- Matt Cox
- Kent St.
- Bowling Green
- Miami (OH)
- Eastern Michigan
- Ball St.
- Western Michigan
- Northern Illinois
- Central Michigan
All Conference Awards
POY: Thomas Wilder, Jr. Western Michigan
Coach of the Year: Saul Phillips, Ohio
Newcomer of the Year: Marcus Keene, R Jr., Central Michigan
Freshman of the Year: Tahjai Teague, R Fr., Ball St.
Key Returners: Antonio Campbell, Jaaron Simmons, Kenny Kaminski, Jordan Dartis
Key Losses: Treg Setty
Key Newcomers: Jason Carter
Postseason Prediction: Bubble - NIT
Welcome all to the official preseason look into the 2016-2017 MAAAAACTION hoops season, which should undoubtedly be one of the funnest leagues to track in the collegiate hoop landscape. Much like its football brethren, the vast majority of MAC squads are characterized by high-octane offenses, coupled with "matador" defenses (aka trash defenses), which generally result in highly entertaining, high-scoring affairs. So what better way to kick off our coverage than by diving into league's best offensive team and 2nd worst defensive team from last year - the Ohio Bobcats.
The Bobcats are led by a pair of all conference performers in junior point guard Jaaron Simmons and senior big man Antonio Campbell. A former transfer from Houston, Simmons arrived in Athens at the perfect time, just months after two-year starting point guard and floor general Stevie Taylor graduated. Simmons was immediately given the keys to the Bobcat offense, and wasted no time asserting himself as a worthy successor to Taylor at the point guard position. He posted an astronomical assist rate of 40.3 (which translated to a cool 8 dimes a game), and was extremely efficient as an outside shooter (42% from 3). Simmons' immediate ascension was much to the delight of both off-guard Jordan Dartis and stretch forward Kenny Kaminski, each of whom were direct beneficiaries of the floor spacing created by Simmons' penetration. While Kaminski was unable to replicate the outside shooting prowess he displayed two years ago at Michigan St., his freshman teammate Dartis simply didn't miss from beyond the arc (49% from 3 on 135 attempts). Both will surely get plenty of opportunities to light it up from the deep this season, especially with the attention Simmons demands as a driver, and the respect big Antonio Campbell demands on the interior.
As a sophomore, Campbell found himself deferring to his veteran frontcourt partner, Maurice Ndour, probably more than he wanted, but still managed to emerge as the Bobcats' most productive rebounder and efficient low-post scorer. With Ndour graduating last season, Campbell seamlessly slid right into spotlight and transformed into a double-double machine. At 6'10, 260 pounds, Campbell is exceptionally smooth for someone of his size, and is a magician when he operates on the low-block. He and Simmons' chemistry immediately clicked last year, specifically in pick-n-roll sets, many of which resulted in a wide open Campbell 3-ball when opponents were forced to double Simmons. It's tough to find any significant flaw in Campbell's game, evidenced by this well-rounded advanced statline per kenpom.com (see below):
While Ohio was a poor overall defensive team last year (ranked 236th nationally in defensive efficiency), Campbell was 99.99% responsible for Bobcats stout defensive rebounding, which ranked 2nd in the conference behind Toledo. The question this year is how much help he'll get on the glass from his fellow frontcourt teammates, specifically Wadly Mompremier and Doug Taylor. The shot swatting specialist Mompremier flirted heavily with transferring back to his hometown of Miami, but pleasantly surprised his head coach Saul Phillips by coming back to school for his senior year. Mompremier and Taylor will have their names called upon in big moments this season, especially when Phillips decides to play two true bigs, instead of playing the defensively challenged Kaminski at the 4.
Key Returners: Isaiah Johnson, Antino Jackson, Noah Robotham
Key Losses: Reggie McAdams, Pat Forsythe, Jake Kretzer
Key Newcomers: Craig Eubanks (JUCO), Isaiah Williams
Postseason Prediction: Bubble - NIT
The Zips were undeniably the class of the league last season, and if it weren't for the unavoidable injury bug, they may have found themselves in the bubble conversation last March. Unfortunately, their stud post presence and leading scorer from two years ago, Pat Forsythe, along with a few other perimeter pieces, missed significant time throughout the year, and the Zips took a couple of tough losses in league play that derailed any hopes of an at-large bid. However, Forsythe's injury created a golden opportunity for rising senior, 1st team all league performer, and human giant Isaiah "Big Dog" Johnson, who simply exploded onto the MAC scene last season in a more featured offensive role.
