Top MAC storylines to watch in 2017-18:

1. It’s likely going to be a down year in the MAC, as Keith Dambrot’s departure to Duquesne drained league power Akron of their talent, and eight of the league’s top nine scorers from last year are no longer in the MAC.

2. John Groce makes his triumphant return to the MAC, as he takes over for Dambrot at Akron, which will make the Ohio/Akron rivalry even more fun.

3. Since the MAC went to two divisions in the 2004-05 season, only one West team has won the MAC tournament (Western Michigan in 2014-15). The power balance could very well shift this year, with WMU and Ball State looking like the class of the league.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

EAST
1. Buffalo– The Bulls lose a lot of firepower, but Nate Oats reloaded with Wes Clark from Missouri and Jeremy Harris out of Gulf Coast State coming in to bolster the lineup in the backcourt and frontcourt. Clark won’t be eligible until the second semester (although he’s rumored to be getting a waiver for full season eligibility), but he’s already well familiar with Oats’ style, as he played for him in high school. Clark will form a lethal dual PG look with Dontay Caruthers, who was one of the best on-ball defenders in the entire country, posting the nation’s seventh-highest steal rate and generating Buffalo’s potent transition attack. Sophomore Davonta Jordan is yet another on-ball threat as a potentially relentless penetrator in his second season. CJ Massinburg returns on the wing and should enjoy an even better junior year after he was plagued with injuries and illness last year. Massinburg epitomizes the Buffalo style with his relentless downhill attacking. 6-foot-8 Nick Perkins is yet another versatile, athletic piece of the puzzle for Oats as a stretch 4 who can frustrate with his inconsistency. Add the versatile Harris to the wing corps and two freshmen to the backcourt in James Reese (easily the most athletic player in the league) and Jayvon Graves (can play on or off the ball), and the Bulls’ athleticism 1-4 is unparalleled not only in the MAC, but possibly in all of mid-major basketball. The frontcourt is the weak link, but they really only need to keep their head above water and avoid injury. Ikenna Smart is a veteran with back issues, while Brock Bertram took a redshirt last year and could be the answer at the 5. Few teams in mid-major basketball have the combination of talent and athleticism that the Bulls have, and it fits Oats’ aggressive, attacking style on both ends to a tee.

2. Ohio– The good news for Ohio this year? They already learned how to play without Tony Campbell after he went down with an injury last year. The bad news for Ohio this year? I’m not sure how they’ll play without Jaaron Simmons at the point. Jason Carter emerged as one of the MAC’s best bigs after Campbell broke his foot, and his game around the rim features underrated athleticism combined with solid fundamentals. Carter should be ready for a massive year if his dramatic spike in offense after entering the starting lineup continues. Doug Taylor can slot in at the 5 next to Carter when Saul Phillips feels he needs a more defensive lineup on the floor, as he’s the best rim protector on the roster. Phillips can also go small with senior Mike Laster in the Kenny Kaminski stretch role, or he can even shift do-everything wing Gavin Block down and play a sort of versatile, position-less lineup around Carter. Block can legitimately play anywhere from point to power. Two freshmen, Ben Vander Plas and A.J. Gareri, join the frontcourt and should see immediate minutes when healthy. Unfortunately both suffered injuries that could keep them out for a significant portion of the nonconference season. Gareri is the heir apparent to Kaminski. 6-foot-8 Ellis Dozier should also see minutes if just because of his outstanding athleticism. The battle to replace Simmons at the point is probably between two freshmen, Zach Butler and Teyvion Kirk. Both are big ball handlers at 6-foot-4, but Kirk has the much higher ceiling with his explosiveness off the dribble; Butler might have the safest floor, and he’s probably the better defender in Phillips’ strict man to man. Jordan Dartis can also slide over and play on the ball, but he’s much more effective as an off-ball volume shooter, where he posted a 130 ORtg in MAC play thanks to hitting nearly 50 percent of his 108 3-point attempts. Without Simmons feeding him off penetration and Kaminski sucking out defenders, those numbers likely drop, but he’s still as good of a pure shooter as there is in the league. James Gollon, if healthy, will be a factor on the wing as well. Ohio could very well be the team to beat in the East if Kirk/Butler/Block/Dartis can handle point duties by committee. The talent level is the highest in the MAC outside of maybe Ball State, and Saul Phillips is the best coach in the league.

