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Justin Turner and the Bowling Green Falcons look to cash in on big expectations in an open MAC

A year after being picked last in the league, Justin Turner and the Falcons are eyeing a championship, but haven’t forgotten.

NCAA Basketball: MAC Conference Tournament - Buffalo vs Bowling Green Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t something that happened all the time, or even once in a blue moon, but Michael Huger had seen it before.

The packed house. The rocking, electric energy. The rows and rows of orange and brown. Huger had felt it all wash over him as he stepped on the floor of Anderson Arena in December 1990, as he helped the Bowling Green Falcons topple Tom Izzo, Steve Smith and No. 5 Michigan State in the powerhouse’s rare visit to a mid-major court.

Last year, that sensation was back.

Huger was in a different building — the Stroh Center has since replaced Anderson Arena — and this time leading BGSU from the sidelines, but there the Falcons were again, in front of a packed house, knocking off a ranked opponent. BGSU took down No. 18 Buffalo last February, picking up another historic program win, and one that wouldn’t have seemed particularly likely before the season.

To find Huger’s team in last year’s MAC preseason poll involved quite a bit of scrolling. Not until each team’s name flashed before your eyes did you finally find the Falcons, who were picked dead last in the 12-team league’s combined coaches and media poll.

It didn’t go unnoticed.

“Oh yeah,” said redshirt junior guard Justin Turner when asked if the poll motivated the team. “Us being picked last, at the time we felt disrespected, especially with the players we had returning. It definitely still kind of leaves a salty taste in your mouth.”

He and the Falcons flipped that projection. They shook off an uneven 4-5 start to the year to post a 10-game winning streak beginning in early December. That rolled into conference play, where BGSU had its best MAC record since 1999 (12-6) and advanced to the league tournament championship game, falling to the Bulls. Turner was a big part of it all, becoming one of the best scorers in the country (18.2 PPG, 37.2 3P%).

He spent the summer being sponge. He went through the NBA draft process — ultimately deciding to return — and was among the select group of players, which included Utah State’s Sam Merrill and VCU’s Marcus Evans, that went to Chris Paul’s Elite Guard camp.

NCAA Basketball: MAC Conference Tournament - Buffalo vs Bowling Green
Justin Turner is eyeing a big senior year after passing — for now — on the NBA draft.
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

“He came back with some things that he wasn’t doing earlier, like being vocal, he came back very vocal. Barking out instructions,” said the fifth-year coach Huger. “Chris Paul’s camp helped him tremendously. I’m looking for a big season for him.”

Turner will be flexing those leadership muscles on a team with very different expectations. This time around, the MAC coaches have the Falcons pegged as the co-league favorites — along with Toledo — and the team most likely to cut down the nets in Cleveland.

That front runner status takes on a slightly different vibe this season. Quietly or not, the MAC has been one of the strongest mid-major leagues in recent years, finishing 13th or better in KenPom’s adjusted conference efficiency rankings each year since 2015. That peaked at ninth a season ago, which saw the MAC slide in front of the A-10 and Mountain West, two leagues traditionally seen as stronger and with the glimmer of at-large possibilities.

“I think we have a tremendous league, it’s one of the top leagues every year,” Huger said when asked about the league outlook heading into 2019-2020. “People don’t understand how great it is; we have a lot of teams that’ll be really good. It’s hard to tell. Buffalo had more of a stranglehold on it, but right now everyone is fighting for that championship.”

As Huger said, the elephant in the room is — or was — a Bull.

Buffalo had blitzed the conference since Bobby Hurley took over in 2013, and then handed the reins to Nate Oats in 2015. Over that time the Bulls won three regular season championships and snapped up the auto-bid four times — dismantling both Pac-12 schools from Arizona in the first round the past two years.

Oats parlayed that bevy of winning into the Alabama job, and the Bulls were hit with a double blow by losing their top three players — C.J. Massinburg, Nick Perkins and Jeremy Harris — to graduation. That isn’t to say the Bulls will fade away. The administration tapped Jim Whitesell as Oats’ replacement, and he brings continuity (having been on Oats’ staff) and experience (seven years leading Loyola Chicago) to the eastern shore of Lake Erie.

