The lid on the Mid-American Conference basketball season is lifted Wednesday, with each team playing the first of 18 league contests preluding to the conference tournament.
The University of Toledo looks to rebound from its only loss — at nationally ranked Kansas — on the road at Western Michigan. Bowling Green State University hosts Eastern Michigan.
Nine of the league’s 12 teams finished nonconference play at .500 or above, prompting Kent State coach Rob Senderoff to say the MAC is in the best shape it’s been in the past five years.
Here is a look at the good and the bad of each team listed in order of preseason poll ranking (with season record):
Reason for optimism: Transfers Justin Drummond and J.D. Weatherspoon are fulfilling expectations, infusing the Rockets with more talent than at any time in recent memory. All five starters rank in the top 28 in the MAC in scoring.
Reason for skepticism: Tod Kowalczyk’s team is 5-0 in games decided by five or fewer points. Will the law of averages intervene and halt UT’s late-game mojo?
Western Michigan (7-5)
Reason for optimism: David Brown’s clean bill of health. Brown, the reigning sixth man of the year, missed WMU’s first 13 games last year with an injury. He is again healthy and leads the MAC in scoring (18.9 points per game).
Reason for skepticism: The loss of forward Darius Paul reduces WMU from a title contender to a team gapped between the league’s top and middle tiers. Paul, the league’s freshman of the year, is sitting out this season at Illinois.
Eastern Michigan (8-5)
Reason for optimism: EMU is finally scoring points (71.3) after consecutive seasons averaging in the mid 50s. The addition of junior college forward Karrington Ward (14.2 points) and the return of injured guard Raven Lee (11.7 points) relieves strain on the Eagles at the defensive end.
Reason for skepticism: The 2-3 zone, brought to EMU three years ago by Jim Boeheim disciple Rob Murphy, has had mixed results away from the Convocation Center.
Ball State (3-8)
Reason for optimism: The Cardinals are more talented than their record suggests. Seniors Jesse Berry, Majok Majok, and Chris Bond are household names in the league, and BSU’s leading scorer, Zavier Turner, is a smart pick for MAC freshman of the year.
Reason for skepticism: BSU has yet to win in six road games.
Central Michigan (7-5)
Reason for optimism: The Chips are taking hold of coach Keno Davis’ break-neck offensive philosophy, ranking near the top of the league in several categories, including second in points (77.8).
Reason for skepticism: Of CMU’s top eight contributors, none are seniors. The rebuild from the roster exodus that occurred two years ago demands more time.
Northern Illinois (6-6)
Reason for optimism: The record. NIU has exceeded its win total — five — from each of the first two seasons under Mark Montgomery.
Reason for skepticism: NIU is without a player in the top 30 in the league in scoring, an eyesore consistent of a team that last year set a Division I record for offensive futility with four points in the first half of a loss to Eastern Michigan.
Reason for optimism: Pay little mind to the record. In playing nine games in 19 days, the Zips traveled more over the holidays than anyone but Santa. They have the talent to win 20 games for a ninth straight season.
Reason for skepticism: The dismissal in the offseason of point guard Alex Abreu (drug trafficking and subsequent probation violation) has left coach Keith Dambrot searching for answers at the position.
Reason for optimism: MAC player of the year frontrunner Javon McCrea has shot 50 percent or higher in all but one game.
Reason for skepticism: Buffalo athletic director Danny White double-downed on the program’s quest for an elusive championship, firing long-time coach Reggie Witherspoon and bringing in former Duke icon Bobby Hurley. Whether Hurley, a first-time head coach, amounts to more than a splash hire remains a question.
Reason for optimism: Junior college forward Maurice Ndour was a good find for coach Jim Christian. Ndour, a native of Senegal, is leading the team in points (14.9) and rebounds (7.9), helping to offset the loss of the MAC’s top senior class from a year ago.
Reason for skepticism: Starting guard Ricardo Johnson will miss extended time — maybe the rest of the season — with a fractured leg he suffered over the weekend at UNC Asheville. Remove Johnson from the line up and the Bobcats must make up 8.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 26.1 minutes.
Kent State (9-4)
Reason for optimism: Derek Jackson is excelling at his second MAC stop. Once a starter at Central Michigan, the Cleveland native Jackson was out of basketball last year before re-surfacing at Kent where he’s leading the team in minutes (31.2) and is second in scoring (11.5).
Reason for skepticism: The Golden Flashes have played nine of 13 games at home, a disparity that devalues their solid start.
Reason for optimism: Oregon transfer Willie Moore recently became eligible, giving the RedHawks a much needed infusion of talent. Moore, a guard from Cincinnati, led Miami with 14 points in his debut — a Dec. 29 win over Southern Illinois.
Reason for skepticism: Moore’s arrival comes in the wake of departures to starters Reggie Johnson and Blake McLimans.
Bowling Green (6-7)
Reason for optimism: Post players Richaun Holmes and Spencer Parker have taken their games to new heights. Holmes (6.5 points, 5.0 rebounds in 2012-13) has watched his numbers grow to 14.2 points and 7.5 boards. Parker, a menial contributor last year as a freshman, has emerged with 13.0 points and 4.7 rebounds.
Reason for skepticism: BG claims the top three minute-loggers in the MAC, likely rendering its decent start unsustainable over an 18-game league grind.
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