MAC Preview 2019-20

-Matt Cox

Preseason Predictions

Player of the Year: Justin Turner, Bowling Green
Coach of the Year: Jack Owens, Miami Ohio
Newcomer of the Year: Devontae Lane, Central Michigan
Freshman of the Year:
Marvin Price, Ohio


1. Buffalo (1st in East)

Key Returners: Davonta Jordan, Jayvon Graves
Key Losses: Nick Perkins, CJ Massingburg, Jeremy Harris, Dontay Caruthers, Montell McRae
Key Newcomers: David Nickelberry, Gabe Grant, LaQuill Hardnett, Antwain Johnson, David Skogman, Savion Gallion, Josh Mballa*

Lineup:

*Note: Eligibility waiver pending

Outlook: After steamrolling the MAC for two straight seasons, Buffalo watched its golden boy head coach (Nate Oats) defect for a brighter stage (Alabama) and a bigger bank account this offseason. Such is life for mid-majors who reach an unprecedented level of success and national exposure, but this is not foreign territory for Buffalo. Back in 2015, Buffalo stayed in-house with the Oats promotion after Bobby Hurley bolted for Arizona State. The athletic department mirrored the same ‘promote-from-within’ template this summer when they elevated basketball lifer Jim Whitesell to the head coaching throne.

Whitesell’s last four seasons as an associate head coach under Oats is just a drop in the bucket of his overall body of work. Since arriving in Buffalo, Whitesell has reportedly been the Bulls’ stickiest recruiter, as noted by the Buffalo News, receiving credit for bringing in CJ Massinburg, the headliner from last year’s star-studded senior class. 

On the ‘College Hoops Overtime - Betting’ podcast, Nick Piotrowicz of the Toledo Blade speculated that a relatively lethargic hiring process may have put a dent in Buffalo’s recruiting bandwidth. Oats accepted the Alabama job on March 27th, 10 days before Whitesell was officially announced as the full-time replacement. During that critical 10-day limbo period, the Bulls let four key pieces from the incoming class slip away - Noah Williams, Durey Cadwell, James Rojas and Andre Allen - but Whitesell scrambled like Phil Mickelson at the 2010 Masters to patch together a potent recruiting class without much time to spare.

The frontline needed immediate attention, so Whitesell nabbed two high-major forwards in LaQuill Hardnett (Cincinnati) and Gabe Grant (Houston), along with top-30 JUCO prospect David Nickelberry (who started his career at Memphis) to plug the crater-sized holes left behind by Nick Perkins, Jeremy Harris and Montell McRae. From a defensive standpoint, it’s hard to find two better defensive tutors than Mick Cronin and Kelvin Sampson, so I’d bet on Hardnett and Grant providing an instant boost on that end of the floor. They both have a ways to go to catch up with Harris and Perkins’ offensive arsenals, but there are some encouraging indicators the upside is there. At minimum, Hardnett should be a reliable rim runner and pick-n-roll diver, while Grant’s a safe bet to be a ‘3-and-D’ two-way threat, just as he was in a more reduced role at Houston.

Nickelberry appears to be the most versatile offensive threat, an adept slasher and creator, which could be weaponized if he demands defensive respect by establishing a consistent outside jumper. It makes sense for the Nickelberry / Grant duo to tag team the 4 position, while Hardnett and 6’11 Brock Bertram team up to solidify the 5. Bertram received a lot of love in the Athletic’s offseason ‘State of the Program’ series, touted by coaches and teammates as ready to replenish Perkins and McRae’s production inside - call me a skeptic, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

The backcourt will feature two fairly familiar faces, Davonta Jordan and Jayvon Graves, who will no longer lurk in CJ Massinburg’s shadow. As balanced as the Bulls were last season, Massinburg was the clear go-to-guy in crunchtime, blessed with a knack for delivering big buckets in bigger moments. Both Jordan and Graves are plus defenders with good size at their respective positions (Jordan was voted to the All-Defensive team last year), but Whitesell will need their offensive production to ramp up in a hurry, while the newcomers find their footing. 

The third guard position next to Jordan and Graves remains up in the air, but Whitesell has three legit options in his back pocket. Ronaldo Segu and JeeNathan Williams, who each boast 3 to 4-star pedigrees, were intermittently used by Oats last year, and could be hidden gems on the cusp of a breakout. Antwain Johnson (Middle Tennessee) was a full-time starter on a top-50 caliber team back in 2018, credentials that could give him the inside track to start from day 1. Johnson’s ability to play on or off the ball is resemblant of the Bulls’ interchangeable backcourt last season with Jordan, Graves and Massinburg, so he should integrate seamlessly. Johnson’s got a stocky build at 6’2 200 pounds, and his jumper is as pure as they come - he knocked down 87% and 38% from the charity stripe and 3-point range, respectively, during the 2017-18 campaign.

The real wild card is Josh Mballa, who Chris Beard entrusted with high leverage minutes during the Red Raiders’ NCAA tournament run last year at Texas Tech. If Mballa is granted eligibility right away, that’s a game-changing addition to an already robust crop of wings and forwards.

Stylistically, Whitesell has already indicated he intends to replicate the up-tempo brand of basketball institutionalized by both of his predecessors. While there are a lot of unknowns on this roster, depth shouldn’t be an inhibitor for Whitesell’s plans to play in the fast lane. Oats didn’t dip too deep into his bench last year, which was a bit surprising given how physically demanding the Bulls’ up-and-down style can be over the course of a season.

Bottom Line: Whitesell is closely tracking the footsteps of his former boss in both style of play and personnel evaluation. It’s hard to ignore the losses of Massinburg, Harris and Perkins, especially the latter two, who were nearly impossible to defend 1-on-1 for most inferior MAC forwards.

Without the secret sauce that aforementioned big-3 formed last year, the Bulls are destined to come back down to Earth, but I don’t foresee anything close to a crash landing. ‘The Running of the Bulls’ identity made famous by Oats isn’t going anywhere under Whitesell and he’s plugged critical roster gaps through experienced and talented pickups off the D1 and JUCO transfer wires. 

2. Bowling Green (2nd in East)

Key Returners: Justin Turner, Dylan Frye, Daeqwon Plowden, Michael Laster**, Caleb Fields, Marlon Sierra
Key Losses: Demajeo Wiggins, Jeffrey Uju, Antwon Lillard
Key Newcomers: Chandler Turner, Davin Zeigler, Dylan Swingle*

Lineup:

*Note: Eligibility waiver still pending

Outlook: Can someone please show some damn mercy and remove the hex from the Falcons’ basketball program? For context, we’ve been to the moon more recently than the last time Bowling Green played in the NCAA tournament…

It only seems fitting that the timing of BGSU’s historic ascension last year coincided with the Buffalo buzzsaw, but the Falcons’ window for glory is still cracked open. Four starters are back, including the entire backcourt rotation, which forms the armory of an adversary capable of challenging the Massinburg, Perkins and Harris-less Bulls.

Head coach Michael Huger’s first order of business will be retooling the roster to alleviate the loss of Demajeo Wiggins, a member of the 1,000 / 1,000 club who poured in 1,300+ points and hauled in 1,000+ rebounds over his illustrious four-year career. While it’s a long-shot, Huger may have found his match in Duquesne transfer Dylan Swingle, pending clearance from the NCAA. At 6’10, Swingle is deceptively mobile for his frame and can stretch the floor with a confident shooting stroke that extends out to the 3-point line. As of now, Swingle remains ineligible, but Huger said they are working on pursuing a waiver with the NCAA to allow him to play right away.

