- Ky McKeon
Player of the Year: CJ Massinburg, Sr., Buffalo
Coach of the Year: Nate Oats, Buffalo
Newcomer of the Year: KJ Walton, R Jr., Ball State
Freshman of the Year: JeeNathan Williams, Buffalo
*Editor’s Note: Darrian Ringo (Miami OH) was not on the roster at the time this preview was written. He would be an All-Conference selection.
1. Buffalo (1st in East)
Key Returners: Nick Perkins, CJ Massinburg, Jeremy Harris, Davonta Jordan, Jayvon Graves, Dontay Caruthers
Key Losses: Wes Clark, Ikenna Smart
Key Newcomers: JeeNathan Williams, Tra’Von Fagan (JUCO), Ronaldo Segu
Outlook: Buffalo enters 2018-19 riding the high of its Second Round 2018 NCAA Tourney appearance, knocking off 4-seed Arizona in the First Round. Nate Oats hasn’t missed a beat since taking over for Bobby Hurley in 2015-16, taking the Bulls to two Big Dances and building one of the best mid-major programs in the country. This season, UB returns two 1st Team All-MAC members, one 2nd Team member, and an All-Defensive Team member from its successful 27-9 (15-3) squad a year ago. With Wes Clark being the only major departure (kinda Ikenna Smart), Buffalo will stake its claim as best mid-major in the land in 2018-19. If Oats keeps this kind of production up, he won’t be long for mid-majordom.
Few teams in the MAC can match up with the Bulls athletically – pretty much every spot on the floor is occupied by a long and athletic player making stopping UB and scoring on UB a difficult task on a nightly basis. Offensively, Oats wants to run, run, run – the Bulls use their athleticism to their advantage, sending guys out on the break off the glass and opponent scores; in 2017-18, Buffalo ranked 8th in the country in percentage of initial FGA in transition. When not running, UB works the ball around the perimeter looking for clean outside looks or feeds big man Nick Perkins on the block.
Perkins, a 1st Team All-MAC selection last year, is a beast of a forward possessing a great nose for rebounding and shot blocking. The 6’8” senior gets to the line with fervor and finishes extremely well in the post, converting 62% of his attempts near the bucket in 2017-18. The MAC will be Perkins’s playground this season after he proved he could hang with Power 6 bigs in the Tourney against Arizona and Kentucky:
Oats’s wing / backcourt corps is as good as they come in the mid-major ranks. All-conference performers CJ Massinburg and Jeremy Harris each poured in over 15ppg (along with Perkins) last season and Davonta Jordan was a member of the MAC’s All-Defensive Team. Massinburg is a do-everything wing that can score from anywhere on the floor – he knocked down over 40% of his three-point attempts last season and scored at a high rate in transition and isolation. The most impressive aspect of Massinburg’s game, though, is his ability to rebound. Despite standing just 6’3”, Massinburg led the Bulls in rebounding and earned a plethora of second chance during his junior season:
Harris is a long wing with a deadly three-point stroke. Last season, the 6’7” senior ranked 2nd in the MAC in TS% while shooting 46.3% from downtown in conference play. Jordan isn’t quite the offensive catalyst Harris or Massinburg is, but he finds the cup by way of pick-n-roll and transition opportunities. He’ll be asked to take on more of a ball-handling role in an effort to replace Clark’s production. Defensively, few guys in the MAC guard on-the-ball better than Jordan.
Point guard is really the only major question this team has heading into 2018-19. Jordan can certainly handle the rock, but his TO rates have historically been too high. Senior Dontay Caruthers can play some point, but he’s probably better off the ball with his quickness and knockdown shooting ability. Likewise, returner Jayvon Graves is more of an athletic wing than a lead guard. Freshman Ronaldo Segu, an ESPN 4-star recruit, could be the answer long-term. Segu is a crafty, creative facilitator and scorer but still needs to add strength to contribute consistently at the D1 level.
While Oats’s system doesn’t really require many big men, Buffalo is a bit thin up front. Freshman JeeNathan Williams and JUCO transfer Tra’von Fagan will team with returning big Montell McRae to form the corps behind Perkins. Williams, another 4-star recruit, is more of a wing than a PF, but he has enough shot-blocking ability to get away playing the 4. His guard skills could also pose a challenge for bigger defenders on the wing. Fagan is a big power forward that can step out and shoot or post and score inside. Both Williams and Fagan likely play a large role in the rotation this season. McRae will be an option to stretch the floor.
The Bulls have consistently been one of the better defensive teams in the MAC during Oats’s tenure, but they could stand to improve. UB was great last year at not allowing threes, an important thing in this conference, but too many fouls allowed easy points at the foul line. In Oats’s aggressive man-to-man, the Bulls need to focus more on playing straight up – if they do that, they could run the table in the MAC.
Bottom Line: Buffalo lost three games in the MAC last season by a combined 8 points, and all three contests were on the road. An 18-0 conference record is not outside the realm of possibilities, and with a non-con schedule that features games at West Virginia, Syracuse, and Marquette, an at-large bid is certainly in play. This is a team led by six upperclassmen - if the PG position and frontcourt depth are shored up, Buffalo will be dangerous in 2018-19.
2. Ball State (1st in West)
Key Returners: Tayler Persons, Trey Moses, Tahjai Teague, Kyle Mallers, Ishmael El-Amin, Zach Gunn
Key Losses: Sean Sellers, Francis Kiapway
Key Newcomers: KJ Walton (Missouri), Austin Nehls (Central Connecticut), Brachen Hazen (Arkansas), Blake Huggins (Redshirt), Jarron Coleman, Kani Acree
Outlook: Kudos to head coach James Whitford for bringing Ball State basketball back to MAC relevance. Over the past three seasons, the Cardinals have won 21, 21, and 19 games and have finished in the top half of the conference standings each of those three years. Last season, though, BSU fell a tad short of preseason expectations, finishing only 10-8 in the league despite returning most of its 2016-17 squad. This year will hold even loftier expectations for the Cardinals as Whitford returns his top four scorers from last season and a few talented transfers join the fold. The West is shaping up to be a three team race between BSU, Toledo, and EMU – Ball State has as good as shot as any to take the division crown.
Ball State’s offense sputtered last season despite the high level talent filling nearly every position. The Cardinals maintained their uptempo style of play but went away from the three-pointer, shooting it less and more poorly – BSU ranked in the 11th percentile in points per possession on spot-up attempts, per Synergy. Whitford played a lot through his two stud bigs, Trey Moses and Tahjai Teague, and PG Tayler Persons ran the offense, but inefficiencies – especially turnovers – loomed large over what should have been a high-powered attack. The returning Cards will look to prove last season’s shortcomings were an anomaly as they execute Whitford’s ball-screen heavy offense in 2018-19.
Defensively, Ball State was pretty good, ranking 4th in the MAC in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom. The interior defense was stout, but the Cards’ transition defense was one of the worst in the country – per Synergy only Pepperdine allowed more points per possession in transition than Ball State last season. Newcomers on the wing such as KJ Walton and Kani Acree should bolster the perimeter defense in 2018-19 and help improve this weakness.
