2001-02 Mid-American Conference Preview
by Brian Seymour
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past ten years or living in the obviously under-oxygeniated hotel room where the NCAA selection committee annually selects schools for the 64-team tournament, you know that the Mid-American Conference plays some great basketball.
To illustrate the example, Ball State upset No. 4 Kansas and No. 3 UCLA on back-to-back evenings during the Maui Classic. What perhaps makes those upsets more impressive is, coming into the season, many experts thought Ball State was probably the fourth or fifth best team in the MAC.
This is a deep, talented conference, but year after year as the upsets pile up, both in non-conference and NCAA Tournament play, getting more than one team in the Big Dance is an annual exercise in teeth-pulling.
Some MAC coaches are getting tired of this annual dance with the dentist — they’re throwing down the gauntlet.
Central Michigan coach Jay Smith told ESPN.com that the top MAC teams could compete with the second or third best team in the Big Ten, especially on a neutral floor. From Smith, those aren’t just empty words — he was an assistant on two national finalist teams at Michigan.
The problem isn’t all perception – lots of media and officials know MAC basketball is legit – some of the problem is that the MAC is TOO good. Or at least too deep. The regular season conference champion generally has four or five conference losses, which drags down their RPI, which is the god that the tournament committee seems to worship these days.
To that end, most of the best MAC schools have spent lots of effort in upgrading their non-conference schedules (which preseason tournaments like the Maui Classic also help improve).
But there’s not a lot of upside for a team like Duke or Kentucky to play Marshall or Kent. If they win, it doesn’t help their profile at all, but if they lose, it could be the difference between a 1 and a 2 seed. (And if you don’t believe me, watch the debate over where Kansas and UCLA should be seeded in early March. Their losses to Ball State will be listed under the column for “key losses”.)
So, for now, watch for a dozen or so “upsets” by MAC teams in the non-conference season, lots of RPI watching later in the season and perhaps more giant-killing in the Big Dance.
1. Ball State: If the Cardinals were planning to sneak up on anyone in the MAC this season, they have more or less blown their cover. Beating the third and fourth ranked teams in the nation on successive nights tends to do that.
But even if the rest of the conference will be gunning for the Cardinals now, they gave themselves more of a cushion in the quest for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament if it comes to that.
Like most of the other teams in the MAC, Ball State generally doesn’t out-recruit the bigger schools – they find diamonds in the rough and polish them, trying to find athletes who can be molded into a system. This worked in Ball State’s favor in the Maui Classic, as the smaller, but quicker Cardinals ran through and around Kansas and UCLA, just as they’ll try to do to the rest of the MAC. On a given night, watching a Ball State game could be as close as you’ll come to the running and gunning glory days of the 1980s (unless you can find a TCU game on cable).
Theron Smith is as good a player as Ball State has ever produced and that includes a guy by the name of Bonzi Wells, who now works for the Portland TrailBlazers. The 6-foot-8 forward is quick, has a nice jump shot out to 20 feet and can outmuscle larger players on the boards. He averaged almost 17 points a game last season and had ten double-doubles. It would be surprising if he didn’t average about 20 points and 10 boards a game this season.
The Cardinals also have four of five starters back from a pretty good team last year (18-11), but they won’t be getting starting guard Billy Lynch back until Ball State’s football season is over.
2. Central Michigan: The Chippewas were the media’s pick to repeat as West Division champions, but with Ball State raising the bar a bit, it’ll be interesting to see how Central responds. It’ll also be interesting to see how coach Jay Smith and his experienced team cope with success. Last season, the Chippewas had the second best single-season turnaround in the nation and ninth best in history, improving by 14.5 games. This year, they’re expected to beat people.
Four starters return from a 20-8 team that won the MAC’s regular season championship, but wasn’t even invited to the NIT. To that end, the Chippewas have significantly upgraded their non-conference slate and will face five teams which made the postseason, including NCAA teams Oklahoma and Georgia State.
Leading the Chippewas is David Webber, last season’s MAC player of the year and a preseason pick to repeat. The younger brother of NBA star Chris Webber, David’s game is nothing like his brother’s. David Webber is a 6-foot-2 guard with excellent moves both with and away from the ball. Not only did he average 18.4 points per game last season, but is also one of the best defenders in the league.
Sophomore seven-footer Chris Kaman is one of the more promising big men in the league and will be looking to improve on his 10 points and 5 rebounds per game average from last season.