At 6'10 295 lbs., Johnson is an absolute load to handle on the block, and is essentially impossible to stop without fouling or doubling whenever he gets a touch deep in the paint. Looking back, it's shocking that Johnson was to some degree a lesser known commodity of the '14-'15 Akron team, given he was essentially the Zips 3rd best big man, behind Forsythe and Kwan Cheatham. Now with Forsythe graduating, the paint belongs to the 1-2 punch of Johnson and Cheatham, each of whom are proven rim protectors and rebounders. It will now be the third straight year head coach Keith Dambrot rolls out a top-notch frontcourt, which is hugely important in a conference that is loaded with interior talent.
While a formidable frontline appeared to be the glaring strength for the Zips entering last year, it was the rise of a pair of sophomore guards in Antino Jackson and Noah Robotham that helped propel Akron to an eventual league title. My colleague Jim Root wrote in length about the success of Saint Mary's dual point guard system, which is precisely what Jackson and Robotham bring to the table in Akron. On the offensive end, having two point-guards on the floor at the same time generally means your best decision-makers usually determine the outcome of each possession. In the Zips case, this translates into outstanding ball security (ranked 26th in TO rate) and ensures big Isaiah Johnson gets his touches at the right time and in the right spots on the floor. With that said, it definitely helps when your two headed point-guard monster can knockdown outside shots and carry the scoring burden when the right matchup presents itself. More often than not, Jackson will assume the role as lead playmaker, which allows Robotham to focus on getting himself open looks from the beyond the arc, where he was absolutely lethal last season (40% on 140 3-point attempts). And if the fit of Jackson and Robotham together isn't already sexy enough, the third cog of the backcourt, Josh Williams, is the perfect last piece to the perimeter puzzle, who emerged as a knockdown shooter in his own right as a freshman last season.
The only real knock on the Akron guards is their size, with all Jackson, Robotham and Williams all standing under 6'1. Dambrot hopes redshirt freshman Daniel Utomi can bring some much needed size and athleticism on the perimeter, along with returning wings Aaron Jackson and Jimond Ivey. The question is whether Jackson, Ivey, Utomi and the rest of the Zips bench can help replace the outside shooting consistency left behind by Reggie McAdams and Jake Kretzer. While this burden will lie mostly on the big 3 of Jackson (Antino), Robotham and Williams, they will need others to step up in this department, especially since no other team was more reliant on the 3-ball last year than the Zips. In fact, over half of Akron's shots came from the land of plenty, which was the 2nd highest percentage in the country last season.
Key Returners: Blake Hamilton, Willie Conner, CJ Massinburg
Key Losses: Lamonte Bearden (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Davonta Jordan, Quate McKinzie, James Jones, Brock Bertram
Postseason Prediction: Bubble - NIT/CBI/CIT
Last season was the first year of the post Bobby Hurley era in upstate New York, with ex-Hurley assistant Nate Oats stepping up to the helm. Oats style of play clearly reflected the teachings of his former boss, as the Bulls actually played faster offensively than either of Hurley's two seasons as head coach. The up-and-down tempo was spearheaded by a pair of lightning quick guards in Blake Hamilton and Lamonte Bearden. Before Bearden decided to take his talents to Western Kentucky and before Hamilton broke a bone in his foot in the first week of practice last week, the Bulls appeared to have as good of a backcourt as any MAC squad. With Hamilton potentially out for first 6 weeks of the season, Oats now finds himself without his two best playmakers offensively, which means CJ Massinburg and Willie Conner will be shouldering the bulk of the scoring load for the first month of the season.
Like most of the Buffalo guards, Massinburg and Conner are relatively balanced scorers, with no glaring preference to penetrate or shoot from the outside, making them extremely difficult to guard in the half-court. As a freshman, Massinburg did struggle a bit finishing in the paint against bigger defenders, but proved to be an effective long range shooter, leading the Bulls with a 38% 3-point clip on 111 attempts. On the other hand, the veteran Conner was the Bulls' most efficient finisher at the rim, using his 6'5 200 pound frame to convert a high percentage of his shots when he gets to all the way to the basket. This size and athleticism is also what fuels his defensive prowess, which was recognized by the MAC coaches in the form of all-defensive team honors last year. And when Hamilton returns to the starting lineup, the Bulls will feature one of the larger and more athletic backcourts in the entire conference, all of whom are versatile scorers and defenders.
The one potential benefit of Hamilton's injury is that it should allow Oats to get an early look at two highly touted incoming freshman, Davonta Jordan and James Jones. While Jones is a talented off-ball scorer, Jordan projects to be the point guard of the future for the baby Bulls. If Jordan proves he's ready to run away with the everyday point guard as a freshman, this will give Oats the flexibility to play Hamilton at the 4, where he is more than capable of holding his own as a defender and rebounder.
