The MAC is a wild place. Long bus rides, cold cities and passionate fans headline it all. The possibilities are truly endless for what could happen in a conference as crazy as this. In a year where anything seems possible, this is what’s possible in middle America.
Here is how the MAC East should stack up this season.
Last year: 16-2, outright MAC Champions
A new era is upon the Buffalo Bulls. Gone are the days of Nick Perkins and CJ Massinburg, the two leaders of last year’s MAC Championship team. Head Coach Nate Oats left for Alabama after last season, and former-associate head coach Jim Whitesell is now Buffalo’s head coach. Whitesell comes in with 24 years of head coaching experience, most recently coaching from 2004-2011 at Loyola University Chicago.
The Bulls are coming off a record-breaking 32-4 season, in which they won the most games in school history, and the most ever by a MAC school. They won a game in the NCAA Tournament over Arizona State before losing to eventual national runner-up, Texas Tech. Starters Davonta Jordan and Jayvon Graves return from that team, and Graves was selected to the East Division Preseason All-MAC Team. Middle Tennessee State transfer Antwain Johnson has also played a major role for the Bulls.
Currently sitting at 6-4, Buffalo is far from what it was last year. The Bulls were second place in the MAC preseason poll, getting three of the 12 first place votes. The polls have them looking up at the Falcons, whom they host on Jan. 31. The MAC opener against Northern Illinois on Jan. 4 will be key, as the Bulls look to avenge one of their two conference losses against the Huskies.
It’s a year of change for the Bulls, but their spot in the standings shouldn’t change. The Bulls can go 14-4, which should be good enough to win the MAC East, but won’t get the number-one seed in the conference tournament because of Toledo out West.
2. Bowling Green
Last year: 12-6, second in East
The Falcons are looking to make that final step in the rise from mediocrity. Voted atop the MAC East preseason poll, Bowling Green is ready to make some noise in a crowded division.
The Falcons bring back a multitude of players from last year’s team that upset nationally ranked Buffalo, then made it all the way to the MAC Tournament Championship game. Just like their foes from the north, the Falcons are lead by two East Division Preseason All-MAC Team players: Justin Turner and Dylan Frye.
Bowling Green is sitting at 8-2. Its two losses came at nationally ranked LSU, but only by nine points. They dropped their final game in the Virgin Islands against Nevada. The Jan. 7 matchup against Miami will be the first time to see if this Bowling Green team is for real. The Falcons lost both of their games against the Redhawks last year, being the only conference team they dropped a pair of games to other than Buffalo.
Being selected as the top team in the east preseason is a big deal, but can Bowling Green live up to it? From what the team has done this year and what they’ve done in the past, it’ll definitely be a year of improvement for the Falcons — but not MAC East Championship- level improvement. The Falcons can go 13-5 in conference, good for a first round bye in the tournament, but not good enough for the division title.
Last year: 8-10, fourth in East
Like most MAC teams, the Zips look good early in the season. They sit at 8-2, but two wins over non-Division I teams.
Akron returns four starters in Loren Christian Jackson, Deng Riak, Tyler Cheese and Daniel Utomi. The Zips are one of the most experienced teams in the league, having only graduated one player last season. Jackson lead the team in scoring last season, averaging over 14 PPG. But Akron didn’t have an All-MAC Preseason Team selection, and was only voted to finish ahead of Ohio.
If the early season means anything, the Zips are a team to fear. They went into Louisville and hung with a top-five team in the country, only to lose by six. Their ability to score is what can win them games once conference play gets going.
Akron might not have the talent of some teams, but it has the ability to perform and compete in every game on their schedule. A key week for the Zips is their two-game, road trip to Bowling Green and Buffalo from Feb. 25-29. To be the best, you have to beat the best. The Zips can prove that they’re the best team in the MAC with a pair of wins in those games.