But a step back would be understandable, and the Falcons may be as well-positioned as any to step into that vacuum of opportunity. If that happens, it won’t be for a lack of patience, something Huger learned from Jim Larrañaga, who he played for at BGSU and served as an assistant under for nearly a decade at both George Mason and Miami.

“As coaches we want everything right now — we want the instant gratification — but it takes time to build a program,” Huger said. “That was the biggest thing I took away from [Larrañaga]. We’re finally getting to that point.”

It’s been a methodical build under Huger, with the Falcons improving their win total each of the past three seasons, culminating in last year’s 22-win season buoyed by an efficient offense that took great care of the ball. Turner was the driving force behind that, as he put up points on MAC defenses with his somewhat-against-the-norm effective mid-range game. That included 22 points in the monumental win over Buffalo, and a career-high 34 points in a win at Northern Illinois in mid-February. He scored at will from deep over those two games (7-10 3FG combined), which was something he did throughout the conference season, going 39.6 percent from three.

While he said he’s continued to focus on his outside shot per NBA feedback, mid-range floaters or jumpers are his ideal ways to put the ball through the basket. That style differs from senior guard Dylan Frye, whose partnership with Turner is a major reason for the optimism in Bowling Green.

The preseason first-team all-league selection is a BGSU stalwart, having started 78 games over his three-year career. He’s stretched defenses over that time (183 made three’s, 36.7% career threes) with a new age, Trae Young-like flair, but that unlimited range hasn’t always been a part of his game.

“When I first started basketball I was a horrible shooter. I was more of defender,” Frye said. “But just developing my game and working hard at it, mainly playing outside with my brother and seeing how good a shooter he was, that just kind of inspired me to want to shoot like him, so I just kept working on it every day.”

NCAA Basketball: Bowling Green at Buffalo
Dylan Frye and his unlimited range is quite the complement for Justin Turner.
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

The mix of Frye and Turner, along with steady senior point guard Michael Laster and junior wing Daeqwon Plowden, should help the Falcons replicate — or improve — an offense that scored points at the second most efficient clip in the MAC last year.

But that isn’t to say BGSU is not without question marks. They’ve got big shoes to fill with Demajeo Wiggins — one of the country’s top rebounders — lost to graduation. Huger said that there’s no way to avoid it: one player can’t replace that production, and that it’ll need to be done by committee with players like Marlon Sierra, Taylor Mattos and Joniya Gadson stepping up. That frontcourt group could get a boost if Duquesne transfer Dylan Swingle gets a waiver from the NCAA to play immediately.

And it’s also not to say there aren’t plenty of other teams in the MAC with realistic designs on snatching Buffalo’s crown.

Under Whitesell, the Bulls themselves have a potential breakout star in junior guard Jayvon Graves and an experienced senior point guard in Davonta Jordan and, of course, that winning DNA. For its part, co-league favorite Toledo is coming off an NIT appearance and tremendous KenPom ranking (61st). While the Rockets lose a star in Jaelan Sanford, they may have the league’s best inside-outside duo in junior point guard Marreon Jackson and senior center Luke Knapke.

Central Michigan has a trio of seniors — David DiLeo, Kevin McKay and Rob Montgomery — looking to step into bigger roles and continue the Chippewas’ quietly successful run under Keno Davis. Despite losing stars Larry Austin and Shawn Roundtree off a 23-win team, Davis told Central Michigan Life he isn’t thinking about rebuilding.

“We aren’t talking about getting to Cleveland,” Davis said. “We are talking about cutting the nets down.”

That’s a moment the Falcons envision for themselves as well, and if it happens and they clinch their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1968, that 2018 preseason poll may still have something to do with it. For Turner and his now-front running team, it has continued to linger.

“We never really are going to forget that,” he said. “We’ll always use that to give us an edge and remember where we started from.”