CLEVELAND - Stan Joplin has preseason picks figured out.
"A lot of people have us the favorite because of the number of players we have coming back," said Joplin, the University of Toledo men's basketball coach.
Indeed, in the preseason poll announced yesterday, Mid-American Conference media chose UT to win the MAC West Division in a close race. The Rockets, with four returning starters, received 135 points to Ball State's 127 and Western Michigan's 114.
Bowling Green State University was chosen to finish sixth in the East.
Ohio University was predicted to win the East division and repeat as MAC Tournament champion. The Bobcats also return four starters, including All-MAC East players Mychal Green and Leon Williams. In last year's preseason, Ohio was picked to finish last in its division.
"It's a lot more stressful being sixth than it is being one," Ohio coach Tim O'Shea said. "I can tell you that from experience."
The Rockets won a share of the division title last year even with their lack of rebounds and wins in close games, as Joplin lamented yesterday. Senior guard Sammy Villegas, a preseason All-MAC West player, is looking to take on more of a leadership role.
BGSU was picked last for the first time in coach Dan Dakich's nine-year tenure.
"You can either prove everybody right, or prove them wrong," Dakich said about the selection. "We've been talking about it, I've been telling them since basically April they would be picked last. This is how it's going to be, now it's what are they going to do about it."
Losing two All-MAC players and with just two returning starters, the Falcons also have been hit with the injury bug in the preseason. They suffered another blow this week when freshman Dusan Radivojevic was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his left leg on Tuesday, a few days after being kicked during practice. He will miss 3-4 weeks. Steven Wright, BGSU's top returning scorer, is off crutches and is 2-3 weeks from playing after breaking his fifth metatarsal bone in his left foot.
Joplin said yesterday the MAC is the best mid-major conference in the country and the top spot will be highly contested. Nine of the 12 conference teams finished with a winning record last season.
"If you look at a lot of leagues, there's a top half and a bottom half, and I think in our league it's always good from top to bottom," Joplin said. "You really notice that when you do scheduling, because no one wants to play you."
Ball State coach Tim Buckley said even though the polls might not mean anything, they provide some motivation.
"The MAC thrives on the preseason polls," he said. "Whoever doesn't get picked where they felt they should have gotten picked, it gives them an instant hunger to achieve. That's why none of this stuff means anything until the season is all over with."