3. Kent State– Rob Senderoff has to replace the insane production of Jimmy Hall in the frontcourt and Deon Edwin in the backcourt, but he has a deep returning backcourt and several key newcomers in the frontcourt that should keep KSU in contention for a potential MAC title repeat. With the backcourt the likely strength of the team, Senderoff probably has to adjust his offensive scheme around frequent four guard lineups, which in turn should see a return to his extended pressure defensive alignments that he utilized in the early part of his tenure at KSU. The Flashes will revolve around Jaylin Walker off the ball, and his scoring was key to KSU’s somewhat surprising run through the MAC tournament last year as his jump shooting and decision making improved. Jalen Avery will be running the point as a steady ball handler and plus shooter. Kevin Zabo returns and can play on or off the ball, and the addition of South Alabama transfer Taishaun Johnson as a relentless penetrator will provide a reasonable facsimile for Edwin’s production. If Senderoff does want to extend pressure more often, Desmond Ridenour is an outstanding rotational substitute in that regard, as he led the team in steal rate but had some issues offensively. 6-foot-5 Mitch Peterson returns on the wing, but he has to improve his perimeter shooting significantly, especially with a three-star freshman ready to eat into his minutes. Replacing Hall’s production in the frontcourt won’t be easy, but Senderoff has options thanks to three key additions. Freshman B.J. Duling is a 3/4 hybrid who can play at an impactful MAC level immediately thanks to his athleticism. Jonathan Nwankwo is a former VCU commit who can help replace Hall’s rebounding with his burly frame, and Akiean Frederick can potentially shoulder a potential of Hall’s scoring load. Returnees Adonis De La Rosa and Danny Pippen will be expected to make a jump, but both are chiefly rim protectors and rebounders. KSU may have some continued issues shooting the ball, but Senderoff has a roster rivaled only by Buffalo in terms of athleticism. A scheme shift on both ends of the court might be in play this year for the Flashes, as will a several possession bump in tempo.

4. Akron– John Groce is back in the MAC and has a total rebuild on his hands after Keith Dambrot leaving for Duquesne drained nearly the entire Zips roster. Groce will have a solid nucleus in point guard Malcolm Duvivier from Oregon State, who will be the league’s most physical guard, as he’s built like a 6-foot-2 linebacker. The lone returnee of consequence from last year is Jimond Ivey on the wing. Both Duvivier and Ivey are plus defenders on the perimeter, and both draw a lot of contact in their offensive games. Virshon Cotton should see immediate minutes behind Duvivier at the point as a freshman, while fellow freshmen Eric Parrish and Torrey Patton slot in at the wing. Craig Eubanks is a shooter with experience as a fifth-year senior, and 6-foot-6 Daniel Utomi canned 47 percent of his 3-pointers in MAC play as a freshman. He’s a big-bodied, muscular wing but didn’t use that to his benefit last year, as Dambrot mainly used him as a spot shooter on a veteran roster. In the frontcourt, Emmanuel Olojakpoke is arguably the league’s most athletic player, but his skill set is still very raw. He can block shots at a high rate, but he’s often out of position defensively. He can dunk everything in sight, but that’s the extent of his offensive repertoire. Nevertheless, he’ll play extensively, as freshmen Mark Kostelac and Jaden Sayles are the only other frontcourt options. There’s a million new faces in Akron, top to bottom, but Groce’s teams always defend at a high level and his best Ohio teams featured efficient guard play, which should be the strength of this current roster.