Assuming the status quo holds, Huger’s frontcourt options could dry up in a hurry. One solution could include stretching out Marlon Sierra’s minutes, who spelled Wiggins at the 5 during brief stints last year. Sierra’s skillset is probably best optimized at the 4 and he’s not the interior intimidator that alternative options 6’10 Joniya Gadson and 6’11 Tayler Mattos could become. Neither Gadson or Mattos saw the floor much at all last season, so it’s difficult to place a resounding vote of confidence in that duo as the surefire solution up front.

Other than Wiggins, the other notable loss this offseason is Antwon Lillard, who was a fixture in last year’s rotation despite forfeiting his starting spot to Daeqwon Plowden in early December. Plowden was a defensive specialist in his first season at Bowling Green, but the strides he took last year on the other side of the ball opened up acres of space for the Falcons’ offense. With Justin Turner, Dylan Frye and Wiggins doing most of the scoring damage, Plowden just needed to develop a viable jump shot to avoid being a liability offensively. He’s still got a ways to go to catch up with his former wing counterpart Lillard, who canned 40% from downtown last season, but Plowden connected on 38% of his 56 3-point attempts, helping him leapfrog Lillard in the lineup pecking order. While I’m not convinced that 38% clip is sustainable (Plowden’s career 56% free throw conversion rate is quite damning), he’ll be an integral piece with the chops to be All-Conference caliber defender.

In most years, Plowden would be a lock to keep his starting spot, but with two highly sought after newcomers on the way (Chandler Turner and Davin Zeigler), along with a loaded backcourt quartet still in tact, competition for minutes will be fierce on the perimeter. Many power programs were dumbfounded to see Turner stay so firm in his commitment to Bowling Green throughout the recruiting process, but his close ties to the BGSU program (he was high school teammates with Justin Turner) helped Huger hang on to the decorated freshman prospect. At 6’6, he possesses the handle to slide down to the 2, but has the prerequisite length to check opposing 4s in smaller lineups. Ziegler - a high-flyer from Cleveland who reportedly has a 38-inch vertical - likely starts the season coming off the pine behind Turner (Justin), Frye and defensive ballhawk Caleb Fields. Fields and Frye are a perfect yin and yang with the way their respective games complement each other on both sides of the ball (Frye is a streaky scorer; Fields is a defensive blanket).

On almost every possession, Turner and Frye will direct the offense as the primary co-initiators, which is usually sparked from high ball screen action. Per Synergy, the Falcons’ offensive possessions ended with a pick-n-roll ball handler 19% of the time, the 11th highest rate in America. Most of this runs through Turner, a burly 6’4 combo guard who’s exceptional at using his frame and change of pace to create separation. While Michael Laster** (currently in the doghouse with an indefinite suspension) is the closest thing to a pure point guard on the roster, Turner’s a complete lead guard who commands constant defensive attention, which makes him most equipped to be the main facilitator. Turner is a model of consistency, and when Frye heats up alongside him, the Falcons backcourt is as dangerous as any in the league.

The only minor nitpick here is Frye’s shot-selection and game-to-game production is volatile, as evidenced by his play throughout the MAC tournament. After back-to-back 20-point outbursts lifted the Falcons to wins in the first two rounds, the Bulls’ hyper-athletic backcourt stymied Frye in the championship game, as he tallied just 5 points on 2/12 shooting in 34 minutes of action.

Bottom Line: Lazy prognosticators will quickly discount the Falcons this year because of Wiggins’ absence, but I firmly believe his counting stats overstate his true impact on winning. Despite his physical advantages over most MAC post players, he was never an elite finisher near the rim. Wiggins made a living at the free-throw line, but as many trips as he took  to the charity stripe, I would’ve preferred to see his conversion rate eclipse the 70% threshold (Wiggins graduated as a 63% career free throw shooter). And while his rebounding was never in doubt, he wasn’t exactly a terrifying shot-blocker and opposing MAC teams had no problem scoring inside against the Falcons last year - for context, BGSU’s defensive eFG% graded out as 9th best in the league last year and only guard-heavy Central Michigan blocked fewer shots in the MAC.

The hole in my ‘Ewing theory’ argument here is that there’s simply no one waiting in the wings to step into that 5 spot - thus, the impact of Wiggins’ departure could end up being substantial due to the severe drop off behind him on the depth chart. A surprise ruling by the NCAA on Swingle’s eligibility would be a revelation for the Falcons, and would prompt me to nudge Bowling Green to the top of my predicted standings. But, until that comes to fruition, my gut tells me Buffalo still has the upper hand in the race to the top of the MAC totem pole.  

3. Miami OH (3rd in East)

Key Returners: Nike Sibande, Dalonte Brown, Bam Bowman, Mekhi Lairy
Key Losses: Darrian Ringo, Jalen Adaway
Key Newcomers: Javin Etzler, Josh Brewer, Dae Dae Grant

Lineup:

Outlook: Those who are oblivious to the advanced analytics world of college basketball were likely blind to the fact that Miami OH actually got better last season. The problem is the Redhawks weren’t the only team in the MAC on an upward trajectory, as the intra-conference competition was as cutthroat as it’s ever been. Miami OH got lost amongst the mid-tier shuffle last year, but the Redhawks could be on the verge of breaking through in a critical third season of the Jack Owens era. 

The first order of business is addressing the departure of Darrian Ringo, the Redhawks’ offensive table setter and defensive stopper. Without Ringo spraying the ball around offensively, ‘Miami OH’ might look more like ‘Miami ISO’ this season. Per Synergy, the Redhawks’ offense ended with an isolation possession 12% of the time last year, a rate that graded out as the 11th highest clip in the country, more than double the national average. Without Ringo, the offense could look even more iso-centric with a ‘my turn, your turn’ dynamic between reigning All-MAC 3rd Teamer Nike Sibande and junior wing Dalonte Brown

All you have to do is look at Sibande and Brown’s relatively low career assist rates to get a sense for how they’re wired, which is to score, score and score some more.

Sibande and Brown aren’t shy when it comes to letting it fly from downtown, even though neither is renowned as a precise long range marksman. Both are career 33% 3-point shooters, which becomes slightly problematic at such a high volume (Sibande and Brown launched a whopping 373 triples combined last season). For the exception of John Groce and his trigger-happy Zips, the Redhawks jacked more threes than any other team in the MAC, but only connected on 32% of those attempts during conference play.

The no-brainer fill-in for Ringo at the point is rising sophomore Mekhi Lairy, who wasted no time proving he can run with the big boys last year. Lairy got an unexpected opportunity to start against Evansville on December 30th (the only game all year that Brown didn’t start) and took full advantage, pacing the Redhawks with 14 points and 4 assists in a tightly contested home win. Despite his itty-bitty build (5’8 150 pounds), the step up in competition didn’t deter Lairy one bit and he was rewarded with All-Freshman honors at season’s end. Local Indiana residents are well-versed with Lairy’s resume, a former Mr. Basketball runner-up who was a human highlight reel at Evansville Bosse High School, where he finished his career with 2,237 points (the 18th most in Indiana high school history).