Oats also beefed up his interior through the recruiting trail this offseason, hauling in two 3-star forwards in Quate McKinzie and Brock Bertram. At 6'7, McKinzie projects as a perfect fit to play either the 4 or 5 in this system, whose athleticism should make him an impactful rebounder right away. The 6'11 Bertram will be an intriguing freshman year case study, given Hurley and Oats rarely play true centers big minutes in their track meet style of play (see Ikenna Smart last year). However, scouts have noted Bertram does run the floor well for his size, which should hopefully allow him to keep pace (at least somewhat) with the other Buffalo guards out on the break.
Per most Bobby Hurley built teams, Oats will feature 4-guards on the floor at all times, which enables their swarming pressure defense and allows them to push the pace with numbers off any turnover or opponent miss. In only his 2nd year as a head coach, Oats will certainly be tested this season, given he'll have many levers to pull in determining his most effective rotations. The challenge will be finding the right lineup combinations with the returning veteran guards and incoming freshmen talent.
4. Kent St.
Key Returners: Jimmy Hall
Key Losses: Kellon Thomas, Xavier Pollard, Khaliq Spicer, Chris Ortiz
Key Newcomers: Yavari Hall, Des Ridenour (Duquesne transfer), Adonis Delarosa (JUCO), Kevin Zabo (JUCO), Jerrelle DeBerry (JUCO)
Postseason Prediction: None
The theme of outstanding MAC big men is once again exemplified here in the Golden Flashes standout senior, Jimmy Hall. Unlike the aforementioned Isaiah Johnson of Akron and Antonio Campbell of Ohio, Hall is a more balanced interior scorer, who does his damage from both the midrange area and in the low post. There isn't a more clear team alpha in the entire conference than Hall, whose usage rate was tops in the league for the 2nd year in a row (ok, I lied, he was 2nd to Raven Lee as a sophomore). Hall was also the Flashes leading rebounder last year, and with frontcourt teammates Khaliq Spicer and Chris Ortiz now graduating, Hall's shoulders will be sore with the load he'll have to carry this season, both as both a scorer and as a rebounder. His PPG numbers should make him the frontrunner to take home POY honors, but concerns over his efficiency will linger, as he saw his shooting percentages regress last season in a much more featured scoring role.
Hall's supporting cast will look a whole lot different than last year, with the influx of 3-star freshman shooting guard Yavari Hall, and an array of JUCO transfers likely to get big minutes this season. With Kellon Thomas and Xavier Pollard departing, Yavari will surely get his crack at a starting spot right out of the gate. Playing alongside him will be rising sophomore Jaylin Walker, who provided a decent scoring punch off the bench last year as a freshman. The problem is neither Walker or Hall are true point guards, which means either Canadian JUCO transfer Kevin Zabo, or Duquesne transfer Des Ridenour may end up running the show offensively. Deon Edwin is also back in the mix, who was the Flashes most efficient shooter and most disruptive perimeter defender a year ago. A small ball lineup of Edwin, Walker, Yavari Hall and one of the newcomers, with Jimmy Hall in the middle, could be head coach Rob Senderoff's best option, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
However, it's on the defensive end where the real concerns persist for this Kent St. team. The lone strength of the Flashes D last year was on the defensive glass, which is now in serious jeopardy with Spicer and Ortiz graduating. The destiny of this squad rests in the health and efficiency of Jimmy Hall, along with the productivity of the all the newcomers acquired this offseason. Surely finding the chemistry with this net new unit will be a challenge for Senderoff, especially in the early part of the season.
5. Bowling Green
Key Returners: Zack Denny, Wes Alcegaire, Ismail Ali, Antwon Lillard, Rasheed Worrell
Key Losses: Spencer Parker
Key Newcomers: Dylan Frye, Roderick Caldwell
Postseason Prediction: None
After Bowling Green ousted longtime head coach Louis Orr after the 2014 season, the Athletic Department quickly pegged Wichita St. assistant Chris Jans to become Orr's successor. On paper, it surely seemed like the right hire, with Wichita's dominance in the MVC quickly becoming the blueprint for how to sustain year-over-year success at a mid-major program. For about 8 months, the decision appeared to be nothing short of a home run, as Jans led the Falcons to a 21-win season and the school's first postseason appearance since 2009 in his first year at the helm...
So what better way to celebrate a 2nd round CIT loss then to take your newly found confidence out on the town and lay down some irresistible game on the local Bowling Green tail...