5. Bowling Green– I expect Michael Huger to unleash the youth movement in Bowling Green, and thus I have the Falcons pegged as this year’s "Chaos Team" in the MAC. I think Huger will likely press with his deep but young roster, and I think he’ll run out a dual point guard lineup that will penetrate and attack north-south relentlessly. The two points will be sophomore Rod Caldwell and freshman Nelly Cummings. Cummings is the better scorer and on-ball defender, but Caldwell has experience and a jump shot. Off the ball, Antwon Lillard returns after a disappointing sophomore season and could see his minutes reduced with a healthy Justin Turner back, a better penetrator and defender on the wing. Dylan Frye and Matt Fox also return in the backcourt as spot shooters. In the frontcourt, Demajeo Wiggins is a solid rebounder and will have offense run through him in the post. Freshman Derek Koch could start immediately at the 4, as he’s arguably the most skilled player on the roster, front or backcourt. Koch can rebound and step out on the perimeter, something the Falcons lacked last year. Jeff Uju also returns to the frontcourt after missing most of last year with an injury. Huger can legitimately go 12 deep this year, and he has to figure out some roster/scheme questions, which means the Falcons likely aren’t going to be a threat until February when rotations have finally settled in.

6. Miami OH– The RedHawks were last year’s "Chaos Team" (and the year before that as well) thanks to the super talented Weathers brothers and John Cooper’s frenetic zone pressure. All three are gone this year, and Jack Owens comes in from Purdue to take over on the sideline. Simply put, Owens doesn’t have the shooters yet to fully run Matt Painter’s offense, but they’re definitely going to try. I wouldn’t be shocked to see JUCO Darrian Ringo supplant supposed incumbent Milos Jovic at the point immediately, and the same holds true for freshman Isaiah Coleman-Lands and incumbent Jake Wright. That’s not to say Jovic and Wright won’t factor in, as the former is a skilled distributor and the latter is Owens’ best shooter. Freshmen Jalen Adaway and Nike Sibande will also be immediate factors in the backcourt off the ball. Veteran Abdoulaye Harouna returns as Owens’ most versatile defender, and Rod Mills could see a scoring bump in a more methodical motion offense. Freshman Dalonte Brown is arguably the most talented freshman Owens is bringing in, and he could start immediately at the 3 or 4. Logan McLane is another player who will benefit from Owens’ motion offense, as he has a pretty diverse skill set for a player his size, but he’ll have to learn an entirely new defensive scheme as well, which will ask him to focus on rim protection. He and Darius Harper represent the only inherited interior defenders as well, but sophomore Bam Bowman could eat into those minutes. Owens was an A+ hire in my opinion, and he offers a disciplined approach on both ends of the court, a 180 from the Cooper era. It will take some time to make the RedHawks a MAC contender again, but immediate dividends will be seen this year.

WEST
1. Ball State– The Cardinals have the most talent in the league, and James Whiteford’s squad has an opportunity to be the class of the MAC this year. While the loss of Franko House is a blow to the frontcourt, Whitford returns nearly everyone else, including do-everything point guard Tayler Persons. Whitford’s team is loaded with talent, and it was great to see him adjust accordingly last year, as the Cardinals went from 304th in tempo to the 50th fastest pace in the country. That’s mainly due to Persons, who posted the league’s second-highest assist rate and shot 42 percent from 3 in MAC play, establishing himself as one of the best offensive players in the league, spearheading Whitford’s spread pick-and-roll offense that shot 3-pointers at the nation’s 60th-highest rate and hit them at 38 percent as a team. Persons is surrounded by volume shooters, including Sean Sellers, Jeremie Tyler and Francis Kiapway. The frontcourt is an underrated unit, even with the loss of House. Tahjai Teague should move into the 4 spot vacated by House, and he probably has the highest talent level on the team. Teague can stretch out to the perimeter while defending 2-5 on the other end and crashing the glass effectively both offensively and defensively. He’s due for a breakout year as a junior. Trey Moses returns at the 5 (although he hasn’t been practicing with a hamstring injury that Whitford has described as "minor") and posted the league’s fifth-highest block rate. He’s also an elite passer out of post for a player his size (a devastating weapon when he’s surrounded by shooters), and shot 57 percent from the field in MAC play. Sophomore Kyle Mallers and freshman Zach Gunn could probably start in the frontcourt for 75 percent of the MAC teams, but they’ll provide depth behind Teague and Moses. Both are three-star recruits and former Indiana All-Stars, a common thread throughout Whitford’s roster. Gunn is behind in his development after an injury his senior year of high school cost him his summer, but when healthy, he’s a sharpshooting 3/4. Whitford also has depth in the backcourt with former Incarnate Word slasher Jontrell Walker and highly-touted 6-foot-4 freshman point guard Ishmael El-Amin (yes, the son of UConn great Khalid) entering the program. Whitford added to his embarrassment of riches with transfers K.J. Walton and Brachen Hazen coming in next year. It’s no wonder Duquesne tried to lure Whitford to the A10. BSU as a team can score at all three levels, leading the MAC in free throw rate while simultaneously shooting the 3 at a high rate and knocking them down at a high percentage. Potential downfalls? The Cardinals tends to play a bit out of control at times and have consistently had a high turnover rate at their current pace. Additionally, the perimeter defense isn’t strong, relying on Teague and Moses to erase a lot of mistakes, which can also lead to foul issues. That said, the talent level is outstanding, and few teams can match BSU’s firepower. A return to the Big Dance is undeniably the goal this year.

