Mid-American Conference 2008-09 Preview
by Phil Kasiecki
In the Mid-American Conference, multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament remain elusive. Last season, Kent State looked to have the resume to get an at-large bid, but the Golden Flashes won the conference tournament and were the only team to advance. The conference remained well-represented elsewhere, as Akron advanced to the quarterfinals of the NIT and Miami received a bid to the College Basketball Invitational.
The end result masks the excellent basketball in this conference year in and year out. One might say it’s an innocent victim of the tendency to judge how good a conference is by the number of NCAA Tournament teams it produces, a questionable basis to be sure. The conference consistently has multiple teams that win over 20 games and picks up some good non-conference wins, but it’s rare that one or two teams dominate and pull away from the pack with the kind of resume that looks like that of an NCAA Tournament team.
As was the case last year, the strength appears to be in the East Division. In this case, the strength isn’t noticeable at the top so much as the bottom, as Bowling Green and Buffalo should be significantly improved, while the bottom teams last year in the West are in rebuilding mode. That could change before long, but for this season at least the East should reign supreme once again.
Three schools have new coaches this season, with two coming as a result of a coach leaving for another head coaching job. Kent State promoted Geno Ford to the top job, succeeding Jim Christian after he left to take over at TCU. Ohio hired John Groce to lead the program after Tim O’Shea took the head coaching job at Bryant University. Toledo fired Stan Joplin after the season, replacing him with former Notre Dame assistant Gene Cross.
Player of the Year: Al Fisher, Kent State
Top Newcomer: Julian Mavunga, Miami
Defensive Player of the Year: Jonathan Amos, Toledo
Best NBA Prospect: Al Fisher, Kent State
Michael Bramos, Sr. G-F, Miami
Al Fisher, Sr. G, Kent State
David Kool, Jr. G, Western Michigan
Carlos Medlock, Sr. G, Eastern Michigan
Jerome Tillman, Sr. F, Ohio
Kent State Golden Flashes (28-7, 13-3 MAC)
Sr. G Al Fisher (13.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 4.0 apg, 1.3 spg)
Sr. G Jordan Mincy (2.2 ppg, 1.1 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.3 spg)
Jr. G Chris Singletary (10.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.6 apg, 1.9 spg)
Sr. F Rashad Woods (5.2 ppg, 1.8 rpg)
Jr. F Anthony Simpson (junior college transfer)
Schedule Highlights: Not surprisingly, the Golden Flashes play a challenging non-conference slate, but also include eight home games. Highlighting the home games are Saint Mary’s (return from last year’s BracketBusters) and another BracketBusters game, and they’ll also host UNC Wilmington before traveling south for the remainder of the South Padre Island Invitational. Notable road games include Kansas, Horizon favorite Cleveland State and Temple. In MAC play, they have a stretch where they play five of seven on the road, with Western Michigan by far the toughest game. They get Ball State and Northern Illinois on the road only as inter-division games go.
Outlook: The Golden Flashes may have a new leader in Geno Ford, but this is a solid program and Ford was with the team as an assistant beforehand. Add to that the talent and experience in the backcourt, led by reigning Player of the Year Fisher and mates Mincy and Singletary, and you have the favorite in the conference once again. Woods has never played up to his billing coming out of high school, but has one more chance, and Simpson should anchor the inside. This team isn’t as deep up front with the personnel losses, so repeating their positive rebounding margin may not come easily. But the backcourt experience will help them navigate a tough non-conference schedule and the always challenging conference slate. This is a solid team as part of a solid program, and a coaching change isn’t going to alter that.
Miami RedHawks (17-16, 9-7 MAC)
Sr. G Kenny Hayes (12.1 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.8 apg)
Sr. G-F Eric Pollitz (5.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.5 apg)
Sr. G-F Michael Bramos (16.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.2 apg, 1.5 bpg, 1.3 spg)
Sr. F-C Tyler Dierkers (6.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.2 spg)
Fr. F Julian Mavunga
Schedule Highlights: As is usually the case, the RedHawks’ non-conference schedule features some good challenges. They open in Los Angeles in the 2K Sports Classic with Weber State and could then face UCLA. They also have road games at Pittsburgh, Horizon contender Wright State, Xavier, Temple, West Virginia and Dayton, as well as a BracketBusters game. Only three non-conference games are at home, all in a row: Northwestern State (who they also play on the road), UW-Milwaukee and Valparaiso. Four of their first six MAC games are at home.