Persons will act as the catalyst to the Ball State offense this season, coming off a year in which he earned the unofficial title of “Buzzer Beater King”. On three separate occasions – versus Notre Dame, Valpo, and Bowling Green – Persons buried the opposing team on a final shot. This year, the 2017-18 2nd Team All-MAC performer, will look to improve his efficiency and shot selection within the mid-range area. While he shot a good percentage from behind the arc, Persons was inconsistent everywhere else, not ideal for the 3rd highest used player in the conference. He’ll likely also see an uptick in playing time, as backup PG Ishmael El-Amin (Khalid’s son – holy shit I’m old) was not reliable as a freshman in 2017-18.
The Cardinals have arguably the best frontcourt tandem in the MAC with Moses and Teague, and Whitford makes it a point to get his big men touches early and often in the offense. Moses is an excellent rebounder, finisher, and shot blocker, but he’s especially a gifted passer – one of the better passing bigs in the conference. When opposing teams send doubles, Moses is adept at picking apart defenders and finding open shooters for good looks behind the arc. Teague is a defensive menace and glass cleaner from the 4 spot. He improved his finishing inside during his sophomore season but lost all touch from deep, as his three-point % fell from 39.5% to 15.9%. Hopefully, Teague can find his range again in his junior year, but ultimately the 6’8” forward is most valuable on defense – Ball State allowed 0.14 less PPP when Teague was on the floor versus when he sat last season (per Hoop Lens):
Reinforcements behind Teague and Moses are a little thin this season, featuring only Arkansas transfer Brachen Hazen and redshirt freshman Blake Huggins. I don’t expect Huggins to see a whole lot of floor time, but Hazen should play a big part in the rotation. Hazen was a pretty highly ranked recruit in the state of Indiana coming out of HS, but he barely saw the floor for a good Arkansas team in 2016-17; he’s an athletic PG that can step out and shoot when needed. Due to the lack of size, expect Teague to play some 5 this season and for Kyle Mallers, primarily a wing shooter in the offense, to play a little more 4.
James Gunn returns to provide solid minutes on the wing in a shooter / scorer role off the bench, but KJ Walton is the guy most likely to nab the starting 2-spot alongside Persons. Walton’s biggest strength is his versatility on defense; the former Mizzou Tiger has the athleticism to be a pesky distruptor along the perimeter. Central Connecticut grad transfer Austin Nehls will provide shooting off the pine; he’s a career 36.5% 3P shooter on 565 attempts. Freshmen Jarron Coleman and Kani Acree could also crack the rotation this season. Coleman is a skilled guard that can shoot and drive, while Acree can play multiple positions on either end of the floor. Like Walton, Acree brings a lot of intrigue to the defensive side of the ball.
Bottom Line: Ball State has real expectations to perform near the top of the MAC for the second year in a row. Whitford’s squad is rock solid in the frontcourt and has one of the best scorers in the conference; all it will take is a little more shooting for the Cardinals to make some noise in the MAC Tourney.
3. Eastern Michigan (2nd in West)
Key Returners: Paul Jackson, Elijah Minnie, James Thompson IV, Ty Groce, Malik Ellison
Key Losses: Tim Bond, Jordan Nobles
Key Newcomers: Damari Parris (JUCO), Andre Rafus Jr., Daivon Stephens, Boubacar Toure (Grand Canyon)
Outlook: Eastern Michigan comes into the season as one of the favorites to take home the MAC West division crown. Last year was Rob Murphy’s best in his seven year tenure at the helm of EMU, and the long-time Jim Boeheim assistant has slowly grown his Eagles into a perennial conference contender. EMU loses two key players from 2017-18, including Tim Bond, arguably the best defender in the MAC last season, but it returns a three-man core that’s as good as any in the conference. 2018-19 is the Eagles’ best shot at getting back to the Dance since they punched a ticket as a 13-seed to the 1998 NCAA Tournament.
In true Boeheim fashion, Rob Murphy is a major practitioner of the 2-3 zone. EMU ran zone at the 4th highest rate in the country last season, and it was wildly successful. The Eagles ranked 1st in the MAC in adjusted defensive efficiency (KenPom) propelled by the #1 block rate and #1 turnover rate in the conference. Overall, EMU ranked 2nd in the entire country in block rate and 4th in steal rate, a result of Murphy opting to extend the top of his zone a tad further out than normally seen to add an element of pressure on opposing ball handlers:
Bond’s departure hurts, but paint anchors James Thompson IV and Elijah Minnie should keep EMU atop the block rate rankings, while long defenders like Ty Groce and on-ball pests like Paul Jackson and Malik Ellison wreak havoc at the top.
Offensively, EMU likes to work the ball through the post, allowing Thompson to go to work against overmatched defenders. The Eagles ranked 23rd in the country in percentage of FGA near the rim (Hoop-Math) last season, a direct effect of Thompson post-ups, offensive rebounding, and wing penetration. Thompson, a 3-year starter for EMU, is an absolute workhorse inside. He ranked 1st in the MAC in TS%, eFG%, 2PFG%, and FT rate, 2nd in OR%, 3rd in DR%, and 5th in BLK% on his way to being named a 1st Team All-MAC and All-Defensive Team selection. Thompson’s presence gives EMU an offensive inside advantage against anyone in the MAC, and he’s a daunting force in the middle of the 2-3 zone.
Murphy didn’t use his bench too often last year (another Boeheim trait), and he likely won’t dip into it too deeply this year either (at least in the frontcourt). Thompson played 85.7% of EMU’s available minutes in 2017-18, and his frontcourt partner Elijah Minnie played nearly 80%. Minnie, a 3rd Team All-MAC performer last year, is a dangerous weapon on the offensive end, able to catch in the high-post, face-up and either pull-up or drive-by, or knock down a triple from deep. His versatility at the 4-spot makes him very tough for opposing bigs to handle, and on defense, Minnie is one of the MAC’s best shot blockers (3rd in rate) and stealers (4th in rate). Groce, a long wing that brings more valuable as a defender than an offender, will see plenty of time at the 3 and possibly the 4.
Aside from Thompson, Minnie, and Groce, expect Murphy to allow a bit of PT for freshman Andre Rafus Jr. and Grand Canyon transfer Boubacar Toure. Rafus is an ESPN 3-star recruit that had a slew of Power 6 offers before opting to sign with EMU. He’s a highly talented player that can play out on the wing or on the block. Toure is an active rebounder and shot blocker, but he hasn’t played since 2016 due to an ACL injury. Forwards Isaiah Green, Bud Jones, and Jalen King will provide (seldom used) frontcourt depth.
EMU’s backcourt is paced by Paul Jackson, a 6’2” point guard that led the MAC in % minutes played last season. A former EKU Colonel, Jackson does an outstanding job of setting the table for his teammates while keeping his turnover rate low, and his quick first step allows him to blow by slower defenders. In 2018-19, Jackson will look to rein in his poor shot selection and become a more consistent offensive contributor.