Unfortunately for Jans, the "PC" gods called for his firing, paving the way for what is now the Michael Huger era in Bowling Green. Huger and Falcon nation found out quickly just how valuable Richaun Holmes was to this squad the year prior, as Bowling Green regressed in just about every statistical category last season. In his first year on the sidelines, Huger consistently played 10 guys 10+ minutes a game, in order to help him quickly evaluate the talent at his disposal. And despite last season's collapse down the stretch, in which the Falcons dropped 10 of their final 11 conference games, Huger may actually have some decent pieces back in the mix for his 2nd season.
The Falcons return 5 of their top 6 scorers from last season, headlined by two versatile veterans in Zach Denny and Wes Alcegaire. Both Denny and Alcegaire are capable scorers from both inside and beyond the arc, and each posted respectable turnover rates last year, an area where Bowling Green had major issues as a team. A big reason for the ball security woes was the inconsistent play at the point guard position, which was split between senior David Joseph and now senior Ismali Ali. With Joseph out of the picture, Ali should assume a more prominent role as the full-time point guard, where he was a high-risk, high-reward playmaker last season, as displayed by his high assist rate, but equally high TO rate.
Huger also discovered two freshman gems in Antwon Lillard and Rasheed Worrell last season, each of whom tallied 20+ minutes a game in their inaugural college season. Lillard was quite impressive finishing both at the rim and in the midrange area, using his rangy 6'5 frame to get open looks over bigger defenders. Worrell, on the other hand, wasted no time making his presence felt in the paint, posting the Falcons best offensive rebounding rate and block rate in ~20 minutes of action per game. Worrell and rising sophomore Demajeo Wiggins give Huger a formidable frontcourt tandem that should anchor a respectable interior defense.
While Bowling Green and Miami OH were on a tier below everyone else in the MAC last season, the Falcons should be much improved in Huger's 2nd season. While they lack the offensive firepower of the other teams in the East, they should be much more competitive than their 5-13 conference showing last year.
6. Miami (OH)
Key Returners: Dion Wade, Abdoulaye Harouna
Key Losses: Eric Washington, Geovonie McKnight
Key Newcomers: Jake Wright (Citadel transfer), Michael Weathers, Marcus Weathers, Precious Ayah, Darius Harper, Derrick Daniels, Ben Eke Kazee, Milos Jovic
Postseason Prediction: None
While the Redhawks certainly underachieved last year, it was their offseason woes that have been a tough pill to swallow for head coach John Cooper. In addition to losing their top 3 scorers to graduation, Cooper also saw his premier recruiting prize, Braxton Beverly, opt out of his commitment to Miami to play for the state's evil empire - THE Ohio St. University. Beverly would've been the lone bright spot for a Redhawks team that now has been depleted up and down the roster. Miami's offense was simply putrid a year ago, ranking last in the MAC in both overall efficiency and effective FG%. Now they'll be without their only competent outside shooter from last season in Eric Washington, raising major question marks as to how they'll be able to generate consistent scoring and outside shooting.
A pair of junior guards in Abdoulaye Harouna and Dion Wade will need to quickly morph into reliable scorers this season if Miami wants to avoid another disappointing campaign. The calling card for both Harouna and Wade is the ability to wreak havoc at the top of the 2-3 zone, where they excel at jumping passing lanes to get easy run outs on the other end. Wade is one of the more underrated defenders in the entire league, but shot the ball horrifically as a sophomore last season (36% and 28% from 2 and 3 respectively). Harouna, on the other hand, will be the Redhawks' lone proven returning 3-point shooter, but like the rest of his teammates, is inefficient scoring anywhere inside the arc. The sleeping giant is the backcourt is incoming transfer Jake Wright, who was simply kerosene hot from downtown as a freshman at the Citadel (converted 45% of his 157 3s). There's a good chance I may have snubbed him of an all-newcomer team mention, but it should take some time for his defense to live up to Cooper's standards.
Because the junior class for the Redhawks leaves a lot to be desired, Cooper may have no choice but to throw his massive freshmen class right into the fire early on this year, in hopes of expediting the rebuilding process in Oxford. However, out of the 7 incoming freshmen that Cooper brought in, not one projects to be even a plus mid-major talent. The highest regarded of this group on verbalcommits.com is Derrick Daniels, who is mysteriously nowhere to be found on the preseason roster. This means barring any significant leaps from the freshman class, Logan McLane and Rod Mills should take on more featured roles this year, which isn't a great sign for Redhawk fans. While Mills is an incumbent starter, both him and McLane posted blah offensive ratings of 83 and 85 respectively.
