Mid-American Conference Preview: Ohio Gears Up For Another Run With New Head Coach

Mar 23, 2012; St. Louis, MO, USA; Ohio Bobcats guard Walter Offutt (3) and teammates react during the second half of the semifinals in the midwest region of the 2012 NCAA men's basketball tournament against the North Carolina Tar Heels at the Edward Jones Dome. Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE

Ohio is the headline member of a talented stable of teams who will lead a resurgent Mid-American Conference in 2012-13.

Parity has been the MAC's staple for the better part of the past two decades. It's the reason why the league annually boasts one of college basketball's most competitive conference tournaments, but also why it hasn't sent multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament since Wally Szczerbiak and Miami earned an at-large bid in 1999.

That could change this season as defending tournament champion Ohio and defending regular season champion Akron each return more than enough pieces to be players on the national scene.

The Bobcats return every contributor from the team that was a regulation point away from stunning top-seeded North Carolina and becoming the first 13 seed to ever advance to a regional final. That postseason run should help the perception of the MAC, which has been overshadowed in recent years by mid-major conferences like the Colonial, Horizon and Missouri Valley.

If the Zips and Bobcats can make some noise in the early part of the season and then avoid those bad losses which seem to always plague the MAC's top teams during the heart of the conference grind, the league could be seeing multiple members having their names called on Selection Sunday.

FINAL 2011-12 CONFERENCE STANDINGS

STANDINGS CONFERENCE OVERALL
Mid-American - East W-L GB PCT W-L PCT STRK
Akron 13-3 -- .813 22-11 .667 L1
Buffalo 12-4 1 .750 19-10 .655 L1
Ohio 11-5 2 .688 27-7 .794 W4
Kent State 10-6 3 .625 21-11 .656 L1
Bowling Green 9-7 4 .563 16-15 .516 L2
Miami (OH) 5-11 8 .313 9-21 .300 L4
Mid-American - West W-L GB PCT W-L PCT STRK
Eastern Michigan 9-7 -- .563 14-18 .438 L2
Toledo 7-9 2 .438 18-16 .529 L1
Ball State 6-10 3 .375 15-15 .500 L1
Western Michigan 6-10 3 .375 14-20 .412 L1
Central Michigan 5-11 4 .313 11-21 .344 L1
Northern Illinois 3-13 6 .188 5-26 .161 L1

CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT CHAMPION

3) Ohio defeated 1) Akron (64-63)

NCAA TOURNAMENT RESULTS

First Round: 13) Ohio defeated 4) Michigan (65-60)

Second Round: 13) Ohio defeated 12) South Florida (62-56)

Sweet 16: 13) Ohio lost to 1) North Carolina (73-65 OT)

THREE BIGGEST OFFSEASON STORYLINES

1. No postseason For Toledo

Though nearly all of the focus on postseason bans for 2013 has centered around Connecticut, Toledo has quietly been dealt the exact same fate as the Huskies because of the same low APR scores. The Rockets will not be able to participate in either the MAC or NCAA Tournaments, and will also lose four hours of practice time per week as well as three regular season games.

The poor APR scores in question predated second-year head coach Tod Kowalczyk's arrival, as the program's four-year rolling average of 869 from 2007-2011 falls below the 930 threshold mandated by the NCAA to maintain postseason eligibility. Its two-year rolling average of 917 between 2009-2011 also misses the mark.

Toledo is still hoping to see its appeal granted at some point this summer, but that appears unlikely to happen.

2. Ohio looks toward another run without Groce

Despite returning just about every member of a team that was a point away from becoming the first 13 seed to advance past the Sweet 16, the story for Ohio this season has been about who won't be back. John Groce, whose interaction with OU president Roderick McDavis after the team's upset of Michigan became one of the feel-good moments of the tournament, accepted the head coaching job at Illinois shortly after the school fired Bruce Weber.

The Bobcats now belong to Jim Christian, who paced the sidelines at Kent State from 2002-08 before spending the past four seasons at TCU. He is the owner of the best winning percentage in MAC history, and was 10-5 against Ohio during his six seasons with the Golden Flashes.

Keeping that percentage up shouldn't be an especially difficult task for Christian, who inherits star senior D.J. Cooper, a first team All-MAC performer in each of the past two seasons, and every other Bobcat who played a meaningful minute last season.

In a league known for parity, Ohio figures to enter the season as a rare, decided favorite.

3. East again appears superior

There might not be a less balanced conference in America than the MAC, which again figures to have nearly all of its legitimate conference title contenders in the same division.

Thankfully, the league has a straight seeding formula for its league tournament and does not pair up opponents based on divisional finish. A season ago, the MAC's top four seeds and five of its top six all came out of the East division. The balance of power figures to be just as unequal this season, with Ohio, Akron Buffalo and Kent State appearing on paper to be superior to any squad the West has to offer.

