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2016-17 MAC Post-Mortem

June 29, 2017 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

The Mid-American Conference in 2016-17 looked a lot like the Mid-American Conference in 2015-16.

Once again, big men dominated the MAC (despite the efforts of Central Michigan hotshot guards Marcus Keene and Braylon Rayson). Once again, Akron was the league’s dominant regular season team. Yet again, a whole lot of teams’ overall seasons fell just to the right or left of middling-or right on it. And, again, a relative surprise toppled Akron in the MAC tourney title game, again leaving the league’s NCAA Tournament representative with a low seed and tough draw.

It was most certainly a mixed bag for the MAC, a good league seemingly on the verge of a breakthrough the last couple years that is still waiting for it to happen. The league again boasted a vastly underrated group of post players. Akron big man Isaiah Johnson was the league’s player of the year, but Ohio’s Antonio Campbell might have been if he’d stayed healthy. Kent State’s Jimmy Hall led his team to the NCAA Tournament, while Northern Illinois’s Marin Maric, Toledo’s Steve Taylor and Eastern Michigan’s James Thompson all were regular double-double threats.

Along with them, there was Keene, a scoring machine who led Division I in scoring at an even 30 points per game and provided regular thrills with his shake-and-bake game and long-distance daggers every night. Central Michigan made waves until running out of gas, closing the season with eight straight losses, and the Chippewas and Akron both ranked among the country’s best three-point shooting teams again, meaning hoops connoisseurs had plenty of styles to appreciate here.

Led by Johnson, Akron again was the MAC’s best in the regular season, posting the best conference mark by three games. Keith Dambrot’s team got off to an outstanding start for the second year in a row, won 27 games-one more than the year before-and even posted an NIT win.

Still, the Zips’ season was again at least slightly unsatisfying. Akron had a few slip-ups down the stretch and lost in the MAC tourney final for the second straight year, this time to a No. 6 seed in Kent State. The Golden Flashes were fourth in the East Division but got hot in the tourney and made their first NCAA appearance since 2008 (had it really been that long?), though as a 14 seed just like Buffalo the year before, they faced a tough opening task and couldn’t stay with UCLA for 40 minutes.

Collectively, the league wasn’t bad, but it still left a taste of wanting more. There was only one really bad team, and also only the one standout. Nine of the 12 teams finished between 11-7 and 7-11 in conference play.

Four schools won 20 games. Just one lost 20, yet eight teams posted at least 15 losses. Everyone won at least 11 games, but everyone sans Akron also lost at least 11.

As good as its talent was up front, the MAC dropped from 10th to 14th in the conference RPI rankings. Out of conference, MAC teams were a cover-your-eyes 0-27 against the RPI top 100. Unquestionably, some-and perhaps most-of that was affected by playing 19 of those games on the road (and just two at home), but if nothing else it’s a lesson that the conference absolutely needs to step up its non-conference scheduling, some way, somehow. Still, there’s no question this is a league still looking to take another step nationally, one that has proven elusive for nearly 20 years now, since the league’s last at-large bid back in the Wally Szczerbiak days at Miami (Ohio) in 1999.

Final Standings:

East Division MAC Overall
Akron 14-4 27-9
Ohio 11-7 20-11
Buffalo 11-7 17-15
Kent State 10-8 22-14
Bowling Green 7-11 13-19
Miami (Ohio) 4-14 11-21
West Division MAC Overall
Ball State 11-7 21-13
Western Michigan 11-7 16-16
Toledo 9-9 17-17
Northern Illinois 7-11 15-17
Eastern Michigan 7-11 16-17
Central Michigan 6-12 16-16

Conference Tournament
The MAC held its tournament in Cleveland for the 18th consecutive year, with the final eight teams again congregating there after first round games on campus sites. This year’s event had a cornucopia of close games and only a single team pulling an upset by seed, though that team-Kent State-repeated the feat thrice on its way to winning four games in six days, all by slim margins.

That Kent State team also was involved in one of the wildest conference tournament games of any this year. Kent came into the tourney as the No. 6 seed and faced a scary matchup with high-scoring 11 seed Central Michigan in its opener. Indeed, the Golden Flashes were in trouble early, falling behind 26-9 just 7 1/2 minutes into the game, and Marcus Keene and Braylon Rayson both ran wild, scoring 41 and 32 points, respectively, and combining for 14 three-pointers. Kent State rallied in the second half, though, and the game eventually turned into an incredible back-and-forth tussle with 21 lead changes. The Golden Flashes finally prevailed 116-106 in overtime, with Jimmy Hall (33 points, 14 rebounds), Jaylin Walker (29 points, 14 rebounds) and Jalen Avery (24 points) all posting career highs scoring in the highest-scoring game in MAC Tournament history.

From there, Kent State eliminated two-time defending tourney champion and 3 seed Buffalo 68-65 in the quarterfinals, then edged second-seeded Ohio 68-66 on a jumper by Walker with four seconds left. The Golden Flashes then took the fight to top seed Akron in the title game, holding a slim advantage much of the way and then using a 10-0 run late in the second half to take the lead for good. Walker scored 30 points in the 70-65 win and was named tourney MVP, while Hall completed a huge tourney averaging 24.5 points and 10.5 rebounds.

