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Thursday, September 4, 2008
MAC ShootAround: Yearning to be a two-bid league again

ESPN.com

Theodore A. Wagner/Icon SMI

Kent State swept Akron in three meetings last season, but both teams made the postseason.

Soaring over the competition

It's going to be the biggest falcon statue in the world. At 23 feet tall, it'll be the first thing you see when you approach the Stroh Center on the Bowling Green campus upon its completion in 2012.

"I just heard about that statue just the other day," said Bowling Green head coach Louis Orr. "That's going to be a big falcon."

For the next four years, however, the Falcons will add a few final chapters to the 4,700-seat Anderson Arena. It's a venerable fieldhouse, opened in 1960, that former Marshall star J.R. VanHoose once said was so intimate that fans can "pick the hair off your legs."

"In the heyday of Anderson Arena, they called it 'The House That Roars,' " said Orr. "We don't want to lose that strong homecourt feeling. But it's all about finances these days, you know. Having a new arena with modern amenities, a practice facility, that's really going to help this program. I hope we can keep that intimacy … hopefully it'll be the best of both worlds for us."

In his first season at Bowling Green after five years at Seton Hall, Orr helped recapture some of that roar. The Falcons won six MAC games at home, including victories over three of the four teams that represented the league in the postseason (Kent, Ohio and Miami). Overall, he led the Falcons to a four-game turnaround, recalling the time Jim Larranaga took the program from 5-13 in the MAC to 10-6 in his first season back in 1986-87.

And no home win resonated like the victory over Kent State on March 1. The Golden Flashes came into Anderson on a six-game winning streak, ranked No. 23 by the Associated Press after a BracketBusters win over Saint Mary's. Backed by 24 points from Brian Moten and a 21-point, 12-assist performance by Joe Jakubowski, the Falcons overcame late pressure and knocked Kent straight out of the polls with an 89-83 victory.

Any good team, anyone with NCAA expectations has to be able to win on the road. … That's what we've got to learn to do. It's what's separating us from greatness right now.

--Louis Orr

"When we played Kent State at home, they were on a roll," Orr recalled. "But that day, the building had that feeling people talk about when they talk about Anderson Arena. Before other teams get there to play you, they're on the bus thinking about how tough it's going to be."

The next step in BG's development will have to do with its own bus. An increase in road toughness is needed after a 13-17 (7-9) MAC season that featured eight wins in white jerseys but a 4-10 record in opponents' buildings. The Falcons scored just 60.4 points on the road, their lowest total since 1994-95.

"Any good team, anyone with NCAA expectations has to be able to win on the road," said Orr. "In my past experience, the good teams I've had were good road teams. If you can go .500 in the league on the road and win most of your home games, you have a chance to really do something in March. But you have to be confident, prepared and believe in your team. That's what we've got to learn to do. It's what's separating us from greatness right now."

But the good news is that the entire team will be back to try again. When senior point guard Ryne Hamblet was declared academically ineligible in December, the Falcons lost five of eight before regaining their bearings with a junior-heavy starting lineup and a sophomore-laden bench. The 2008-09 squad will be led by senior Nate Miller, a former UNC Wilmington transfer who led the team in scoring with 13.2 ppg a season ago. Moten and three-time letterman Darryl Clements will also provide senior leadership.

With steady improvement in the coming years, the Falcons might have another championship banner or two to bring into the Stroh Center, so BG won't have to rely on a giant bird to scare opponents away from its sparkling new building.

"Foundation-building is a good way to put it," said Orr. "It's not dry cement yet, but I think our players have a feel for what is expected, a feel for the foundation we're laying in this program. We're going to build attention to detail and toughness and a defensive mindset over that."

Five Things To Watch in '08-09

Coles coming back
Charlie Coles, head coach of 2007 MAC champions Miami (Ohio), is a timeless league icon. He played for Miami in the mid-1960s, then returned as an assistant in 1994. Two years later, when Herb Sendek was lured away to NC State, Coles assumed the head job. It's been his ever since, and he's coached 538 games for the Redskins-turned-RedHawks.

Health issues have hampered Coles in recent years. Now 66 years old, he nearly died after a heart attack suffered during a MAC tournament game in 1998, and in March he checked himself into a local hospital in the thick of the league race. On March 11, he had heart bypass surgery, the day before the RedHawks took a No. 5 seed into the conference tourney. Assistant coaches took over day-to-day duties for the remainder of the season and led the team into the CBI.