There just isn't a lot to love about Miami OH hoops at the moment, both in terms of this season's prognosis, as well as the program's long-term outlook. Now in his 5th season at the helm, John Cooper's time is quickly running out in Oxford, especially after winning just 13 games in each of the past three seasons and failing to finish above .500 every year since 2012.
1. Eastern Michigan
Key Returners: Raven Lee, James Thompson IV, Willie Mangum IV, Ty Toney
Key Losses: LaMonta Stone (no clue what happened to him)
Key Newcomers: Quaran Jones (JUCO), Nick Madray (Binghamton transfer), Baylee Steele (JUCO), Lamar Wofford-Humphrey (JUCO)
Postseason Prediction: NIT/CBI/CIT
The MAC's West division was definition of parity last year, with Ball St. and Central Michigan each claiming a share of the division title at just a game over .500 (10-8). Coming in right behind them at 9-9 were the Eagles of Eastern Michigan, who now look poised to breakout as the clear front runner in what is debatably the MAC's inferior division.
While their up-tempo style somewhat inflates their per game numbers, the Eagles still return 4 double digit scorers from last year's unit, including their unquestioned leader in Ray Lee. He, along with Mike Talley and Karrington Ward, formed one of the best backcourts in the MAC over the two year span of Lee's freshman and sophomore seasons ('13-'14 and '14-'15). The Eagles won 20+ games in each of those years, which made last season year a tough transition period for Lee, having to adjust to new backcourt mates Willie Mangum and Ty Toney. Magum and Toney are both talented scorers in their own right, but they simply didn't provide the efficient offensive production that Talley and Ward did in prior years. As a team, Eastern Michigan ranked 226th nationally in effective field goal percentage, much of which was due to the ice cold shooting splits of Mangum and Toney (see below):
However, the biggest issue with the new look perimeter group last season was the overall fit next to one another on the floor, especially when compared to the the Lee, Talley & Ward unit. Talley was a pure point guard, which allowed Lee to play much more off-the-ball as a pure scorer, while the long 6'7 Ward fit right at home on the wing. Now, the Eagles are essentially starting 3 ball dominant scoring guards that sometimes results in a little too much "my turn, your turn" on offense, particularly in the half-court. All nitpicking aside, the trio of seniors are as talented as any backcourt in the conference, each of whom can put up 25 on any given night.
While Lee and the other guards have clearly been the backbone of EMU basketball over the past three seasons, an emerging frontline, led by James Thompson and Tim Bond, is bringing some much needed balance to the Eagles offense. The reigning MAC freshman of the year, Thompson took the conference by storm in his first season of college basketball, which catapulted him from a borderline 3-star recruit coming out of high school to a top-100 freshman by seasons end, per draftexpress.com. I'm not sure where to begin when praising Thompson's all-around game, but his decision-making (lowest TO rate on the team) and reliable free-throw shooting (70%) are especially rare to find in a freshman big at the D1 level. It's probably worth mentioning he was also the Eagles best shot-blocker and rebounder on both ends, to go along with a 62% shooting clip from the floor. And if you happen to jump to the conclusion that his gaudy field goal percentage is a product of easy offensive rebound putbacks, well... you'd just be wrong... His turn and face jumper from 8-12 feet out is scary reliable, which defenders usually have to surrender, unless they want to get toasted by Thompson's explosive midrange drives.
The nice part about Rob Murphy's patented zone defense is that it allows Thompson to avoid any major risk of foul trouble, which given the lack of interior depth on this team, could be a major issue if the Eagles played more man-to-man. And while Bond is more of a hybrid 3/4, the zone allows him to do what he does best - roam free on his side of the zone and get into passing lanes, which in turn translates into easy buckets in transition.
The glaring deficiency for this squad, per most zone-dependent teams, was on the defensive glass, where the Eagles were one of the worst teams in the entire country last season. A reason for this might be the guard's ulterior motives, who are constantly trying to leak out on the break, instead of helping Thompson and the other bigs secure the boards. However, this is a flaw that Murphy might be able to live with, as long as they can generate enough turnovers to offset the second chance opportunities surrendered. Over Murphy's 5 years in Ypsilanti (yes, that's the correct spelling), EMU has never ranked higher than 324th in defensive rebounding rate, which is, again, partially a product of the fact that they play more zone than anyone else in the country (that's right - even more than Syracuse). Nonetheless, with the offensive firepower EMU has returning this season, the Eagles simply need to be average, or even slightly below average defensively, to give themselves a shot at the MAC crown.
