After years of sitting in the cellar of the Mid-American Conference, the Bulls have enjoyed two consecutive winning seasons and are starting to believe they belong among the conference’s elite.
“We used to come into games just hoping we could win,” coach Reggie Witherspoon says. “Now, we come into games knowing we can win.”
Winning will be a much tougher this season as the Bulls lost floor leader Turner Battle to graduation. Also gone is super-sub Mark Bortz, who averaged 10.4 points off the bench. However, the Bulls do return 6-10 junior post player Yassin Idbihi and guard Calvin Cage. Both Idbihi and Cage have proved to be among the best players in the league and could carry the Bulls to another move up in the standings.
“We had eight different guys lead us in scoring last year,” Witherspoon says. “We do lose Turner and Bortz, but we have had some good freshmen and sophomores in the last two years who are ready to step up.”
Five freshmen also come to the Buffalo program, and Witherspoon says he hopes two or three can contribute right away.
“We think that we have guys who can fill in and start for us,” Witherspoon says. “What we have had in the past is players that can come off the bench and give us a lift. We think some of the freshmen could come in and do that.”
4. Kent State (20–13, 11–7)
Senior guard DeAndre Haynes made a big splash as a freshman three years ago and followed up with a solid sophomore season, but he struggled a bit as a junior despite posting respectable numbers -- 9.9 points and 5.5 assists.
Kent was still able to win 20 games, and coach Jim Christian says this year’s team is capable of winning that many again.
“I think DeAndre was pushing a little too much last year,” Christian says. “He’s been a great player in the past for us and is going to leave here as the all-time assists leader. I think he will adjust to his role on this team.”
Senior forward Kevin Warzynski is the leading returning scorer at 11.5 points per game, while guard Jay Youngblood added 10.1. Also back is 6'9" center Nate Gerwig, who battled injuries most of last season.
“Nate really hasn’t been healthy since his freshman season,” Christian says. “Now he has taken some time off and gotten healthy and could be a big force for us.”
The Flashes welcome five new players to the team -- four freshmen (guards Jordan Mincy and Mike McKee along with post players Julian Sullinger and Brandon Parks) and junior college guard Omni Smith, who should add some experience to the backcourt.
5. Miami (19–11, 12–6)
The RedHawks lost their top two players -- and two of the better players in the conference -- in seniors Danny Horace and Chet Mason. That also means veteran coach Charlie Coles will have to replace nearly 30 points per game.
“We lose our best two players, but we relied on a lot of guys to get things done last year,” Coles says of a team that went 19–11, won the MAC East regular-season title and lost to TCU in the first round of the NIT. “It’s easy to see who we are missing -- they did a lot for us -- but I like our guys who are coming back. This time of year you can always like your team.”
Coles also likes his three incoming freshmen, in particular 6-5 guard Mike Bramos. Coles compares Bramos to a young Dan Majerle, a player he helped develop while coaching at Central Michigan.
William Hatcher is the top returning scorer, at 10.0 points per game, but redshirt freshman Lawrence Ross and junior forward Nathan Peavy are expected to help carry some of the scoring load.
6. Bowling Green (18–11, 10–8)
With all the talent in the East, this might not have been the year for the Falcons to switch divisions. BG has played the last three seasons in the West, but with the departure of Marshall to Conference USA the Falcons have moved back to the East.
Coach Dan Dakich has some significant holes to fill. The Falcons lost their top two scorers and one other senior, had two players transfer and lost another to a career-ending knee injury. All of that leaves Bowling Green with just seven returning players from last season.
“I really just don’t know until we get into it how good we are going to be,” Dakich says. “We have seven new guys coming in and only two returning starters.”
John Floyd (7.0 ppg) and Steven Wright (11.1) are the only proven players on the team. Forward Mawel Soler and guard Perrick Robinson played in all 29 games and each started at least three games.
Dakich says freshmen post players Erik Marschall (6-7) and Lionel Sullivan (6-6) will both get early shots at starting positions just because of their size.
1. Ball State (15–13, 10–8)
The success of the Ball State basketball team rests squarely on the health of junior point guard Peyton Stovall. He suffered a knee injury during the MAC Tournament, but coach Tim Buckley is optimistic about Stovall’s return to form.
If Stovall is 100 percent healthy, the Cardinals will likely be in contention not only for the MAC West Division title but also the outright league crown. Stovall averaged 16.7 points per game last season and can dominate the game while making his teammates better. He averaged a respectable 3.5 assists last year, but Buckley says Stovall still needs to work on finding the open man.
However, if Stovall is not healthy, all is not lost for the Cardinals.
