Wednesday , Nov , 02 , 2005 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Mid-American Conference

*** College Basketball Preview – Mid-American Conference ***

The Sports Network

By Ralph Lauro, College Basketball Staff Writer

OUTLOOK: The 2004-05 season was a relative success for the Mid-American
Conference, as it sent a league-record five teams to the postseason. Four of
the those teams participated in the NIT, while the MAC Tournament winner, Ohio
University Bobcats, received and automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.
Although the Bobcats represented the MAC in the “Big Dance”, it Miami-Ohio
that claimed the league’s regular season crown. The RedHawks won the title in
one of the closest races the MAC has ever seen, capturing the crown by just
one game over six other teams. Overall, four teams in the MAC finished with 20
wins or more, while three others posted at least 18 wins. Big things are
expected from the MAC once again here in 2005-06, as several teams return a
healthy core of players. Ohio is one of those teams and is considered a heavy
favorite to claim the title after last year’s dream run. The Bobcats will be
pushed by Akron, which is coming off one of its most successful campaigns in a
long time. Miami and Kent State are more than capable of winning the league
crown as well, making the East Division the stronger of the two. In the West,
Northern Illinois could have the biggest turnaround and may even go from below
.500 to the MAC championship. Standing in the Huskies’ way of a division title
is a Toledo club that underachieved last season. Ball State and Western
Michigan could also be in the picture for a title come season’s end.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Akron

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

EAST DIVISION: 1. Akron; 2. Ohio University; 3. Miami-Ohio; 4. Kent State; 5.
Buffalo; 6. Bowling Green

WEST DIVISION: 1. Northern Illinois; 2. Toledo; 3. Western Michigan; 4. Ball
State; 5. Central Michigan; 6. Eastern Michigan

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

EAST DIVISION:

AKRON – The Zips continued to take strides in the right direction, as they
posted an impressive 19-10 record last season. It was a great start for head
coach Keith Dambrot, whose 19 wins were the most ever by a first-year head
coach in school history. The Zips also posted an 11-7 ledger in league play,
marking their best finish since going 12-6 against MAC competition during the
1998-99 season. With four returning starters and a healthy group of
experienced reserves, the Zips will certainly contend for their first MAC
title in school history. Dru Joyce is the team’s lone returning starter out on
the perimeter and he is coming off a solid 2004-05 campaign in which he
averaged 7.3 ppg and 4.3 apg. Cedrick Middleton (5.0 ppg) and Bubba Walther
(8.8 ppg) are the two players who should see significant time alongside Joyce.
Up front, three starters return and that doesn’t include Jeremiah Wood. The
junior forward missed all but 10 games last season with a torn ACL, but
averaged 10.7 ppg and 8.1 rpg during his limited time. Wood nearly averaged a
double-double as a freshman and should provide a big boost up front for the
Zips this season. Alongside him will be forwards Darryl Peterson and Romeo
Travis. The two combined for 24.8 ppg and 11.2 rpg a year ago and were a major
reason why Akron had so much success. Add four other players that have started
at least six games and it is easy to see why the Zips are considered one of
the favorites to win the MAC title.

OHIO UNIVERSITY – The Bobcats were certainly the league’s biggest surprise
last season, as they captured the conference tournament title after being
picked to finish near the bottom of the standings in the preseason. The team
posted an 8-2 record down the stretch en route to its first NCAA Tournament
appearance since the 1993-94 season. The Bobcats finished 21-11 overall and
11-7 in league play, which was good for a second-place tie in the East. With
four starters back in the fold, OU could be the cream of the crop in the MAC
this season. Three of the four starters return in the backcourt and each
averaged double figures last season. Mychal Green packs the most punch and led
the team in scoring with 15.0 ppg. Sonny Troutman is the most versatile of the
three and showed he could also get to the rim with an average of 12.6 ppg.
Jeremy Fears did a great job at the point in 2004-05 and paced the club with
3.7 apg to go along with his scoring average of 11.9 ppg. Providing a nice
complement to the trio is forward Leon Williams, who was named the MAC
Freshman of the Year after posting 11.9 ppg and 8.6 rpg last season. Williams
is primed to become the league’s best player and is nearly unstoppable in one-
on-one situations. The one weakness for the Bobcats is depth, but with four
outstanding starters back, they could claim their first league title since
1994.

MIAMI-OHIO – The RedHawks claimed their league-record 21st MAC title last
season by posting a 12-6 record. The team also posted a solid 19-11 overall
mark, including a perfect 13-0 record at home. Although Miam was knocked off
by Ohio in the MAC Tournament, the club was still rewarded with a trip to the
NIT. Unfortunately for the RedHawks, they suffered a heartbreaking 60-58
defeat to TCU in the first round. Things are going to be much tougher this
time around for Miami, as it must find a way to replace its top two scorers
and rebounders from a year ago. However, three starters are back for the
RedHawks, including William Hatcher. The senior guard is the team’s top
returning scorer (10.0 ppg) and could be primed for a breakout year. Reserve
Josh Hausfeld will accompany Hatcher in the backcourt and should improve on
the 7.5 ppg he averaged a year ago. Up front, the team welcomes back a pair of
starters in forward Nathan Peavy and center Monty St. Clair. Peavy averaged
7.0 ppg and 3.9 rpg last season, while St. Clair added 6.0 ppg and 2.5 rpg.
The two will have to do a much better job on the boards if the RedHawks are to
duplicate last season’s success. Miami did a wonderful job recruiting this
past year and that group should see some decent playing time because of the
team’s lack of depth.

