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Mid-American Conference Preview

November 10, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments

Mid-American Conference Preview

by Jeremy Speer

It its constant struggle for national recognition, the Mid-American conference again proved it could compete at the big stage. Led by 7-foot center Chris Kaman, Central Michigan completed a storybook season with a first-round victory over Creighton in the NCAA Tournament. The Chippewas dominated the conference all season, despite strong seasons by Kent State, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan.

The will be no dominant team in the MAC this season. Parity is what the conference will offer from the season’s start. With the absence of first-team All-MAC performers like Kaman, Ball State’s Chris Williams, KSU’s Antonio Gates, Ohio’s Brandon Hunter and Marshall’s Ronald Blackshear, many fresh faces will be expected to shoulder a large load.

Despite the unknown elements of most teams, some teams are looking to separate from the pack. In the West, Northern Illinois returns a pair of clutch performers, while Bowling Green returns a healthy and deep team. In the East, Miami coach Charlie Coles has a talented group of athletes to engineer his defensive-minded system. And Akron returns the MAC’s most dangerous group of starters.

Another sidebar to watch will be the development of Marshall’s potential move into Conference USA. Numerous coaches and athletic directors expressed their displeasure of the Thundering Herd flirting with another conference during the MAC’s recent media day. If they were to leave, it would change the landscape of the conference not just in football, but in basketball as well.

My Preseason All-MAC First Team
G P.J. Smith, Northern Illinois
G Derrick Tarver, Akron
F Juby Johnson, Miami
F Marcus Smallwood, Northern Illinois
F Anthony Kann, Western Michigan

All-MAC Second Team
G Turner Battle, Buffalo
G Keith Tripplett, Toledo
G Johnny Hollingsworth, Akron
F Cameron Echols, Ball State
C Kevin Netter, Bowling Green

Player of the Year:
Marcus Smallwood, Northern Illinois

Newcomer of the Year:
Steven Wright, Bowling Green

Most Athletic:
Marcus Smallwood, Northern Illinois

Best Shooter:
Eric Haut, Kent State

Most Versatile:
Marcus Smallwood, Northern Illinois

Best Offensive Player:
Derrick Tarver, Akron

Best Defensive Player:
Juby Johnson, Miami

Best Ballhandler:
A.W. Hamilton, Marshall

Best Leader:
T.J. Meerman, Central Michigan

Best Rebounder:
Cameron Echols, Ball State

Rising Coach:
Rob Judson, Northern Ilinois

Coach on the Hot Seat:
Reggie Witherspoon, Buffalo

West Division

1. Northern Illinois Huskies

Last Season: 17-14, 11-7

Key Losses: G Jay Bates, C Mike Morrison

Projected Starters:
G Anthony Maestranzi, Sophomore, 3.5 PPG, 43 % 3PT
G P.J. Smith, Senior, 14.7 PPG, 3.6 RPG
F Marcus Smallwood, Senior, 13.3 PPG, 10.1 RPG
F Jamel Staten, Junior, 5.6 PPG, 4.0 RPG
F Rome Sanders, Sophomore, 5.3 PPG, 4.0 RPG

Top Newcomer: PG Ryan Paradise

Big Non-Conference games: at Notre Dame; at Iowa Hawkeye Challenge

The Huskies were the talk of the MAC last season before hitting a rough spot late in the season. Despite this, the Huskies turned eyes during their first season in the NIU Convocation Center.

This year, NIU has something many MAC teams not, two legitimate all-conference candidates. Despite his 6’6″ frame, Smallwood is the leagues best player. He possesses an immense amount of athleticism, as he regularly snags rebounds over much bigger players. The Huskies will get the ball to Smallwood more this season, so his scoring average should go up.

P.J. Smith is an athletic, solid guard, who possesses the ability to drive or shoot. His development could hinge on that of point guards Anthony Maestranzi and Ryan Paradise, each of whom will be asked to distribute and take care of the ball. Staten and Sanders are solid role players. Slick-shooting Todd Peterson provides instant offense off the bench and 6’10” Bryson McKenzie will see plenty of action inside.

It’s looking as if Coach Rob Judson’s stay in DeKalb will be short. If the Huskies reach expectations this year, look for the bigger schools to throw offers Judson’s way.

2. Bowling Green Falcons

Last Season: 13-16, 8-10

Key Loss: G Cory Ryan

Projected Starters:
G Jabari Mattox, Senior, 5.4 PPG, 4.4 APG
G Ronald Lewis, Sophomore, 12.1 PPG, 5.0 RPG
F John Reimold, Junior, 15.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG
F Germain Fitch, Sophomore, 6.5 PPG, 3.5 PPG
C Kevin Netter, Senior, 15.3 PPG, 4.6 RPG

Top Newcomer: G Steven Wright

Big Non-Conference Games: at Michigan; at Honolulu Rainbow Classic

It got so bad for the Falcons last season that coach Dan Dakich was forced to start two football players (Cole Magner, Keon Newson). Expected key players Josh Almanson, Mattox and Fitch all went down for the season while freshman Steven Wright was ineligible.