Malik Ellison and Kevin McAdoo will be the primary backcourt mates of Jackson this season. Ellison runs the point when he’s in the ball game, allowing Jackson to slide off the ball and attack from the wing. He shot the ball poorly as a freshman, but Ellison brings value as a defender at the top of the 2-3. McAdoo is primarily a shooter on the offensive end. Damari Parris, a JUCO transfer that also laced up for WKU in 2016-17, will provide guard depth and could even crack the starting rotation. He’s a capable shooter and secondary ball handler. Freshman Daivon Stephens is a talented wing that can drive and shoot, but is likely a year or two away from contributing.
Bottom Line: The Eagles have the best frontcourt in the MAC, a capable point guard, and a menacing defense. That combination will take a team far, especially in the mid-major ranks. EMU should be a lock to finish in the top 5 of the overall conference standings this season and could make a push for the auto-bid in March.
4. Toledo (3rd in West)
Key Returners: Willie Jackson, Jaelan Sanford, Luke Knapke, Nate Navigato, Marreon Jackson
Key Losses: Tre’Shaun Fletcher, Taylor Adway
Key Newcomers: Chris Darrington (Tennessee), Logan Hill (redshirt), TJ Smith, Keshaun Sanders, AJ Edu
Outlook: Toledo has been a consistent MAC competitor for the past seven years or so thanks to the excellent rebuilding job Tod Kowalczyk has done after taking over for Gene Cross back in 2010-11. Though the Rockets have never made the Dance under Kowalczyk (they haven’t been there since 1980), they’ve won the regular season West Division of the MAC twice and finished second two other times. Last season, UT decidedly overachieved when it ran away with the West after being picked to finish third in the division. Much of the success was due to MAC POY Tre’Shaun Fletcher, who has since graduated, but credit is also due to Kowalczyk and his development of a young group of players. Despite the loss of Fletcher, the Rockets should be in prime position to compete once again in the MAC.
Kowalczyk has built a bit of a reputation as a great offensive-minded coach, especially over the past five seasons. Last year, the Rockets were a top-50 offensive team per KenPom thanks to a bevy of lights out three-point shooters and ball handlers at nearly every position. Toledo shot more threes in 2017-18 than it ever had previously under Kowalczyk, historically more a big-man-focused coach, and ranked 8th in the country in 3P% (40.6%). One unique aspect of the Rockets’ offense was the interchangeable nature of the personnel. Fletcher, a 6’7” forward by trade, often brought the ball up and facilitated as a point guard. Likewise, guards Marreon Jackson and Jaelan Sanford were heavily involved in the table setting process. With so many capable ball handlers and up to four shooters on the floor at one time, it’s no wonder why the Rockets were the best offensive team in the MAC.
On the other end, Kowalczyk’s squads have historically been poor at defense. No team in the country turned opposing teams over less than the Rockets did last year, despite the fact they emphasize shading the three-point line and getting out on the perimeter. The one glaring issue was defending the pick-roll, where Toledo ranked in just the 9th percentile in points allowed per possession (per Synergy) – big men like Taylor Adway and Luke Knapke had trouble sliding their feet against quicker guards and perimeter defenders struggled to fight through ball screens. In order to take the next step (i.e. make the NCAA Tourney), Toledo has to become a better defensive team.
Without Fletcher, playmaking and facilitating duties will fall primarily on the shoulders of sophomore Marreon Jackson, senior Jaelan Sanford, and Tennessee graduate transfer Chris Darrington. Jackson, a MAC All-Freshman Team member last year, is a knockdown perimeter shooter but he had his fair share of turnover issues and questionable shots during his inaugural season. His dynamic style of play and quickness will help him this season as he takes on a bigger role. Sanford, a 2nd Team All-MAC performer, took his game to another level last season as he shouldered a larger scoring load. Like Fletcher, Sanford is a versatile scorer that can get to the foul line, where he ranked #1 in the MAC in FT%, or shoot it from beyond the arc, where he ranked #6 in the MAC in 3P%. Look for Sanford’s usage to increase once again this season and to be utilized more in the pick-n-roll, an area where he exceled at in 2017-18:
Darrington is a big pickup for Kowalczyk and the Rockets as guard depth (and really any depth) was a major problem last season. At Tennessee, Darrington wasn’t given much an opportunity to shine in Rick Barnes’ crowded backcourt, but rest assured he can light it up when given a chance. As a sophomore in the JUCO ranks, Darrington averaged over 20ppg and earned a spot on the 1st Team All-American squad. He’ll provide quality minutes at both guard spots in his final collegiate season. Canadian freshman Keshaun Sanders is the only other guard on the roster, so he’ll be asked to take on a role immediately with his ability to shoot, handle the ball, and defend.
Toledo has good depth up front with returning center Luke Knapke, stretch four Nate Navigato, and 3/4 tweener Willie Jackson. Redshirt freshman Logan Hill and true freshmen TJ Smith and AJ Edu will serve as reinforcements.
Knapke is a stretch five that shot 38% from three last season while also scoring effectively in the post. On defense, Knapke makes up for his lack of athleticism with good positioning, maintaining verticality with his long arms. He was a good shot blocker last season (4th in the MAC in block rate), but he’ll need to improve in the PnR as mentioned above. Navigato has consistently been one of the best outside shooters in the country the past three years, shooting 42.9% from deep on 212 attempts in 2017-18. His efficiency netted him the best O-Rating in the MAC and 8th best in country. Jackson, a former Missouri Tiger, played about half the year last season, providing tough rebounding and taking on garbage-man duties on the block. His athleticism allows him to take his man off the bounce from the perimeter, but you won’t see Jackson launch many threes (a rarity within the Toledo roster).
Of the three aforementioned frontcourt newcomers, AJ Edu is the guy to watch. Edu played for his native Philippines this past August in the FIBA U18 Asia Championships and averaged a double-double while showing off a little shooting range. He should provide inside scoring and shot blocking behind the Knapke / Navigato / Jackson trio.
Bottom Line: Toledo lost arguably the best player in the MAC this offseason with Fletcher’s graduation, but the Rockets should still be considered one of the conference favorites (especially in the West) and should be a deeper team in 2018-19. If Kowalczyk can button down the defense, the Rockets have a real shot of ending their near-40 year Tourney drought.
5. Ohio (2nd in East)
Key Returners: Teyvion Kirk, Gavin Block, Jordan Dartis, Doug Taylor, James Gollon, Jason Carter
Key Losses: Mike Laster, Kevin Mickle, Zach Butler
Key Newcomers: Antonio Cowart Jr. (JUCO), Connor Murrell (JUCO), Jason Preston, Torey James, Mason McMurray, Nate Springs
Outlook: The Ohio Bobcats enter year five of the Saul Phillips era coming off a down year in 2017-18 after notching two straight 20+ win seasons. This season will hold high expectations for the Cats with the return of five major contributors from last year plus Jason Carter, a former MAC All-Freshman Team member that missed almost the entire 2018-19 season due to injury. Phillips will look to punch Ohio’s first bid to the Dance since current Akron head coach John Groce led the Cats to the Promised Land in 2012.
