In this three-part series, the BroncoBlitz.com staff takes a look into the crystal ball previewing the 2013-2014 Mid-American Conference men's basketball season. Keith Dambrot and the Akron Zips look poised to defend their MAC title, however several other programs look to be gaining ground. Expect to see more league-wide parody this season, as a handful of MAC teams appear to be solidly in contention.
In part two of our series, we'll provide in-depth analysis and breakdowns of each team and highlight individual standout players in the MAC West. In what has typically been a league dominated by MAC East teams recently, the balance of power in the MAC could potentially take a dramatic shift beginning this season. We examine below in our predictions.
Projected MAC West Standings
1. Toledo Rockets
2. Eastern Michigan Eagles
3. Western Michigan Broncos
4. Ball State Cardinals
5. Central Michigan Chippewas
6. Northern Illinois Huskies
Toledo is practically a no-brainer to run away with the MAC West title this year. Anything less than that would be surprising. I believe the Rockets have the best starting lineup in the Mid-American Conference and one could argue that they also have one of the deepest rosters in the conference as well.
They return First Team All-MAC guard Rian Pearson (17.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and junior point guard Julius Brown (13.1 ppg, 6.0 apg), along with forward Matt Smith (9.8 ppg) and center Nathan Boothe (8.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg). Transfers Justin Drummond (Loyola, MD) and J.D. Weatherspoon (Ohio State) will make an immediate impact.
After Toledo, the MAC West is fairly wide open. I like Eastern Michigan to finish second as they add depth to their roster and reload with a handful of JUCO talent.
I expect transfers Mike Talley, Karrington Ward, Darell Combs, and Lekan Ajayi to make immediate contributions. The Eagles also return Glenn Bryant (10.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg), Daylen Harrison (8.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg), Da'Shonte Riley (6.1 rpg, 2.0 bpg), Jalen Ross, and Ray Lee.
Early reports out of Ypsilanti are saying that head coach Rob Murphy may up the tempo on offense and throw in a few new wrinkles this season with the aforementioned added talent. EMU will make things difficult around the rest of the league, as is usual with their style of play, and quite honestly I like them to do better than most people expect and steal a few throughout the 2013-2014 season.
The difference between Western Michigan finishing second and third in the MAC West are the losses of defensive stalwart Nate Hutcheson (graduation) and Darius Paul (transfer). Both Hutcheson and Paul gave the Broncos the size and length to break-down and maneuver through Eastern Michigan's tricky zone defense, and in addition defend the MAC's many talented three and four spot athletes.
That being said, Western Michigan still has some very good returning talent and head coach Steve Hawkins has laid a strong foundation with underclassmen Connar Tava (4.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg), A.J. Avery, Tucker Haymond, and Kellen McCormick looking to step in and make contributions right away.
Redshirt senior center Shayne Whittington (13.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg) gives the Broncos a huge advantage and dominant presence on the interior, and redshirt senior David Brown (11.0 ppg) has the chance to be an All-MAC selection if he stays healthy. With Austin Richie (6.1 ppg, 3.0 apg) having a year under his belt running the point, WMU should field another solid team. I just don't think it will be enough to defend last seasons MAC West title.
I have Ball State and Central Michigan sneakily in fourth and fifth place respectively in the West. But it was an internal struggle for me. Both programs have very high ceilings in 2013-2014. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see one of these two teams slide into the top half of the West. Regardless of what happens and where they finish in the standings, I expect both CMU and Ball State to shake things up every now and then at the very least.
Ball State loses leading scorer Jauwan Scaife to graduation, however they'll return Jesse Berry (12.8 ppg), Chris Bond (8.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.0 spg), Matt Kamieniecki (4.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg), and Majok Majok (10.7 ppg, 9.8 rpg) along with a handful of young and talented underclassmen.
Central Michigan also loses their leading scorer in Kyle Randall, but returns some of the MAC's brightest young talent in Chris Fowler (8.1 ppg, 5.7 apg), Blake Hibbitts (8.8 ppg), and John Simons (7.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg). Simply put, Fowler and Hibbitts have the potential for All-MAC seasons if Keno Davis and the Chips continue their upwards trend.
I saw the potential for Mark Montgomery and his Northern Illinois squad last year, making them my sleeper pick to make some noise in the West last season. Huskie fans are getting impatient in Dekalb, but could see slight improvement this year. Time will tell if it's enough.
With numerous players leaving the program, Montgomery did a nice job reloading with transfers Michael Orris (Kansas St.), Jordan Threloff (Illinois St.), and Aaron Armstead (Wisconsin-Green Bay), along with a host of talented incoming freshmen.
The Huskies return a few key pieces in Aksel Bolin (7.4 ppg, 4.2 ppg), Darrell Bowie (5.9 ppg), and the Gray brothers, but I just don't see this team being a big threat to climb out of the MAC West basement yet.
Projected 1st Team All-MAC West
Julius Brown (Toledo)
Rian Pearson (Toledo)
Jesse Berry (Ball St.)
Glenn Bryant (EMU)
Shayne Whittington (WMU)
EMU's Glenn Bryant might be considered a bit of a stretch here but like I mentioned above, I think the Eagles are poised for a strong year. Although Bryant faces potential legal trouble in his future, I see him being the biggest benefactor of a rumored up-tempo offense and surrounded with more all-around talent. It very well could be a breakout year for him. The other four players on this list were practically no brainers.
Projected 2nd Team All-MAC West
Chris Fowler (CMU)
David Brown (WMU)
Chris Bond (Ball St.)
Nathan Boothe (Toledo)
Majok Majok (Ball St.)
Central Michigan will continue to improve and be a factor in the MAC West. Leading the charge in Mt. Pleasant will be Fowler, who I think will emerge as one of the elite point guards in the MAC. A few players that didn't quite make this list that deserve strong consideration are Blake Hibbitts (CMU), Daylen Harrison (EMU), Aksel Bolin (NIU), Justin Drummond (Toledo), and Matt Smith (Toledo).
Biggest Sleeper Potential
Ball State Cardinals
The Cardinals figure to be an improved team defensively under new head coach James Whitford, and that should be scary to the West considering Chris Bond and Majok Majok are already two of the best defenders in the conference. It's not as if Ball State doesn't have scorers either. If the team buys into Whitford and plays with the kind of intensity that he expects, Ball State can be a dangerous team in the West.
Most Improved Player
Chris Fowler (CMU)
Fowler averaged 8.1 points and 5.7 assists per game as a freshman last season, and finished runner-up to Darius Paul for MAC Freshman of the Year. As Keno Davis assembles his style of players into the mix, Randall will continue to flourish in this system. Look for Fowler to challenge Toledo's Julius Brown in being one of the best all-around point guards in the Mid-American Conference.