The Zips aren’t projected to do much in the MAC East. With a fifth-place preseason ranking and no players on the all conference team, Akron has something to prove. Given their early season performance and their experienced roster, the Zips can show what they can do in the tough East Division. The Zips might not be able to win the division, but 10-8 and third place is much better than what anyone expected.
4. Kent State
Last year: 11-7, third in East
The Golden Flashes are coming off a decent year, although they did find themselves behind Bowling Green and Buffalo in the East. They return three starters in Antonio Williams, CJ Williamson and Phil Whittington, the latter of whom is on the East Division All-MAC Team.
Kent State has started off hot, going 8-1 in their first nine non-conference games with its only loss at Ohio State.
Kent State only lost two home games during conference play last year, and only three in the past two years combined. If Kent State can perform on the road, which has been a rough spot for them, then the MAC East could run through Kent, Ohio.
The MAC schedulers weren’t very nice to the Golden Flashes. Kent State starts out the conference slate with preseason number ones from both divisions. They travel to Bowling Green, then host Toledo four days later. If Kent State can get through that at 2-0, expect big things out of them. Another key matchup for them will be Jan. 28, when the Golden Flashes have to their second game against Toledo. This game could determine if Kent State is a contender or a pretender.
The Golden Flashes should improve on the 11-7 mark they set last season. With what they’ve shown in early season non-conference, they could go above and beyond those projections. For Kent State, 13-5 is an attainable mark, but so is losing important games down the stretch to finish 9-9.
5. Miami (OH)
Last year: 7-11, fifth in East
Another team that got pushed around in the rough MAC East last year, the Miami RedHawks. Miami had talent last year, but didn’t have the benefit of an easy division.
Miami will be in a good spot when it comes to experience. This is a team built for early success, as it returns over 70% of its scoring and 65% of its rebounding from last season. The RedHawks return starters Bam Bowman, Dalonte Brown and Nike Sibande, plus six other players. Sibande was selected for the preseason all MAC East team after averaging 16.1 points per game last season.
Home cooking for the RedHawks has been good lately. Miami had a 10-5 record at home last season, but all five of its losses came in conference play. A key game for the RedHawks will be on Jan. 14 when they welcome in Kent State. The Golden Flashes were one of three teams to beat Miami twice, the other two being Buffalo and Bowling Green. Revenge should be on the minds of the RedHawks as they look to take a game from Kent State in their first matchup of the season.
The RedHawks don’t benefit from the division they play in. The MAC East is a tough place to be, especially for a fringe team like Miami. The RedHawks won’t be able to play against the likes of Buffalo, Bowling Green and Kent State, and that’ll show in their record.
Last year: 6-12, sixth in East
The tides are turning in Athens, as Jeff Boals is running the ship for the Bobcats. Boals was hired over from Stony Brook, where he compiled a 55-41 record over three years. Ohio is Boals’ alma mater; he played for the Bobcats from 1991-1995.
From a record standpoint, the Bobcats look like they weren’t too bad. They were last in their division, but they had a better record than Western Michigan. The Bobcats return a pair of starters in Jason Preston and Jordan Dartis. Ohio hopes they’ll be able to lead this team, as its eight freshmen outnumber everyone else on the team (six players).
The Bobcats failed to get a player on the all MAC preseason team, and every single voter voted for them to finish last in the East. The lowest amount of votes possible is 12; Ohio got 12 votes in the preseason poll.
The Bobcats are another team with a tough time on the road. Nobody is close to them, but they do sit in a more centralized area for the rest of the MAC East. Ohio does have to travel all the way to Northern Illinois in Dekalb, but they avoid the trip to Mt. Pleasant as the Chippewas come to Athens in their only meeting of the season. Jan. 18 is an important game for the Bobcats, as they travel to Ypsilanti to play Eastern Michigan: two possible last-place teams will go at it.
The Bobcats won’t be very good. Their possibilities are endless with the amount of young talent they have on the team, but it won’t happen this year. Ohio has a chance to surprise people, but it’s highly unlikely. The most likely outcome is a 2-16 record and finishing in last place.