The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.

 
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As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game. With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, NCAA.com is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.

Here’s our look at the MAC.

Recap:

Last season was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Buffalo. Somebody forgot to tell them. With a three-pointer with two seconds left in the game, the Bulls pulled off a thrilling 64-61 upset of No. 1 seed Akron to capture their second-straight MAC title and ticket to the NCAA tournament.  

Buffalo couldn’t get past No. 3 seed Miami in the first round of the NCAA tournament, but it was a statement year for the Bulls, who should have all the tools for another in 2016.

This year, they will have to get past Akron again, as the Zips have the skill and experience to exact revenge on the Bulls and the rest of the conference. But Ohio and Eastern Michigan also have a shot at the title in what should be a very close year in the MAC.

Best Player:

To call James Thompson IV’s freshman season a success would be a wild understatement. Eastern Michigan’s starting center averaged a double-double with 14.8 points and 10.7 rebounds a game on his way to becoming the Eagles’ second-ever selection as MAC Freshman of the Year.

The 6-10, 220 pounder shot 64.5 percent on the season, good for second-best in EMU history, while grabbing 352 boards, good for third-most in school history. At the end of a year that saw the Eagles go 18-15 (9-9, MAC), Thompson was named to the Second Team All-MAC.

EMU basketball
Mike Carter | USA TODAY Sports
Eastern Michigan's James Thompson IV was named the MAC Freshman of the Year last season.

This year, Eastern Michigan was picked as the favorite to win the West Division, and received the third-most votes to win the MAC tournament. A great deal of that predicted success will depend on whether Thompson can improve on his rookie campaign. The odds say he can.

Best Team:

There’s barely enough room here to recap Akron’s record-breaking 2015-16 season. After the best start in program history, The Zips finished the year with a 26-9 record (tied for the school record), making it 11 straight years that they have managed 21 wins or more. Their 13-5 conference mark was the best in either division of the MAC, earning the Zips the regular season crown. Akron charged through the MAC tournament, but then Buffalo happened, and the Zips were on the outside of the NCAA tournament looking in once again.

Akron did manage a No. 6 seed in the NIT, though the Zips would fall to Ohio State in the first round of the tournament.

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This season, Akron returns three starters and nine letterwinners from that team. Senior center Isaiah Johnson averaged a team-high 13.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, while sophomore guard Antino Jackson had the second-most points on the year with 11.8 per contest. Jackson helped lead the Zips outside shooting performance with 68 three-pointers on a year that saw Akron set a school record for 3-point FGs made in a season (409) and in a game (20).

Perhaps the most impressive achievement from the 2015-16 campaign, the Zips also went unbeaten in 15 games at home on the year. This year, Akron looks to prove that last season was not a flash in the pan, and the coaches of the MAC seem to believe they will do that. For the fourth-straight year, Akron was picked in the preseason coaches’ poll to win the MAC.

Sleeper Team:

Despite an overall record of 17-15 (8-10 in the MAC), Toledo had one of the more efficient offensive outputs of the year in the conference.

Beyond being home to two of the conference’s top three scorers in pivot Nathan Boothe (19.3 ppg) and combo guard Jonathan Williams (17.6 ppg), the Rockets were at or near the top of the conference in most categories when it came to scoring the rock (77.6 ppg).

 

Toledo took the second spot in the conference for points per game, field goal percentage and free-throw percentage a year ago. The team was also the tops in the league for assists per game average, and the fourth-best club from the 3-point line.

In other words, this team has a potent and efficient attack on offense.

Williams made big strides a year ago as he developed into one of the leaders for the Rockets. His shot totals nearly doubled from a year ago, and he still managed to raise his overall field goal percentage. Perhaps the most telling stat: Williams missed double figures in the scoring department just once in 32 games.

The absence of his running mate Boothe will certainly put a crimp in things early, but look for Williams to continue to prove himself and possibly even make a run in the MAC POY race.

Trips to visit Saint Joseph’s and the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee State, as well as a matchup with Evansville will be good opportunities for Toledo to make a statement in the nonconference slate.

Honorable Mention:

The Huskies of Northern Illinois return three of the team’s top four scorers from a year ago. That’s a good start for head coach Mark Montgomery and his squad who went 21-12 overall, 9-9 in the MAC.

UNI coach Mark Montgomery led his Huskies to a 21-12 overall record, 9-9 in the MAC, a year ago.
Greg Bartram | USA TODAY Sports Images
UNI coach Mark Montgomery led his Huskies to a 21-12 overall record, 9-9 in the MAC, a year ago.

Losing in the quarterfinals of the MAC tournament is not exactly the finish the team envisioned, but Northern Illinois struggled at times on offense in the 2015-16 season. The team was near the middle of the pack in most offensive categories a year ago, so the emphasis will likely be on better ball movement to help generate some more quality looks.

But the team can fall back on its linchpin of solid defensive rebounding and timely second-chance opportunities.

The Huskies boasted the 53rd-best rebounding margin in the nation a year ago (12.7 offensive rebounds a night), which allowed the team to weather a number of tough shooting nights. Mind you that rebounding edge was better than teams like Oregon, Seton Hall and Virginia.

Freshman to Watch:

The Falcons of Bowling Green had a rough year in the 2015-16 season with 12 losses by 10+ points. So here’s hoping a little influx of some new blood can help invigorate this young squad that returns for head coach Michael Huger.

Enter Detroit-bred freshman Justin Turner. The 6’4” guard has a frame ready for the college game and can do a little bit of everything from the wing position.

A willing passer who can call his own number when necessary could be just what the doctor ordered with the departure of the team’s leading scorer forward Spencer Parker (14.0 ppg). The Falcons only have one player who averaged more two assists a game returning this year (senior guard Ismail Ali — 3.8 apg), so Turner could find a role early on as a distributor on offense.

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