Last season was the Bobcats’ worst offensive performance of Phillips’ tenure. While the Cats pushed the tempo (2nd fastest team in the MAC), erratic guard play from promising freshman Teyvion Kirk and the lack of a true PG led to Ohio notching the worst turnover rate in the conference. Shot selection was also a major factor in Ohio’s poor offensive rating, as the Cats tended to settle for inefficient mid-range jumpers instead of taking advantage of their multitude of three-point threats on the perimeter. 2017-18 marked the first time in Phillips’ tenure that his Bobcats didn’t rank in the top 100 in the country in 3PA%, despite the team shooting a very good 37.1% from downtown.
Kirk was definitely a factor in the lower three-point attempt rate. While the froshie shot 39.5% from downtown, his unwillingness to shoot the three (38 attempts) and high usage rate (2nd in the MAC) brought down the efficiency of the Ohio offense. From a counting stat perspective, Kirk was very impressive, averaging 15.3ppg, 6.1rpg, and 3.1apg, but he posted only a 93.8 O-Rating (that’s bad), turned the ball over 21% of the time (that’s high), and shot 30.8% from the mid-range (that’s bad).
Kirk has tons of potential (he ranked 4th in the MAC in FT Rate) and should be the Bobcats’ go-to guy this season, but he’ll need to mature quickly and make better decisions in his sophomore season for Ohio to make a deep run.
Jordan Dartis is 1B to Kirk’s 1A, but unlike the rising sophomore Dartis is a model of efficiency, posting a 113.5 O-Rating, turning the ball over only 13% of the time, and connecting on 42.8% of his 180 three-point attempts (46% in MAC play). For this reason, Dartis earned an All-MAC Honorable Mention nod, and he’ll be looked to as a leader in his senior year. Dartis splits the point guard / ball-handling duties with Kirk, but the senior is better suited on the wing where he can spot up and bomb. He was also by far Ohio’s most important player last year (both offensively and defensively), as the Cats were a staggering 21 points per 100 possessions better when Dartis played versus when he sat (per Hoop Lens):
The remainder of the primary perimeter rotation will consist of junior James Gollon and JUCO import Antonio Cowart Jr. Gollon is an excellent defender and ranked 7th in the MAC in 3P% last season. He’s the perfect role player on the wing in Phillips’ offense. Cowart comes in brimming with potential; he’s a long, athletic PG that can shoot and get to the bucket. The JUCO guard could be Ohio’s answer at PG if Phillips chose to go Cowart / Kirk / Dartis in the backcourt, but he’ll likely fill a high-minute role off the bench. Freshmen Jason Preston, another long PG and a skilled passer, and Torey James, a skilled wing shooter, are likely a year or two away from regular contribution.
Phillips’ frontcourt got a lot deeper with the return of a healthy Jason Carter who started 15 games as a freshman in 2016-17 after stud forward Antonio Campbell went down with injury. Carter gets to the foul line at a high rate, can step out a little, and performs as a pretty good interior defender. He’ll likely come off the bench (or possibly play alongside) Doug Taylor, a 6’9” senior that came into his own last season, ranking 3rd in the MAC in offensive rebounding rate, 16th in defensive rebounding rate, and 1st in block rate. Taylor is a beast in the paint on both ends of the floor and will anchor what should be another strong Ohio defense.
Other options in the frontcourt include senior Gavin Block, who will likely start at the 4-spot, JUCO import Connor Murrell, and freshmen Nate Springs and Mason McMurray. Block functions more as a wing on offense and turned in a very high assist rate for that position in 2017-18. He’s primarily a three-point shooting threat, but can also put the ball on the floor every now and again. Murrell, an Indian Hills CC prospect, is a spot-up wing shooter. McMurray is a strong PF that can shoot but likely won’t contribute a lot in his first season. Springs is a very long, super skinny big man that possesses great passing skills, touch around the basket, and a solid three-point stroke.
Bottom Line: Ohio should be considered a contender in the MAC East this season, though Buffalo is by far the favorite. Defensively, the Cats should once again be one of the better units in the MAC, and on offense increased experience should pay dividends for a talented backcourt.
6. Kent State (3rd in East)
Key Returners: Jaylin Walker, Danny Pippen, Jalen Avery, Mitch Peterson, BJ Duling
Key Losses: Adonis De La Rosa, Kevin Zabo, Desmond Ridenour
Key Newcomers: Philip Whittington (USC Upstate), Kain Harris (Tulane), CJ Williamson (JUCO), Antonio Williams (JUCO), DeAndre Gholston, Anthony Roberts
Outlook: Last season was a slightly disappointing one for Kent State coming off a Tourney appearance in 2017. In fact, it was KSU’s worst performance since becoming a “MAC power” around 1998-99. Rob Senderoff returned most of his guys with one giant exception: Jimmy Hall, one of the best players in KSU history. Without Hall, the Flashes struggled to find an identity on either end of the floor, performing just about average in nearly every aspect on the offensive and defensive end. This season, 7-foot center Adonis De La Rosa opted to transfer to Illinois leaving KSU a little light inside. Senderoff will need his frontcourt returners and newcomers to pick up the slack in the paint to complement what should be an electric backcourt.
Senderoff has plenty of options with which to work on the perimeter. Senior guards Jaylin Walker and Jalen Avery are locks to form the core of the starting backcourt, but newbies Kain Harris (Tulane) and Antonio Williams (JUCO) are more than talented enough to be starting in the MAC. Then there’s 6’5” wing Mitch Peterson, a shooter by reputation but not by reality (career 28% on 160+ attempts), who should continue to see a steady role in the rotation.
Walker is KSU’s primary shot taker, a volume shooter that connected on 45% of his 2s and 32% of his 3s during his junior season. While not the most efficient player, Walker is valuable for his bailout ability on offense – he’s able to create his own shot whenever he wants, which comes in handy late in the clock. Without a major inside presence this season, a rarity for KSU under Senderoff, Walker will be the go-to-guy on the offensive end. Avery acts as the table setter in the Flashes’ offense. Last season, the 6’0” PG posted the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the country, a ridiculous 5.04 – for context, the great Monte Morris blew everyone away during his senior year at Iowa State with a 5.17 ratio. Avery’s 8% TO Rate in 2017-18 is almost unheard of for a lead guard.
Harris is similar to Walker in that he’s a high usage, volume shooter that can create his own offense (at the cost of efficiency). Putting Harris and Walker next to each other may not be the best decision considering the shooting allocation issues it could pose, but Senderoff may be able to figure out a way for the pair to co-exist. The Tulane transfer will have to get healthy first, as he’s still on the road to recovery from a torn ACL. Antonio Williams, aka “Booman”, would be starting hands down if not for his 6’0” size and two returning senior backcourt starters. Williams averaged 14ppg and 4.7apg for JUCO power Indian Hills CC last season and showed off his ridiculous jumping ability, throwing dunks down in traffic with authority. I’d love to see a lineup with Williams / Walker / Avery, but the potential defensive consequences likely prevents this from happening. Freshmen Anthony Roberts and Deandre Gholston, and former FGCU and JUCO player CJ Williamson, will provide wing depth in their first season in a KSU uniform.
