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January 7, 2014

MAC basketball preview: East Division

The Mid-American Conference will start their conference schedule on Wednesday night, with all 12 teams in action. Central Michigan will host the Miami RedHawks at McGuirk Arena, with other top matchups including Western Michigan hosting MAC West favorite Toledo and the Ohio Bobcats heading to Kent State. On KenPom.com, the MAC is ranked currently 14th out of the 33 Division 1 conferences.

Coming into conference play, the East division is still the better division. The teams can probably be divided into four or five tiers. The favorites are Toledo and Ohio. The next tier of teams is Akron, Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Kent State and Buffalo. Bowling Green and Miami make up the third tier coming into the conference schedule. Northern Illinois, Central Michigan and Ball State are projected as the bottom three teams as we start MAC play.

Here is a quick look at each team in the MAC East and what their chances are to win the Mid-American Conference championship in 2012-13.


Akron

The Zips come into conference play with the No. 127 ranking on KenPom and an 8-5 record. They don't have any bad losses and four of their five losses are to teams ranked in the top 110 teams, including a loss at No. 46 St. Mary's and another loss at No. 14 Iowa State. Their best wins are over No. 87 Cleveland State (road) and No. 118 Oregon State (neutral site). Akron has the fifth-most efficient offense in the conference and the fourth-most efficient defense. Akron is playing at a slower pace than last year, with the 212th-ranked tempo, and is dealing with the loss of All-MAC big man Zeke Marshall, point guard Alex Abreu and wing Brian Walsh. However, with head coach (and former CMU head coach) Keith Dambrot in his 10th year at the helm, there is a lot of continuity in Akron.

What the Zips do best on offense is what the same thing that they've been good at for a while: rebound the basketball. Led by senior power forwards Demetrius Treadwell, who was on the All-MAC second team last year, and Nick Harney, as well as sophomore center Pat Forsythe, Akron is 20th in the nation and first in the conference in offensive rebounding percentage. What they struggle at is taking care of the basketball, ranked 298th in offensive turnover percentage. The Zips are an average shooting team and do a decent job getting to the free throw line, but are one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the country. They have only made 61.3 percent of their attempts from the charity stripe, which is 340th in the country and worst in the conference. Backup wing Jake Kretzer is the only player on the roster with a free throw percentage over 70 percent, but just barely, at 70.8 percent.

The offense goes through Treadwell and sixth man Quincy Diggs a small forward. Both get a bunch of touches and average over 10 points-per-game. Harney gets as many touches as Treadwell and Diggs when he is on the floor, but averages 10-15 minutes less than the other two, so he only scores 7.4 ppg. The most efficient player is actually Kretzer, but his usage rate is just about 15 percent, while Treadwell, Diggs and Harney all have a rate north of 25 percent. Diggs has also been able to create for others, with the 10th-highest assist rate in the MAC.

Defensively, the Zips run mostly man-to-man defense and are good at defending two-point shooting, only allowing teams to make 46.1 percent of their two-point shots. Forsythe has played a big role in this, stepping in admirably for Marshall, who had the sixth-best block rate in the nation last year. Forsythe isn't at that level yet, but is eighth in the MAC right now. Opponents have had success behind the three-point line, hitting 36.9 percent of their three-point shots. They've been above average at creating turnover and average at keeping opponents off the free throw line. Diggs has been a big part of forcing turnovers, with the 10th-best steal percentage in the conference. Surprisingly, the weakest part of their defense has been their rebounding, ranked 247th in the country. Treadwell and Diggs have been solid on the defensive boards, but the rest of the roster hasn't done much.

This is a deep, talented team with great size. In 10,000 simulations by KenPom.com, Akron won the league in 8.2 percent of them. KenPom project the Zips to finish with a 18-13 record at the end of the regular season, with a 10-8 record in the conference.

