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MAC preseason rankings: Can anyone compete with Buffalo?

The Bulls are in prime position to repeat. Are there any challengers that can match them?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Buffalo vs Kentucky Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The MAC continues to be one of the sneaky good mid-major conferences in the country. On a national level, Buffalo made waves last year with a win over Arizona in the NCAA Tournament, and Ball State had a penchant for late game heroics.

As a whole, the conference as rated No. 13 in Kenpom last year, and this year projects to be much of the same. With a team that could garner Top 25 consideration at some point in Buffalo and a stable of veteran laden programs, the MAC could once again be one of the most exciting leagues in the country.

1. Buffalo Bulls (27-9, 15-3 MAC, Lost to Kentucky in 2nd Round of NCAA Tournament)

As mentioned above, Buffalo burst onto the scene last year with a win over Arizona in the NCAA Tournament. Nate Oats has solidified himself as one of the hot commodities in the coaching world. The Bulls bring back a deep, talented roster that’s going to be among the best mid-majors in the country. They’re a cut above everyone else in the conference.

Oats brings back major pieces in CJ Massinburg and Jeremy Harris on the perimeter, and Nick Perkins is also back to dominate in the frontcourt. That trio will likely garner All-League honors in one way or another. Freshman Jeenathan Williams, Donatay Caruthers and Tra’Von Fagan each have a role to fill, as does Montell McRae. All in all, Buffalo has the horses for another NCAA Tournament run.

2. Eastern Michigan (22-13, 11-7 MAC)

Eastern Michigan has the benefit of being in the opposite division of Buffalo. The Eagles had a top-100 defense per Kenpom, and bring back a senior-laden group centered around James Thompson IV. Thompson IV isn’t necessarily underrated, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find many people that are aware that he’s averaged a double-double in three straight years. Simply put, he cleans the glass as well as anyone in the country.

He’s joined by Elijah Minnie, an athletic forward that provides the perfect complement to Thompson. On the perimeter, Paul Jackson sets the tone on the defensive end and has shown he can carry some of the scoring load. Rob Murphy has hung has hat on the defensive end, and the Eagles are going to win a lot of games on that end.

3. Ball State (19-13, 10-8 MAC)

The Cardinals took a step forward last year, but this year is going to have high expectations in Muncie. James Whitford has put together a talented roster with a combination of homegrown, in-state talent and transfers. The head of the dragon is Tayler Persons, who showed last year that he’s capable of being a crunchtime killer. Trey Moses and Tahjai Teague control the paint with varying styles.

Much of the excitement, however, comes from the names that are coming in as transfers. KJ Walton is in from Missouri, bringing an SEC pedigree at the point that should allow Persons to work off the ball in some lineups. Brachen Hazen returns home to northern Indiana after failing to find a niche at Arkansas. One guy that may be overlooked is Austin Nehls. The guard from Central Connecticut State can provide some shooting for a team that connected on just under 34 percent from distance last year.

4. Toledo (23-11, 13-5 MAC)

The Rockets are coming off of a MAC West title and bring back a lot of the core that got them there. Tod Kowalczyk has built a system that can put up points in bunches. The Rockets shot over 40 percent from three-point range last year, which led to a top-50 Kenpom offense. Jaelon Sanford will be the focal point as he comes off a season in which he averaged over 16 points per game and hit 40 percent of his threes.

Nate Navigato will be one of the league’s top stretch fours once again, and he’s joined by center Luke Knapke, who can also stretch the floor. Marreon Jackson and Tennessee transfer Chris Darrington solidify the backcourt with Sanford. Willie Jackson provided solid bench minutes last year, but could wind up seeing starter’s minutes on the wing this year. The Rockets are deep and have weapons. They’ll be one of the tougher teams in the league, especially if it’s a night that shots are falling.

5. Miami OH (16-18, 8-10 MAC)

The Redhawks might have the league’s most electric backcourt. Darrian Ringo gave opposing guards absolute fits last year by averaging nearly seven assists per game and 2.7 steals per game. Freshman guard Nike Sibande was more offensively inclined, averaging 15 points per game. Those two are a big reason for the optimism heading into Jack Owens’ second year in Oxford.

