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Balanced MAC should provide plenty of regular season drama

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    The Toledo men's basketball team sits at 8-5 overall heading into conference play. The Rockets are part of a very deep and talented Mid-American Conference.

    BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH

  • SPT-BGmen30p-12

    Bowling Green State University's Demajeo Wiggins of Springfield High School has been one of the top rebounders in the MAC this season.

    BLADE PHOTO

SPT-UTMBB09-13

The Toledo men's basketball team sits at 8-5 overall heading into conference play. The Rockets are part of a very deep and talented Mid-American Conference.

BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge

Parity could be the name of the game in the Mid-American Conference this college basketball season. With conference play starting Tuesday, 11 of the 12 teams in the conference carry a winning record into the league portion of the schedule. The only team with a losing record is defending tournament champion Kent State (6-7).

“Top to bottom, this is as strong and balanced I have seen this league in the 18 years I’ve been in it,” Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins said on Twitter.

A closer look at the win-loss records does reveal MAC teams have just four wins against teams in the RPI top 100: Toledo and Eastern Michigan beat Oakland, Ball State downed Notre Dame, and Ohio got past Western Kentucky.

Nonetheless, in a league where it’s tough to schedule top-tier teams, MAC teams, for the most part, have been impressive in the nonconference season with a 75-58 record that is reflected in the conference’s RPI ranking as the 11th best league in the country.

All this parity should make for a fun regular season of MAC hoops. Here is a look around the league ahead of conference play:

Standings

MAC West

Central Michigan 11-2

Ball State 9-4

Eastern Michigan 9-4

Toledo 8-5

Western Michigan 8-5

Northern Illinois 7-6

Surprise team: Central Michigan — The Chippewas lost scoring machines in guards Marcus Keene and Braylon Rayson and were picked to finish in last place in the West in the conference’s preseason poll. Central Michigan has the best record in the conference, and suddenly looks like it could be a dangerous team heading into the conference schedule.

MAC East

Bowling Green 9-4

Buffalo 8-5

Akron 7-5

Ohio 7-5

Miami 7-6

Kent State 6-7

Surprise team: Bowling Green — The Falcons have a young roster and were picked to finish in fifth in the East in the preseason poll. Bowling Green carries a two-game win streak into the conference season. The Falcons will be a team to watch as the season progresses, and their young players gain more experience.

Best nonconference win

Ball State wins at Notre Dame, Dec. 5 — Ball State’s Tayler Persons came up with the shot of the season so far in the MAC when he stepped back a few feet beyond the 3-point line and hit the game-winner to give the Cardinals an 80-77 upset against the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame was ranked No. 8 in the country at the time.

Storylines to watch during the MAC season

1) Can Bowling Green or Toledo end NCAA tournament drought? — The Falcons have the longest NCAA tournament drought in the conference. They haven’t made the tournament since 1968, while Toledo is next, with its last appearance coming in 1980. Will this year be any different or will another year be added to the lengthy droughts?

2) How will John Groce fare at Akron? — Groce is back in the MAC after a stint at Illinois. The former Ohio coach is in his first season with the Zips, as Keith Dambrot left in the offseason for Duquesne and several players went with him. It should take some time for Groce to put his stamp on Akron, but can he get immediate results in the meantime?

3) When will Jason Carter return for Ohio? — Carter was picked to the preseason All-MAC East team and is one of the most talented post players in the conference. Carter has missed most of the season with a foot injury. He came back for a three-game stretch, but has missed the past two games. Will he be able to return during the regular season?

Five players to watch

1) James Thompson IV, center, Eastern Michigan: Thompson averages 17.3 points and a conference-leading 12.1 rebounds per game, shooting a MAC-best 67.2 percent from the field.

2) CJ Massinburg, guard, Buffalo: Massinburg is second in the conference in scoring at 19.5 points and ranks sixth in the MAC in 3-point field-goal percentage (42.3 percent) and third in 3s made (3.2 per game).

3) Thomas Wilder, point guard, Western Michigan: Wilder can do a bit of everything for the Broncos. The talented guard averages 18.2 points and 4.2 assists per game.

4) Tayler Persons, point guard, Ball State: Persons might be best known this season for his consecutive buzzer-beating 3s against Notre Dame and Valparaiso. He averages 15.2 points and 4.2 assists per game.

5) Tre’Shaun Fletcher, guard/forward, Toledo: Fletcher is the only player in the conference to be in the top 10 in points, rebounds, and assists. Toledo’s do-it-all player averages 17.4 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game.

Others to keep on the radar: Eugene German (Northern Illinois), Jaylin Walker (Kent State), Dylan Frye (Bowling Green), Mike Laster (Ohio), Daniel Utomi (Akron), Jaelan Sanford (Toledo).

Freshmen to watch

Justin Turner, Bowling Green: Turner leads all MAC freshmen in scoring at 16.8 points per game, which ranks ninth in the conference.

Others: Teyvion Kirk (Ohio), Marreon Jackson (Toledo).

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Bowling Green State University's Demajeo Wiggins of Springfield High School has been one of the top rebounders in the MAC this season.

BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

Clearing the glass (Top rebounders)

Demajeo Wiggins, Bowling Green: The Springfield High School grad has controlled the glass all season for the Falcons and sits in third in the conference in rebounding at 8.6 per game.

Others: Doug Taylor (Ohio), David DiLeo (Central Michigan).

Dropping Dimes (Top passers)

Darrian Ringo, Miami: The talented junior leads the MAC in assists at 7.9 per game.

Others: Jalen Avery (Kent State), Paul Jackson (Eastern Michigan).

Sharp Shooters (Best 3-point shooters)

Daniel Utomi, Akron: Utomi leads the conference with 3.5 made 3s per game and is third in 3-point percentage at 43.3 percent.

Others: Nate Navigato (Toledo), Jordan Dartis (Ohio).

Defensive Standouts

Elijah Minnie, Eastern Michigan: Minnie is the only player in the top five in the conference in steals and blocks. He averages 1.7 steals and 1.6 blocks per game.

Others: Tim Bond (Eastern Michigan), Emmanuel Olojakpoke (Akron).

Contact Brian Buckey at bbuckey@theblade.com419-724-6110, or on Twitter @BrianBuckey.

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