Bowling Green

The Falcons come into conference play on a two-game losing streak and a record of 6-7. They don't really have any bad losses and three of their seven losses have been to teams ranked in the top 30 (Wisconsin, Saint Louis and Xavier). The Falcons took No. 29 Xavier to overtime on the road, before losing 85-73. BGSU has played the 95th-toughest schedule in the country thus far. The Falcons are ranked No. 207 on KenPom, which is 40 spots higher than they started season. They have the most efficient defense in the MAC, ranked 45th in the nation, but have the worst offense in the conference, ranked 329th in the country.

Head coach Louis Orr is a Jim Boeheim disciple, so the Falcons will play a good amount of zone defense. They are average to above average in all aspects of their defense and are especially good at forcing turnovers, ranked 56th in the nation and second in the conference in defensive turnover percentage. They are 30th in the country (second in the conference) in steal percentage and are 16th in the country (second in the conference) in block percentage.

BGSU has three of the top six players in the MAC in steal percentage. Starting point guard Anthony Henderson and backup guard J.D. Tisdale are both ranked in the top 100 nationally in steal percentage and starting shooting guard Jehvon Clarke is 140th in the country. Starting power forward Richaun Holmes is third in the MAC and 29th in the nation in block percentage. Starting center Cameron Black is 10th in the conference in block percentage. Everybody contributes to their defense. When you see the numbers, you begin to understand why this is arguably the best defense in the conference.

The offense runs through Clarke, with Holmes and starting small forward Spencer Parker also getting a healthy amount of touches. They are the only three players on the roster with usage rates above 20 percent. Clarke hasn't been that efficient, which is why he only averages 11.9 ppg. Holmes is the most efficient offensive player on the roster and leads the team in scoring at 14.2 ppg. Parker and Henderson each score more than 10 ppg as well. As a team, they are average at scoring inside, mainly because Holmes, Parker and Black are good finishers at the basket. However, they are an abysmal three-point shooting team, only making 26 percent of their three-point shots this season, which is the third-worst percentage in the entire country. At least BSGU recognizes this, because they have the second-lowest three-point shooting rate in the nation, only 20.6 percent of their shots behind the arc.

Bowling Green is slightly above average at getting to the free throw line, but struggles to make shots once they get there, only making 62.8 percent of their shots from the charity stripe. They are a below average offensive rebounding team and have been really bad at taking care of the basketball, ranked 330th in offensive turnover percentage. Opponents have stolen the ball on 12.8 percent of the Falcons possessions this season, third-worst in the nation.

BGSU plays at an average tempo, ranked 188th in the country with 67.6 possessions-per-game, and doesn't use their bench much, ranked 348th in bench minutes. They have good size, with the 99th-best effective height in the nation. Bowling Green only won the conference 64 times in the 10,000 KenPom simulations. Pomeroy projects the Falcons to finish with a 13-18 record and a 7-11 record in the conference.

Buffalo

Even with Bobby Hurley taking over the Bulls program, it's still the Javon McCrea show in Buffalo. The two-time All-MAC first team center is now a senior. This year, he is third in the MAC in percentage of possessions used, at 29.5 percent, and has the second-highest rating of the 17 MAC players with a usage rate of at least 24 percent. McCrea is averaging 17.7 ppg and 9.6 rpg this season. He has made 57.4 percent of his shots, which have all come inside the three-point line, and is one of the conference's best rebounders. McCrea does a good job getting to the free throw line, drawing more fouls per 40 minutes than anybody in the conference. His assist rate is considerably down this year, but he has also turned the ball over less this season. McCrea gets the job done on defense too, with the fourth-best block percentage and the ninth-best steal percentage in the conference.

The return of senior point guard Jarod Oldham has helped. Oldham didn't play after mid-December last season. Oldham has the second-best assist rate in the conference and is 18th in the country. Aside from McCrea, the most efficient players on offense are starting shooting guard Joshua Freelove and starting power forward Will Regan. Regan is a versatile scorer and shooter that can also does a good job crashing the offensive glass.

Despite having McCrea, Buffalo struggles to score inside, only making 46.6 percent of their two-point shots. They're not much better shooting from the outside either, hitting 30.8 percent of their three-point shots. Because of McCrea and Regan, they are very good at crashing the offensive glass. Buffalo is ranked third in the MAC and 54th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage. The Bulls are also very good at getting to the free throw (64th in free throw rate), but struggle with turnovers (278th in offensive turnover percentage.