Inside, Senderoff has returning junior Danny Pippen, redshirt senior Akeian Frederick, and sophomore BJ Duling competing with USC Upstate import Philip Whittington for minutes. Pippen injured his knee this offseason and underwent surgery, but hopes to be back for the start of the year. The 6’9” power forward was one of the best rebounders in the MAC last season (2nd in DR%; 10th in OR%) and posted the 2nd highest block rate in conference play. On offense, Pippen prefers to work from the perimeter, cutting through the lane or spotting up from deep to get points.
Duling was highly regarded coming out of high school and now will look to break out in his second season after a disappointing freshman year. The 6’7” 3/4 tweener is an excellent leaper and provides value on the glass and protecting the rim. Frederick should see an uptick in his playing time with the lack of depth up front. Last season, KSU was a very good defensive team when the big man was on the floor. Whittington was a high usage big man for USC Upstate in 2016-17, ranking in the top 5 in both offensive and defensive rebounding rates in the Atlantic Sun and 2nd in block rate. He’s a paint-bound big that could slot in next Pippen nicely and fill De La Rosa’s shoes.
Bottom Line: Kent State is loaded with talent in the backcourt, but wing and frontcourt depth limits the Flashes’ ceiling. Senderoff has proven time and time again to be a good coach and consistently has had KSU near the top of the MAC standings. If the big men step up, KSU could earn another auto-bid, but it’ll be a tall task with the likes of Buffalo waiting to smash the conference competition.
7. Central Michigan (4th in West)
Key Returners: Shawn Roundtree, Kevin McKay, David DiLeo
Key Losses: Cecil Williams, Luke Meyer, Josh Kozinski
Key Newcomers: Larry Austin Jr. (Vanderbilt), Dallas Morgan (JUCO), Kevin Hamlet (JUCO), Romelo Burrell (JUCO), Robert Montgomery (JUCO), PJ Mitchell
Outlook: The Chippewas enter 2018-19 fresh off their second most wins (21) since the glory days of Chris Kaman and the 2002-03 Tourney squad. Keno Davis returns to captain the ship of a team famous for its potent offense and equally as famous for its piss poor defense. CMU brings back a trio of double-digit scorers but loses two pillars in big man Luke Meyer and sharpshooter Josh Kozinski. The Chips will need someone to emerge from their promising crop of six newcomers to challenge in the MAC.
Offensively, the Chips are all about the long ball, gunning at one of the highest rates in the country for all six of Keno Davis’s coaching seasons. Historically, including last season, Davis has played at a slower pace, choosing to milk the clock in a 4-out half-court motion set, but in 2016-17 his Chips played at the 5th fastest tempo in the nation. This was almost entirely due to the presence of Marcus Keene, one of the most exciting players in college basketball over the past decade (that’s right, I said it), so we’re not likely to see Davis pull that kind of run-and-gun again in 2018-19. An underrated part of the CMU offense is the rate at which the Chips hit free throws. Last season, CMU connected on over 80% of their FT attempts, good for 3rd in the country (and they shot a fair amount of throws).
On defense, CMU likely will struggle, especially without a competent rim protector to turn to. Davis played a lot of zone last season and pressed full court in a trapping zone, so expect to see more of that in 2018-19 as the Chips try to compensate for their lack of size. Regardless of what defense they play, it’s unlikely the Chips crack the MAC’s top six defensive ratings, meaning they’ll have to outscore opponents to win ball games (which, yeah, I guess every team technically has to do that – you know what I mean).
CMU will rely on its three main returners, Shawn Roundtree, Kevin McKay, and David DiLeo for production in leadership this season. Roundtree broke out last year after spending two unproductive seasons at Missouri State. The Edwardsville, IL native is a point guard by trade, the next in a growing line of impressive CMU PGs, and excels at attacking the rim and working of pick-n-rolls and isolation. Though he’ll never score as much as Keene, Roundtree could bring a Chris Fowler-esque level of production to the court in his senior season.
McKay took on a much larger role last season as a sophomore, posting brilliant shooting percentages of .578/.424/.856 (2P/3P/FT). His weirdest stat was leading the MAC in offensive rebounding rate despite standing only 6’5” and being listed as a guard on CMU’s roster page. In Davis’s offense, McKay is essentially a guard that plays on the perimeter, but he can also mix it up inside and he lives off offensive put-backs by way of crashing the glass. DiLeo, a “power forward”, is much more of a perimeter player than McKay, letting the three fly at will.
Six newbies join the fold in Mount Pleasant this year, three in the backcourt and three in the frontcourt. In the backcourt, Larry Austin, a Vanderbilt grad transfer, Dallas Morgan, a JUCO import, and PJ Mitchell, a true freshman will fight for playing time and a starting spot alongside Roundtree. Austin probably has the inside track to starting out of the three; he was a top 100 recurit in the class of 2014 and spent time at Xavier before transferring to Vandy and then ultimately CMU. Austin is a tough guard that can handle the rock and shoot it at a high level. Morgan will provide shooting and secondary ballhandling, and Mitchell is a true PG that will provide solid depth.
Up front, JUCO transfers Kevin Hamlet, Romelo Burrell, and Robert Montgomery will scrap for PT and a starting spot next to McKay / DiLeo (Innocent Nwoko just isn’t really a viable option). Hamlet is a more of a wing that can score from all three levels. Burrell is a burly wing that can help on both sides of the ball, play multiple positions, score and shoot. Montgomery, a former St. Francis (NY) Terrier, played at Indian Hills CC (#1 JUCO school) last season; he’s a big-time athlete and dunker and ranked 4th in the NEC in block rate as a freshman.
Bottom Line: It’ll be the typical storyline this season for the Chips: excellent offense, suspect defense; nothing in the change in personnel suggests a shift in either dynamic. The maturation of Roundtree and newcomer potential puts the Chips’ ceiling a bit higher than last season, but nabbing a MAC championship may be tough to accomplish.
8. Bowling Green (4th in East)
Key Returners: Justin Turner, Dylan Frye, Demajeo Wiggins, Antwon Lillard, Daeqwon Plowden
Key Losses: Rodrick Caldwell, Derek Koch, Matt Fox
Key Newcomers: Mattis Kulackovskis (redshirt), Caleb Fields, Tayler Mattos, Michael Laster (JUCO), Marlon Sierra (JUCO)
Outlook: 2017-18 was Bowling Green’s best season under fourth year head coach Michael Huger. While a 16-16 (7-11) record doesn’t jump off the page, BGSU was significantly better to those who tuned in live. Bowling lost seven games by five points or less last season, three of which came during their season ending six game losing skid. With five key players returning from one of the least experienced teams in the country last year, there’s reason to believe BGSU can compete near the top of MAC’s East Division in 2018-19.