KENT STATE – Few teams in the MAC have been as successful over the last half a
decade than the Golden Flashes, who have posted six straight 20-plus win
seasons, including last year’s 21-13 ledger The team finished second in the
East at 11-7, just one game back of first. However, Kent State ended the year
on a sour note, losing to Western Kentucky in overtime in the opening round of
the NIT. The Flashes have four seniors and three starters back, including Jay
Youngblood (10.1 ppg) and DeAndre Haynes (10.1 ppg), who should form one of
the best backcourt tandems in the league. Kevin Warzynski is the third and
final returning starter and is the team’s biggest threat in the low post. The
senior forward averaged 11.5 ppg and 4.7 rpg and showed the ability to play
well in big games. Nate Gerwig, at 6-9, adds some size to the frontcourt and
should have no trouble improving on the 6.2 ppg he averaged off the bench a
year ago. The Flashes return several other players with experience and that
should play a big part in them posting yet another successful season.

BUFFALO – The Bulls put together a dream season in 2004-05, as they posted a
school-record 23 wins against just 10 losses. The team also advanced to the
MAC championship game for the first time in school history before losing to
Ohio. Although Buffalo was denied an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, the
team was still rewarded with its first-ever postseason appearance. As a matter
of fact, the Bulls even posted a first round victory over Drexel in the NIT
before bowing out to Saint Joseph’s a few days later. Buffalo, however, may
find it hard to keep things going in the right direction, as it must replace
the league’s top player in Turner Battle (15.5 ppg), and the Sixth Man of the
Year award recipient in Mark Bortz. Despite the leadership and talent missing,
there remains a solid nucleus which revolves around Yassin Idbihi. The 6-10
junior was extremely difficult to guard in the paint last year and averaged a
respectable 9.9 ppg and 5.9 rpg. Mario Jordan (6.9 ppg) was a major
disappointment for the Bulls last season and his ability to rebound will go a
long way toward determining the team’s success. Rederick Middleton (6.4 ppg)
takes over the point and will be joined by level-shooting Calvin Cage (10.0
ppg), who made good on 37.3 percent of his three-point attempts last season.
Overall, there are still some holes for the Bulls to fill and they may
struggle to reach a .500 finish.

BOWLING GREEN – The Falcons had another strong campaign in 2004-05, although
they did not receive much recognition for their finish. Still, they posted a
solid 18-11 overall mark and a third-place finish (10-8) in the MAC’s West
Division. With Marshall moving over to Conference USA, Bowling Green will be
part of the East Division for the first time since 2002. It may not matter
what division the Falcons are in as they must replace three starters and six
lettermen from a year ago. Returning are John Floyd and Steven Wright, both of
whom play in the backcourt. Floyd is a good leader and averaged 7.0 ppg and a
team-high 5.2 apg last season, while Wright is the better scorer, netting 11.1
ppg. In the low post is where a lot of holes need to be filled by the seven
new players featured on this year’s roster. Martin Samarco and Mawel Soler are
two juco transfers who should see significant minutes. Their ability to catch
on and be successful will most likely determine the team’s level of success
this season.

WEST DIVISION:

NORTHERN ILLINOIS – The Huskies struggled through most of last season and
stumbled to just an 11-17 overall finish. The team has had its share of
problems in league play where it ended just fifth in the West Division with a
7-11 ledger. Although the team didn’t have much success last season, it did
gain valuable experience and that is going to play a big part in its
turnaround here in 2005-06. Helping out NIU’s cause even more is the return of
11 of 13 players from a year ago, including four starters. Leading the way is
the versatile Mike McKinney, who topped the club with 12.6 ppg and 6.1 rpg
last season. He also finished third among MAC guards in double-doubles. He
will be accompanied by a pair of returning starters in Anthony Maestranzi and
Cory Sims. Maestranzi posted 8.0 ppg and 3.1 apg last year, while Sims did
even better with 9.6 ppg and 4.8 apg. In the paint, expect Todd Peterson, who
turned in 11.3 ppg and 4.5 rpg as a starter last season, to be the team’s go-
to guy. He should receive some assistance from Iowa transfer Ben Rand, who can
score both inside and out.