P.S: If you are a student at Eastern Michigan, I urge you to do your civic duty and try out for this year's Eagles squad. Please inform 3MW if you in-fact make the team, and we'll be sure to add your scouting report to this preview.
2. Ball St.
Key Returners: Franko House, Jeremie Tyler, Francis Kiapway
Key Losses: Bo Calhoun
Key Newcomers: Tayler Persons (Northern Kentucky transfer), DouDou Gueye (grad transfer), Jontrell Walker (Incarnate Word transfer), Kyle Mallers, Zach Hollywood
Postseason Prediction: CBI/CIT
After two miserable seasons that resulted in a grand total of 12 wins, head coach James Whitford finally broke through last year with a 21-win campaign and a share of the West division title. Things are certainly looking up in Muncie, Indiana, with the Cardinals returning every impact player from last year's team, with the exception of Bo Calhoun. However, the loss of Calhoun may be masked by one of the more anticipated freshman debuts in the MAC, Tahjai Teague.
An ex 4-star recruit, per ESPN's rankings, Teague hails from the renowned Pike High School in Indianapolis, where his cousins Marquis and Jeff Teague first became household names many moons ago. Teague a versatile lefty wing, who played mostly on the perimeter during his AAU and high-school tenure, but is surely capable of guarding bigger forwards with his ridiculous 7'0 wingspan. He could easily be slotted right into the opening day starting lineup, playing alongside all-conference performer Franko House.
Despite standing just 6'6, House is an extremely crafty operator on the low block, where is he uses his big 245 pound frame and soft touch with both hands to score over bigger post defenders. The emergence of rising sophomore Trey Moses will allow both Teague and House to play their true positions as hybrid 4s, which should help them both get more mismatches against smaller defenders.
While the 1-2 punch of House and Teague at the forward positions will be tough assignments for opposing teams, the guard depth for the Cardinals should be equally as potent. In steps in Northern Kentucky transfer Tayler Persons, who will fill a major hole at the point guard position, after leading the Norse in both scoring and assists as a freshman two seasons ago. Persons wasted no time asserting himself as the alpha playmaker for that Northern Kentucky team, but will need to pull back his offensive aggression, particularly as a scorer, given the talent that now surrounds him. He'll be responsible for getting the ball in the hands of two 3-point marksmen in Francis Kiapway and Ryan Weber, each of whom connected on 40% of their treys last season. Sean Sellers and Jeremie Tyler also played significant minutes last year and round out a solid backcourt that should consistently go 5-deep.
The major issue last season for the Cardinals offensively was taking care of the basketball, much of which was attributable to having no true ball handler. While Persons projects to fill that void this season, it would be presumptuous to assume Persons will come in and be efficient from day 1, especially now facing tougher MAC competition. If Persons plays well and embraces his role as a pass-first point-guard, the rest of the pieces should fall into place seamlessly for this Cardinals team, whose top-8 are as good as anyone in the league.
3. Western Michigan
Key Returners: Thomas Wilder, Tucker Haymond, Drake Lamont
Key Losses: AJ Avery
Key Newcomers: Reggie Jones, Jarrin Randall, Jared Printy, Adida Ikongshul, Brandon Johnson
Postseason Prediction: CBI/CIT
The departures of senior floor leader Austin Richie and versatile post player Conner Tava clearly played a part in the Broncos offensive woes last season. Western Michigan's effective FG% fell from 78th to 271st in the country, with Richie's efficient stroke from the outside and Tava's inside scoring production proving to be to difficult to replace. However, head coach Steve Hawkins quickly realized that he does in-fact possess one of the most prized players in the entire league in rising junior Thomas Wilder.
Wilder is the prototypical scoring point guard, who demands the ball in his hands almost every possession. He began his career at Western Michigan deferring to the other veteran scorers around him, but finally realized he's just too talented to simply be a pass-first point-guard. In hindsight, his development path may explain why he's grown into one of the more efficient playmakers in the MAC, evidenced by his team leading assist rate AND turnover rate last year. However, his biggest asset to the Broncos offensively is the ability to get to the line almost at will, where he converts 79% his attempts. Both Wilder and his supporting actor Tucker Haymond carry a huge chunk of the scoring load, much of which is generated on constant trips to the foul line. Wilder and Haymond's combined 400+ free-throw attempts were big reasons why the Broncos free-throw rate ranked 21st nationally and tops in the MAC.