Buffalo is solid defensively, mainly because of an ability to force teams into bad shots. Bulls opponents have hit just 45.3 percent of two-point shots this season (83rd in the nation) and only 28.5 percent of three-point shots (21st in the country). However, they are below average in every other aspect of their defense: forcing turnovers, getting rebounds and keeping opponents off the free throw line. The Bulls have good shot blocking numbers, mainly because of the ability of McCrea and Regan to block shots.

The Bulls are playing at a faster pace under Hurley, with the 114th-ranked tempo in the country. They are seventh in the MAC in offensive efficiency and sixth in defensive efficiency. The Bulls come into conference play with a 6-4 record against the nation's 263rd-ranked schedule. They have the No. 157 ranking on KenPom. Buffalo won the conference in 4.03 percent of the 10,000 KenPom simulations and KenPom projects the Bulls to finish with a 16-12 overall record, with an 10-8 mark in the conference.

Kent State

The Golden Flashes come into conference play with a 9-4 record, played against the 292nd-ranked schedule in the country. Two of their four losses came against teams in the top 100 on KenPom (Cleveland State, Princeton) and the other two were to No. 119 Seton Hall and No. 159 Bucknell. They play a below-average tempo, with the second-most efficient offense in the conference and the second-lease efficient defense. Kent State is ranked 152nd on KenPom.

Last year, KSU ran their offense through point guard Randal Holt, power forward Chris Evans and small forward Darren Goodson. With Holt and Evans gone, the offense goes through Goodson when he's on the floor. He has the fifth-highest usage rate in the conference, but is only scoring 10.4 ppg because he has the lowest offensive rating of any of the five starters. The most efficient starters are center Mark Henniger, who has the 15th-highest offensive rating in the country, and starting small forward Devareaux Manley. Point guard [db]Kris Brewer and shooting guard Derek Jackson (yes, former Chippewa Derek Jackson) are also effective scorers. All five starters average at least 9.0 ppg.

Kent State is good on offense because they are above average in most key areas (effective field goal percentage, offensive rebounding, free throw rate) and are very good at taking care of the basketball. They are second in the MAC and 46th in the country in offensive turnover percentage. None of their three key perimeter players (Brewer, Jackson, Manley) struggle with turnovers. They aren't great at scoring inside, only making 46.7 percent of their two-point shots, but they take a lot of threes and make a lot of threes, hitting 37.3 percent of their shots behind the arc, 68th in the country.

The Golden Flashes don't have any glaring weaknesses on defense, but they don't really have any areas of strength either, which is probably why their overall numbers are down. They are average defending opponents inside and outside scoring, average at forcing turnover, average at defensive rebounding and average at keeping opponents off the free throw line. They don't have an aspect of their defense that they can lean on to get stops when they need them.

KSU has the second-most experienced team in the conference and they are deep, but only have average size. The Golden Flashes won the conference in 3.34 percent of the 10,000 KenPom simulations. Pomeroy's computer project Kent State to finish with a 19-12 record and a 10-8 MAC record.

Miami

The RedHawks are arguably the worst team in the East, but at No. 220 on KenPom, they are still ranked higher than the bottom three teams in the West. They are ninth in the MAC in offensive efficiency and eighth in defensive efficiency. Miami has a 4-7 record against the No. 26 schedule in the nation, which was bolstered by games against Notre Dame, Arizona State, Xavier and UMass. They are ranked 193rd in tempo, which is slightly below average nationally. Losing guard Reggie Johnson and Michigan transfer Blake McLimans doesn't help their offense. With senior big man Bill Edwards sidelined with an injury, Miami only has 10 eligible players on the roster.