Precious Ayah, Myja White, and Milos Jovic are promising role players, but I’d like to see Owens give local freshman product Javin Etlzer a crack. At 6’8, 200 pounds armed with a wet outside jumper, Etzler shapes up to be a tailor-made fit next to the Redhawks’ interior enforcer Bam Bowman in the frontcourt. Etzler’s got some bounce in his step and could be lethal in pick-n-pops with Lairy, Sibande and sharpshooter Isaiah Coleman-Lands, who returns to the fold after taking a medical redshirt last year. 

Bottom Line: I’m a firm believer that Jack Owens has this ship steered in the right direction. He was masterful in getting a young team to gel two years ago in his first season at the helm when Sibande and Brown were freshmen, and while last season’s win-loss record didn’t reflect any improvement, a 50-spot climb in kenpom.com’s overall rankings is a telltale sign. The MAC as a whole was the strongest it’s been in nearly two decades last year, so failing to consider the external landscape around the league when evaluating  Owens’ performance would be short-sighted.

I’m excited to see what Lairy can do as the offensive catalyst, but his defensive impact pales in comparison to Ringo’s vice grip. Still, he’s an electric playmaker and should open up easy, open looks for Sibande and Brown off-the-ball, while Big Bam resumes his interior gatekeeper role inside. Behind Buffalo and Bowling Green, it’s a game of musical chairs in what I’m defining as ‘Tier 2’, but I think the Owens’ effect gives the Redhawks a slight edge over the others - it’s too bad the regional conference division alignment slots them into the hyper-competitive East. 

4. Ball State (1st in West)

Key Returners: KJ Walton, Tahjai Teague, Kyle Mallers, Ishmael El-Amin, Zach Gunn, Brachen Hazen
Key Losses: Tayler Persons, Trey Moses
Key Newcomers: Miryne Thomas, Luke Bumbalough, Ben Hendriks

Lineup:

Outlook

Dear Ball State, 

I’d like a refund please…

Regards,
Disgruntled Degenerate

My bookie took his family on a trip around the world with all the monies I lit on fire stubbornly betting the Cardinals last season. I was the conductor of the Ball State hype train coming into the year and watching back-to-back ultra competitive efforts against Purdue and  Virginia Tech in the second week of the season prompted me to toot that horn even louder. I collected even more ammo when James Whitford’s bunch ran over Toledo in the conference opener on January 4th, arguably the best win of any team in the league last year, save Buffalo’s two defeats.

Two months and 12 losses later, I found myself still as to how a once promising season could fall off the rails so quickly…

A big factor in the late season demise was the ailing Trey Moses, who was dealing with a bum ankle and never recaptured his usual aggression and effectiveness (the devastating off-the-floor circumstances related to Zach Hollywood’s suicide certainly played a part). A less than 100% Moses put a dent in the Cardinals defensive toughness, a scar that now expands from a partial tear to a full blown hole with Moses graduating. To throw gasoline on the fire, 3-time All-MAC guard Tayler Persons - and more importantly, a longtime Weave fan favorite - is also headed for ‘greener’ pastures. 

Even with everyone else of relevance back in the fold, losing two cornerstones at those respective positions will send shockwaves through the rest of the roster, as Whitford must now retool the roster and tweak the rotations in order to find the right mix.

"We have a different team, particularly on offense," Ball State head coach James Whitford said in an interview this summer with the school beat. "So we're doing some different things on offense, getting new guys playing together, trying to get a sense of what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are, what's the best way for us to try to attack."

The summer trip to Croatia couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, which gave Whitford a sneak preview at his revamped roster. During this 3-game span, Ishmael El-Amin was the headliner, a former back-up who’s rising up the ranks in a hurry now entering his junior season. The son of former UCONN standout Khalid El-Amin, Ishmael is less of a traditional point guard than his father was and has typically played off the ball since arriving in Muncie - though, that’s almost surely going to change with Persons no longer dominating the ball. Last year, an injury to KJ Walton paved the way for El-Amin to crack the starting lineup on December 20th and he answered the bell in a big way, tallying 15 points on just 8 shots in a highly efficient 31 minutes against Howard. Unfortunately, that momentum was quickly stunted by an untimely wrist injury, which would ultimately hold him out until late February. When healthy, El-Amin has played starter-level minutes the last two seasons, so I’d expect Whitford to reward him with that official label this year.

Josh Thompson has incrementally expanded his role in each of the past three seasons, and he’s a reliable alternative option to run the point if Whitford chooses to use El-Amin as a 6th man super sub. Whoever initiates the offense will be flanked by the uber-talented KJ Walton, a former Mizzou transfer and fringe 4-star prospect once upon a time. In the modern game of basketball, which places a premium on outside shooting, Walton is stuck in the wrong generation. He’s the epitome of a one-dimensional scorer, refusing to shoot anywhere outside 10-feet in favor of hunting the rim everytime he touches the rock. Though, with a vertical that eclipses 40 inches, it’s hard to blame Walton for that stubbornness. Per hoop-math.com, 57% of all Walton’s shots last year came at the rim, where he converted a solid 66% of those attempts. Still, his inability to space the floor can sometimes have a compounding adverse effect on his teammates, who are constricted with minimal real estate to drive and score inside.

This is especially problematic given who Walton often plays with, specifically Kyle Mallers and Tahjai Teague, neither of whom are respected 3-point shooters. Teague and Mallers headline a stable of wings that dominate the roster composition this season, both of whom have solidified their roles as full-time starters for the last two seasons. Mallers *should* be a better shooter than his career 3P% indicates, especially if you buy into the notion that free-throw shooting is a valid predictor in 3-point shooting projections - Mallers has shot better than 84% from the charity stripe in each of the last two seasons.

More detrimental than Mallers’ shooting slump has been his carelessness with the basketball, as he’s struggled to take care of the rock during Whitford’s installment of an up-tempo offensive attack. I’d look for Zach Gunn, a key rotational cog last year, to gobble up some of Mallers’ minutes this season on the wing. Gunn’s been the more efficient option in his limited run thus far, and also carries the reputation as a knockdown shooter.

Behind the incumbents, it’s a logjam for minutes at the 2-4 spots. Jarron Coleman was a former 3-star recruit who redshirted last season (and my official pick for biggest individual leap this year), Miryne Thomas was a monster producer for Maryland Eastern Shore two years back (granted, UMES was atrocious) and Kani Acree garnered some hype last summer, but was eventually slapped with the redshirt tag. I’m curious to see if Luke Bumbalough can make a splash, a finalist for Indiana’s esteemed Mr. Basketball award and potential antidote to the Cardinal’s recent long range shooting disease.

Wing depth is in high supply and with the talent and versatility sprinkled throughout this roster, Whitford may be wise to utilize some smaller lineups with Teague at the 5 (he did this on occasion last year, so it’s not a wild proposition). Teague, the top two-way rebounder on the team last year, is a sturdy dude at 6’8, so corralling opponent misses shouldn’t be an issue if he’s the primary paint patroller.