Outlook: Although Tim Pollitz is gone, the RedHawks have plenty returning in Charlie Coles’ final season before he calls it a career, and again have recruited well. Bramos will lead the way, with Hayes a good scorer and Eric Pollitz a fine blender as the other guard. Where they’ll miss the elder Pollitz is in the frontcourt, but Dierkers is solid and Mavunga could be the conference’s top freshman. They also have plenty of other bodies up front that are capable, like sophomores Dwight McCombs and Nick Winbush. The frontcourt is the place of most concern since they were out-rebounded last season, while they turned the ball over less than any other MAC team. The RedHawks play good defense and solid basketball, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they are able to close Coles’ career out on a high note.
Bowling Green Falcons (13-17, 7-9 MAC)
So. G Joe Jakubowski (7.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 3.0 apg)
Sr. G-F Darryl Clements (7.2 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.2 spg)
Sr. F Nate Miller (13.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.5 spg)
So. F Chris Knight (10.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.1 apg)
Jr. C Marc Larson (4.9 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.2 bpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Falcons’ non-conference schedule includes six home games, one of which is a BracketBusters game. The most notable of them is against Fordham to close out the non-conference slate. They open with three games in the NABC Classic in Minneapolis, with two tough ones to start in Colonial contender Georgia State and host Minnesota, then later have road dates with Ohio State and Missouri Valley contender Illinois State. Three of the first four MAC games are at home.
Outlook: The Falcons might be the sleeper team in the conference, as Louis Orr has quickly put this team in a position to contend and returns all 10 letterwinners from last season and has a redshirt returning. They are strong up front, with Miller leading a good unit that led the conference in blocked shots last season, led by Larson. Knight had a nice freshman season and looks to be en route to a nice career, and sophomores Otis Polk and Cameron Madlock both have nice potential, especially Madlock as he matures, and they also get back Eric Marschall after he had to redshirt last season. The perimeter is solid and unspectacular, with Jakubowski capably running the show and Clements and senior Brian Moten being the primary scorers on the wing. Moten could start, but had a fine year coming off the bench and thus will likely stay in that role. Though the Falcons led the MAC in blocked shots, they were out-rebounded last season. But their overall defense is good, as they were second in field goal percentage defense. Orr has this program already going in the right direction, and they could be contending as early as this season.
Ohio Bobcats (20-13, 9-7 MAC)
Sr. G Michael Allen (4.8 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.1 spg)
Fr. G Stacey Waters
Sr. F Justin Orr (6.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 1.4 apg)
Sr. F Jerome Tillman (13.3 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.1 apg)
Jr. C Kenneth van Kempen (2.3 ppg, 1.9 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: The non-conference slate features five home games and has plenty of challenges. They host Tulsa in early December, then close out the non-conference slate with three straight at home that includes Patriot League stalwarts Holy Cross and Bucknell. Road games include early ones at Ohio Valley contender Austin Peay and George Mason, three games in the Marques Maybin Classic at Louisville, Xavier, Colonial contender Delaware, and rapidly improving Marshall. The Bobcats will also go on the road for a BracketBusters game.
Outlook: After Tim O’Shea left to return to New England, the Bobcats hired John Groce, who had been ticketed for a head coaching job for a few years. He’ll inherit a tem with some good veterans and incoming talent, although a clear complement to Tillman doesn’t exist right away. Tillman will anchor the inside alongside van Kempen, who has shown promise in his first two seasons, and Orr is athletic and could break out to be the primary complement offensively. Allen very capably runs the show, while Waters is a solid shooter with an improved game off the dribble. Freshmen Steven Coleman and Frankie Dobbs could also see minutes there, as could holdover Tommy Freeman. With the departure of Leon Williams, they’ll be hard-pressed to post the second-best rebounding margin in the conference again, so it’ll be up to the guards to improve and grow up fast.
