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2019 MAC West preview: Is this the year someone dethrones the Rockets?

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Possible alternatives include: Northern Illinois, Central Michigan.

Ball State v Toledo Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The MAC West is an odd place. Usually overshadowed by the stronger, especially in last year’s case, Eastern division. The West has some good teams, and some not so good teams. Here’s how the division will stack up.


1. Toledo

Last year: 13-5, West Division Champions

The Rockets look strong early in the season. The reigning west division champions in the MAC have opened up with a 8-2 record. Their only losses being at the buzzer on opening night against Valparaiso and an overtime game at Notre Dame. They return three starters in Willie Jackson, Marreon Jackson and Luke Knapke — the latter two of whom were West Division All-MAC Preseason Team nominees.

This team will live and die at the three point line. The Rockets rank 14th in the country with 10.3 three pointers per game. It has worked out for them so far, as they’ve made 37.8% of their shots from deep, good for 27th in the NCAA.

With how this team has played, they can, and should go into conference play at 11-2. A key game for them once they do open up the MAC slate is their Battle of I-75 matchup against Bowling Green on Feb. 8.

Record Projection

The Rockets went 13-5 in the MAC last year, but this year they can go above and beyond that mark. Toledo has the players and coaching — not to mention its home court advantage at Savage Arena — to go 15-3 in the MAC this season.

2. Northern Illinois

Last year: 8-10, fourth in West

Northern Illinois team was so close, yet so far last season. A six-game losing streak in MAC play sent the Huskies down to fourth in the standings, giving the Huskies a tough road in the conference tournament. But they knocked off the West champions, Toledo, in the 2019 MAC Tournament, before losing to Bowling Green in the semifinals.

This year, however, the Huskies only return two starters from last season: Eugene German and Lacey James. German led NIU with 20.4 PPG last season, six more points than the next closest player averaged, and was named to the West Division All-MAC Preseason Team this year. As a team, Northern Illinois was picked second in the West, but failed to get a first place vote.

Northern Illinois’s MAC schedule is favorable. The Huskies aren’t away from Dekalb for more than two games in a row at any point. They get their longest conference road trip out of the way, Buffalo, from the get-go; the second-furthest is at Kent State. A key matchup for them will be at Toledo on Feb. 4. Savage Arena is not a fun place to play for visitors; with the West running through Toledo, Northern Illinois needs to win in there to keep its division title hopes alive.

Projection

The Huskies should be good in conference this year, even if their current record wouldn’t show it. Northern Illinois has the talent to go out and beat anyone in the league, but their play away from Dekalb is key. A 12-6 record should be expected from Northern Illinois.

3. Central Michigan

Last year: 10-8, second in West

Coming off a quality season, the Chippewas are looking for more. Central Michigan is a team built for success, and they’ve shown that early in the season. The Chippewas have started out hot, going 7-4 over their first 11 games. Some of those stats and numbers can only be taken so far though, as the Chips have played three non-D1 opponents.

CMU brings back three starters from last year’s second place team. The boards will be and important place for the Chippewas, as they averaged 38 rebounds per game. Rob Montgomery and Kevin McKay will responsible for almost every rebound for Central. McKay was the leading rebounder for the Chips, averaging 7.5 boards per game. The Chippewas will surely have a presence behind the arc as well, as West Division All-MAC Preseason Team selection David DiLeo led the conference with 93 threes last season.

The Chippewas ability to play in front of the home crowd will be much needed this season. Central Michigan has a .787 home win percentage in the past five seasons, but the majority of wins came in non-conference play. The Chips have dropped nine home games in the past two seasons in MAC play.

An important game for them will be Jan. 18, when they host Buffalo. The Chippewas need a statement win on their home floor to show what they can do in the conference this year.

Projection

This Central Michigan team could finish anywhere in the MAC West this season. They don’t necessarily have the talent to win the regular season title, but definitely have a shot at making a run in March. Their schedule is favorable — they only have to play Bowling Green and Kent State one time each — but even with that, the Chips will not be able to find the win column early. They’ll finish at 10-8 by the end of the season.