However, it’s worth noting that the Cardinals’ defense showed some minor cracks inside when Teague was the last line of defense last year. Per hooplens.com, there were 549 defensive possessions when Teague played without Moses - during that span, the Cardinals surrendered 1.01 points per possession, a 0.06 PPP downtick compared to when they played together and 0.04 PPP worse than all other situations. Whitford could look to fast track one of his reserve bigs into the starting lineup to keep Teague in his traditional 4 spot, but options are far less plentiful. Brachen Hazen, former Arkansas transfer, was productive as a spot minute eater last season, but he’s more of a wing / forward tweener. Reserve big man 6’10 Blake Huggins is bigger than Hazen, but he’s never stuck in the core rotation, despite a jaw-dropping 10 rebound performance in just 19 minutes against Buffalo that came out of nowhere. This leaves Canadian freshman Ben Hendricks as the last option, who announced his presence in emphatic fashion during the Costa Rica trip, a comforting sign for Whitford during his search for an interior enforcer to replace Moses.

Bottom Line: Replacing a three-time All-League caliber player is hard enough as is, but replacing a boisterous vocal leader and respected floor general is impossible with any one-to-one player swap - Persons was both, the undisputed heartbeat of last year’s squad. An effective and assertive El-Amin should make this transition less choppy, while the highly talented Walton can aid in the ball handling and playmaking departments. 

Ball State’s close proximity to one of the most fertile hoop hotbeds in America explain how the Cardinals have consistently hauled in top-flight talent, at least by MAC standards, and on paper, this 2019-20 squad is no different. The big question is can the wing-dominant roster makeup for Moses’ net impact on both ends of the floor, whether it be through more switchability and length on the defensive end or more skill and shooting on the offensive end.

5. Kent State (4th in East)

Key Returners: CJ Williamson, Anthony Roberts, Antonio Williams, Philip Whittington, Mitch Peterson
Key Losses: Jaylin Walker, Jalen Avery, Akiean Frederick
Key Newcomers: Troy Simons, Tervell Beck

Lineup:

Outlook: ‘Twas yet another solid year for Rob Senderoff, as the Flashes surpassed the 20-win mark for the 5th time in 7 seasons - though, lifelong Kent State diehards may not share the same sentiment in the context of what his predecessors Geno Ford, Jim Christian, Stan Heath and Gary Waters were able to accomplish.

In the vacuum of last season, Senderoff brilliantly managed the volatile Jaylin Walker, one of the best pure scorers in MAC history, who was suspended to start the year. Walker could go for 30-plus on any given night, but his ‘feast or famine’ nature sometimes worked against the Golden Flashes.

Kent State’s offense *should* look more democratic this season, with Walker’s shots now being reallocated, but that all depends on how much leeway he grants former New Mexico transfer Troy Simons. Simons is a cold-blooded assassin with a lengthy track record of lighting up the scoreboard at every level he’s played at. He was the national JUCO scoring champion before his days at New Mexico (Simons averaged 26 a game at Polk State), but he didn’t stop once he made the leap to Division 1. Despite playing less than 25 minutes a game in his lone season in Albuquerque, Simons posted a double-digit scoring average, headlined by two game-changing 24 point outbursts against Omaha and Wyoming. Paul Weir mostly used Simons as an instant energy jolt off the bench and while Senderoff could weaponize him in a similar manner, there’s no question Simons has the pedigree to start from day 1. He’s also a glove defensively and based on his production at New Mexico - though, the Lobos’ havoc-intensive defensive scheme likely skewed his turnover rate - he could easily rack up two steals a game.

Climbing back out of the Simons rabbit hole, let’s check the boxes on the known commodities. On the perimeter, All-MAC Freshman Anthony Roberts, along with a pair of rising seniors in Antonio Williams and Mitch Peterson, will have to collectively pick up the scoring and ball handling slack. Williams is the most proven of this bunch, an explosive athlete at 6’0 and a pest on the defensive end. Both Williams and Roberts are slash-first scorers, while Peterson does his damage from long distance, but I’m not convinced any one of this trio will blossom into a reliable go-to scoring option offensively - this will fall on Simons’ shoulders.

Last year, Kent State’s offensive efficiency was aided by the best offensive rebounding unit in the league, thanks to the destructive rebounding tandem of Phillip Whittington and Akiean Frederick. Whenever Walker or others were struggling to find their stroke, these glass gobblers allowed the Flashes to hit the reset button on countless offensive possessions. Frederick did earn four spot starts last year, but he typically platooned with CJ Williamson, a 6’6 swiss-army knife, at the 4 position next to Whittington. Without Frederick’s services this season, the Flashes lose that bruising two-big lineup option of Whittington and Frederick, and will shift the pendulum to more offensive spacing and versatility with the Whittington / Williamson pairing. Williamson’s offensive upside far exceeds Frederick and an 82% conversion rate from the charity stripe is reason to believe his 3-point shooting is bound to improve. Late signee Tervell Beck , a physical 6’7 UNLV import, should see plenty of run on the wing in his first season at Kent, who blossomed toward the end of the 2017-18 campaign before fading into oblivion last year.

However, questions remain whether or not the Flashes can stop the interior bleeding on the defensive side of the ball, especially if Senderoff leans on that aforementioned smaller lineup with Williamson at the 4. Per Haslametrics.com, 37% of opponents’ shot attempts last year were either a tip-in, dunk or lay-up, which explains the putrid 53% defensive effective field goal percentage (2nd worst in the MAC):

It was essentially a turnstile to the basket, and MAC foes felt little resistance getting to or finishing at the rim. This is more than a frontcourt problem - Roberts and Peterson must defend their respective positions out on the perimeter, since they are effectively replacing Walker and Avery’s minutes.

Bottom Line: Having to replace Jaylin Walker’s 22 points a game is a tough pill to swallow, but the loss of Jalen Avery, the nation’s leader in assist to turnover ratio, could sting even more. Avery kept everything in check offensively and the Flashes rarely wasted possessions with his mistake-free play at the point. His absence opens up a can of worms as to who will be the steadying on-floor presence and man responsible for conducting the offense. Perhaps Roberts is the answer here, or promising freshman Giovanni Santiago, but I’d bet large sums of money the Flashes take a step back in both the ball security and the offensive rebounding departments, which were the secret sauces to the 69th (nice) best offense in the country last season. This will be a more balanced team in 2019-20, but I expect the Flashes to run in place, avoiding a major free fall but failing to make a major leap in the overall MAC standings.

6. Toledo (2nd in West)

Key Returners: Willie Jackson, Luke Knapke, Marreon Jackson, Spencer Littleson
Key Losses: Jaelan Sanford, Nate Navigato, Chris Darrington
Key Newcomers: Aaron Etherington, Mattia Acunzo, Donovan Moore, Luke Maranka

Lineup:

Outlook: Oh, whaddya know! Another MAC team fresh off an historic season now in the midst of a roster makeover! In a landscape of 353 teams, plenty of squads ‘flew’ under the radar last season, but none were as covert as, quite fittingly, the Toledo Rockets. Much like John Beilein at Michigan, Tod Kowalczyk coached teams have historically performed with a ‘score first, defend later’ mindset, but that reputation was ripped to shreds last season. The offense was still ho hummin’ along, but it was a rock solid defensive unit that catapulted the Rockets up the MAC standings.