The Redhawks were one of the nation’s most inexperienced rosters in the country. Owens counted on a lot of freshmen. Dalonte Brown and Jalen Adaway cut their teeth in the starting lineup last year, and it’s reasonable to expect them to take on bigger roles this year. Isaiah Coleman-Lands is another solid guard off the bench, and freshman Mekhai Lairy is an electric lefty despite his stature. They might still be a year away, but exciting times are coming in Oxford.

6. Ohio (14-17, 7-11 MAC)

The injury bug was not kind to Ohio last year. A clean bill of health will hopefully allow the Bobcats to outperform preseason expectations. Despite a roster full of seniors, sophomore Teyvion Kirk led the charge as a do-it-all guard in his freshman season.

Jason Carter is back from a stress fracture in his leg. The senior core of Jordan Dartis, Gavin Block, Doug Taylor and James Gollon are all healthy now. Freshman Ben Vander Plas has recovered from a broken foot. If everyone stays on the floor, the Bobcats will be right there with the rest of the league’s contenders.

7. Kent State (17-17, 9-9 MAC)

Rob Senderoff has been a model of consistency at Kent State as he’s never finished below .500. The Shockers bring back a senior backcourt of Jaylin Walker and Jalen Avery to lead the team. Avery was among the nation’s best last year in assist-to-turnover ratio, while Walker was the go-to scorer. USC Upstate transfer Philip Whittington and former FGCU wing CJ Williamson should provide some added punch, as will Kain Harris. The X-factor, however, could be how quickly forward Danny Pippen is able to recover from a knee surgery that he underwent over the summer.

8. Northern Illinois (13-19, 6-12 MAC)

The Huskies bring back all five starters after having one of the most inexperienced teams in the country last year. Eugene German is probably the favorite to lead the conference in scoring again. Dante Thorpe and Gairges Douw man the wings alongside German. In the frontcourt, Levi Bradley provides a second scoring option after he averaged 14.6 points per game last year. One player to keep an eye on is Jaylen Key, who averaged eight points per game two seasons ago, but missed last year due to injury. The Huskies will have at least six players that they know they can rely on.

9. Central Michigan (21-15, 7-11 MAC)

The Chips won 21 games last year thanks to one of the league’s most efficient offenses. Keno Davis has shown that he’s one of the best offensive minds in the league, while also being able to adapt to different playing styles based on the roster. Shawn Roundtree Jr., David DiLeo and Kevin McKay all return as double-digit scorers from last year. As always, their success will ultimately depend on if they can contain teams on the defensive end.

10. Akron (14-18, 6-12 MAC)

The first year of the John Groce era wasn’t anything special, but he inherited a gutted roster. In his second year, he’ll be able to rely on some key pieces like Daniel Utomi and Jimond Ivey to carry a heavy load. Eric Hester is a former Florida guard who could also contribute. Like a lot of other teams in the league, another year of experience from a roster that desperately needs it could lead to an improved record for the Zips.

11. Western Michigan (17-15, 9-9 MAC)

There’s no doubt that the departure of Thomas Wilder will hurt the Broncos, but there’s still some talent on the roster. Bryce Moore was a great running mate with Wilder, and will be counted on to pick up a lot of the scoring burden. Brandon Johnson and Seth Dugan are back to take on bigger roles after filling complementary roles last year. The Broncos will need to perform better on the defensive end if the offense is expected to take a slight step back.

12. Bowling Green (16-10, 7-6)

The Falcons were in a good spot in the MAC East last year before losing their final five games. Justin Turner had a great showing as a redshirt freshman last year, and he’ll be the go-to guy for the Falcons. Demajeo Wiggins was a double-double guy last year, giving the Falcons a strong presence down low to compliment Turner’s perimeter game. Dylan Frye and Antwon Lillard are also both capable of being double figures scorers for Bowling Green. They showed flashes last year, it’s just a matter of being able to keep it together for an entire season this time.