2. Western Michigan– It’s fair to consider WMU as 1b in the West, as the Broncs are just as loaded as Ball State, and they have the league’s best player in Thomas Wilder. Wilder essentially does everything for the Broncos from the point guard position, and his relentless penetration is the key to Steve Hawkins’ offense that places a high premium on getting the ball as close to the rim as possible, as often as possible. WMU had the second-highest FT rate in the MAC while shooting the 3 at the second-lowest rate in the league. The good news is that when they did shoot from deep, they hit at the league’s highest clip. Nearly everyone except glue guy Tucker Haymond returns around Wilder, including MAC breakout candidate Reggie Jones on the wing. The MAC Freshman of the Year can handle the ball alongside Wilder, and he hit the 3 at 44 percent in MAC play. Bryce Moore also returns to the backcourt as Hawkins’ best on-ball defender, which was in short supply in K-Zoo last year, and that defense will be the main issue once again for the Broncs. WMU clocked in at ninth in defensive efficiency rating, but they were much better during their 9-1 streak to end the season. (Although they only played one team with a winning MAC record in that 10-game stretch). The issues with the WMU defense were twofold. 1) Steve Hawkins completely abandoned his zone defense, and I’ve always thought he was one of the better zone coaches in the country; his frontcourt couldn’t really handle man-to-man, as they were torched by the likes of JTIV and Big Dog Johnson. 2) Hawkins’ focus on penetration and crashing the offensive glass left transition opportunities going the other way wide open, and only 28 teams in the country allowed transition attempts at a higher rate. With Moore being the only lockdown defender (although Jones is improving in that regard), I wonder if Hawkins will return to some zone. The backcourt is rounded out by sophomores Jarrin Randall and Jared Printy. Printy is pure shooter and Randall fits in as another penetrator. They might lose minutes to two freshmen, Michael Flowers and Jason Whitens. Flowers is a high-scoring combo guard with a quick first step, so you know Hawkins wants to get him on the floor. Josh Davis returns on the wing and is looking to get his game back on track. Davis was the top Detroit prep player coming out of high school, but he hasn’t found a groove in K-Zoo. Drake LaMont, Seth Dugan and Brandon Johnson form a solid and steady frontcourt. Johnson is the most athletic of the three and the best shot blocker, while Dugan is the better rebounder. LaMont has more refined offensive skills in the paint. It wouldn’t be at all shocking to see WMU representing the MAC in the NCAA tournament, but they’ll have to figure some things out defensively, namely limiting scoring at the rim and in transition.