From a birds eye view, there weren’t any major tactical changes or gamebreaking personnel inclusions, save AJ Edu (more on him later). Players and coaches attributed some of the improvement last year to a deeper bench, relative to the 2017-18 swiss cheese defense, but as unsatisfying and cliche as this conclusion may sound, the Rockets just got better from within. Roster continuity typically bodes well for year-to-year defensive improvement, and such was the case in Toledo. The Rockets jumped nearly 200 spots in kenpom.com’s overall defensive efficiency metrics (247th to 69th overall), an almost unprecedented bump:

It should be noted that some of this bump was due to a ‘reverse regression’ - that is, luck-based improvement from opponents simply cooling off - but Kowalczyk veiled nothing when he was asked last February about the not-so-secret sauce of last year’s defensive transformation:

“It’s by far the best shot-blocking team I’ve ever had,” Kowalczyk said. “Luke is going to graduate as the all-time leading shot-blocker, and it will quickly be broken by AJ. Both guys are just great teammates and they cover for each other, and that’s what great teammates do.”

Luke Knapke is a rare breed in the MAC, a highly skilled center who can score inside and out, but it’s his 7-foot frame and savvy shot-blocking instincts that scare opposing drivers everytime they attack the rim. Last year, Kowalczyk brought in Englishman AJ Edu to spell him up front, which gave the Rockets an elite rim protector on the floor at all times. With Nate Navigato graduating, I was salivating at the thought of watching this tandem share the floor together more frequently this year, but Edu tore his ACL and meniscus playing with the Philippines in the FIBA U19 this summer.

This factoid should put in perspective just how outrageously gifted of a shot-blocker Edu is: On five separate occasions, he blocked five shots in less than 20 minutes of action, a feat that seems only achievable by the Monstar version of Shawn Bradley. Knapke is still around to play the role of defensive backstop, but Edu was oozing with upside potential - Godspeed on your recovery AJ.

The Edu loss is just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of questions that need to be answered. First on the list is outside shooting, the Rockets’ calling card the last two years, thanks to the precise marksmanship of Jaelan Sanford and Nate Navigato. As a team, Toledo canned 41% and 38% of their triples in each of the past two seasons, figures that ranked in the top-25 nationally. 

While rising sophomore Spencer Littleson is being groomed into that next 3-point specialist, only he and Knapke - who isn’t an ultra high volume gunner- are established knockdown shooters. Burgeoning star Marreon Jackson returns as one of the best point guards in the conference, but he needs shooting and scoring ammunition around him to unleash the best version of his game. Willie Jackson is the other notable incumbent, a glorified garbage man who is hyper effective at what he does best - eat the glass with a limitless appetite - but he’s far from a feared scorer offensively.

Bottom Line: Not to end on such a sour note here, but it’s tough to cling to the ‘program stability’ card with the losses of two program pillars in Sanford and Navigato. Kowalczyk will have to pull the right strings with a stout crop of imports (Aaron Etherington, Luke Maranka, and Mattia Acunzo could each sneak onto the All-Newcomer team), but with a rail thin bench backing up a fragile starting five - bear in mind Jackson is coming off a serious injury and Acunzo is still healing from a broken foot - I’m putting all optimism on the back burner until I see what the rotation looks like by December.  

7. Akron (5th in East)

Key Returners: Loren Jackson, Channel Banks, Tyler Cheese, Deng Riak
Key Losses: Jimond Ivey, Daniel Utomi
Key Newcomers: Xeyrius Williams

Lineup:

Outlook: Let me take this opportunity to plug one of my favorite recurring bits on our website, ‘Lopsided Lovelies’, founded and created my by none other than my esteemed colleague Ky McKeon. Ky wrote that article just before the start of conference play last year, which is the only reason why Akron’s name isn’t listed at the top of the chart within. Per kenpom.com’s final efficiency rankings, the Zips were 259th nationally in offensive efficiency and 22nd in defensive efficiency, a seesaw tilted in the wrong direction if you’re a fan of aesthetically pleasing basketball. This chasm was noticeable early in the year, but it grew into a gaping crevice by March.

There’s nothing fancy about John Groce’s offense. It’s all predicated on running forwards at ball handlers for high pick-n-rolls to create avenues for slashers to attack the rim. When executed correctly, this sets up subsequent kick-outs for open threes when helpside defense support is needed. 

As the video below shows, a good chunk of these possessions start with 5’8 jitterbug Loren Cristian Jackson (‘LCJ’)  initiating the offense with back-to-back high ball screens (Clemson does a nice job defending this here):

In instances where Jackson is on the move, he will also look to run his defender off a set ball screen waiting for him at the top of the key, a simpler variation as seen in the clip above. 

After the first couple of passes or ball reversals, if the defense is able to stay in front without bending its shape, the Zips have a hard time getting anything going towards the rim. This is when the offense begins to stagnate and far too often players are caught flat-footed without a clear purpose of where to go with or without the ball. While a lack of pure shooters played a part in Akron’s 29% team 3PT% last year, the lack of offensive rhythm forced the Zips into highly contested shots on countless occasions. Tyler Cheese and Channel Banks fell way short of their respective preseason expectations from an outside shooting perspective, particularly Banks, who was nearly automatic from long distance during his glory days on the JUCO circuit. Look for both to bounceback in 2020, but I’d love to see Groce use more creative ways to open up driving lanes for LCJ to set up higher percentage opportunities for Cheese and Banks.

From a personnel perspective, the key ingredients in this ball screen reliant offense are dual-threat guards and wings, capable of penetrating and shooting with equal competence. Daniel Utomi and Jimond Ivey both embodied this DNA and while each had a slight preferential tendency (Utomi shooting; Ivey driving), they were both tough covers as versatile, interchangeable 6’6 wings. Camron Reece, Jayden Sayles and to some extent LePear Toles are the closest comps to that prototypical wing mold on the roster, so I’d expect their minutes to ramp up this season.

With the Zips having a hard time throwing it in the ocean last year, they had to clamp down defensively to keep their head above water in a rapidly improving MAC. The highly utilized quartet of LCJ, Cheese, Ivey and Utomi laid the foundation for Akron’s stingy defensive unit, while Australian native Deng Riak played the man in the middle. Riak can be cringeworthy to watch offensively, but he more than makes up for that with his rebounding and rim protecting on the other end. Foul trouble has been an issue for Riak, which is why Emmanuel Olojakpoke was a critical contingency plan at the 5 last year, so the 6’9 Sayles must stay healthy to ensure Groce has a viable bullpen option up front. 

Bottom Line: According to verbalcommits.com, only Buffalo and Ball State have a higher average player prospect ranking for the entire roster, a testament to John Groce’s ability to find and procure talent. The question is can he optimize that individual talent on the offensive side of the ball, especially with the loss of one his best facilitators in Ivey and one of his top shooters in Utomi. 

The solution could be as simple as dragging and dropping highly touted Dayton transfer Xeyrius Williams into the lineup. Williams is a blend between a wing and a forward, which is emblematic of his vast array of offensive tools. Some local reports indicate Williams was the best player on the team in practice last year, and he’s got the pedigree to be a massive difference maker as one of the most impactful newcomers in the conference. While I’m not convinced he possesses Utomi’s defensive prowess at the 4, he’s more gifted offensively and could open up a whole new source of scoring for the Zips in 2020. 