EARLY PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

EAST

Ohio

The Bobcats earned votes in both national polls during the tail end of their strong non-conference run in December, but went through the motions for a spell during league play to wind up with the three seed in the conference tournament. Still, no one was surprised to see OU emerge with the MAC's auto-bid and then make a run in the big dance.

Remarkably, Ohio will return all nine of its top scorers from last season and enter 2012-13 as the clear favorites to repeat in the MAC. Freshman TyQuane Goard -- who, along with sophomore center Ethan Jacobs, chose to transfer after the season -- is the only player on last year's squad who played more than 25 total minutes and won't return.

If the returning players can gel effectively with Christian, then the MAC might be able to lay claim to a legitimate top 25 team.

Akron

Ohio's getting all the love because of its conference tournament title and run to the second weekend of the big dance, but it shouldn't be forgotten that Akron actually finished last year with the best record in the MAC and was a single basket away from knocking the Bobcats off and hearing their name called on Selection Sunday.

The Zips have the league's best defensive player and NBA prospect in senior center Zeke Marshall, who flirted briefly with the idea of turning pro at the end of last season. Marshall and a matured Alex Abreu should make up one of the most formidable inside-outside duos in the league. Super subs Quincy Diggs, Nick Harney and Demetrius Treadwell are also back and looking to step into larger roles.

OU will garner the bulk of the preseason headlines, but the reality is that Akron is more than capable of exacting some revenge and earning the trip to the big dance they thought they should have had a season ago.

Buffalo

Reigning MAC Player of the Year Mitchell Wyatt is gone, which means the team is now officially Javon McCrea's to carry. The rising junior has been a double-figure scorer in each of his first two collegiate seasons, posting averages of 14.8 points and 7.1 rebounds in 2011-12, and has as much star potential as any player in the league.

That's the good news for Reggie Witherspoon. The bad news is he returns just one other player -- senior guard Tony Watson II -- who averaged more than six points.

Kent State

Last season was an odd mix of success and frustration for the Flashes, who began with a road upset of West Virginia and ultimately posted double digit wins in league play, but lost all three of its games against regular season champ Akron, including a 78-74 clash in the tournament semis.

Justin Greene, the team's star for the past three seasons, is gone to graduation, which means the leadership torch now belongs to senior guard Randal Holt and his 12.8 points per game average. Junior Chris Evans is also back after averaging 9.7 points and 4.2 rebounds.

Miami (OH)

First-year head coach John Cooper inherits a team that finished last in the East a season ago and loses lost scorer Julian Mavunga. Still, with talented young players like Jon Harris and Quinten Rollins headed back to Oxford for another year, the pieces are in place for the Redhawks to be improved in 2012-13. Miami is a proud program that won't stay down for long.

Bowling Green

The Falcons return leading scorer A'uston Calhoun as well as standout point guard Jordon Crawford. They could finish fifth or sixth in the East and will wind up with an overall seed no lower than seventh in the conference tournament.

WEST

Eastern Michigan

The senior tandem of Derek Thompson and Jamell Harris will be asked to pick up much of the load left behind by do-it-all leading scorer Darrell Lampley. The West was so inferior to the East last season that the Eagles were only the No. 5 seed in the league tournament despite winning it by a full two games. Expect a similar result for the division champ this season.

Toledo

The Rockets return both leading scorer Rian Pearson and reigning MAC Freshman of the Year Juice Brown, but it's hard to see the program's postseason ban not having a negative effect on the team's performance. If Toledo somehow wins its appeal this summer, then they'll become my pick in the West.

Western Michigan

Three of WMU's four double-digit scorers from last season were seniors, but forward Nate Hutcheson has all-league potential.

Central Michigan

Keno Davis already squandered his biggest recruiting opportunity this offseason when Trey Zeigler said "thanks, but no thanks" and bolted for Pitt not long after CMU fired his father. He also lost arguably the team's next-best returner in Austin McBroom to transfer. The rebuilding effort starts now for the '08 AP Coach of the Year.

Ball State

Jarron Jones may have left behind the largest shoes to fill in the conference. Someone from the junior quartet of Jesse Berry, Tyrae Robinson, Chris Bond and Tyler Koch must step up and become a star for the Cardinals to be competitive.

Northern Illinois

The Huskies lost leading scorer Tim Toler from a team that won just five games overall in 2011-12.

EARLY PREDICTED ALL-MAC TEAM

G D.J. Cooper, Ohio
G Rian Pearson, Toledo
G Walter Offutt, Ohio
F Javon McCrea, Buffalo
C Zeke Marshall, Akron

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Taylor Perry, Western Michigan

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: D.J. Cooper, Ohio

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