College Basketball Previews: Will there ever truly be a return of the MAC?

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer
D.J. Cooper and the Bobcats weren't considered the MAC's best last year by those inside the MAC. Now they are. (US Presswire)

It's time to accept the likelihood there will be no return of the MAC as we once knew it. This mid-major league that was a force and so strong all-around in the '90s and for the early parts of the last decade is now a one-bid league, perennially, and will likely remain that way for the foreseeable future.

Prediction
East
1.
Ohio
Bobcats
2.
Akron
Zips
3.
Kent St.
Golden Flashes
4.
Buffalo
Bulls
5.
Bowling Green
Falcons
6.
Miami (Oh.)
Redhawks
West
1.
Eastern Michigan
Eagles
2.
Toledo
Rockets
3.
Western Michigan
Mustangs
4.
Ball St.
Cardinals
5.
Northern Illinois
Huskies
6.
Central Michigan
Chippewas

Why's that? Football, of course. But of any league in college basketball affected by the pigskin, the MAC seems to have taken this biggest hit in hoops because of success in football. #MACtion is the de facto midweek hashtag on Twitter, as exciting, high-scoring games from MAC football teams have led to big upsets and high-profile intra-conference tilts. It's been great for the conference in many ways; basketball just isn't one of them.

Athletic departments realized that football's cow had more milk to give than b-ball. I don't blame the ADs and presidents for this, but it is unfortunate MAC hoops has undeniably been demoted. Where the league was once stout, it's now cute. It's not what the WCC or Mountain West or Missouri Valley is now. It's a true mid-major, through and through. Even within college basketball, the league is now largely irrelevant until the end of February. A shame.

So … let's talk some MAC hoops now, huh! You've got three new coaches in the league this season. John Cooper comes by way of Tennessee State and takes over for a bona fide MAC legend in Charlie Coles at Miami U. Jim Christian, who was an assistant at Miami U and former head coach at Kent State, is back in the league and takes over at Ohio for John Groce, who left for Illinois. The third new poo-bah is Keno Davis, hired at Central Michigan (youngest team in the league) in the wake of Ernie Zeigler's firing.

League favorite is … Akron? Or should it be the Ohio team that brings back all five starters from last year's Sweet 16 team? Thing is, Ohio finished third in the East division last year. And Christian will have to keep that team on the same page to recreate its ability to play its best at the right times. It's a toss-up for league's best, but I go with Ohio now because Quincy Diggs -- one of the best players in the league last year -- was recently suspended for the season at Akron. Ohio has stud D.J. Cooper, one of our top 100 players in the game, in addition to under-appreciated guys like Nick Kellogg (super-efficient) and Walter Offutt. If Cooper is the same player or better, he'll get them the league crown.

Elsewhere in the East, Kent State lost three starters, but the team always grows back a few limbs. The program is seldom near the cellar. It'll be OK. Buffalo could take a hit, though. It's got this great player in Javon McCrea, a guy I have a basketball man crush on, but beyond him where's the help? Bowling Green and Miami U are borderline .500 teams.

On the opposite side, there's uncertainty, undoubtedly. Eastern Michigan is probably the best team, but expect a huge change of style this year. This freshman, Ray Lee, was a kid with Atlantic 10 offers. They lose senior guard Darrell Lampley, who was good for 35/game, but that could easily be offset by Arkansas transfer Glenn Bryant. And then there's the issue with head coach Rob Murphy -- a former Syracuse assistant who's brought that 2-3 scheme with him -- almost bolting to take an Orlando Magic scouting job. But he didn't. He's back and committed. Last year the team won its first MAC divisional title. Back-to-back?

If not, maybe Toledo takes solace in winning the only thing it can in 2012-13. The Rockets are ineligible to play in the MAC tourney and the NCAA tournament in 2013 because of low APR scores, which meant Dennis Curtis felt an urge to transfer out (to Iona). That hurts 'em, but overall Toledo is still strong. It's just a question of motivation.

Western Michigan lost four starters and only has one guy back on the staff from last year, outside of head coach Steve Hawkins. Ball State lost nine straight in the tail run of their league slate last year. It was the longest losing streak for the school in 26 years. They lost a lot of talent, but in bringing eight new guys in, maybe there's an unknown element there that can help them. Northern Illinois is young but boasts an underrated guy in Aksel Bolin.

Coach's take

"The league last year in my mind was the best it's been in the last five or six years. It was at an all-time high, maybe. This year it's a little more down. Three or four teams separate themselves, and then there's about two bad ones. Zeke Marshall is one of the softest players in our league. He needs to improve a lot. Buffalo probably can't be as good. A huge factor and the biggest question for me is, who's going to be their all-around guy? Mitchell Watt was one of the best players in the league last year. So who can replace him, and where's the 3-point shooting going to come from?

I like A'uston Calhoun. He's a scorer from the "long post" and demands a double team. Really athletic with a solid first step and can hit 17-footers consistently. Consummate four man. Julius Brown (Toledo) it the best point guard other than Cooper."

The league's best

  • MAC Preseason Player of the Year: D.J. Cooper, Ohio. Stubbornly great point guard. I wonder if he'll be able to put together a year that lands him as a third-team All-American.

  • Javon McCrea, Buffalo. So, so good. Strong. A mismatch for pretty much any player in this league. Was in the top four percent of nine KenPom.com categories last season.

  • Glenn Bryant, Eastern Michigan. I'm taking a chance here and predicting he'll be huge for EMU. SEC talent playing in the MAC? I like his chances.

  • Rian Pearson, Toledo. He'll light teams up for 25 with regularity. Pearson is 6-4 but also one of the best rebounding guards in the league -- perhaps even beyond that.

  • Alex Abreu, Akron. Zeke Marshall is the more-talented player from Akron, but pretty much every coach in the league agrees that Abreu is the best player on the team.

Numbers to know

10: The number of years between Sweet 16 appearances for MAC schools. Kent State of course went in '02. Will we have to wait until 2022 to see the next big run? I have an unfortunate feeling in my gut. Akron is one of two teams (NIU the other) without an NCAA tourney win, too.

17.9: Coaches love when their teams don't turn the ball over, but I've always felt that holding on to the ball isn't a surefire sign of success. Central Michigan proved that last year. It's 17.9 turnover percentage rate was best in the MAC. Its record? 11-21 and 5-11 in-league.

26.4: But is the inverse true? If you turn people over a lot, are you guaranteed wins? I don't know about that, but it does help. Ohio, again, wasn't a great team last season. But it was opportune, and it's 26.4 percent turnover ratio was second-best in the nation. It will minimally be top-15 again.

Previously in previews:

No. 18 -- Atlantic Sun
No. 19 -- Sun Belt
No. 20 -- MAAC
No. 21 -- Patriot League
No. 22 -- Ohio Valley
No. 23 -- Big West
No. 24 -- SoCon
No. 25 -- NEC
No. 26 -- Big South
No. 27 -- Southland
No. 28 -- Big Sky
No. 29 -- America East
No. 30 -- MEAC
No. 31 -- Great West
No. 32 -- SWAC

For more college basketball news, commentary and discourse, follow @EyeonCBB and @MattNorlander on Twitter. And be sure to like us on Facebook.

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