Junior Skip Mills returns after averaging 11.9 points per game last year. His athleticism can cause trouble for other perimeter players in the league. Freshman Maurice Acker might have to see extended time at point guard if Stovall is not healthy. Buckley is also excited about 6-4 guard Jalon Perryman and the athleticism and skill he brings to the program.
A wild card for the Cardinals is 6-9 junior post player Charles Bass, who is finally eligible after transferring from Ohio State.
2. Western Michigan (20–13, 11–7)
Coach Steve Hawkins has had his Broncos in contention for the conference title in each of his first two seasons. He won the conference title in his first season and then led the Broncos to a 20–13 record and a second-round appearance in the NIT this past season.
However, the Broncos must successfully replace their top two scorers if they intend to continue their winning ways. Hawkins is excited about a highly rated freshman class but admits the bulk of production will still have to come from the returning core of players.
“We have a good group of newcomers -- they are talented, but they are young,” Hawkins says.
Senior guard Brian Snider will be counted on for added scoring this season.
“What Brian does is tough to really put into words,” Hawkins says. “He’s a winner. He’s capable of so many things, and I think you will see more of him this season.”
Stane’s Bufford scored 7.3 points per game as a junior, but Hawkins says the 6-5 swingman should contribute more this season.
Rebounding wasn’t a concern last year -- the Broncos had four players average over five boards per game, but two of those players are gone. Sophomore center Joe Reitz averaged 9.4 points and 5.5 rebounds and reminds WMU fans of former Bronco standout Anthony Kann.
3. Toledo (16–13, 11–7)
The Rockets might have bitten off more than they could chew last season. A tough non-conference schedule got Stan Joplin’s club off to a bad start from which it never really recovered.
“Out of our first 16 games, 12 of them were on the road and it was tough to get going,” Joplin says. “Our hands were kind of tied, but I don’t think we will be doing that again any time soon.”
However, the Rockets finished strong and return a solid core of players, including seniors Anton Currie and former MAC Freshman of the Year Sammy Villegas.
Toledo had a hard time holding onto leads last year. The Rockets dropped five conference games in which they were leading in the second half, including a pair of leads that were 15 or more points.
“We obviously have to finish games this season,” Joplin says. “We stood around and weren’t aggressive and didn’t put teams away.”
Hitting the boards will also be a key for the Rockets after finishing last in the MAC with a -3.8 rebounding margin.
4. Northern Illinois (11–17, 7–11)
The Huskies could be the real sleeper in the MAC this season. They lost only two players from a year ago and add Ben Rand, a 6-6 transfer from the University of Iowa.
The top returnees for NIU are guard Mike McKinney (12.6 ppg) and forward Todd Peterson (11.3). McKinney made nice progress last season, leading the team in rebounds with 6.1 per game and hitting 51 percent of his field goals.
“Mike obviously took a step forward and now we need him to make that next step towards being a premier player in this conference,” coach Rob Judson says.
Guard Anthony Maestranzi seems to get the little things done in Judson’s offense and hounds teams in the Huskies’ defensive schemes.
NIU also shot the ball well from behind the 3-point line last year at 39.3 percent and just needs to clamp down on its defense, which ranked ninth in the league.
5. Central Michigan (10–18, 4–14)
CMU finished with a disappointing 4–14 conference mark and failed to win a first-round Mid-American Conference tournament game for the second year in a row.
Four seniors are gone from that team, and leading scorer Kevin Nelson (17.0 ppg) has decided to transfer after missing three games last year with a suspension.
Despite all of that, coach Jay Smith is cautiously optimistic.
“Youth will be an issue but it’s youth with experience,” Smith says.
Without a senior on the team, the development of junior swingman Sefton Barrett, sophomore point guard Giordan Watson and 7'1" sophomore center Drew Walker will be critical.
“I think Sefton can be one of the best wing players around,” Smith says. “He’s athletic and can do some things other players just can’t.”
Anywhere from three to four freshmen are expected to play right away. Smith is very high on forwards Andre Smyth and Chris Kellerman.
6. Eastern Michigan (12–18, 5–13)
Charles Ramsey, who was an assistant coach at EMU in the early 1990s, returns to resurrect the Eagles’ program. He takes over a team that has struggled to compete in the MAC in recent years.
The good news for Ramsey is that John Bowler returns for his final season and brings his 13.0 points and 6.3 rebounds per game with him. Outside of that, the rest of the team is very young.
“We are going to put a lot of work on our defense,” Ramsey says. “Our offense is going to come from our defense.”
Ramsey says all six freshmen could play right away, most notably swingman Zane Gay, forward Gino Smith and point guard Carlos Medlock.