For all of his struggles, Dakich will reap the benefits this year. Everyone is back, forming the MAC’s deepest team. Netter and Reimold blossomed with the increased playing time, and all have the potential to score quickly.

Lewis emerged as the team’s best player toward the end of the year, and his teaming with the highly-anticipated Wright will give the team two dangerous wing scorers. With Reimold’s shooting touch and Netter’s inside presence, the Falcons will challenge for the MAC title.

3. Western Michigan Broncos

Last Season: 20-11, 10-8

Key Loss: G Robby Collum

Projected Starters:
G Rickey Willis, Junior 2.1 PPG, 32 % 3PT
G Reggie Berry, Senior 5.6 PPG, 35 % 3PT
G Ben Reed, Junior, 7.4 PPG, 4.4 RPG
F Mike Williams, Senior 13.6 PPG, 5.7 RPG
C Anthony Kann, Senior, 14.4 PPG, 8.8 RPG

Top Newcomer: G Mike Jefferson

Big Non-Conference games: USC; at Tempe Hoops Classic

Reggie McCullum did an excellent job in Kalamazoo and he was rewarded with the South Florida job in the offseason. New coach Steve Hawkins wants to continue to upward movement of the program and he has some weapons to help him.

Kann is one of the top inside players in the conference and will dominate in the Kaman-less MAC West. The stringy Williams is a slasher in the mold of Marcus Smallwood. Reed was the MAC Freshman of the Year last season, but injuries derailed his performance last season.

Question marks abound in the backcourt, as Willis and Berry may not have the experience or skill. Newcomers Mike Jefferson and Silver Laku will have a chance to step up.. If these questions are answered, the Broncos will be among the MAC’s top teams.

4. Central Michigan Chippewas

Last Season: 25-7, 14-4

Key Losses: C Chris Kaman, F Mike Manciel, G J.R. Wallace, G Whitney Robinson

Projected Starters:
G T.J. Meerman, Senior 5.6 PPG, 45% 3PT
G Tony Bowne, Junior 4.9 PPG, 44% 3PT
G Kevin Nelson, Sophomore 2.4 PPG, 37% 3PT
F Brandon Voorhees, Sophomore 1.5 PPG, 35% 3PT
C Gerrit Brigitha, Senior 1.9 PPG, 1.2 RPG

Top Newcomer: G Dave Hoskins

Big Non-Conference games: at Notre Dame, at Michigan, at Maui Invitational

Fans in Rose Arena may not recognize this year’s CMU team from last. After losing the four leading scorers off last season’s MAC Championship team, the Chippewas must undergo a complete rehaul.

The two starters that do return, Meerman and Bowne, are gritty leaders, but are not proven scorers. The scoring punch must come from somewhere, and it could be from newcomers Dave Hoskins, Robert Sevalia or Sefton Barrett.

The key to this team is how it will fare in the post, now that the Kaman era is over. Brigitha was on the All MAC Freshman team three years ago, but has been a disappointment the past two. If he and steady Dentlinger step up and if last season’s sophomore class (Voorhees, Kevin Nelson, Joe Carr) develops, it won’t be as bad a season as anticipated in Mount Pleasant.

5. Toledo Rockets

Last Season: 13-16, 7-11

Key Loss: G Nick Moore

Projected Starters
G Rashay Russell, Freshman
G Keith Tripplett, Senior, 16.9 PPG, 5.8 RPG
G Sammy Villegas, Sophomore, 10.8 PPG, 3.6 APG
F Florention Valencia, Freshman
C Allen Pinson, Freshman

Top Newcomer: F Florentino Valencia

Big Non-Conference games: at DePaul, at Louisville

The Rockets hit a high point last season in a win at Michigan State. After that, it was downhill, as the team’s lack of an inside presence proved to be the overhaul.

Stan Jopplin, one of the Mac’s most successful coaches over the past few seasons, has brought in a talented group of recruits to help remedy the team’s holes. Three freshman will likely start when the team tips off November 21 at Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne.

Providing the glue for the team is the return of two of the conference’s best wing players- Tripplett and Villegas. Tripplett finally began to live up to the hype he received when the hometown product was considered the school’s best ever recruit. Villegas was named MAC Freshman of the Year and looks for continued improvement.

It still comes down to the inside game, but if some of the freshman step up, the Rockets could vault back into the MAC’s upper echelon.

