Perhaps the most interesting development in the Mid-American Conference in 2015-16 was its quietly becoming one of the best leagues in the country for…centers?
Surprisingly, yes. Three players on the all-MAC first team-Toledo’s Nathan Boothe, Ohio’s Antonio Campbell and Isaiah Johnson of Akron-were centers. Another-Kent State’s Khaliq Spicer-was voted the league’s best defensive player. Yet another-Eastern Michigan’s James Thompson-was its top freshman, as well as one of the most productive first-year players in the nation.
Those big men provided a variety of skills, whether they be scoring, rebounding, passing/facilitating (Boothe was one of the best-passing bigs in the country), defense or shot-blocking. Though maybe not of the seven-foot variety typically associated with men in the middle, the MAC was as good a spot as almost any in the country to look if one wanted to see post play.
Taking an overall view, depending on how one wants to look at it, the MAC in 2015-16 again fit into its seemingly perpetual niche as a good-but-not-great league, or is teetering on a breakthrough. Take your pick.
First: the good. The MAC finished 10th in conference RPI for the second consecutive year-better than the Missouri Valley, Mountain West and West Coast Conference, and far ahead of its NCAA Division I-A (or the confusing FBS moniker, if you prefer) football brethren from Conference USA and the Sun Belt. It featured five 20-win teams, six postseason teams, and saw its recent mainstay programs post solid years while a number of others made significant improvement. The league also has a solid core of young players, too, that bodes well for its collective future.
There is another side to all of that, though. The MAC still had no great standout teams-Akron was the closest thing, but the Zips had just enough slip-ups on the road and then fell to Buffalo in the conference tournament final. And while six teams advanced to the postseason, only two of them won games when they got there, with Ball State winning twice in the CIT and Ohio doing the same in the CBI. Buffalo gave a solid account in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year, but the Bulls were eventually eliminated by a Miami (Fla.) team that made the Sweet 16.
The league continues to be brutally balanced-the six teams in the West Division were separated by a combined three games, and when combining the two divisions, seven teams were separated by just two games, straddling between 10-8 and 8-10 league marks. And that lofty RPI rating was a true no great teams/no bad teams case study, with only one team (Akron) higher than 81st yet no team lower than 203rd.
The 2016 MAC Tournament again opened at campus sites for the first round before moving to Cleveland starting in the quarterfinals. The first round tipped with a pair of major upsets, as the tourney’s lowest seed-No. 12 Bowling Green-stunned fifth-seeded Kent State 70-69 and West co-champ and 6 seed Ball State went down 49-47 to No. 11 Miami (Ohio). No. 7 Northern Illinois and No. 8 Eastern Michigan both did win at home as higher seeds, with NIU holding off 10th-seeded Western Michigan 56-50 and EMU topping No. 9 Toledo 69-60.
The quarterfinals opened with two more single-digit games, including a surprise and a near shocker. Top-seeded Akron had to come back from 12 points down with less than nine minutes left to edge Eastern Michigan 65-63, and Bowling Green followed with its second straight win over a much higher seed, taking its first lead of the second half on an Antwon Lillard three-pointer with 13 seconds left and hitting two free throws to eliminate 4 seed Central Michigan 62-59.
The tourney settled down from there, with No. 2 Ohio rolling past Northern Illinois 79-62 and 3 seed Buffalo knocking out Miami 94-81. Akron and Buffalo both won their semifinal games convincingly, with the Zips ending Bowling Green’s run 80-66 and the Bulls taking out Ohio 88-74.
That set up the title game between the first and third seeds, but Buffalo jumped on Akron early in the second half, breaking open a tie game with a 14-0 run. The Zips came all the way back, hitting eight of their 13 three-pointers the rest of the way and taking the lead on the 13th when Antino Jackson hit from deep with just over two minutes left. Akron would not score the rest of the way, though, and Blake Hamilton provided the heroics for the Bulls, first hitting the tying triple with 1:39 left and then the winning three with three seconds left for a 64-61 win.