TOLEDO – The Rockets have finished at least first or second in the West
Division six times in the last seven years, including last season when they
tied for first with Western Michigan with a league mark of 11-7. Still, the
team was ousted in its first MAC Tournament game after being dubbed as a
favorite for the league title in the preseason. Overall, the club finished
16-13, and with three starters back in the fold an improvement is not out of
the question. Sammy Villegas and Justin Ingram form a solid backcourt duo and
each averaged 9.3 ppg a year ago. Big things are expected from Ingram in
particular, as the 2003-04 MAC Freshman of the Year has now started all 60
games in his first two seasons. He averaged 3.5 ppg and 3.4 apg a year ago,
displaying his versatility. Up front, Anton Currie is the lone returning
starter and he will be joined by reserves Florentino Valencia and Keonta
Howell. Currie may be the returning starter but his scoring average (5.3 ppg)
was well below that of Valencia (9.9 ppg) and Howell (9.3 ppg). Center Allen
Pinson (6.0 ppg) adds more depth to an already solid frontcourt.

WESTERN MICHIGAN – The Broncos have been one of the most successful programs
in the MAC over the last few years and last season was no exception. The team
posted a 20-13 overall record, giving them a league-best 66 wins since the
2002-03 campaign. WMU also defended its West Division title, finishing 11-7 in
conference play. Along with all that success came the school’s third straight
postseason appearance. The Broncos even managed a victory in the first round
of the NIT against Marquette before losing a two-point game to TCU in
overtime. Many players gained valuable experience last season and that should
play a big part in the club’s attempt to overcome the loss of its top two
scorers. Only two starters return, but there are plenty of other players with
experience that are capable of stepping in and performing. Brian Snider is one
of the two returning starters and will be counted on to provide leadership.
The senior guard is one of the top defenders in the league, but needs to add
more in the way of scoring after netting just 8.3 ppg a year ago. The second
and final returning starter is center Joe Reitz, who earned MAC all-freshman
accolades after averaging 9.4 ppg and 5.5 rpg in ’04-’05. Reitz is a double-
double candidate every time he hits the floor, but needs to be more
consistent. Stane’s Bufford was the team’s top reserve a year ago, and as a
starter this time around he should see a significant increase in the 7.3 rpg
he averaged.

BALL STATE – The Cardinals put together a decent campaign last season,
finishing 15-13 overall and 10-8 in league play. The team hasn’t won the MAC
title since 1998, but with three starters back in the fold, Ball State could
contend this time around. The biggest concern for the team is the health of
Peyton Stovall, who is recovering from knee surgery in March. Stovall ranked
fifth in the MAC in scoring (16.7 ppg) last season and led the Cardinals in
points 15 times. Stovall’s ability to recover and play at a high level is
imperative for the Cardinals, who are still searching for someone to accompany
him in the backcourt. With the perimeter game in jeopardy, BSU will have to
rely heavily on a solid frontcourt that includes returning starters Julien
“Skip” Mills and Tom Howland. Mills, who reached double-digits in 19 games
last season, could be on the verge of a breakout season after posting 11.9 ppg
and 5.0 rpg in 2004-05. As for Howland, the 6-11 center has great size, but
needs to become a more consistent scorer, averaging just 2.3 ppg last season.
Charles Bass, who missed last season due to injury, and Anthony Kent (2.7 ppg)
will also fight for starting jobs.

CENTRAL MICHIGAN – The Chippewas won the MAC championship just two year ago,
but since than the team has been one of the worst in the league. Last year was
no exception, as CMU went just 10-18 overall and 4-14 in league play. To make
matters worse, the squad lost its top scorer from a year ago in guard Kevin
Nelson (17.0 ppg). Just two starters return which could mean another long
season for the Chippewas. Guard Giordan Watson (10.3 ppg) will run the show
this time around and his ability to handle pressure will go a long way in the
team’s overall level of success. Joining Watson out on the perimeter will be
Eddie Spencer, who netted 4.9 ppg off the bench last season. In the
frontcourt, Sefton Barrett returns 11.2 ppg and 5.1 rpg to the equation.
Barrett is the team’s only legitimate threat up front and will need to make up
for the inexperience of guys like center Drew Walker and forward Jeff
Bohnhoff.

EASTERN MICHIGAN – The Eagles have been the doormat of the MAC over the past
several seasons, including last year when they finished just 5-13 in
conference action. EMU posted just a 12-18 overall mark which brought about a
change in coaching. The change from Jim Boone to Charles Ramsey was much
needed, although it will take time for the program to turn around. Ramsey
inherits a team that welcomes back just two starters from a year ago, John
Bowler and Danny McElhinny. Bowler, a solid rebounder (6.3 rpg) has the size
and strength to make things happen in the post and should improve on the 13.0
ppg he averaged a year ago. Junior college transfer Chris Knaub, who has great
size at 6-10, could join Bowler in the frontcourt. As for McElhinny, he is a
capable scorer (6.3 ppg) and a deadly shooter, making good on 43.5 percent of
his three-point attempts. He will need to provide leadership, as incoming
freshman Carlos Medlock will likely get the starting nod at the point.