has developed into one of the MAC’s premier perimeter defenders, but the 6’7" forward will be asked to do more offensively. Sophomore Austin Richie (5.6 ppg) is likely to occupy one of the guard spots, while talented, but enigmatic 6-10 junior Shayne Whittington (4.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg) takes Stainbrook’s place full-time at center.
4. Ball State (15–15, 6–10)
Like Western Michigan, big things were expected from the Cardinals’ senior-laden roster last season. And even more so than the Broncos, Ball State collapsed epically, losing nine straight league games. Coach Billy Taylor received a shaky vote of confidence and returns for a sixth year, but three of the team’s top scorers depart, including all-conference big man Jarrod Jones and, unexpectedly, would-be junior point guard Tyrae Robinson. That leaves the lead guard duties to true freshmen Marcus Posley and Chase Brogna, with Posley the more likely starter. The strength of this Cardinals’ squad should be at the other guard position and on the wing, with senior Jauwan Scaife and juniors Chris Bond (7.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Jesse Berry (9.7 ppg) all returning. Bond, the team’s best perimeter defender, broke two bones in his left (non-shooting) forearm in July, though he is expected back before the start of the season. Scaife (5.9 ppg) was at the heart of the underachievement last season, but he averaged double figures as a freshman and sophomore.
5. Northern Illinois (5–26, 3–13)
The Huskies fell to their first 13 Division I opponents last season, suffered eight losses by 23 or more points and defeats to the likes of Utah Valley, Nebraska-Omaha and SIU-Edwardsville. If it sounds breathtakingly grim, consider this: Northern Illinois’ basketball program left its first season under coach Mark Montgomery with reason for hope. Much of that has to do with the makeup of the roster and how the Huskies finished — winning two of their final three regular-season games, even with six freshmen playing at least 14 minutes per game. The most promising of last year’s newcomers is leading scorer Abdel Nader (10.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg), a touted 6-7 Chicagoan. The Huskies return their next top five scorers, as well, meaning the six freshmen joining the program this season shouldn’t face a similar baptism.
6. Central Michigan (11–21, 5–11)
This much is known: By the time basketball season starts, the Chippewas plan to field a team. As for who’s on the roster for first-year coach Keno Davis, well, it’s more clear who isn’t. Trey Zeigler (15.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg) transferred to Pittsburgh after his father, coach Ernie Zeigler, was fired. And last year’s next two leading scorers are gone, as well — point guard Austin McBroom (10.9 ppg, 3.7 apg) transferred to Saint Louis and Derek Jackson (11.5 ppg) was booted for academic reasons. In all, only four players appear likely to return, with 6’7" senior forward Olivier Mbaigoto (7.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg) the only one to average better than 14 minutes and three points an outing last season. Senior Finis Craddock, junior Luke Wiest and sophomore Austin Keel are the other Ernie Zeigler players remaining, meaning 22 of Zeigler’s recruits left the program during or immediately after his six seasons. And Craddock is on thin ice, having been suspended indefinitely after an April DWI arrest. Freshman forward John Simons and junior college transfer DeAndray Buckley, a shooting guard, headline a fairly unheralded group of newcomers.
More previews for the 2012-13 season can be found in the Athlon Sports College Basketball annual available in the online store
Athlon Conference Previews and Power Rankings:
Athlon College Basketball Countdown:
8. Ohio State
10. Michigan State
11. NC State
14. North Carolina
15. San Diego State
19. Notre Dame
More from the 2012-13 College Basketball Preview:
Top 10 Freshmen for 2012-13
Impact Transfers for 2012-13
Coaches on the Hot Seat for 2012-13
10 Players Returning from Injury
Gonzaga leads International Dream Team