Miami is ranked 159th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency and they would be better if they defended opponents shooting better. RedHawks opponents have shot 53.8 percent on two-point shots and 39.8 percent on three-point shots. Miami is 338th in the nation in defensive effective field goal percentage. They are very good at every other aspect of their defense. The RedHawks are 96th in defensive turnover percentage, 39th in defensive rebounding (first in the MAC) and 24th in defensive free throw rate (first in the MAC). Starting small forward Geovonie McKnight and starting point guard Quinten Rollins are both in the top four in the conference in steal percentage.

Offensively, the RedHawks go through starting big man Will Felder, who leads MU in touches and scoring. The return of guard Willie Moore, who came back on December 29, should help this offense. Aside from Felder and Moore, the only other players who have contributed significantly to this offense are McKnight and starting shooting guard Will Sullivan, although Rollins and starting power forward Joshua Oswald do have some potential.

Miami is good at one thing on offense, scoring inside, which should come as no surprise with Felder's production. They are 29th in the country and second in the MAC in two-point shooting percentage, making 53.6 percent of their shots inside. However, they've been terrible at making outside shots, only hitting 26.1 percent of their three-point shots, which is 345th in the nation. MU is just as bad at offensive rebounding, ranked 344th in offensive rebounding percentage. Felder is really their only good rebounder. They struggle to take care of the basketball and don't get to the free throw line that often.

Miami, who is young and has average size, only won the conference 13 times in 10,000 KenPom simulations. That number is so low mainly because they are the bottom team in the East. Pomeroy projects them to finish with an 11-18 record and a 7-11 conference record.

Ohio

Even though Akron is the MAC East favorite, KenPom has Ohio as the highest ranked team in the division. They are ranked No. 84 on KenPom, with a 10-3 record against an average schedule. Other than a road loss to No. 165 Oakland, their losses have been to very good competition. The Bobcats lost at home to No. 28 UMass and at No. 1 Ohio State. OU also has wins over top 100 teams in Northern Iowa, Mercer and Richmond. Ohio plays at a slightly fast pace than the national average. They have the third-most efficient offense in the MAC and the third-most efficient defense. Their defense is ranked 68th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.

The Bobcats have been very good at defensive rebounding, ranked 52nd, and at stopping teams from getting good shots, ranked 45th in effective field goal percentage. They have been above average at forcing turnovers, but have struggled to keep opponents off the free throw line, ranked 295th in defensive free throw rate. Junior college transfer Maurice Ndour has taken over the starting center job and has made a big impact defensively. Ndour is fifth in the conference in defensive rebounding percentage and sixth in block percentage. Starting power forward Jon Smith is fifth in block percentage.

Ndour has been very effective on offense as well, leading the Bobcats in touches and scoring, averaging 14.9 ppg. Starting shooting guard Nick Kellogg doesn't get as many touches as Ndour, but has been a more efficient scorer. Kellogg is second in scoring, with 14.7 ppg, and is fifth in the MAC in effective field goal percentage. Smith is second in the conference in effective field goal percentage, but doesn't get nearly as many touches as Ndour or Kellogg. Junior point guard Stevie Taylor hasn't matched All-MAC point guard D.J. Cooper's production, but has put up adequate numbers, with the ninth-best assist rate in the conference.

Ohio has had to replace Cooper, along with Ivo Baltic, and All-MAC third teamers Reggie Keely and Walter Offutt, but have found ways to keep their offense productive. Nationally, they are slightly above average at No. 138 in adjusted offensive efficiency, but in a conference that doesn't have that many elite offenses, they are third in the MAC in adjusted offensive efficiency. Ohio isn't great at many things on offense, but they don't really have any glaring weaknesses either. They are average in every one of KenPom's four factors: effective field goal percentage, turnover percentage, rebounding and free throw rate. With their defense, that should be enough to contend for the conference crown.

For the second year in a row, Ohio is one of the most experienced teams in the country. The top eight guys in their rotation are juniors or seniors and they are ninth in the nation in KenPom's experience metric. The Bobcats won the conference in 22.6 percent of the 10,000 KenPom simulations. Pomeroy projects Ohio to finish with a 22-9 record in the regular season, with a 12-6 MAC record.

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