I’m not sure the words “fun” and “Bowling Green basketball” have ever been used near each other in a sentence, but last year’s Falcon squad, and the one yet to come, was and will be an exciting team to watch. The Falcons play an uptempo style (3rd fastest in the MAC) that focuses on first getting the ball up the floor and second on attacking the rim and finding open shooters off post kickouts and penetration. Unfortunately for Huger and Co., BGSU was an awful shooting team last season, ranking dead last in 2PFG% and 11th in 3PFG%, which meant the Falcons had to rely on offensive rebounding and free throws to put points on the board. BGSU was an excellent rebounding team, arguably the best in the MAC, so this strategy of scoring was often effective. But to truly compete, BGSU needs more shooting in 2018-19.
With a guard-heavy roster, Huger is likely going to run a lot of 4-out / 1-in sets on offense that feature four perimeter players surrounding superlative big man Demajeo Wiggins. Justin Turner immediately became the best scorer on the squad last season in his first season in Brown and Orange, and had the distinct honor of being the only Falcon to shoot over 36% from outside the arc. Turner, a MAC All-Freshman Team member last year, can handle the ball a bit but will most often set up on the wing where he can spot up to take his man off the bounce to the tin:
Lining up alongside Turner on the perimeter will be last year’s de facto PG Dylan Frye and wing Antwon Lillard. Frye is probably the best shooter on the roster despite his 3PFG% dipping from 40% to 35% from his freshman to sophomore year, so Huger would prefer to play him off the ball despite his solid handles. Lillard is primarily a slashing wing, but he did raise his 3PFG% above 30% last year, a significant improvement on the season prior. Defensively, Lillard is one of BGSU’s top assets.
Frye can play point guard, but BGSU needs someone else to take the reins at the top of the key. Enter JUCO transfer Michael Laster and freshman Caleb Fields, two true point guards ready to eat up playing time. Laster, a 2nd Team NJCAA All-American last season could start immediately alongside Frye and Turner. The 6’1” lead guard averaged nearly a triple-double in JUCO last season and has the craftiness and quickness to hang in the MAC. Fields can play on or off the ball and should at the very least be an energetic defender at the top of the defense. On offense, Fields attacks the basket hard and likes to get out in transition off the break.
Huger’s frontcourt is all about Wiggins, a 6’10” big man averaged a double-double last season and picked up 2nd Team All-MAC honors in the process. Wiggins is a top five MAC rebounder on both ends of the floor and ranked 10th in the country in defensive rebounding rate. His size, length, and athleticism is rarely scene in the MAC, and he should be ready for a highly productive year.
A combination of sophomore Daeqwon Plowden, redshirt freshman Mattias Kulackovskis, true freshman Tayler Mattos, and JUCO transfer Marlon Sierra will form the frontcourt rotation alongside Wiggins. Plowden is a decent rebounder and shot blocker that desperately needs to improve on a 12/48 three-point shooting clip as he steps into a larger role. Mattos and Sierra should see plenty of floor time in their first years. Mattos is an all-around big man that can stretch the floor and slide his feet with guards in the PnR; Sierra is a physical 3/4 tweener that can shoot the trey, drive, and score in the post.
Bottom Line: Bowling Green should be a much-improved team this season with solid minute continuity and some promising newcomers. Defensively, BGSU will still be tough inside and on the glass and the addition of Fields (and maybe a little luck on 3PFG) should help improve the stoppages on the perimeter. Offensively, BGSU has all the tools to be a competent team – the key will be improving on an awful shooting year with guys like Laster, Fields, Sierra, and Mattos, in addition to incumbents Turner and Frye.
9. Miami (OH) (5th in East)
Key Returners: Nike Sibande, Darrian Ringo, Dalonte Brown, Jalen Adaway, Bam Bowman, Isaiah Coleman-Lands, Abdoulaye Harouna
Key Losses: Logan McLane, Rod Mills, Jake Wright
Key Newcomers: Aleks Abrams (Cal Poly), Myja White, Mekhi Lairy, Elijah McNamara
***Editor’s Note: This preview was written during the time Darrian Ringo was off the roster. His presence raises the ceiling for this team substantially, but I would still pick them 4th in the East (and above Central Michigan overall).
Outlook: Jack Owens enters his second year at the helm of Miami fresh off leading the school to its best performance since 2011. After toiling in the depths of the MAC under John Cooper, it looks like the RedHawk basketball program is heading back in the right direction. Owens brought in a stellar freshman class last season that now looks to lead the way for the Hawks in 2018-19.
Unfortunately for Owens and the rest of the RedHawks, Darrian Ringo, the team’s impressive point guard last season, is no longer a member of the team. Ringo was a 3rd Team All-MAC and All-Defensive Team performer in his first season in Oxford, ranking 3rd in the country in assist rate and 5th in steal rate. His absence leaves a giant hole at the point guard position, one that will likely be filled by rising sophomore Isaiah Coleman-Lands. ICL played well last season when given the opportunity, protecting the ball, dishing out assists at a high rate, and knocking down threes at the 3rd best rate in the MAC. He’ll be pushed for PT at PG by freshman Mekhi Lairy, a 5’8” dynamo that scored about bajillion points during his high school career.
Joining Coleman-Lands in Owens’s sophomore class are returning starters Nike Sibande and Dalonte Brown, two members of the MAC’s All-Freshman Team in 2017-18. Sibande is the team’s go-to scorer, a gunner from the 2-spot that is looking to let it fly from anywhere on the floor. Owens may ask Sibande to run some point in his second season without Ringo, but the sophomore guard is much better suited off the ball where he can spot-up or catch and drive. Brown is a big, athletic wing that can slot into either the 3 or 4 spot in Miami’s lineup. On offense, Brown does majority of his scoring shooting from outside or penetrating from the perimeter. Defensively, Brown can guard multiple positions and is a dynamite rebounder, ranking 5th in the MAC in DR% last season.
Jalen Adaway, yet another sophomore, likely starts at the 3 most nights; he’s primarily a slashing wing. Adaway will need to hold off redshirt senior Abdoulaye Harouna for minutes on the wing, as the latter returns from missing all of 2017-18. Harouna started 28 games in 2016-17; his main value is as a lockdown perimeter defender. Look for redshirt sophomores Precious Ayah and Milos Jovic to carve out some minutes on the wing during the year as well. Freshman Myja White likely rides the pine this season.
Inside, Owens brings back Bam Bowman, a 275-pound rebounder that possesses good touch from outside the arc. Bowman is Miami’s only returning post-up threat, and scored very efficiently on the block during his sophomore season. Aleks Abrams, a Cal Poly transfer, will provide backup behind Bowman. Abrams rebounded at a ridiculously high rate when he actually played at Cal Poly, and he’ll be an asset defensively as well. Freshman forward Eli McNamara will provide depth but may need a year or two more to fully develop.