8. Ohio (6th in East)

Key Returners: Jordan Dartis, Jason Preston, Ben Vander Plas
Key Losses: Teyvion Kirk, Jason Carter, Doug Taylor, Gavin Block, James Gollon
Key Newcomers: Sylvester Ogbonda, Marvin Price, Ben Roderick

Lineup:

Outlook: Before gushing about Jeff Boals and why I’m perhaps irrationally high on Ohio’s 2019-20 prognosis, let me take a moment to acknowledge the crappy hand Saul Phillips was dealt last year. With Jordan Dartis ultimately sidelined for the entirety of last season (who now returns after receiving a medical redshirt) and James Gollon a shell of himself all year, the Bobcats were effectively left with no outside shooting. Ohio’s 3-point futility constricted the offense into a highly predictable, one-dimensional system that was easily guardable, especially with Teyvion Kirk bricking just about everything he threw up. Still, at the end of the day, college basketball is a bottom-line business and Phillips was shown the door after checking in with a 6-12 league record and first round exit in the MAC tournament. 

Oh, what a difference a few months can make…

The stars aligned just right for Jeff Boals and the Ohio AD to form a marriage this spring, which brings Boals back to his alma-mater, not too far from where he spent 8-years as an assistant under Thad Matta at [lowercase] the Ohio State University. Dating back to his time as an assistant at Akron, wherever Boals has gone, success has followed. He’s built a reputation for constructing tough-minded, high-character teams that make their pay on the defensive side of the ball, traits he undoubtedly acquired from Matta and his most recent boss at Stony Brook, Steve Pikiell. 

Boals’ impact in Athens is already reflected in his early recruiting wins. Through his magnetic pull on the east coast grassroots circuit, along with the strong ties he’s maintained in the Midwest, Boals will trot out one of the most revered freshman classes in the MAC, headlined by Marvin Price and Ben Roderick. As reported by the Athens News, Roderick and Price are the 2nd and 3rd highest recruits to enroll at Ohio in nearly two decades. While Roderick put up eye-popping numbers in his four year tear through the Ohio high school ranks, I’m particularly high on Price because of his glove-like fit with the identity Boals wants to instill. Boals always tends to play a bigger and more physical lineup, and Price fits that mold perfectly, a burly 6’5 power guard with a throwback mid-range game that should translate right away. To reference a convenient Stony Brook comparison, Price reminds me a lot of Akwasi Yeboah, a bruising power wing who can shift back and forth between multiple positions. If Boals cuts the freshmen loose from the get go - and he has no reason not to - Price and Roderick should be instant difference makers on both ends of the floor. 

Boals added even more muscle with former Georgia Tech back-up Sylvester Ogbonda, an imposing 6’10 presence up front. Ogbonda never carved out a consistent role in the rotation at his prior destination, but his size and Power-6 experience qualify him to be a 15-20 minute stopgate in the middle, with even higher upside. Expect him to be spelled by both Nate Springs and Nolan Foster, which gives Boals a formidable 3-man rotation to work with at the 5. Redshirt sophomore Ben Vander Plas will be in the frontline rotational shuffle, who had some marquee moments in his first full season in Athens last year. While Vander Plas’ shot allocation might lead you to believe he’s a soft stretch forward, he’s blessed with a bulky frame at 6’8 235 pounds, which he puts to good use on the defensive glass - a trait Boals will undoubtedly swoon over. Vander Plas’ roller coaster production was excusable last season, but he’ll need to boost his per game output closer to the 12PPG and 8 PRG threshold this year, with less volatility in his night-to-night performances.

Bottom Line: With the wings and forwards covered above, that leaves the backcourt combination of Jason Preston and Jordan Dartis, both of whom are in vastly different stages in their basketball careers. Now entering that pivotal sophomore season development checkpoint, Preston will take on more of a creator role with the absence of Teyvion Kirk and Gavin Block (an elite passing big). 

Unlike the upswinging Preston, Dartis gets his last bite at the apple this season after missing all of last year with a hip injury. Turn back the clock to Dartis’ first three seasons in Athens and you’ll find one of the most lethal 3-point shooters, not just in the MAC, but in the entire country - Dartis is a career 45% shooter from downtown, a remarkable clip given he hoisted over 500 treys in a three year span. The advanced on / off numbers from Dartis’ 2017-18 campaign, as first cited by my colleague Ky in last year’s MAC preview, reveal what a demonstrative difference he makes offensively:

Without Kirk disrupting the offensive balance and role allocation, the Preston / Dartis duo will look much more harmonious on the perimeter, while the rest of the pieces should fall in place seamlessly under Boals’ magical wand.

9. Northern Illinois (3rd in West)

Key Returners: Eugene German, Lacey James, Rod Henry-Hayes
Key Losses: Levi Bradley, Dante Thorpe
Key Newcomers: Tyler Cochran, Nathan Scott, Justin Lee, Chris Johnson, Keenon Cole, Darius Beane*

Lineup:

*Note: Eligibility waiver pending

Outlook: First of all, a tip of the cap to Mike Montgomery for his revitalization of NIU hoops, a program that was lost in the wilderness for nearly a decade predating his arrival (35-83 in the four seasons prior). While his 7-year record still sits below the .500 mark, there’s plenty of statistical indicators that stand in Montgomery’s corner. For those reading this preview in its entirety, my broken record rant continues - teams across this league are prospering all at once, exemplifying the need to look beneath the service when assessing coaching performance.

Welp, here’s the catch. Continuing to climb the ladder this year seems ambitious without Levi Bradley and Dante Thorpe, both of whom were sharpied into the starting lineup for each of the past two seasons (for context, NIU ranked 54th and 37th in kenpom.com’s ‘Experience’ and ‘Minutes  Continuity’ metrics, respectively, last year). Montgomery will be hard pressed to find immediate replacements for Bradley and Thorpe, a pair of prolific scorers who were stuck playing second and third fiddle to the trigger-happy Eugene German. With the aforementioned twofer leaving, German is the lone remnant of last year’s primary point producers. He stands 6’0 tall on his tippy toes, but German fears nothing and holds back even less when it comes to hunting his own shot. The counting and advanced individual stats lead you to believe he was as valuable as any player in the league last year, a model of efficiency and certified bucket getter from all over the floor. 

However, the minor blemish that some fixate on is his excessive ball dominance and reluctance to share the wealth. Despite an explicit focus on retooling German’s game prior to last season, the Huskies checked in with the 3rd lowest assist rate in the country for the second year in a row. The repeat performance last year is quite comical, in light of this quote from Montgomery shortly after the conclusion of the 2017-18 season.

“With (German), he can find guys and set guys up better. That’s something we’re going to work on,” Montgomery said. “But you also got four other guys on the floor who can set something up and make a play for them, too. As a whole, going into next year. … The No. 1 goal on offense is help our assists totals go up. We won’t be finishing last next year.” 

Hey, they didn’t finish last! 

*Narrator* two more teams were added to college basketball last season...

To German’s credit, his individual assist rate did improve, but the individual ball watching and isolation tendencies lingered. These habits were magnified during the dogs days of conference season, which led to a dip in the Huskies typically high-octane scoring attack. During a 6-game losing skid in February, NIU eclipsed 10 team assists just once and tallied an ultra-low 5 assists on back-to-back occasions. Sure enough, the Huskies would eventually find the win column against Western Michigan, a game in which they racked up, wait for it, 16 assists! (7 from german, his season high for the year).