In all, the tourney was loaded with close games-nine of the 11 games were decided by five points or less or in overtime, and six were decided by one possession. Even 12th-seeded Miami (Ohio) pushed 5 seed Western Michigan before falling 65-61 in the first round, while perhaps the best finish, non-Kent State Division, was when Ohio nipped 7 seed Toledo 67-66 in the quarterfinals as Kenny Kaminski scored with the game-winner with seven seconds left.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year:
 Isaiah Johnson, F, Sr., Akron
Defensive Player of the Year: Dontay Caruthers, G, So., Buffalo
Freshman of the Year: Michael Weathers, G, Miami (Ohio)
Sixth Man of the Year: Nick Perkins, F, So., Buffalo
Coach of the Year: Keith Dambrot, Akron

All-Conference Team
Jimmy Hall, F, Sr., Kent State
Isaiah Johnson, F, Sr., Akron
Marcus Keene, G, Jr., Central Michigan
Jaaron Simmons, G, Jr., Ohio
Thomas Wilder, G, Jr., Western Michigan

Season Highlights

  • Kent State made its first NCAA Tournament appearance in nine years, winning the MAC tourney as a 6 seed.
  • Ohio and Kent State scored the MAC’s two biggest name brand wins. The Bobcats won at a Georgia Tech team that proved a tough out in the ACC, while the Golden Flashes won at Texas.
  • Akron won a game on the road in the NIT for the third time in 12 years, defeating Houston before falling at Texas-Arlington in the second round.
  • Central Michigan guard Marcus Keene led NCAA Division I in scoring at 30.0 points per game and three-pointers per game (3.9). Behind Keene and backcourt mate Braylon Rayson, the Chippewas finished third in the country in scoring at 88.3 ppg and also ranked second nationally in three-pointers per game (12.5) and free-throw percentage (79.1%).
  • Toledo’s Steve Taylor ranked third in the country in rebounding (12.2 rpg), while Eastern Michigan’s James Thompson wasn’t far behind in sixth (11.2 rpg) and Kent State’s Jimmy Hall was 10th (10.6 rpg).
  • Along with that, Taylor led Division I in defensive rebounding (9.9 rpg), while Thompson was second in the nation in offensive rebounding (4.8 rpg), behind only Seton Hall’s Angel Delgado (5.0 rpg).

What we expected, and it happened: Akron was again the MAC’s rock. The Zips again mixed in three-point bombing with Isaiah Johnson’s beef inside to continue as the league’s most consistent program even as it came up shy in the conference tourney.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Northern Illinois seemed primed to make a serious run at not just contending but winning both the MAC West and overall conference title, but the sometimes offensively challenged Huskies lost too many close games-a total of nine losses by five points or less or in overtime.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: You can never plan for a season-ending injury to one of the conference’s top players, and Ohio’s loss of Antonio Campbell midseason to a broken foot was a cruel blow for a senior and for a team that was fulfilling expectations of a run at the MAC title. With Campbell, the Bobcats got off to an 11-3 start with a win at Georgia Tech. After his injury, the Bobcats gamely fought on but never seriously threatened Akron for East supremacy.

Team on the rise: Ball State. Quietly, the Cardinals have posted back-to-back 20-win seasons and may have the best chance of any to break free from the perpetual gridlock in the West Division. That’s incredible for a program that went 7-23 overall just two years ago.

Team on the decline: Suppose one could say Northern Illinois after the Huskies dropped from 21 wins to 15, or could note Miami (Ohio)’s continued struggles, as John Cooper never could get the RedHawks out of the doldrums. It’s hard to pin this title on anyone, though, when so many teams are so close to the middle, and have been for some time now.

2017-18 MAC Outlook
This past season may have been the end of an era of sorts for the MAC. Gone is Akron’s Dambrot, who somehow was under-appreciated through 11 straight seasons of at least 21 wins and left his alma mater for Duquesne-his father’s alma mater. Also gone are a total of 11 seniors who made up the all-MAC teams, plus several more-including Keene-who left early to play professionally or jumped on the transfer train.

That doesn’t mean the cupboard is bare. Akron hired former Illinois head man John Groce, who before going to the Big Ten had big success in the MAC at Ohio, nearly reaching the Elite Eight in 2012. The Zips were gutted by departures like few teams in the country have been, but Groce is already working his recruiting magic and has former Oregon State starting guard Malcolm Duvivier to help steady the ship this year.

Kent State brings back almost everyone except the superb Jimmy Hall, and Jaylin Walker should become one of the MAC’s new stars. Brawny Buffalo also is in good shape to keep contending with a strong junior class that includes the league’s defensive player of the year in Dontay Caruthers and its top sixth man in Nick Perkins. And with its duo of Campbell and Jaaron Simmons gone, Ohio now will rely on Jordan Dartis and Jason Carter, one of the league’s top freshmen.

Or, perhaps it’s time for a West Division team to lead the MAC again. Bombs-away Ball State brings back Tayler Persons, who will be another front runner for player of the year honors, plus most of its rotation sans talented Franko House and three-point shooting big man Ryan Weber. Eastern Michigan could rebound with Thompson back leading another Eagles team with its trademark length, though the backcourt needs rebuilding. And Western Michigan will return high-scoring Thomas Wilder and an experienced core that includes talented sophomores Reggie Jones and Brandon Johnson.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam
Email: hoopvilleadam@yahoo.com

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