But after a summer of recovery, which included delegation of recruiting duties to his assistants, Coles is eager to get back on the sidelines.

"I'm feeling a lot better," said the head RedHawk. "But it took a while. God willing, I'll be out there again in November. That's been the plan and the goal all along."

New-look MAC
The 2008-09 Mid-American Conference season will include a snappy new logo and a green and blue official color scheme, and it will also feature three new head coaches.

Geno Ford, who joined the Kent State staff for a second stint last summer, took over when Jim Christian parlayed six seasons of MAC success (including two NCAA trips) into a position at Mountain West school TCU. Tim O'Shea opted for the down escalator, leaving Ohio to build a program at Bryant, a Rhode Island school that's playing its first Division I schedule this season. So the 2008-09 Bobcats will be led by John Groce, a respected X-and-O man who spent the past four seasons as an assistant and associate at Ohio State.

Toledo's eight-game tumble to 11-19 (7-8 MAC) was enough for the school to end the 12-year tenure of Stan Joplin, just a year removed from his conference coach of the year award for leading the Rockets to the top of the West division. The school turned to Notre Dame assistant Gene Cross, who will get his first shot at a head job after previous stints at Virginia and DePaul. He'll take over a program attempting to distance itself as much as possible from its recent past -- in early August, federal authorities charged former Rocket Sammy Villegas with conspiracy to influence sporting contests by bribery during the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons.

A time of mourning
Northern Illinois' on-court challenges (6-21, 3-11 MAC) came into harsh perspective when a Feb. 14 campus shooting stunned the DeKalb campus. A former NIU student murdered five in a school auditorium before taking his own life, and the school cancelled all sporting events for a week. Two league games and the Huskies' BracketBusters matchup were called off. The conference honored the victims by turning one of the zeroes in "2008" on the court at the league tourney into a black ribbon.

"You can never stop something like that from happening," said NIU associate head coach Dennis Gates. "But Northern Illinois is one of the safest campuses in the country now because it just happened and the awareness of tragedy's effect is so high. Between the community and the police, people here are trying very hard to make sure something like that doesn't happen again."

Gates has been a witness to a lot of adversity in the past six months. After the season concluded, he served as assistant coach to a team of SEC players representing the sports ministry Reach USA. The squad's May tour of China coincided with the devastating 8.0 earthquake that killed nearly 70,000 people in the Sichuan province. Gates said he and the team were close enough that they felt aftershocks. The remainder of the trip was cancelled when the government enacted a mourning period and entertainment ban.

Feeling Zip
Akron has earned an impressive 73 wins over the past three seasons. But a few of the 28 losses during that stretch have come at the most inopportune moments, and the Zips are still seeking their first NCAA berth since 1986.

This past spring, Keith Dambrot's charges lost to Kent State in the MAC title game, but their 23 overall wins earned Akron a trip to the NIT. Sent to Florida State, the Zips overcame a double-digit rebounding deficit and 38 percent shooting to win 65-50 in overtime. A five-point loss at eventual runner-up Massachusetts later that week was the last game for three double-figure-scoring starters, including 6-7 Jeremiah Wood (14.1 ppg and 7.7 rpg, both team highs).

Can Akron keep up its momentum? Losing 35.7 points' worth of production always makes things difficult. Senior 6-7 forward Nate Linhart will be the team's returning leading scorer at 8.5 ppg, and he suffered through a severe shooting slump late in conference play, going 7-for-32 (22 percent) over one five-game stretch. A 20-win season would be a major accomplishment for these rebuilding Zips.

Yearning for more postseason love
The MAC sent four teams to the national postseason -- a full one-third of the conference. Kent State earned the league's first single-digit NCAA seed since 1996 (Eastern Michigan, a 9-seed). Akron was invited to the NIT, and Ohio and Miami participated in the inaugural College Basketball Invitational.

But the league is still searching for that elusive talisman of national respect, the NCAA at-large invite. This season will be the 10th anniversary of the last two-bid year, when Miami and Kent both represented the MAC at the Big Dance. Miami earned that 1999 at-large after winning the MAC regular-season title, but lost to Kent in a 49-43 defensive struggle. With 22 wins and an RPI of 21, the committee couldn't keep the team, then known as the Redskins, out of the Big Dance. Out of a No. 10 seed, Miami beat Washington and Utah to reach the Sweet 16.