While Western Michigan's offensive identity has become their ability to live at the foul-line, it was their dominance on the defensive boards that kept them from being a catastrophe on the other end. The Broncos posted a top-25 nationally ranked defensive rebounding rate, but were poor in just about every other relevant defensive category. With the influx of 9 freshmen to this year's roster, Hawkins will add to an already deep crop of wings, which led an effective "rebounding-by-committee" approach on defensive glass last year and should help replace AJ Avery's production. The departure of Avery also paves the way for heralded 3-star recruit Reggie Jones, who hails from 3A Indiana powerhouse Marion High School. Jones is a stat-sheet filler, who averaged 16 points, 7 boards and 5 dimes a contest as a senior at Marion, en route to leading his school to a record-tying 8th state title (!!!).
Jones, along with the other newcomers, will ultimately determine the how good this Broncos squad can be. If Jones solidifies himself as a consistent 3rd scoring option behind Wilder and Haymond, Western Michigan should hover around .500 in league play, an uptick from their disappointing 7-11 showing in-conference last season.
4. Northern Illinois
Key Returners: Marin Maric, Aaric Armstead, Marshawn Wilson
Key Losses: Travon Baker, Michael Orris
Key Newcomers: Eugene German, Nick Wagner, Noah McCarty, Justin Thomas
Postseason Prediction: None
A longtime Tom Izzo assistant, head coach Mark Montgomery has done a sneaky good job over his 5-year tenure at Northern Illinois. He inherited an abysmal roster back in 2011, which won a total of 10 games over Montgomery's first two seasons in DeKalb. However, the past three years have displayed a positive trend of improvement, which all culminated with the Huskies 21-win performance last year - NIU's best season since 1996.
A ton of the credit goes to the solid freshmen class Montgomery brought in last year, as well as the development of the "Croatian Sensation", senior big man Marin Maric. Two of those freshmen from last year will form the core of the perimeter unit, with Laytwan Porter running the show at point and Marshwn Wilson stepping into a more featured scoring role off-the-ball. Porter primarily backed up senior guard Travon Baker last season, but his disruptive presence as a defender made it impossible for Montgomery to keep him off the floor, which earned him significant minutes throughout the year. Wilson also provided a huge spark off-the-bench, but did so in the form of instant offense and a barrage of 3s whenever he came into the game. His 43% clip from beyond the arc was 6th best in the league, and should make him an obvious candidate to slide right into the starting lineup this season. The third member of the perimeter unit is Aaric Armstead, who is the unquestioned floor leader for this Husky team and a 3-year incumbent starter for Montgomery. While Armstead struggled shooting the ball last year, his value on the other end is well-known across the league, evidenced by his All-Defensive team honors.
Just like any Izzo disciple, Mark Montgomery certainly places a premium on stout defensive rebounding and interior defense, which is precisely what makes big Marin Maric so valuable to this group. Maric is a dominant two-way rebounder, who ranked in the nation's top-100 in both offensive and rebounding rate last year, to go along with a block rate that was 3rd best in the MAC. The only minor knock on Maric's junior year was the slight regression in his efficiency, as he took on a more prominent scoring role for the Huskies (similar to Jimmy Hall for Kent St.). After shooting 58% over a lower volume of shots as a sophomore, his FG% dropped to 48% last year, which should skew higher with the amount of offensive putback opportunities he gets. Per hoopmath.com, Maric shot a below-average 54% on all shots at the rim, a figure that should be safely in the mid 60s for someone of his size.
A la most Mark Montgomery squads in recent years, the Huskies should once again be among the league's best defensively, and now finally have some emerging talent on the offensive end as well. Maric and Armstead will need to lead the young sophomore class with big offensive seasons of their own, and must continue to anchor one of the top defensive units in the MAC.
5. Central Michigan
Key Returners: Braylon Rayson, Josh Kozinski, Luke Meyer
Key Losses: Chris Fowler, Rayshawn Simmons, John Simons
Key Newcomers: Marcus Keene (Youngstown St. transfer)
Postseason Prediction: None
While the preceding four teams in the West appear to be trending up, we now examine a program that is scratching their heads as to what exactly went wrong last year. Before the beginning of last season, it was hard to find a more fun team on paper than Central Michigan. The Chippewas were quickly becoming a mid-major darling after improving from a dismal 10-21 record in '13-'14 to a 23-9 campaign the following year, headlined by a potent top-25 nationally ranked offense. Head coach Keno Davis and Chippewa nation surely had high hopes heading into last season - and why wouldn't they, given all 5 starters were returning from the year prior... Fast forward 12-months later and Chippewa nation must be dumbfounded as to how a team could not only halt, but somehow reverse, all momentum they had heading into last year, which resulted in a pedestrian 17-14 season, and a 10-8 showing in league play. Now, with Chris Fowler and Rayshawn Simmons graduating, it's anyone's guess as to how much this team will regress...