Miami must improve offensively if it wants to compete near the top of the MAC East division. Last season, the RedHawks were poor offensively due to shooting issues and a lack of inside scoring threat. Miami plays a slow, half-court style (longest average possession length in MAC), spreads it out on offense, and launches a ton of threes. Shot selection will be the biggest key to improving their offensive efficiency, as Owens didn’t do anything to address the lack of post-up threat in the offseason (Bowman is efficient, but rarely looked for).
The RedHawks were very good defensively in 2017-18, ranking 3rd in adjusted defensive efficiency in the MAC per KenPom. This rating stemmed from a harassing perimeter line that forced turnovers and did an excellent job at preventing easy looks from behind the arc. Ringo’s absence will be most felt on this end of the floor, as the point guard was far and away the Hawks’ best defender and most disruptive perimeter pest. Coleman-Lands is quick and Harouna is a plus defender, so Owens will hope he can get most of his defensive production back from a season ago. One little defensive wrinkle that may be worth exploring – Miami was one of the nation’s best pressing teams last season when they actually picked up full court, allowing 0.706ppp (95th percentile, per Synergy). Owens may consider upping the rate at which his team pressed last season to make up for Ringo’s absence.
Bottom Line: Miami has one of the best young cores in the MAC, but it may be difficult for the squad to improve on a pretty good 2017-18 with the level of competition in the East. The RedHawks should be competitive this season, but won’t truly contend for a MAC title until 2019-20 or 2020-21.
10. Akron (6th in East)
Key Returners: Daniel Utomi, Jimond Ivey, Emmanuel Olojakpoke
Key Losses: Malcolm Duvivier, Virshon Cotton, Eric Parrish
Key Newcomers: Loren Jackson (Long Beach State), Deng Riak (East Carolina), Eric Hester (Florida), Channel Banks (JUCO), Jeremy Roscoe (JUCO), Tyler Cheese (JUCO), LePear Toles (JUCO)
Outlook: John Groce’s first season in Akron could have gone better. 2018-19 marked the end of the Zips’ 12 straight 20+ win seasons they enjoyed under the tutelage of current Duquesne head coach Keith Dambrot. Last season was Akron’s worst since 1996-97, but the Zips had arguably their most turnover last year since that time, ranking 333rd in minutes continuity. Now, Groce will look to bring his school back to MAC competence with a (hopefully) fully healthy roster and the addition of seven key newcomers.
Expect Groce to roll out a similar offensive attack as last year, one that focuses on high pick-n-rolls and three-point looks. One thing that may change, though, is Akron’s lineup composition. Groce was often forced to play extremely small out of necessity; especially after big man Emmanuel Olojakpoke’s season ended after needing open-heart surgery and backup big Jaden Sayles suffered an injury of his own. Mark Kostelac, a 6’11” center, started several games, but he’s not the type of guy the Zips want to rely on as they chase a MAC title. With Olojakpoke, a big-time shot blocker, and Sayles presumably healthy, Groce will have more options at the 4 and 5 spot, allowing scorers like Daniel Utomi to play more on the wing. East Carolina transfer Deng Riak, an excellent rebounder, will also bolster the frontcourt rotation.
Utomi is a physical tank, but he’s much better suited out on the wing on offense and guarding 3s or 4s on the defensive end. An all-around bucket getter, the 6’6” junior excels in isolation and flaring out to the three-point line as the roll man in the PnR. He’ll be aided in the scoring department by senior guard Jimond Ivey, who had the highest assist rate on the team (8th in the MAC) despite not being the primary ball handler / table setter. Ivey was most effective driving off the pick-n-roll, but he’s a gunner that’s prone to taking ill-advised shots every now and again.
To compete near the top of the conference, Akron will need a handful of its newcomers to take on big roles within the rotation. Long Beach State transfer Loren Cristian Jackson likely starts at point guard, replacing the graduated Malcolm Duvivier. Jackson can play on or off the ball and shot 41.2% from deep in Big West play as a freshman in 2016-17. Florida import Eric Hester, too, will play an important role and compete for a starting spot. Hester played a diminutive part on a very good 2016-17 Gator squad, but shot 11/19 (57.9%) from beyond the arc in limited minutes.
From the JUCO ranks, Akron will count on Channel Banks, Jeremy Roscoe, Tyler Cheese, and LePear Toles to provide scoring, defense, and depth in the backcourt and on the wing. Banks was a NJCAA All-American lasts season and specializes in scoring the basketball. Roscoe is a two-way impact player that can handle the rock in Jackson’s stead. Cheese (great name) comes to Akron ranked as the 52nd best JUCO prospect in the land; like Banks, Cheese is a big-time scorer from the 2-guard spot. Toles is more of a wing slasher from the perimeter.
Akron was an abomination on both ends of the floor last season, ranking 10th in the MAC in offense and 11th in defense. The offense will almost certainly improve in Groce’s second season, but the defense is still an unknown. The Zips forced a decent amount of turnovers last season but fouled at the highest rate in the conference. Perhaps improved depth in the frontcourt will help Akron avoid being overpowered inside. A deeper team, both in the frontcourt and backcourt, will also likely help the Zips’ awful transition defense, which gave up both a high amount of opportunities and points per possession.
Bottom Line: There’s no question Akron will be better than its 2017-18 14-18 (6-12) mark. Groce’s squad isn’t going to touch Buffalo, but a 20-win season and a second place finish in the East Division is within the realm of possibility for the traditional MAC power.
11. Western Michigan (5th in West)
Key Returners: Josh Davis, Brandon Johnson, Bryce Moore, Seth Dugan
Key Losses: Thomas Wilder, Reggie Jones, Drake Lamont
Key Newcomers: Kawanise Wilkins (JUCO), William Boyer-Richard, Adrian Martin, Patrick Emilien
Outlook: Long-time Western Michigan head coach Steve Hawkins has his work cut out for him this year after losing all-time program great Thomas Wilder. With majority of teams in the MAC returning the lion’s share of their production from a year ago, the Broncos will be challenged to keep pace as a contender. The main question clearly becomes: who will step up and become this team’s alpha? Hawkins returns three players that averaged around 10ppg, but one will need to step up as the go-to guy for an offense in desperate need of leadership.
WMU’s offense last season consisted of a heavy dose of pick-n-roll. The Broncos ranked top 50 in the country in possessions used in the pick-n-roll, but the primary benefactor of this offense, Wilder, is now gone. Hawkins’ offense was so dependent on Wilder that knowing what to expect from this year’s bunch remains a mystery. Guards Bryce Moore and Michael Flowers performed brilliantly in the pick-n-roll when given the opportunity, and they’ll likely be the two primary weapons used in the offense in 2018-19. Aside from the PnR, Hawkins squads are usually about scoring by way of basket attack from the wing and offensive rebounding. Neither of those two aspects should change this season.
The point guard hole looms large over the heads of the Broncos heading into the year, but Flowers was efficient when he earned minutes. As a freshman, the 6’1” guard proved to be a deadly outside shooter, particularly off the dribble coming off screens. Moore connected on 40% of his threes last season and also posted a solid FT rate; he’ll be relied upon much more heavily to score the basketball in 2018-19. Canadian freshmen William Boyer-Richard and Adrian Martin could also get some looks at the point this season. Boyer-Richard is a knockdown three-point shooter that plays a poised style of basketball. Martin is an athletic combo guard that can fill it up from all over the court.