"In order for a league like ours to get two bids, there has to be a very good team, and that team has to get beat," Miami's Coles said. "But that's not going to happen every year. Everybody was raving about the Missouri Valley a couple of years ago, but things have changed since then. They were scheduling, buying games, doing this, doing that. What did they get last year, one bid? Everyone thought the Missouri Valley had the answer. If you're not the power boys, you don't have the answer."

2008-09 Team Capsules

By Kyle Whelliston
Special to ESPN.com

MAC
AkronAkron
LeBron James famously didn't go to college, but he tells anyone who asks he would have gone to Akron. Now, the Zips will have a little LeBron with them every time they step out on the floor. In June, the school signed on to wear uniforms produced by the Cleveland Cavaliers star's boutique LJ23 Nike label. "I'm from Akron and the University of Akron is my hometown school," said James in a statement. "I want to make sure that Coach [Keith] Dambrot's guys look great head to toe."

Ball StateBall State
Despite just six victories in 2007-08, folks in Muncie are happy to have a year's worth of distance between them and the turbulent, racially charged Ronny Thompson era. Billy Taylor often had to make do with 6-foot-5 post players last season, but the talent-rich contingent of seven new recruits is hitting campus this fall. Jarrod Jones is a 6-8 power forward who was pursued by high major schools until an untimely leg injury struck during last summer's recruiting season. And versatile 6-5 wing Maurice Hubbard was lured out of Virginia, despite interest from in-state schools like VCU, Virginia and Virginia Tech.

Bowling GreenBowling Green
Chris Knight, a 6-7 Cincinnati product, had a real eye-opener of a first season. He made his initial statement in his third collegiate game, scoring 24 points on 10-for-16 shooting in a win over the Big East school from his hometown. Knight went on to lead the team in rebounds with 7.3 per game. If he can achieve greater consistency and cut down on his fouls, he'll be a star in this league.

BuffaloBuffalo
The Bulls were edged out for an NCAA autobid in 2005, falling in overtime to Ohio in the Mid-American title game. Since then, their win total has dwindled each season, culminating in a 10-20 (3-13 MAC) disaster last season. It's a young team that returns all its starters, most notably 6-1 senior Andy Robinson (13.1 ppg). But if Buffalo's cold streak continues, Reggie Witherspoon's hot seat should provide warmth to the entire city all winter long.

Central MichiganCentral Michigan
This program has struggled to find an identity since a 2003 NCAA berth and a first-round win over Creighton, but the Chippewas' 8-8 record was its first .500 mark in conference play since that breakthrough campaign. It was also good enough for second place in the weak MAC West. An improvement will be difficult in the wake of two key departures, however. Giordan Watson scored 16.4 ppg and took nearly 24 percent of the team's shots before graduating in March, and second-leading scorer Nate Minnoy (8.8 ppg) transferred to a Division II school.

Eastern MichiganEastern Michigan
This Great Lake State directional school hasn't enjoyed a winning record since 1999-2000, but the compass is pointing slightly upward after an 8-8 MAC season. Promising 6-6 forward Brandon Bowdry, named to the league's all-freshman team in 2006-07, broke his foot after the freshman season and redshirted last season. He'll be back at full strength, and so will 6-0 senior guard Carlos Medlock, who led the Eagles with 14.8 ppg.

Kent StateKent State
The Geno Ford era will begin without dynamic forward Haminn Quaintance, whose senior season manifested itself as the statistical equivalent of a Swiss army knife. But Kent State gets one more year from 6-0 MAC POY Al Fisher, who turned heads with a 28-point performance in a BracketBuster win over nationally ranked Saint Mary's. Incoming power forward Justin Greene is a Big Apple banger who scored 11 ppg for Abraham Lincoln High and helped his school win the NYC Public School Athletic League championship at Madison Square Garden in March.

Miami (Ohio)Miami (Ohio)
Gone is Tim Pollitz, the undersized power forward who singlehandedly lifted the RedHawks to the 2007 MAC crown and paced a historic upset at Illinois with a 17-and-13 double-double. But Michael Bramos, who led the team in points (16.3 ppg), steals and blocks in 2007-08, returns as a potential POY candidate. A prospect to watch is point guard Kramer Soderberg from Missouri, son of former Saint Louis head coach Brad.