3. Eastern Michigan– Rob Murphy has to incorporate a lot of new faces into his Syracuse 2-3 zone, but as soon as they gel, the Eagles could be a MAC sleeper. Speaking of gelling, that’s something a talented and athletic EMU team never did last year, and off-court issues seeped into the play on the court. Murphy has a solid three-man core to build nine new scholarship players around, with three key transfers likely to start immediately. Paul Jackson comes in from Eastern Kentucky and will run the point from a day one. Murphy has had to use scorers at the point in the past, often to the detriment of the team, but Jackson is a true pass-first point. He’ll be joined in the backcourt by 6-foot-6 Terry Harris, a Houston Baptist transfer and Tobias Harris’ brother. Harris is a perfect fit in Murphy’s scheme on both ends. He excels in transition and is long and athletic in the 2-3. Tim Bond returns as the most versatile player in the league, truly capable of playing 1-4. Bond is the catalyst in the 2-3 zone. He posted the fourth-highest steal rate in the league and is capable of leading the break in transition himself. Only West Virginia and Gardner-Webb attempted more field goal attempts in transition after a steal than the Eagles. Creating offense through the 2-3 is a huge part of EMU’s style, as no one on this team can shoot a lick. Jordan Nobles is another veteran wing and another versatile, athletic defender at 6-foot-9. His ability to shoot the ball from 3 could move Bond up to the 2 unless freshman Kevin McAdoo makes an immediate impact off the ball. He’s a pure scorer with an actual jump shot and can rebound well for his size. 5-foot-8 freshman Malik Ellison could see some time on the ball as a super quick point. The frontcourt is led by James Thompson IV, the most offensively skilled big man in the league. Thompson is a highly efficient post scorer, and he’s the only rebounder on a team that really struggles to grab opponent misses (a casualty of the zone). He’s also one of the best offensive rebounders in the country, posting the fifth-highest rate in the nation. Unfortunately, he still has yet to pick up how to defend on the back end of the zone and is a major liability in that regard. That’s where the third key transfer, Elijah Minnie out of Robert Morris, fits in. Minnie is long, athletic and mobile, and he posted the nation’s 70th-highest block rate two years ago. Offensively he’s a three-level scorer and an excellent defensive rebounder – a major recruiting score by Murphy and a scheme changer in the zone, as he’ll immediately be a better defender than Thompson. (He also has some experience, as Andy Toole used an aggressive zone at RMU.) Isaiah Green comes in as one of the JUCO ranks best rebounders. Ty Groce redshirted last year, but he’s a versatile 3/4 hybrid who can score, and could see some significant minutes this year if he can defend. Murphy has a lot of new faces, and picking up the zone might take the entirety of the nonconference schedule, but EMU isn’t a team I would look forward to playing this year.

4. Toledo– The Rockets were a few bounces away from an 11-7 MAC season instead of 9-9 (that’s two years running Toledo has been at or near the bottom of KenPom’s "luck ratings"), and this year Tod Kowalczyk has to replace by far his two most productive players in Jonathan Williams and Steve Taylor, one of the best point-center combos is the league. Replacing Williams on the ball will be veteran Jaelan Sanford, who can pose some matchup problems with his size at 6-foot-4 and his shooting ability (44 percent from 3 in league play). Off the ball, Kowalczyk will rely heavily on two high-major transfers, Willie Jackson out of Missouri and Tre’Shaun Fletcher out of Colorado. Jackson won’t be available until the second semester, but he’s a wide-bodied 6-foot-6 3 who can rebound and finish at the rim, essentially a perfect fit for Kowalczyk. Fletcher, meanwhile, could lead the Rockets in scoring, and he can do everything as a 6-foot-7 wing. Three freshmen will all see minutes in the backcourt/wing, as Marreon Jackson can move Sanford off the ball when necessary, Dwayne Rose Jr. can score off the ball as a slasher, and Dylan Alderson is a sweet shooting wing who came Toledo after LaVall Jordan left Milwaukee for Butler. The frontcourt will be formed by Taylor Adway at the 4 and and Luke Knapke at the 5, with highly-efficient stretch 4 Nate Navigato reprising his sixth man role. Adway could be due for a big leap as more than just the team’s best rebounder, while Knapke showed some rim protection skills defensively and ability to stretch the floor in pick-and-pop situations. Even without Williams and Taylor, the Rockets should be among the most efficient offenses in the MAC again. Kowalczyk’s offense always forces opposing bigs to guard outside of the paint, opening up driving lanes. With Fletcher and Jackson being major mismatches and Navigato and Knapke’s ability to play outside the lane, that should once again be the case. The defensive end is where the concern lies. Points at the rim and in transition (Toledo allowed the 10th-highest FG attempt rate on the break in the country) are major issues; I don’t see enough improvement on the perimeter defensively to believe they will be significantly rectified.

