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Brian Buckey | The Blade | January 1, 2018

Balanced MAC should provide plenty of regular season drama

  Central Michigan has raced out to an 11-2 mark in non-conference play, the best record in the conference.

Parity could be the name of the game in the Mid-American Conference this college basketball season. With conference play beginning on Tuesday, 11 of the 12 teams in the conference carry a winning record into the MAC 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 that MAC teams have just four wins over teams in the RPI top 100: Toledo and Eastern Michigan over Oakland, Ball State over Notre Dame, and Ohio over 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 non-conference season with a 75-58 record that is reflected in the conference's RPI ranking as the 11th best conference 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:

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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 MAC West in the conference's preseason poll. Central Michigan has raced out to an 11-2 mark in non-conference play, 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 (OH), 7-6

Kent State, 6-7

Surprise team: Bowling Green

The Falcons have a young roster and were picked to finish in fifth place in the MAC East in the conference's preseason poll. Bowling Green sits at 9-4 and 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 non-conference win: Ball State wins at Notre Dame

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 buried a game-winning 3 to give the Cardinals an 80-77 upset win over 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 in line 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 at Akron. Keith Dambrot left in the offseason for the job at 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 All-MAC East team in the preseason 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 last two games for the Bobcats. Will he be able to return during the regular season?

Five players to watch in MAC play

1) James Thompson IV, center, Eastern Michigan

Thompson is the man in the middle for Eastern Michigan. He averages 17.3 points and a conference-leading 12.1 rebounds per game, while 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 per game and ranks sixth in the MAC in 3-point field goal percentage (42.3 percent) and third in 3-pointers made (3.2 per game).

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3) Thomas Wilder, point guard, Western Michigan

Wilder can do a bit of everything for the Broncos. The talented lead guard averages 18.2 points and 4.2 assists per game.

4) Tayler Persons, point guard, Ball State

Persons may be best known this season for his consecutive buzzer-beating 3-pointers in wins over 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 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; and Jaelan Sanford, Toledo.

Freshman 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 and Marreon Jackson, Toledo

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Clearing the glass (Top rebounders)

Demajeo Wiggins, Bowling Green

Wiggins 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 and David DiLeo, Central Michigan

Dropping Dimes (Top passers)

Darrian Ringo, Miami

The talented junior is the leading assist man in the conference at 7.9 per game.

Others: Jalen Avery, Kent State and Paul Jackson, Eastern Michigan

Sharp Shooters (Best 3-point shooters)

Daniel Utomi, Akron

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

Others: Nate Navigato, Toledo and Jordan Dartis, Ohio

Defensive Standouts

Elijah Minnie, Eastern Michigan

Minnie is the only player in the top five in the conference in both steals and blocks. He averages 1.7 steals and 1.6 blocks per game.

Others: Tim Bond, Eastern Michigan and Emmanuel Olojakpoke, Akron

This article is written by Brian Buckey from The Blade and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.