No other team in the nation was better at taking care of the basketball last season, 95% of which can be accredited to the sure handed tandem of Fowler and Simmons. Davis must now patch up those holes with incoming Youngstown St. transfer Marcus Keene and all-conference 3rd team performer Braylon Rayson. Despite standing only 5'9, Rayson is one of the purest shooter/scorers in the conference and may average upwards of 20 points a game, especially with Fowler and Simmons no longer dominating the ball. Keene was equally as impressive shooting the rock two seasons ago at Youngstown St., where he cashed in 42% of his trey bombs. However, the problem here is that neither Rayson or Keene is a true point guard, which raises concerns about their ability to maintain the elite ball security that made the Chippewas a top-100 offense last season.
Both Keene and Rayson will also need to get a pair of rising juniors involved offensively - sharpshooter Josh Kozinski and big Luke Meyer on the inside. While Kozinski lit it up from deep last season, Meyer was equally as efficient from inside the arc, using his smooth stroke to convert 63% of his 2s. However, both Meyer and Kozinski certainly benefited from the combined playmaking of Simmons and Fowler, which yet again, points to the importance of Keene and Rayson being able to take on facilitating roles in the offense.
This certainly feels like a transition year for the Chippewas, who will likely thrust 5 incoming freshman to the rotation right away. However, with the dynamic offense of the past 2-3 years likely to take a step back this season, a bigger emphasis will have to put on the defensive end - an area that has been historically atrocious for Keno Davis during his tenure at Central Michigan.
Key Returners: Jonathan Williams, Jaelan Sanford
Key Losses: Nathan Boothe, Stuckey Mosely (transfer to James Madison)
Key Newcomers: Steve Taylor (Marquette transfer), Justin Roberts, James Gordon IV
Postseason Prediction: None
The loss of two-time all-conference performer Nathan Boothe will likely prove to be a catastrophic blow to the Rockets this season. Not only was he Toledo's most efficient scorer and most productive rebounder, but was also utilized as a rare point-forward, leading the Rockets in assists on a per minute basis. Head coach Tod Kowalczyk recognized what a special talent Boothe was and essentially decided to run the offense through him. The vast majority of Toledo possessions last year would begin with Boothe either flashing to the high-post/elbow area or stepping out to the short-corner, where he could isolate his defender and often command double teams. And if the loss of Boothe wasn't a big enough blow already, Toledo also saw their de-facto point guard in Stuckey Mosley transfer to James Madison this offseason, which officially guts the Rockets of yet another offensive playmaker, as well as a consistent outside shooter.
Now, the offense will surely revolve around their dynamic perimeter scorer and floor leader, senior Jonathan Williams. Williams is about as solid of a guard as you'll find in the MAC, and can score from basically anywhere on the floor. Last year, Boothe and Williams ranked 1st and 3rd respectively in the MAC in % of shots taken for their team, exemplifying just how reliant the Rockets were on these two for offensive production. However, Williams was fortunate to get a solid replacement for Boothe via the transfer wire this offseason in Steve Taylor, who comes over from Marquette. While Taylor surely lacks the offensive polish of Boothe, the underrated asset that Boothe brought to the table was his dominance on the defensive glass, which was also Taylor's calling card two seasons ago at Marquette. Taylor will also need to form instant chemistry with Williams in pick-n-roll situations, although he lacks the outside shooting stroke that made Boothe so dangerous in those spots last year.
Jaelan Sanford seems to be the only other capable outside shooter returning this season, which raises concerns for the perimeter floor spacing Williams will have to work with. Rising sophomore Nate Navigato emerged as a competent stretch-4 last season, so Williams may also key more on him in pick-n-pop sets, especially if Kowalcyzk has Taylor spend the bulk of his time offensively camping out in the paint.
It's hard to overstate the value Boothe brought to this Rockets team a year ago, which ranked just outside the top-50 nationally in effective FG% and was inside the top-10 in defensive rebounding. Boothe was the main guy pulling the strings in both those departments last season, which now puts a heavy burden on both Williams to score more and score efficiently, as well as Taylor to replace Boothe's dominance on the defensive glass. The other 5 teams in the MAC's West division each have the luxury of returning at least one or two other proven scoring options this season, something this Rockets squad is sorely missing. Unless Sanford makes a huge leap forward in his sophomore year, get ready for the Jonathan Williams show this season in Toledo.