Akron Zips (24-11, 11-5 MAC)
So. G Steve McNees (5.1 ppg, 1.1 rpg, 1.8 apg)
So. G Darryl Roberts (3.9 ppg)
Sr. F Nate Linhart (8.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.5 apg, 1.6 spg)
Jr. F Chris McKnight (6.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg)
So. C Mike Bardo (1.5 ppg, 1.7 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Zips play six home games in non-conference play, opening with Canisius and Big South favorite Winthrop. They also host a game in the Legends Classic after opening at Pittsburgh, and later host Dayton. Other highlights of the slate include road games with MAAC contender Niagara, Colonial favorite VCU and Rhode Island, as well as a BracketBusters game. MAC play opens with three of four on the road, but a stretch with three of four at home immediately follows. They also got a break in inter-division games, getting Western Michigan and Central Michigan both at home only.
Outlook: The Zips appear to be in for a rebuilding year, but they have some players to start rebuilding around and a deep class of freshmen that they will have to tap into right away. Linhart is one of just two seniors on this team, and he’ll help lead a team that may start three sophomores. McNees and Roberts are the most experienced guards on the roster and could be pushed by four freshmen, especially point guard Anthony Hitchens. Chris McKnight and brother Brett will see time alongside Linhart, and Bardo will need to contribute more with increased minutes or give way to freshman Steve Swiech. Only two teams turned the ball over less than the Zips last season, something which they would do well to repeat if they want to keep up the good run they have going.
Buffalo Bulls (10-20, 3-13 MAC)
Jr. G Byron Mulkey (6.8 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 2.4 apg)
Sr. G Andy Robinson (13.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 1.3 apg, 1.8 spg)
Sr. G-F Greg Gamble (8.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.4 spg)
So. F Jawaan Alston (3.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg)
Sr. C Vadim Fedotov (5.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg in 14 games)
Schedule Highlights: All five of the Bulls’ non-conference home games come right in a row at the end of November and start of December. Included are games with MAAC contender Niagara, Temple and Connecticut. The Bulls will hit the road for games at MAAC favorite Siena, a BracketBusters game, and three games in the Rainbow Classic. MAC play starts with four of six on the road, with the two home games being tough ones against Ohio and Kent State.
Outlook: The Bulls have more experience this time around and five starters returning, but still plenty of questions up front. The perimeter is fine, although Robinson was suspended during the off-season after posting a message on social networking site Facebook offering to pay someone to read a book and write a paper on questions that were assigned with it. Gamble is a solid do-everything wing and Mulkey is a capable floor leader. There is good depth, with junior Calvin Betts the first player off the bench and classmates Sean Smiley and Rodney Pierce in the mix as well. Betts could start for some teams in this conference. Alston played well at the end of last season, and the hope is that he carries it into this season. Fedotov will be coming back from a torn ACL and Kambi Laleye has shown some promise, but newcomers Mitchell Watt and Titus Robinson could push both. The Bulls led the conference in scoring last season, but did so while shooting just over 41 percent from the field, worse than all but two MAC teams. That negated the impact of forcing more turnovers than all but one team, although they also gave the ball back often. Improved efficiency at the offensive end will go a long way towards moving up in the standings.
Western Michigan Broncos (20-12, 12-4 MAC)
Jr. G David Kool (16.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.3 apg)
Sr. G Shawntes Gary (8.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
Sr. G Michael Redell (4.7 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 3.6 apg)
Fr. F Flenard Whitfield
Jr. C Donald Lawson (2.3 ppg, 1.9 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: Six home games are on tap in non-conference play, including a BracketBusters game. The Broncos will open the season in the Charleston Classic against TCU, then either Clemson or Hofstra in the second of three games. The toughest road games will be at VCU, UNLV and Southern Illinois. In inter-division MAC games, they get Kent State and Ohio at home only, but will have to travel to Oxford for the lone meeting with Miami.