4. Western Michigan

Last year: 2-16, sixth in West

After a rough year, the Broncos are looking to build on what they have. Western returns three starters in Patrick Emilian, Jared Printy and Michael Flowers, the latter of whom earned preseason all MAC West team honors. A key player returning from injury this season is Brandon Johnson, who redshirted last year but started all 29 games he played in the year prior. This Bronco team can only go up.

The Broncos’ only two conference wins came within four days of each other last year when they knocked off Northern Illinois and Miami, both at home. Last year was an outlier for Western Michigan, as they’ve won the MAC as recently as 2014. They have experienced players and shouldn’t do as bad as they did last year.

Just eight games into the season, the Broncos have already gotten over half of their 2018-19 win total. Their ability to play on the road will be key, as they went 2-16 away from Kalamazoo last year. A key game for them will be their first conference road game at Akron on Jan. 7. This matchup against middling teams in their respective divisions will show if Western is ready to climb the stairs and out of the basement.

Projection

Western Michigan isn’t going to go out and surprise anyone. They definitely aren’t going to finish 2-16. Western will improve and likely won’t finish last in the western division; 7-11 should be the goal.

5. Ball State

Last year: 6-12, fifth in West

Ball State had a rough 2018-19 campaign. After looking strong in non-conference play, the Cardinals laid an egg in MAC play. A 10-5 non-conference slate lead to an abysmal 6-12 conference slate.

Ball State is looking to change its ways this season. The Cardinals return three starters from last year’s team: Tahjai Teague, K.J. Walton and Kyle Mallers. The Cardinals were given a generous number of votes in the preseason polls, even accumulating a first-place vote. They ended up in third behind Toledo and only one single point behind Northern Illinois. Ball State did graduate last year’s leading scorer, but two of the top three return in Teague and Walton.

The schedule is tough for the Cardinals. Muncie isn’t necessarily far from any of the places they’ll need to go to, but it isn’t close either. Their closest opponent isn’t even in their division, making for more travel than usual for a MAC team in conference play. Even with the longer bus rides, and tough trips, Ball State was actually better on the road than at home. The Cardinals went 7-7 in Muncie, but 8-7 when away from the nest. A key game for them will be a Feb. 8 matchup in Kalamazoo against Western Michigan. Although Western isn’t a team to be feared, this game comes at the end of a stretch of four road games in five games. If the Cardinals can get through that, they can get through anything.

Projection

Ball State is in a tough spot. After being downright bad in conference last year, an upswing is expected. The team just don’t have what they need to be able to do better. The Cardinals’ main competition for standing position is Western Michigan, but they’ll fall below the Broncos and find themselves at 5-13.

6. Eastern Michigan

Last year: 9-9, third in West

A so-so 2018-19 campaign brings the Eagles into what should be a promising 2019-20 season. The Eagles return only one full time starter in Boubacar Toure, but have multiple guys with starting experience returning. The Eagles are voted to finish last in the MAC West, accumulating only 16 total points in the preseason poll. Eastern Michigan was the only team in the MAC West to not have a player on the preseason all MAC West team.

The non-conference schedule did start out well for the Eagles, as they’re 8-1, with a trio of non-D1 wins to open the season. The Eagles will need to depend on defense, and slow down ball games, as they don’t have a ton of scoring ability.

Road wins will be crucial for this Eastern Michigan team. A team that can’t go on the road and win, won’t do very well, especially in the MAC. An important game for the Eagles will be on Jan. 25, when they play at Miami (OH). If the Eagles are able to pack their bags and go beat a middle of the conference team, on the road, they’ll shock some people.

Projection

It’s going to be a rough year in Ypsilanti. Although the Eagles have a good record on paper to start the season, they’ve beaten much inferior teams to the teams they’ll see in the MAC. Eastern Michigan will live up to expectations and go 3-15 for a last-place finish.