6. Eastern Michigan Eagles

Last Season: 14-14, 8-10

Key Loss: F Steve Pettyjohn

Projected Starters:
G Michael Ross, Junior, 11.1 PPG, 5.4 APG
G Ricky Cottrill, Senior 6.9 PPG, 2.0 APG
F JaQuan Hart, Junior 7.2 PPG, 2.9 APG
F Markus Austin, Junior 14.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG
C John Bowler, Sophomore 4.3 PPG, 3.2 RPG

Top Newcomer:G James Douglas

Big Non-Conference Games: at Pittsburgh Invitational, at Nebraska

Jim Boone has done a nice job turning around a program left in shambles following the departure of successful coach Ben Braun, as the Eagles made a major improvement last season.

The Eagles have a lot of talented scorers, but can sometimes be an enigmatic team. Cottrill averaged just under 20 points a game as a sophomore and was among the MAC’s leaders in three-point percentage, but last season his average dipped to seven points and shot a disappointing 20 percent from behind the arc.

Hart, who couldn’t make the grade at Michigan and Ohio State, could be the conference’s most talented player. He sometimes gets a little out of control when Boone does not keep him on a tight least. Ross developed as one of the MAC’s best point guards, and Austin gives steady performance. Like most MAC teams, if the Eagles have some sort of post presence, they could be decent.

7. Ball State Cardinals

Last Season: 13-17, 8-10

Key Loss: G Chris Williams

Projected Starters:
G Matt McCollom, 11.9 PPG, 2.6 APG
G Dennis Trammel, Junior, New Mexico State transfer
F Robert Owens, Senior, 10.2 PPG, 4.9 RPG
F Cameron Echols, Senior, 13.1 PPG, 8.7 RPG
C Kevin Cates, Sophomore, 3.4 PPG, 5.1 RPG

Top Newcomer: G Dennis Trammel

Big Non-Conference Games: Xavier, at Connecticut

The Cardinals were hit hard last season with the season-ending knee injury to Theron Smith. They were hit even harder in the offseason, when Smith declared for the NBA draft and last season’s MAC leading scorer Williams graduated.

The team still could contend in a jumbled West Division with the help of junior college reinforcements Trammel and guard Jesse McClung. Echols is one of the top inside players in the conference, and Owens and McCollom have much starting experience.

Depth will be an issue, especially with a preseason injury to backup center Tom Howland. If the Cardinals can mesh as a unit, it may not be a bad season in Muncie.

East Division Preview

1. Akron Zips

Last Season: 14-14, 9-9

Key Loss: None

Projected Starters
G Johnny Hollingsworth, Senior, 17.4 PPG, 4.1 APG
G Derrick Tarver, Senior, 20.6 PPG, 2.8 RPG
F Andy Hipsher, Senior 9.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG
F Darryl Peterson, Junior, 13.8 PPG, 4.4 RPG
C Matt Futch, Sophomore

Top Newcomer: F Romeo Travis

Big Non-Conference games: at Cincinnati, at North Carolina

Talent abounds on the Akron roster. They return the MAC’s leading scoring punch in Hollingsworth and Tarver. Peterson has been steady in his two seasons, and if Hipsher’s back holds up (he had offseason surgery), the Zips will be the MAC’s best offensive team. And they also have two nationally known recruits, Romeo Travis and Dru Joyce III, teammates of LeBron James at Akron’s St.Vincent-St. Mary High School last year.

Defense is the one issue, and coach Dan Hipsher has worked hard in the offseason to shore this liability up. He hopes the presence of Futch will make a difference.

The East Division’s two best teams (Akron and Miami) offer completely different styles. The Zips are a run and gun offensive team while the RedHawks grind it out with a defensive game. It will be interesting when the teams first hook up January 10 in Oxford.

2. Miami RedHawks

Last Season: 13-15, 11-7

Key Loss: G Eugene Seals

Projected Starters:
G Josh Hausfeld, Sophomore 7.4 PPG, 40% 3PT
G Chet Mason, Junior, 10.0 PPG, 6.2 RPG
G Juby Johnson, Senior, 14.8 PPG, 3.0 RPG
F Danny Horace, Junior, 11.5 PPG, 6.1 RPG
C Nate VanderSluis, Sophomore 1.6 PPG, 1.4 RPG

Top Newcomer: C Nathan Peavy

Big Non-Conference games: at Dayton, Cincinnati

Coach Charlie Coles knows this team could be his best since Wally Szczerbiak’s graduation. The RedHawks mold perfectly in to Coles’ system, which should pay dividends.

Johnson is the best two-way player in the conference. Just like most of the RedHawks, Johnson takes defense just as seriously as offense.

Caution points come in the post, where VanderSluis has struggled to be healthy. A trio of newcomers (Peavy, Monty St. Clair and Eric Van Buskirk) need to contribute.

If all pieces come together, Miami will flourish this season and potentially rise itself to the top of the MAC.