The offense will continue to be the German show, but the defense is slowly starting to take form - granted, there’s nowhere to go but up from a preposterous 1.13 points per possession, which is what the Huskies surrendered in MAC conference play during the 2017-18 campaign. While improving to 7th place in conference defensive efficiency isn’t anything to boast about, 1.02 PPP is a gargantuan improvement over the year prior. There’s additional room for improvement if Montgomery can preach the importance of defending without fouling and chasing shooters off the 3-point arc, two essentials in an analytically-constructed defense. The Huskies were gashed from downtown last season and regularly gifted their opponents free trips to the charity stripe. 

From a personnel perspective, Levi Bradley’s minutes will now be sucked up by Noah McCarty. McCarty is a fragment of Bradley’s offensive game, but he’s a tougher, more physical option at the 4 alongside Lacey James, the Huskies’ interior linchpin. With those two policing the paint area, Montgomery should feel secure about the defensive glass.

Bottom Line: As much as I went to bat for Monty in the intro, the defensive deficiencies last season were a bit out of character for a man who sat alongside Tom Izzo for a decade at Michigan State. The Huskies were substantially stronger on that end of the floor than the 2017-18 squad, but they must tighten up the screws defensively to compensate for some big blows to the offense. 

10. Central Michigan (4th in West)

Key Returners: Kevin McKay, David DiLeo, Rob Montgomery, Dallas Morgan
Key Losses: Larry Austin, Shawn Roundtree
Key Newcomers: Devontae Lane, Deschon Winston, PJ Mitchell

Lineup:

Outlook: While Buffalo, Bowling Green and Toledo stole most of CMU’s thunder last season, Keno Davis’ electric backcourt quietly ran roughshod across the MAC’s middle and lower tier. The 10-8 league record left a little bit to be desired, but five of those losses were at the hands of the league’s top-3 finishers, and the Chips came within two buckets of shocking the Bulls in the MAC championship game. 

As we turn the page to 2020, it’s hard to find a defensible argument for why the Chips will finally bust through into the MAC’s upper echelon. Few teams have been as fun to watch over the past six seasons, as Davis has stayed true to his offensive template, one that revolves around gamebreaking guards who have unrestricted freedom to create for themselves and for others. There isn’t a complex system here, one that can act as training wheels to unproven newcomers - rather, Davis relies on paradigm-shifting guards who can command the eyes and attention of all five opposing defenders on the floor with individual brilliance. Last year, it was the dynamic 1-2 punch of Larry Austin and Shawn Roundtree, who followed in the footsteps of the electric Marcus Keene and Braylon Rayson, who succeeded Rayshawn Simmons and Chris Fowler. Davis’ 3rd season at the helm back in 2015 marked his best performance during his 7-year tenure, a year in which the Chips cracked the top-25 mark nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, per kenpom.com. Leaning on the high-octane guards listed above, CMU has sustained a prolific offense since that banner year, finishing 83rd, 56th, 79th hand 63rd from 2016 - 2019, in overall offensive efficiency. 

This is the first time since the 2015-16 campaign that I find myself questioning the readiness of the offensive engine successor. This year’s roster does roll over proven production at most other positions, but that alpha dog lead guard spot still has a blank space next to it. From my research, the most qualified candidate to emerge here is Devontae Lane, a key cog in the rotation at national powerhouse Indian Hills Community College over the past two seasons. At 6’2 200 pounds, Lane is a bulldog with the ball in his hands and a crafty slasher who can maneuver his way into the teeth of the defense from a variety of angles. He doesn’t appear to be lightning quick, nor does he possess a flamethrower jumper as many of his CMU predecessors, but he’s the odds on favorite to get the keys to the offense right away:

PJ Mitchell, a former Detroit high school standout is the other potential solution here, but Davis has a track record of preferring upperclassmen over unestablished youngsters - though, Mitchell did redshirt last year, so an extra year of learning, development and strength training could improve his case.

Rounding out the rest of the rotation is a series of ideal fits at their respective roles:

  • Dallas Morgan: A catch-and-shoot specialist with sneaky good instincts defensively; he likely moves up the pecking order from sixth man to daily starter

  • Kevin McKay: An off-the-bench spark plug turned full-time starter, McKay does whatever is needed, whenever it’s needed. At 6’5 225 pounds, trying to slap any position label on him is pointless - he rebounds like a big, defends like a wing and slashes like a guard

  • David DiLeo: The prototypical Keno Davis stretch forward, DiLeo will lurk out on the perimeter waiting for that inevitable drive-and-dish triple

  • Rob Montgomery: The de-facto 5 in Davis’ undersized lineups, Montgomery has the tall task of defending opposing bigs, despite standing just 6’6. Like McKay, outside shooting is his biggest weakness, but he does a little bit of everything else

As well-branded as Keno Davis’ squads are for lighting it up offensively, they carry an equally strong reputation for falling short on the other end of the floor. Despite yet another guard-centric roster last year, Davis steered back toward man-to-man as his defense of choice. With an even smaller lineup than the year prior - the loss of 6’10 stretch big Luke Meyer was the only major change to the frontcourt - Davis completely flipped the script on his 2017-18 philosophy. Rather than pack it in and form a soft shell around the paint with a saggy zone defense, Davis extended his perimeter pressure, with an emphasis on shutting down the 3-point line:

Effectively, Davis realized his interior defense would be easily penetrable no matter what scheme he employed, so he figured, “hey, why not control what we can control and let our perimeter quickness run shooters off the line”. At least this way, the Chips were never at risk of being blown out with a flurry of 3s. Plus, with a high-octane offense capable of lighting up the scoreboard on the other end, Davis knew he just needed to be serviceable defensively (and that’s about where they ended up in the national spectrum).

Bottom Line: After Davis’ staff was gutted early this summer, it took an unusually long time to identify their replacements. This hesitancy to work alongside Davis could be a tell tale sign that some feel Davis’ days in Mount Pleasant are numbered (his contract expires at the end of the season). None of the newcomers coming to town this year carry the same pedigree as the likes of Larry Austin or Shawn Roundtree, which makes me quite bearish on what this team’s true upside is. I’m a fan of the complementary pieces returning, but until a dynamic, gamebreaking lead guard emerges, I remain skeptical on the Chips’ 2019-20 outlook. 

11. Western Michigan (5th in West)

Key Returners: Michael Flowers, Kawanise Wilkins, Jared Printy, Patrick Emilien, William Boyer-Richard
Key Losses: Seth Dugan, Josh Davis
Key Newcomers: Titus Wright, B Artis White, Chase Barrs, and Rafael ‘Ralphy’ Cruz

Lineup:

Outlook: Yikes, did the bottom fall out of the Broncos last year…

Everytime it seemed like WMU couldn’t possibly tumble any further - a program that’s been propped up by the well-established and well-respected Steve Hawkins for over a decade and a half - the floor sank even lower. By every possible measure, last season was the worst of Hawkins’ 15-year tenure at the helm in Kalamazoo. Strapped for talent after the exodus of the decorated Thomas Wilder, Hawkins had no choice but to pass the baton to a young and unproven Michael Flowers at point guard. Flowers was arguably under qualified for his duties last year, and the drop off from 2nd to 3rd in the offensive totem pole (behind Flowers and 7-foot behemoth Seth Dugan) was enormous.