On the wing, look for Josh Davis to break out in 2018-19. Davis is a jack-of-all-trades type of basketball player that rebounds, shoots, defends, and attacks the basket at a high level. His versatility and athleticism suggests he’s ready for a larger role in the offensive game plan. Newcomers Kawinise Wilkins (JUCO) and Patrick Emilien (freshman) could each carve out a role right away either alongside Davis or as his backup off the pine. Wilkins averaged nearly a double-double during this past year in JUCO and shot a blistering 48.9% from three. “Squeaky” is strong enough to play the 4 and bang inside and skilled to enough to play out on the perimeter. Emilien will provide value as an athletic wing slasher and versatile defender.
Up front, returners Brandon Johnson and Seth Dugan should see the majority of minutes, being the only two true big men on the roster. Johnson was a top ten rebounder in the MAC last year by rate and is decent shot blocker. Offensively, he does most of his damage in the paint, but gets there by way of the drive and via the post. Dugan is one of the best rebounder in the MAC on both ends of the floor, is a solid rim protector, and sets a boatload of screens on every offensive possession. He’s limited offensively, but the big man takes up space and is crucial to WMU’s offensive glass attack.
With Wilder gone, it follows that the Broncos may take a step back offensively, meaning defense becomes all the more valuable. Hawkins hasn’t had a good defense since his Tourney squad in 2014, but he’ll need one this year in order to compete in the MAC. Moore was an All-Defensive Team member last year and should continue being a lockdown perimeter defender. Davis can hold his own on that end as well and Wilkins or Emilien could emerge in their first years. The key will be limiting three-point attempts, an area in which the Broncos have been repeatedly burned over the past couple years in a league that shoots a lot of threes.
Bottom Line: This year’s MAC is tougher than it has been in recent memory, so Wilder’s graduation comes at an unfortunate time. Hawkins will need one of his vets to step up and become the leader on offense, and he’ll need his promising newcomers to live up to their potential quickly. Hawkins’ teams have only won less than 9 games in the MAC four times during his 15-year tenure, but 2018-19 may prove to be one of Hawkins’ tougher trials of his Kalamazoo career.
12. Northern Illinois (6th in West)
Key Returners: Eugene German, Levi Bradley, Dante Thorpe, Lacey James, Jaylen Key, Gairges Daow, Noah McCarty, Anastasios Demogerontas
Key Losses: Justin Thomas
Key Newcomers: Alize Travis (JUCO), Zaire Mateen (JUCO), Justin Lee, Austin Richie
Outlook: Mark Montgomery has done a fair job at the helm of NIU in his seven seasons as head coach. The Huskies have never been a conference contender during his tenure, but Montgomery has built the program to at least be respectable year-after-year. Interestingly enough, though NIU finished last in the MAC in 2017-18 and managed only six conference wins, five of those victories came against five of the top six schools in the MAC, including Buffalo, Eastern Michigan, and Ball State. So while NIU may yet again be just another team in the Mid-American, it’s fully capable of playing spoiler to the big dogs in the league, especially with the return of seven of its top eight players plus a former starter from injury.
Northern Illinois’s offense starts and ends with Eugene German, a 6’0” junior coming off a season in which he averaged 20ppg and flirted with going pro. NIU puts a premium on dribble-drive and basket attack, scoring the 4th highest percentage of its points from 2P range in the country last season. Because German runs the point, and he is so ball dominant (one of the highest used players in the country, 1st in the MAC), the Huskies rarely score by way of ball movement. Instead, NIU relies on isolation and the pick-n-roll to put points on the board. Last season, NIU ranked dead last in the country in assist rate, which has become somewhat of a trend of Montgomery-coached teams.
NIU was a pretty good offensive team last season despite the lack of ball movement because German really is a special player. He’s one of the quickest players I’ve seen in the college basketball ranks, able to split PnR defenders with ease and get to the bucket. Getting to the bucket is a key part of the offensive process for the Huskies, as they ranked 7th in percentage of shot attempts near the rim in 2017-18. It’s this high-percentage shot selection that helped keep NIU competitive despite having poor overall outside shooters.
Ironically, NIU was actually BETTER when German sat versus when he played (+0.05ppp) per Hoop Lens, which begs the question: does German try to do a little too much on offense and take his teammates out of the game?
German’s second banana is Levi Bradley, the 9th highest used player in the MAC and the Huskies’ best frontcourt offensive presence. Bradley is adept at drawing contact near the rim and getting to the foul line where he shoots over 83%, and he’s a solid rebounder on both ends to boot. He’ll be joined by Lacey James, Jaylen Key, and Noah McCarty in the frontcourt rotation. James, a former Rider Bronc, was a top ten offensive rebounder in the MAC by rate last season, but was a poor finisher from the floor. Defensively, James and Bradley offer very little in the realm of rim protection, which often led to NIU getting massacred at the cup.
Key started 25 games as a sophomore back in 2016-17, but missed the entire 2017-18 season to injury. He’s a good rebounder like James and Bradley, but is a much more competent defender in the paint. McCarty is also, you guessed it, good on the glass, and he offers a little stretch four wrinkle on offense (as does Key).
The returning backcourt rotation outside of German consists of Dante Thorpe, Gairges Daow, and Anastasios Demogerontas. Thorpe was by far the best outside shooter on the team last season, but needs to let it fly more in his senior year in an effort to improve the spacing of the Huskie offense. Like German, Thorpe proved to be a capable playmaker off ball screens in 2017-18. Daow is primarily a spot-up wing that’s most valuable for his ability to defend. Demogerontas is a 3/4 tweener that can play out on the wing or down on the block.
Montgomery adds four key newcomers to the fold in 2018-19, each of whom could see the floor in their first season in Dekalb. Two JUCO point guards, Alize Travis and Zaire Mateen will compete for minutes behind German. Travis has a good-looking stroke from beyond the arc and is a quick guard that can change direction on a dime. Mateen is a dynamic scoring guard, a crafty driver, and a creative finisher in traffic. Freshmen Justin Lee and Austin Richie will provide depth on the wing. Both players project as nice 3-and-D guys for the Huskies down the road.
If basketball were just an offensive game, NIU could very finish near the top of the MAC standings. Unfortunately for the Huskies, defense matters. Last season, NIU was terrible on the defensive end, finishing dead last in the MAC in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings by a comfortable margin. A key reason for their futility was a lack of size on the interior, which led to easy buckets inside the paint. Montgomery’s frontcourt is deep from an offensive perspective, but nothing suggests NIU will be significantly better in that department in 2018-19. The days of Marin Maric are long gone.
Bottom Line: The Huskies’ 2018-19 season should follow a similar arc to that of last year. German should put up 20-25ppg in spectacular fashion (everyone really should watch at least one game of his this year) and NIU should knock off a couple top MAC contenders, but ultimately the Huskies will fall short of conference contention.