NIUNorthern Illinois
Shooting guard Darion Anderson, who attended Chicago's Boys To Men Academy before joining the Huskies, put up man-sized numbers in his first collegiate season. The sophomore-to-be was the team's leader in scoring (12.2 ppg), assists and minutes, and he collected three big-boy double-doubles (points and rebounds) despite his 6-2 frame. A bright spot in an otherwise sad season, Anderson was named the MAC's Freshman of the Year.

OhioOhio
The Bobcats didn't make it out of the MAC quarterfinals as a No. 4 seed, losing to upset-minded Miami by 13. But the new College Basketball Invitational proved exceedingly benevolent, and Ohio earned its 20th win at home against Brown before losing to Bradley. Now, the program will try to make do without its double-doubling star Leon Williams. Muscular 6-6 forward Jerome Tillman (13.3 ppg, 7.6 rpg), who earned double-doubles of his own against eventual NCAA teams Saint Mary's and Temple last season, will return as a senior.

ToledoToledo
Toledo's Savage Hall is in the midst of a long-overdue $30 million upgrade. After an eight-game tumble in the standings, the Rocket roster is getting an overhaul as well. Stephen Albrecht is a 6-3 shooting guard from Indiana who was rated No. 37 nationally at his position by Scouts Inc. Toledo will get a frontcourt boost from a pair of 6-9 recruits, long-armed Bay Area import Ian Salter and local all-city product Zac Taylor. Larry Bastfield, a 6-foot point guard, played for Team Melo, an AAU squad sponsored by Denver Nugget Carmelo Anthony.

WMUWestern Michigan
Team rebounding leader Joe Reitz, a 6-7 forward with tree-trunk arms, helped the Broncos to a MAC West title and a place in the tourney semifinals before leaving campus. He was last seen trying to pack on 50 pounds in an attempt to make the Baltimore Ravens as an offensive tackle. His eventual replacement went in the opposite direction. Flenard Whitfield was a 6-7 star tight end in high school who chose basketball over football, much to the chagrin of Florida, Texas, Michigan and LSU.

If I were the MAC commish …

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

The football coaches don't want to hear this, but dropping down a division in football would help the conference financially. Basketball needs to be the focus of this conference. The problem right now is that money isn't always available for competitive salaries, facilities and guaranteed home games. MAC teams shouldn't be bought more than twice. Akron has started to buy guaranteed games, and the rest of the league should take it as a cue.

The MAC also keeps looking for ways to get another team in the tournament. Winning helps, but scheduling smarter can lead to better winning records and a stronger RPI.

2007-08 Mid-American Standings

Overall record East Division record
Kent State* 28-6 13-3
Akron^ 23-10 11-5
Ohio# 19-12 9-7
Miami (Ohio)# 17-15 9-7
Bowling Green 13-17 7-9
Buffalo 10-20 3-13
Overall record West Division record
Western Michigan 20-12 12-4
Central Michigan 14-17 8-8
Eastern Michigan 14-17 8-8
Toledo 11-19 7-8
Ball State 6-24 5-11
Northern Illinois 6-22 3-12
*NCAA tournament
^NIT berth
#CBI berth

For all the Mid-American news and notes, check out the league page.

Top Returning Scorers

Player PPG
Tyrone Kent, Toledo, Sr. 16.9
David Kool, Western Michigan, Jr. 16.3
Michael Bramos, Miami (Ohio), Sr. 16.2
Carlos Medlock, Eastern Michigan, Sr. 14.8
Al Fisher, Kent State, Sr. 13.9

Top Returning Rebounders

Player RPG
Jerome Tillman, Ohio, Sr. 7.6
Chris Knight, Bowling Green, Soph. 7.3
Calvin Betts, Buffalo, Jr. 6.6
Nate Miller, Bowling Green, Sr. 6.5
Tyler Dierkers, Miami (Ohio), Sr. 6.4

Final Shots

Which Mid-American team ranks the highest since the start of the 1984-85 season? Prestige Rankings

Kent State earned a No. 9 seed in last season's NCAA tournament but lost to UNLV in the first round. Can the MAC's representative do better in March? Bracketology

• Missed the other conference breakdowns? Click here to check out the ShootArounds archive.