As frustrating as last year was, for the first couple of months of the offseason, Hawkins could at least hang his hat on Flowers as a beacon of hope for the 2019-20 prognosis.

Welp, that ray of light may have been shattered - that is, if this catastrophic news nugget carries any sort of legs into the season...

It’s highly possible this could end up being a minor recovery, but the lack of timetable has caused me to locate the panic button (though, I’ve restrained on hitting it for now). 

A positive counter to the Flowers emotional blow is the impending return of the bouncy Brandon Johnson, a high-flying forward and two-year starter who missed all of last season with an injury. Hawkins summed up Flowers’ value quite succinctly in an offseason interview with WWMT.com:

"He just gives us things you can't teach," Hawkins said. "He's so athletic, he's a great shot maker, he just has a natural feel for the game, and he gives us so much versatility we did not have in that spot last year."

WMU’s interior will look far more agile this year with Johnson at the 5 and power guard / forward tweener Kawanise Wilkins at the 4. Though undersized at just 6’5, Wilkins has a nose for the ball and routinely gets his paws on missed shots. His offensive game still needs some polish, but pairing him with Johnson will give the Broncos a more switchable and dynamic defensive look, which the slower Dugan prevented at times.

The advanced on / off numbers reveal that Dugan’s lack of lateral quickness may have inhibited his ability to defend high pick-n-roll, step over on helpside penetration and recover back to his man in a timely fashion last year, evidenced by the uptick in opponent 2PG FG% when Dugan was on the floor:

Dugan was undeniably a dominant rebounder, but Johnson can pick up some of those pieces, while one more year of growth and maturity should pay dividends for Wilkins as well.

Bottom Line: With none of the newcomers offering significant, ‘needle-moving’ upside, Flowers’ health is absolutely paramount to the Broncos staying competitive this season. While Jared Printy can create his own shot on occasion, long range driller William Boyer-Richard needs Flowers to feed him for spot-up treys from distance. Floor spacing will shrink without a dribble-drive threat like Flowers orchestrating the offense, which will in turn dampen Boyer-Richard’s value as perimeter floor spacer. Patrick Emilien could be an ace in the hole, a freak athlete with a jack-of-all-trades type of skillset, but he’s still in the raw stages of his development.

Again, all of these concerns are moot if Flowers is in fact fully healthy all year long. His presence alone gives Western enough firepower to cut into the chasm that separated the Broncos from the rest of the MAC last season. Still, I wouldn’t bet on any major upward moves in the final standings.

12. Eastern Michigan (6th in West)

Key Returners: Boubacar Toure, Ty Groce, Damari Parris
Key Losses: James Thompson, Paul Jackson, Elijah Minnie
Key Newcomers: Yeikson Montero, Thomas Binelli, Chris Barnes, Noah Morgan, Darion Spottsville, Miles Gibson

Lineup:

Outlook

This is a live shot of every Eastern Michigan basketball fan circa 2014. For context, that timestamp corresponds with Rob Murphy’s 3rd season at the helm in Ypsilanti, a year in which he lifted EMU out of the MAC basement and into the thick of the conference standings….

Now five years removed from that optimism, the Eagles find themselves repeatedly flying into the same glass window over and over again. Murphy's MAC regular season record during the last 5-years is exactly .500, as the Eagles have oscillated between 136th and 159th in kenpom.com’s overall national rankings. Murphy defenders will cite the fact that his system, a zone-based defensive DNA that’s effectively a replica of Syracuse, acts as a safety net and makes the Eagles immune to any cataclysmic tumbles. Sure, the ‘offense’ may look a lot like the teams you played last weekend in your local YMCA rec league (translated: stand around and watch one or two guys do their thing), but the defensive fortitude will always ensure competitiveness.

Regardless of whether or not you think EMU is entitled to higher standards, complacency and fan fatigue are death wishes in college basketball, especially when you can’t point to any sort of ‘entertainment’ factor as a fall back. In other words, if you’re not going to be good, at least be entertaining - last season, EMU whiffed in both departments.  

With the walls slowing caving in, 2020 will be a defining year in Murphy’s coaching career. The only familiar faces back in action this season are Boubacar Toure, Ty Groce, and Damari Parris, none of whom jump off the page as flagship guys to build around. This trio was serviceable in their respective supporting roles last season, but banking on them to emerge as reliable scoring options is wishful thinking.  To mitigate the scarcity of scoring, Murphy cast a whale-sized net into the high school and JUCO seas and reeled in a fresh haul of replacements, a few of whom he hopes to count on right away as key contributors. 

From a pure talent perspective, the notable names are Yeikson Montero and Thomas Binelli, both of whom cracked JUCORecruiting.com’s top-100 2019 prospect list. Montero, a 6’5 combo guard who hails from the Dominican Republic, was one of the primary options for the esteemed Pensacola State program last year in Florida, so he carries some scoring pedigree. Binelli is another foreign import (Italy) and while you have to scroll further down that list to find his name, his skillset is in high demand on this roster. At 6’8, Binelli projects as a prototypical European big, one with a sure handed shooting stroke who will ultimately morph into a stretch-4 . He was a career 40% 3-point shooter at his prior stop, but his immediate impact could be capped by how quickly he picks up Murphy’s 2-3 zone principles. Although, with how abysmal EMU shot the rock from deep last season, Binelli’s deadeye jumper may be too enticing to ignore:

Groce, Binelli and Toure should eat up most of the minutes at the 3-5 spots this year, but look for 6’6 swingman Miles Gibson to step forward as well. With Groce’s offensive toolkit still relatively barren at this stage in his career, Gibson could present a more skilled alternative on the wing (depending on his maturation acceleration). The same narrative applies to both Noah Morgan and Darrion Spottsville, two experienced JUCO additions on the perimeter, who will likely split time with Montero and the incumbent Parris. Parris is far from an offensive threat and has yet to prove he can knock down outside shots consistently, so expect Morgan and Spottsville to squeeze their way into the primary rotation right away. 

Morgan spent last season at Northwest Florida State CC, but had a cup of coffee with Fairleigh Dickinson the year prior (2017-18). He was a full-time starter as a freshman, and made a name for himself as a lights out shooter, evidenced by his 43% 3PT% (44/104) and 82% conversion rate from the charity stripe. Much like Binelli, Morgan could be an instant jolt of offense to a team in desperate need of floor spacing. Spottsville should provide a similar spark on the other side of the ball - he comes from South Mountain CC, where he swiped nearly 3 steals a contest playing in an eerily similar zone scheme as what he’ll walk into under Murphy.

Bottom Line: Projecting JUCO newcomers is always guesswork, but the scouting reports on a few of the new fish point to some serious offensive upside. Assuming Murphy isn’t installing some nuanced motion offense this year, his ‘rec ball, free-for-all’ system will always be contingent on top-flight shot-makers and creators.

Ultimately, I see EMU taking a minor step back this season, with a minor uptick in offensive efficiency offset by a larger regression on the defensive side of the ball, a reasonable assumption without JT4 and Elijah Minnie anchoring the backline of the zone. While this last place ranking may appear to be a damning prediction, the MAC should be ridden with parity next season, so I’d be stunned to see the Eagles check-in with a league record worse than 5-13.