5. Central Michigan– Keno Davis only has to replace two starters this year. Unfortunately, those two starters are Marcus Keene and Braylon Rayson. Keene of course led the nation in scoring at 30 ppg, and he and Rayson combined to shoot nearly 64 percent of the Chips’ shots; they also had the fourth- and third-most minutes played in the country, respectively. That’s obviously an insane amount of production to replace, but it should allow Davis to return to his more efficient spread pick-and-roll sets that routinely produced some of the most efficient offenses in the entire country, as Keene and Rayson were almost entirely iso players, and CMU was 349th in assist rate. Davis will rely on two transfers to replace Keene and Rayson. Shawn Roundtree spent a year in the JUCO ranks after leaving Missouri State, and he’ll be the distributing point guard that Davis has lacked since Chris Fowler. Gavin Peppers transferred from Cleveland State after breaking his foot, and he’s more of a scoring option on the ball. 6-foot-4 freshman Matt Beachler will be an immediate contributor, as he was a volume 3-point shooter in high school, so he’s a perfect fit for Davis’ offense. 3-point shooter, and I mean strictly 3-point shooter, Josh Kozinski returns as well. David DiLeo returns to his 3/4 role and could end up leading a more balanced Chips squad in scoring. Cecil Williams is easily Davis’ most athletically gifted player, and he can play on the wing facing the basket, or post up smaller opposing 3s. However, he needs to translate that athleticism to the defensive end and on the glass. Luke Meyer posted the league’s highest block rate, and he had a lot of opportunities with an olé defense in front of him on the perimeter. Offensively, Meyer can continue to stretch out to the perimeter with the addition of Innocent Nwoko. Meyer’s 13.6 percent shot rate should increase dramatically this year. DaRohn Scott returns as Davis’ most physical interior presence. Even without Keene and Rayson, CMU’s offense might actually be more efficient, as Davis can get back to his typical spread offense and ball movement. Defensively, however, an egregious 1.12 points per possession mark doesn’t appear to be improving enough to make me think the Chips can skyrocket up a deep West.

6. Northern Illinois– NIU is going to struggle this year. Mike Montgomery has to incorporate eight new faces into an offense that really struggled to generate points anywhere besides the free throw line, as well as into his high-pressure, active, disguised matchup zone defense. Montgomery’s offense is totally reliant on pounding the ball inside, taking shots the rim at the 15th-highest rate in the country last year. That means juniors Levi Bradley and Jaylen Key will be seeing a lot of action on the block, taking Marin Maric’s shots, and super-quick, penetration-heavy guard Eugene German will have the keys to the offense. Key is the better post scorer of the two bigs, while Bradley has some effectiveness as a pick-and-pop player and can spread out to the wing. Key actually shot the 3 at the best clip on the team, but that’s not saying much, and it was a small sample size. German has to improve his shot selection as a sophomore, as the ball figures to be in his hands an awful lot given that he totally dominated possessions from February on when Montgomery kind of threw in the towel on the season and let the freshman loose. Justin Thomas is the team’s best defender in the backcourt, posting the league’s second-highest steal rate, but he provides little offensively. The wing corps is comprised of entirely new faces, with JUCO Dante Thorpe a likely starter. Rod Henry-Hayes and Marlo Brown should factor in as freshmen. Rider transfer LJ James and Andrew Zelis (returning from an ACL tear and might not be available until a few weeks in) give Montgomery depth at the 5, with James slated to get most of the minutes. 7-foot freshman Owen Hamilton is an intriguing prospect as well. Overall, the offense looks like it will struggle mightily again, and the defense probably doesn’t maintain the league’s third-best efficiency rating either with so many new faces, especially on the wing.

FINAL OUTLOOK: Buffalo, Ball State and Western Michigan are essentially sitting in a three-way tie in my mind as the season begins. I’ll take Buffalo’s athleticism and aggressive style to win out and return to their third NCAA tournament in four years. Ball State and WMU could contend for NIT spots, while EMU, Toledo, Ohio and Kent State are all CIT/CBI teams.

MAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Thomas Wilder, Western Michigan

ALL MAC FIRST TEAM:
Thomas Wilder, Western Michigan
CJ Massinburg, Buffalo
Taylor Persons, Ball State
Jason Carter, Ohio
James Thompson IV, Eastern Michigan

ALL MAC SECOND TEAM:
Jaylin Walker, Kent State
Wes Clark, Buffalo
Tre’Shaun Fletcher, Toledo
Trey Moses, Ball State
Jordan Dartis, Ohio

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