Outlook: With the departure of Joe Reitz and complement Andrew Hershberger, the Broncos figure to be much more perimeter-oriented this season. That should suit them fine since they return an excellent duo in Kool and Gary, with a good complement in floor leader Redell. There’s good depth as well with Andre Ricks as the main holdover and a couple of freshmen who could get some minutes. Whitfield looks to be the best freshman, and he along with Muhammed Conteh could get a lot of minutes right away. Lawson is the main holdover up front and has a chance to be a good inside presence, which is the main thing they will need with the offense the guards will supply. There is additional size among the newcomers with 6’11″ LaMarcus Lowe and seven-footer Luke Adaline. The Broncos led the conference in field goal percentage defense and rebounding margin last season, and repeating the latter is likely to be a challenge. More importantly, they will need to cut down on turnovers after having 117 more of those than assists last season. The division isn’t very strong, so it should be theirs to lose barring a series of injuries and/or off-court issues this season.
Central Michigan Chippewas (14-17, 8-8 MAC)
Jr. G Robbie Harman (5.4 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 1.1 apg, 1.2 spg)
So. G Jeremy Allen (7.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.2 spg)
Jr. G Jordan Bitzer (8.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.4 apg, 1.6 spg)
Sr. F Chris Kellerman (7.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg)
Fr. F Zach Saylor
Schedule Highlights: The Chippewas have six home games in their non-conference schedule, plus a game against Robert Morris at The Palace in Auburn Hills. The most notable home games are against Horizon contender Wright State, Missouri Valley contender Illinois State, and a BracketBusters game. They also have an unusual exhibition game on January 5 against Northwood. The Chippewas will hit the road to take on Marquette and Kentucky. After opening MAC play at home against Western Michigan, the slate gets very tough: five of the next seven are on the road. They could get off to a tough start to rebound from, even though they have five of the next seven MAC games are at home (the BracketBusters game is mixed in).
Outlook: Expectations were very high for the Chippewas last season, and they never lived up to them. But Ernie Ziegler has the program on a course of improvement, and though Giordan Watson isn’t a small loss, there is some good talent still around. The question on the perimeter is who becomes a floor leader, as Allen and Bitzer can score while Harman was a good reserve that will have to adjust to playing more. Kellerman leads a frontcourt that has a good addition in Saylor, who might now get to start since senior Marcus Van was thrown off the team in late October for a violation of team rules. The Chippewas were one of the worst defensive teams last season despite forcing the most turnovers in the MAC, and they were also out-rebounded.
Eastern Michigan Eagles (14-17, 8-8 MAC)
Sr. G Carlos Medlock (14.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 4.1 apg, 1.1 spg)
Sr. G Tyler Jones (4.2 ppg, 1.9 rpg)
Sr. F Wendale Farrow (3.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg)
So. F Brandon Bowdry (redshirt)
Jr. F Justin Dobbins (10.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Eagles will play six non-conference home games, highlighted by a visit from Atlantic 10 contender Temple and a BracketBusters game. Early on, they will play two games in Purdue in the NIT Season Tip-Off, starting with the Boilermakers, then later head to Michigan and Illinois. MAC play begins with two at home, but with inter-division games they didn’t get help in having to play Kent State and Ohio on the road only.
Outlook: Although the Eagles return three starters, they may not have enough complementing Medlock to seriously contend. Medlock is one of the conference’s top players, as he carried the team often last year. Dobbins is a fine complement, but after that the pickings get slimmer. Farrow is the only other returning starter and should be a little better after adjusting from junior college. If Jones can’t hold down the other guard spot, freshman Danny Barnes could grab it instead. Some defensive improvement would certainly help, as just three MAC teams forced fewer turnovers and the Eagles also allowed opponents to shoot over 36 percent from long range last season.
Toledo Rockets (11-19, 7-8 MAC)
Sr. G Jonathan Amos (12.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.3 apg, 2.6 spg)
Sr. G Ridley Johnson (8.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg)
Sr. G Anthony Byrd (4.9 ppg, 2.6 rpg)
Sr. G-F Tyrone Kent (16.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.8 spg)
So. F Mohamed Lo (1.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Rockets play five home games in their non-conference schedule, highlighted by visits from three Atlantic 10 schools (UMass, Dayton and Rhode Island) and Houston. They open the season at Florida in the CBE Classic, which then takes them to Miami for three more games after a trip to Cincinnati to play Xavier. They’ll also hit the road to take on America East contender UMBC, Horizon contender Wright State and Colonial contender Delaware, as well as a BracketBusters game.