Player of the Year: Antonio Campbell, C, Jr., Ohio
Defensive Player of the Year: Khaliq Spicer, C, Sr., Kent State
Freshman of the Year: James Thompson, C, Eastern Michigan
Sixth Man of the Year: Isaiah Johnson, C, Jr., Akron
Coach of the Year: Keith Dambrot, Akron
Nathan Boothe, C, Sr., Toledo
Antonio Campbell, C, Jr., Ohio
Chris Fowler, G, Sr., Central Michigan
Jimmy Hall, F, Jr., Kent State
Isaiah Johnson, C, Jr., Akron
- Buffalo was up and down all season but got hot at the right time to win the MAC tourney and make its second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
- Akron won the MAC regular season title and appeared in the NIT while led by one of the very best three-point shooting units in the country. The Zips finished second in the country in averaging 11.7 triples per game and had back-to-back games of 19 and 20 threes late in the season against Bowling Green and Ohio.
- Ball State picked up the best non-conference win of any MAC team, defeating a Valparaiso team that was the eventual NIT runner-up.
- Eastern Michigan’s James Thompson briefly tied an NCAA Division I record by making 26 consecutive field goal attempts over a span of four games, a record broken later in the season by Yale’s Brandon Sherrod. Thompson finished eighth in the nation in field goal percentage and also ranked in the top 20 nationally in rebounding and double-doubles.
- The MAC finished 10th in conference RPI for the second straight year, and has now finished in the top 12 in conference RPI each of the last three years.
What we expected, and it happened: Akron has been about as steady as can be expected of a program in this almost always tightly packed league, and the Zips were in their customary neighborhood near the top of the MAC again and won at least 21 games for the 11th straight year.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Central Michigan never found its footing after Chris Fowler missed the first month of the season. The Chippewas tied for the West title but didn’t match their league favorite status entering the year.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: When James Thompson started Eastern Michigan’s season opener against Vermont as a freshman, you knew the Eagles were high on him, but few would’ve guessed EMU had one of the biggest impact freshmen in the country. Also, Ball State was one of the most improved teams in the country, climbing from a 7-23/2-16 overall/conference split the year before to 20 wins overall and a MAC West co-championship.
Teams on the rise: Northern Illinois, Ohio. The Huskies made a big improvement from 14 wins to 21 in Mark Montgomery’s fifth year and have a talented young core. Saul Phillips has quickly returned the Bobcats to the top of the MAC, and Ohio will have one of the nation’s best unknown duos next year with Campbell and Jaaron Simmons.
Team on the decline: Central Michigan. The Chippewas were unable to back up their terrific 2014-15 season, and now lose one of the school’s best players ever in Chris Fowler plus fellow key seniors Rayshawn Simmons and John Simons.
2016-17 MAC Outlook
It is now 17 years and counting since the last time the MAC sent an at-large qualifier to the NCAA Tournament. While teams like Monmouth and Saint Mary’s showed this year that it is perhaps tougher now than ever for someone outside TV’s pet leagues to get an at-large, it’s still hard to believe a conference with decent resources relative to most of Division I and eight NCAA tourney wins over that time just can’t get a second team into the field.
The MAC could get there in 2017, but even if it doesn’t the league seems to be on the right track. Akron is the conference’s most stable program, a perennial title challenger, and that will be no exception next year. The Zips will be there again next year, and should continue to be one of the most explosive three-point shooting teams in the country. Akron needs to get meaner inside-it finished only even in rebound margin for the season last year despite a fair amount of size-but if it does, it will be hard to deny Keith Dambrot’s team again.
Ohio certainly could be the team to rise to the top, though, behind Campbell, Simmons and just about everybody else from a year ago. Don’t count out Buffalo for a possible third straight NCAA bid-the Bulls bring back four starters-and Kent State has one more year of Jimmy Hall and will remain competitive. Meanwhile, Ball State and Northern Illinois will likely be favorites in the West, though Eastern Michigan will remain tricky with its length and 2-3 matchup zone and Western Michigan should be better after an uneven 2015-16 season.