3. Kent State Golden Flashes

Last Season: 21-10, 12-6

Key Loss: F Antonio Gates

Projected Starters:
G DeAndre Haynes, Sophomore 5.4 PPG, 4.3 APG
G Eric Haut, Senior, 14.1 PPG, 41% 3PT
F Brian Bedford, Senior 3.6 PPG, 2.0 RPG
F Nate Gerwig, Junior 7.6 PPG, 4.1 RPG
C John Edwards, Senior 7.1 PPG, 3.4 RPG

Top Newcomer: G Armon Gates

Big Non-Conference games: at Kentucky BCA Classic, at Boston College

The Rockets had their third coach in as many seasons last year, and still were a successful group. They advanced to the MAC championship game and slipped into the NIT.

Despite the loss of Gates, this team is still talented. The problem lies in health, as Haut, Gerwig and Edwards all underwent offseason surgeries. If healthy, Haut is the conference’s best shooters, and Gerwig and Edwards are among the best big guys.

The success at Kent totally depends on health. If the team is healthy, they will again challenge for the title. If they are not, it will be an uncharacteristic bottom of the pack finish, or worse.

4. Marshall Thundering Herd

Last Season: 14-15, 9-9

Key Loss: G Ronald Blackshear

Projected Starters:
G A.W. Hamilton, Junior 5.0 PPG, 5.5 APG
G Ronny Dawn, Junior 5.4 PPG, 42% 3PT
F Marvin Black, Senior, 11.3 PPG, 7.8 RPG
F Mark Patton, Senior 3.6 PPG, 2.9 RPG
C Ardo Armpalu, Senior 7.3 PPG, 3.2 RPG

Top Newcomer: Coach Ron Jirsa

Big Non-Conference games; Kentucky, at UMass

Former coach Greg White is gone and that could be a good thing for folks in Huntington. Over the past few seasons, White had the MAC’s best talent in players like Tamar Slay, J.R. VanHoose and Ronald Blackshear, but never was able to charge the Herd out of the middle of the pack.

Former Georgia head man Jirsa takes over, and inherits a team with enough talent to be good.

Chemistry issues abounded with Blackshear last season, and his departure may be welcomed, as well. Black is a great scorer and rebounder, and Armpalu provides an inside presence.

The ball is good hands with Hamilton and Dawn, the MAC’s best ballhandling duo. Sixth man David Anderson also can provide an offensive spark.

Marshall’s top six players are extremely talented. The Herd needs to build depth and chemistry in order for Jirsa’s first season to be a successful one.

5. Ohio Bobcats

Last Season: 14-16, 8-10

Key Losses: F Brandon Hunter, F Sonny Johnson, G Steve Esterkamp

Projected Starters:
G Thomas Stephens, Senior 5.9 PPG, 2.5 APG
G Jaivon Harris, Senior 7.8 PPG, 3.1 APG
F Jeff Halbert, Sophomore 7.0 PPG, 40% 3PT
F Terren Harbut, Junior college transfer
F Delvar Barrett, Sophomore 5.0 PPG, 2.5 RPG

Top Newcomer: F Terren Harbut

Big non-conference games: Wisconsin, DePaul

The Bobcats lost their three best players from last season. Scoring must from somewhere, and coach Tim O’Shea is hoping it comes from a pair of highly-touted junior college transfers in Harbut and guard Diamond Gladney. Old Dominion transfer Clay McGowan also is expected to provide a scoring punch.

Harris had strong games last season, and has all-conference potential. Barrett’s touching story of helping his mother with diabetes got him national attention. This season, those in Athens are hoping his post presence will gain him accolades.

The bottom line is that Ohio needs a lot of its X-factors to step up in order for success. Much like the Chippewas in the West, the development of the Bobcats will depend on how the newcomers and leftovers mesh.

6. Buffalo Bulls

Last Season: 5-23, 2-16

Key Loss: None

Projected Starters:
G Turner Battle, Junior 12.7 PPG, 4.6 APG
G Jason Bird, Junior 8.7 PPG, 2.0 RPG
F Daniel Gilbert, Junior 5.9 PPG, 3.5 RPG
F Mark Bortz, Junior 7.7 PPG, 6.3 RPG
C B.J. Walker, Sophomore 7.8 PPG, 4.9 RPG

Top Newcomer: F Parnell Smith

Big non-conference games: at Rutgers, Penn State

Ever since their inception into the MAC, a game against Buffalo has all but been a guaranteed victory.

Coach Reggie Witherspoon has the tools to change this. Battle is the most underrated player in the conference, and may just be the most versatile player in the MAC. After showing improvements in January, Battle’s midseason injury killed any gained momentum.

Battle can’t do it alone. Walker had a solid freshman season and his development could be a gauge of Buffalo’s success. Depth is still an issue as the Bulls have few tested players on the bench.


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