Outlook: New head coach Gene Cross won’t be starting from scratch with this crew, as he inherits a team with four senior starters and all are on the perimeter. Leading the way is Kent, a solid scorer who isn’t selfish, and Amos can run the show and tied for seventh in the nation in steals last season. Johnson is a steady player and always a threat from long range, and Byrd is the complement to the other three. For good measure, their best freshman is a guard in Stephen Albrecht. But where they may need a freshman or two to help is up front, as sophomores Lo and Justin Anyijong didn’t do much last season, although Anyijong mainly needs to gain strength. Zac Taylor and Ian Salter could push both of them, especially since each offers more size. There are several areas for improvement, and a couple won’t come easily as they had the worst rebounding margin and have much of last season’s team back that lacks proven size, and they were also last in field goal percentage and field goal percentage defense.
Ball State Cardinals (6-24, 5-11 MAC)
Sr. G Brandon Lampley (4.2 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 1.6 apg)
Sr. G Rob Giles (2.9 ppg, 2.4 rpg)
So. F Malik Perry (6.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg)
Sr. F Anthony Newell (16.9 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 1.8 apg)
Fr. F Jarrod Jones
Schedule Highlights: Eight home games are on tap in non-conference play, highlighted by visits from Purdue and Saint Joseph’s, as well as a BracketBusters game. The toughest road games will be at Butler and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and UC Santa Barbara doesn’t figure to be a cakewalk as well. In MAC inter-division games, they get Kent State and Ohio at home only and Miami and Akron on the road.
Outlook: After the bad ending to the Ronny Thompson era, most figured Billy Taylor’s first season in Muncie would be a very difficult one, and the record just about matched expectations. This season won’t be much better, but there are some building blocks in Perry and Jones to start with. It also wouldn’t be a surprise if a couple of newcomers, Maurice Hubbard and Randy Davis, grab a lot of minutes or even start in the backcourt. Newell joins Perry in the frontcourt and should anchor the front line, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he were to lead the conference in scoring or rebounding. Only Toledo shot the ball worse or was out-rebounded by a wider margin than the Cardinals last season, so there are a couple of areas for a lot of improvement. To their credit, the Cardinals turned the ball over less than all but one MAC team last season, and if they do that again they will get plenty of chance to shoot the ball better.
Northern Illinois Huskies (6-22, 3-12 MAC)
So. G Michael Patton (6.8 ppg, 1.0 rpg)
So. G Darion Anderson (12.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.6 apg)
Fr. G-F Dominique Johnson
Fr. F Tyler Storm
So. C Sean Kowal (transfer from Colorado)
Schedule Highlights: With just three home games on tap in non-conference play, the Huskies will be on the road often. They open in the 100 Club Classic, hosted by Kennesaw State, then close November in the Great Alaska Shootout. The big game in December is a visit to Air Force. Three of the first five MAC games are at home, and the inter-division games are basically a wash as they get Kent State and Akron at home only and Ohio and Miami only on the road.
Outlook: Ricardo Patton’s second season should bring some improvement, but it probably won’t come quickly since the Huskies figure to play newcomers heavily. Anderson and Patton were thrown into the fire last season, and that should help them now that they have a year under their belts. Johnson and Storm are solid additions, the latter being a nice face-up forward with a good touch from long range that can lead to some matchup problems. Kowal is the team’s tallest player and gives them a much-needed injection of size, as no one else is taller than 6’8″. With so many newcomers slated to play a lot of minutes, it’s tough to figure out how this team will look later in the season and at the end, although it’s not a bad bet that the number of wins will be in single digits once again.
Although the conference is sure to be quite competitive as usual, with no clear favorites, there is a pattern emerging. Kent State has become a contender every year, as has Western Michigan in the West Division, and one could also put Miami and Ohio in that category as well. The Golden Flashes and Broncos are favored in their divisions again, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if Miami came out on top. Bowling Green is the sleeper, and Akron could surprise if their young talent comes around in time. As has been the case for a while, the East looks to be better than the West, although Central Michigan’s improvement and Toledo hiring Gene Cross, who can recruit the Midwest very well, could have the West challenging the East before long.