3. Toledo: Coming off an NIT season last year, the Rockets are hoping to use their team speed and three-guard lineup to keep opposing teams off balance again this year.
Sophomore guard Terry Reynolds was the MAC’s Freshman of the Year last year and will be joined by Nick Moore in the backcourt, which is among the league’s best.
The problem for Toledo is a general lack of experience, especially in the frontcourt, where all three starters were lost. If sophomore A.J. Shellabarger and junior Milo Kirsh can step in and contribute, the Rockets may be able to make another date with postseason play.
4. Western Michigan: The Broncos are in the “Turning The Corner” phase of their rebuilding project under second-year coach Robert McCullum. The struggles of a young team last season will likely bear fruit this year as Western should be much improved.
But the MAC is too talented and too deep for the Broncos to make too much of a mark this year, despite have an exciting playmaker in junior guard Robby Collum. Collum will singlehandedly win a couple games for Western this year. Freshman guard Ben Reed is among one of the most hyped recruits in the league and should make an immediate impact.
5. Northern Illinois: Senior Leon Rodgers was one of the bright spots in an abysmal 2000-2001 season for the Huskies. The 6-foot-6 forward established himself as one of the top players in the MAC, scoring 16.6 points per game, even more impressive since he faced frequent double teams.
New coach Rob Judson has a very young team that is still a year or two away from making any major noise in the league.
6. Eastern Michigan: The Eagles are far removed from the glory days of NCAA Tournament upsets under former coach Ben Braun (now at Cal). It’s hard to imagine that this program is only five years removed from beating Duke in the first round of the Big Dance, but Eastern slumped to a 3-25 mark last season and figure to only be marginally improved this season.
Sophomore guard Ricky Cottrill will shoot early, often and with success, as he did in averaging over 22 points per game in an early season tournament, but with six freshmen and three sophomores, Eastern will likely be too young to challenge the more experienced teams in the MAC.
1. Kent State: How do the Golden Flashes follow-up a season which saw them win the MAC conference tournament and upset Indiana in the first round of the NCAA Tournament? (By the way, don’t think that knocking off a Big Ten team in the Big Dance wasn’t especially sweet for a MAC school).
How about being picked by media to repeat as league champs and a preseason ranking of 15th in the nation by Sports Illustrated?
Kent has seen some of its early season thunder stolen by Ball State, but make no mistake – the Golden Flashes are the team to beat in the MAC this year. Start with senior guard Trevor Huffman, one of the top scores in school history and a preseason all-conference selection. Huffman, who averaged 16.8 points per game last year, will challenge Theron Smith of Ball State and David Webber of Central Michigan for player of the year honors in the conference.
Fellow seniors Andrew Mitchell and Demetric Shaw add balance to the lineup and John Edwards, a seven-foot sophomore is one of the most promising big men in the league. Throw in the intangible advantage of Kent being within an hour of the postseason tournament in Cleveland and it’ll be hard for anyone to dethrone the Golden Flashes.
2. Marshall: The Thundering Herd are a trendy pick to win their first-ever MAC title and they certainly have the talent to get there.
Seniors J.R. VanHoose and Tamar Slay make a potent 1-2 punch for opposing teams to defend and both were picked to the preseason All-MAC team. VanHoose, a 6-foot-10 forward, scored 16.6 points and 11.1 rebounds per game and Slay, a 6-foot-9 guard averaged 17.3 points per game.
The major question about the Herd is if the rest of the team can step up if Slay or VanHoose has an off night.
3. Ohio: It’s been a while since a Gary Trent-led Ohio team ran roughshod through the league in the mid-1990’s, but the Bobcats are building toward returning to prominence in the conference.
Brandon Hunter, a 6-foot-7 junior forward is probably among the most underlooked players in the conference, but on any given night, he can be the best player in the MAC. He averaged 18.1 points and 9.4 rebounds per game last year and first year coach Tim O’Shea is hoping to ride Hunter to what would be a somewhat surprising conference title.
A promising recruiting class including Zach Kiekow and James Bridgewater means Ohio could be about a year away from being among the top teams in the league.
4. Bowling Green: The Falcons started the season off with an exclamation, upsetting Mississippi and finishing third at the Top of the World Tournament in Fairbanks, Alaska. The win over Ole Miss, a Sweet 16 team last year, should give Bowling Green some serious momentum throughout a nonconference schedule which includes a home game against Michigan.
The win could also reap dividends in the MAC, where the Falcons are among a handful of teams that could win 11-14 games and challenge for the league title. Eight of the nine top scorers from a 15-14 team last season return, led by guard Keith McLeon, who averaged 18 points a game last year and was among the league leaders in assists and steals.
