The MAC has a future identity problem.
Hurting the conference in terms of youth were many great underclassmen leaving or transferring. Trey Zeigler went to Pitt. Matt Stainbrook high-tailed it to Xavier. Derek Jackson is ... well, we don't know where he is but anywhere but CMU.
Promising freshmen such as Austin McBroom and Brian Sullivan are one-and-done in the MAC. The conference needs to replenish its youth in a hurry but several juniors and seniors are leading the way in what should be an even deeper conference than before.
10. Juice Brown, Toledo, So., 11.9 ppg, 4.8 apg, 2.4 rpg, 44.2 eFG%
With some of the MAC's most promising freshmen transferring away, it's the reverse prophecy of Trading Spaces: this time, Juice is cornering the market. Known as Julius to his family, Brown is the reigning MAC Freshman of the Year and did remarkably well pacing a nouveau Rockets offense that badly needed an identity other than "ugh" for the last three years. How often do you see a freshman shoulder the load with almost 32 minutes per game in this conference?
With any luck and lots of work on his part, Brown is trending toward being almost as brilliant as the No. 1 person on this list.
9. Chris Evans, Kent State, Sr., 9.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.1 apg, 58.3 eFG%
What the numbers don't show — although it explains the high field goal percentage — is with the graduation of Torian Oglesby, Evans is the preseason favorite for the unofficial title of MAC's Best Dunker. If he has a fastbreak, and you're the one between him and the hoop, it's best to just let him have the two points, and you might get a thrill out of what he does.
But I'm including Evans on account of how well he played in just 21 minutes per game on a senior-heavy team.
8. Randal Holt, Kent State, Sr., 12. 7 ppg, 2.6 apg, 2.4 rpg, 54.6 eFG%
This comes at a caveat: in July he needed surgery to repair a torn meniscus, so it may take a while to get him back to 100 percent. If/when he returns to form, he can help win games from anywhere on the floor, from the free throw line to behind the arc.
7. A'uston Calhoun, Bowling Green, Sr., 13.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 49.2 eFG%
There are games where The Big Apostrophe can simply take it over. On occasion he can become completely neutralized by the defense and never heard from again. His post-game might be the second-best in the conference and his defense is solid if unspectacular. Similar to Miami's Julian Mavunga last year, his overall game may get lost in the shuffle of an always-crowded MAC East, especially if the Falcons dwell near the bottom.
6. Alex Abreu, Akron, Jr., 9.6 ppg, 4.8 apg, 2.6 rpg, 56.5 eFG%
As a sophomore, the Puerto Rican pistol had an immaculate season earning him second team all-conference, showing a knack for getting the ball to his playmakers and even hitting shots of his own. He became more comfortable taking shots as the season progressed and also asserted himself as a stout defender against bigger guards. He led his team in minutes played, assists, steals and free throw percentage — although his FT% perhaps should be lower.
5. Walter Offutt, Ohio, 12.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 1.8 apg, 53.0 eFG%
Having watched dozens of MAC basketball games, no individual player got me more excited than Offutt's second half in the Sweet 16 game against North Carolina, a game that I sensed was inevitably slipping away from the Bobcats. But the former Ohio State guard and briefly-Wright State transfer went 5-for-6 on threes, almost personally willing the team into a game that they had no business being in.
That's what Offutt brings to Ohio and to the MAC. He's their perimeter scorer, a solid defender, and at times untouchable.
4. Rian Pearson, Toledo, Jr., 16.4 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 48.5 eFG%
The Green Bay transfer became the first sophomore to lead the MAC in scoring since 1999-2000, and if we have any Tamar Slay fans in the audience, you may have known this. Pearson's game was primarily inside of the arc, attempting less than one 3-pointer per contest and he was a big reason the Rockets went from four wins to 19 in a season. Not a knock on his game, but with the rest of the team a year older, wiser and more capable, I'd expect his usage to go down, and therefore his scoring.
3. Zeke Marshall, Akron, Sr., 10.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.8 bpg, 54.2 eFG%
If this were the NFL draft I might have Marshall at No. 1, because you can't teach being seven feet tall. He has also made great strides at cutting down fouls, although the block/foul ratio "improved" to just 1:1, and he fouled out in six contests. Offensively Marshall could use some improvement but the Zips score in balance so they don't need him to bang in 15 points per contest.
2. Javon McCrea, Buffalo, Jr., 15.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.9 apg, 57 eFG%
McCrea was a very curious story line his freshman year, in that some national writers salivated over his potential after nearly making Team USA's national Under-19 team. His sophomore year, in a vacuum, was not disappointing, but teammate Mitchell Watt played so well that McCrea turned out to be his sidekick, not the other way around.
Entering his junior year McCrea is one of the top players around the basket on both sides of the court. His ceiling for improvement is immense, and yet he's already the most ferocious player in the conference.
1. D.J. Cooper, Ohio, Sr., 14.7 ppg, 5.7 apg, 3.7 rpg, 2.3 spg, 42.9 eFG%
No pressure on him or anything, but if he has the senior year we all expect him to produce, D.J. Cooper will end his storied career as one of the best guards ever to lace it up for the MAC. He should surpass David Greer's MAC record of 768 assists in a career if he can dish out just 76 more. With 88 steals — a tick above what he averages per season — he'll break Bonzi Wells' career record. He's also projected to finish top 10 in career points.
Even if he doesn't reach these levels, Cooper is already the best guard in Ohio history. Heck, the campus TV station already produced a documentary on him. He's been the epicenter of two tournament runs, one in 2010 as a freshman and last year's Sweet 16 berth. His shortcomings are few and far between, but they do exist: he's not a terrific 3-point shooter (right around 30 percent) and sometimes he tries to do too much on a given play.
But sometimes when he tries to do too much — on both sides — he succeeds brilliantly. It's why he's the runaway top player in the MAC.
Best player on each team
Akron: Zeke Marshall
Bowling Green: A'uston Calhoun
Buffalo: Javon McCrea
Kent State: Chris Evans
Miami (OH): Jon Harris
OHIO: D.J. Cooper