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MAC Notebook: League frontrunners, Ball State/Buffalo preview and more

Strong free throw shooting, an upset in South Bend and a particular transfer are all taking the MAC by storm.

NCAA Basketball: Buffalo at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

With still a lot basketball to be played before March, it’s truly anyone’s game in the MAC. Just one game into conference play, the West Division looks to be slightly better with four teams winning their first conference game while on the East, only two teams came back with victories.

Here’s what we know as we arrive on the first Saturday of league play:

The early front runners are Buffalo, Central Michigan and Ball State, but mostly Buffalo.

Buffalo has as good of a backcourt as anybody in the conference with the tandem of Missouri transfer Wes Clark and C.J. Massinburg combining to average 41 points per game. Clark leads the team in assists, while Massinburg is the MAC leader in points per game. The all-star duo seemingly has the Bulls sitting in pole position for the regular season championship. For its part, Central Michigan may lack a prolific scorer like Marcus Keene, but has a much more balanced roster than last year. What sets the Chippewas apart is a talented defense, which is 32nd nationally in points allowed. In fact, they held Ohio to just 50 points on Tuesday. Ball State, on the other hand, has a nine-game winning streak, including a stunner against Notre Dame in South Bend.

Central Michigan is ranked first nationally with an 80.9% free-throw percentage.

The Chippewas get to the line and maximize their trips there, having made 220 out of their 272 free throws. Because they are lacking an abundance of three-point shooters, an ability to succeed at the line coupled with a strong defense could help them win conference. To that end, CMU went 11-for-13 from the line in their win over the Bobcats on Thursday night.

James Thompson IV is the most NBA-ready player in the MAC and could lead the Eagles to March because of it.

NCAA Basketball: Eastern Michigan at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Double-doubles are simply the norm for Thompson who has eight thus far this year. He leads the MAC in field goal percentage (66.4%) and is seventh nationally in rebounds per game (11.5 RPG). And, he averages over one steal and block a game making him a do-it-all player. However, the trouble comes because of fouls for Thompson, who can get handsy in the key, as was the case when he fouled out in the Eagles loss to Ball State on Thursday night. Look for EMU to be a dark horse tourney team because of Thompson.

The big games start early.

League play giveth early. Buffalo travels to Ball State Saturday for a hyper-early marquee match up. The Cardinals put the seventh-longest active winning streak in the country (9 games) against a loaded Bulls team. It should be high-flying game, as both teams play fast (Buffalo more so), and have two of the most efficient offenses in the league. Aside from being home, the Cardinals may have an edge on the offensive glass. Ball State forwards Kyle Mallers and Trey Moses will be a handful for a Bulls’ team that other than Nick Perkins, has most of its firepower in the back court.