5. Miami (Ohio): Traditionally among the league’s best teams, this year’s RedHawk team could fall on somewhat hard times because of the level of talent around the conference.
A pair of seniors should provide most of the offense for Miami – forward Alex Shorts and guard Doug Davis. Shorts scored 15.7 points per game last year and Davis has averaged 15 a game in two early season contests. Danny Horace, a promising freshman, managed a double-double in his first-ever college game against UNC-Wilmington.
6. Akron: Coach Dan Hipsher has eight new players on his roster, which means the Zips having some catching up to do if they’re going to compete with Kent, Marshall and the other top teams in the East.
It’s a family affair in Akron, as sons Andy and Bryan Hipsher both play for their father. Andy scored 21 points in a season-opening upset of Iona.
7. Buffalo: There’s been growing pains and then some for the Bulls, who moved to the MAC from the Mid-Continent Conference in 1998. But seniors Robert Brown (15.3 scoring average last year) and Louis Campbell (13.6) return for what should be a better season than last year’s 4-24 mark.
NCAA Tournament teams: This is tougher than usual to predict, since a team can peak late and sweep to the conference title as Ball State did in 1999. I’m guessing Kent will take the MAC’s automatic berth and Ball State will be awarded an at-large berth. Here’s hoping the selection committee does the right thing and rewards a 22 or 23 win regular season for the best MAC team left out of the mix. Toledo and Central Michigan should both earn spots in the NIT.
Best player: Trevor Huffman of Kent has nights where he is electric and can’t miss and those nights should be more common this season. Theron Smith of Ball State, David Webber of Central Michigan and Tamar Slay of Marshall are very close.
NBA potential: Theron Smith probably has the best package of skills for any player in the league. If he stays in school next season and stays healthy, he could be a first-round pick in 2003. David Webber might not be selected in next year’s draft, but there’s always a place on NBA rosters for players who can play insane defense and slash to the basket. Plus, he’s been playing against pros in the offseason for years.
Non-conference game to watch: Kent vs. Kentucky (at Cincinnati), Nov. 28. A pumped-up Kent team facing Kentucky on a neutral floor. Could be another major upset against the Wildcats.
Conference games to watch: Kent at Central Michigan, Feb. 9. The only game of the year between the two teams (unless they meet in the conference tourney). If Central’s home-court winning streak of 12 games coming into the season hasn’t been broken yet, this could be the game.
Bowling Green at Toledo, Feb. 18. A huge rivalry game that will have implications on the conference title and postseason hopes for both teams.
For the record: NCAA tournament upsets by MAC teams in the past 11 years:
|1990 –||Ball State defeated Oregon State 54-53 in the first round, Louisville 62-60 in the second round and lost to eventual national champion UNLV 69-67 in the Sweet 16.|
|1991 –||Eastern Michigan defeated Mississippi State 76-56 in the first round, Penn State 71-68 in the second round.|
|1995 –||Miami (Ohio) defeated Arizona 71-62 in the first round.|
|1996 –||Eastern Michigan defeated Duke 75-60 in the first round.|
|1998 –||Western Michigan defeated Clemson 75-72 in the first round.|
|1999 –||Miami (Ohio) defeated Washington 59-58 in the first round, Utah 66-58 in the second round.|
|2001 –||Kent State defeated Indiana 77-73 in the first round.|
Home court advantage: Marshall’s Cam Henderson Center and Central Michigan’s Rose Arena are among the toughest places to play in the country. Both teams were 13-1 at home last year and both teams have rabid fans who love to make a difference in the game. Opposing teams shot 23 percent worse at the free throw line last season when shooting toward the “Rose Rowdies” section at Rose Arena.
Coolest logo/mascot: No question. The Buffalo Bulls and “Victor E. Bull”, who appears in a pair of ESPN commercials.
On the hot seat: Dan Hipsher of Akron is the dean of MAC coaches, but is coming off a 12-16 mark and has a young team this year. It’s easy to wonder how much patience the athletic department at Akron will have if a similar record is in the works this year.
Movin’ on up: They don’t call the MAC the “Cradle of Coaches” for nothing. Central Michigan’s Jay Smith is the most likely candidate to move up to a major school if the Chippewas have a good a season as they’re expected to. His reclamation job at Central is nothing short of amazing and he has the right credentials, which include help in the recruitment of the Fab Five at Michigan.