2013-2014 MAC Preview: Toledo, West Division looks to narrow the gap

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To see the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

In recent years the East Division has dominated things in the MAC, with Western Michigan being the last West Division team to earn the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament back in 2004. With the key departures at both Akron and Ohio, is this the season that the West narrows the gap? One program that will factor into the equation is Toledo, which returns four starters from a team that earned a share of the West Division crown last season.

Head coach Tod Kowalczyk has a squad capable of winning the MAC, with Rian Pearson (17.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and Julius Brown (13.1, 6.0 apg) leading the way. Add in Loyola (MD) transfer Justin Drummond and the Rockets have a trio capable of competing with anyone in the MAC.

As for their most likely challenger, Western Michigan has to replace Nate Hutcheson and Darius Paul but the Broncos welcome back a pair of fifth-year seniors in center Shayne Whittington and guard David Brown. And Eastern Michigan returns four of its five starters from last season, including Glenn Bryant, and Duquesne transfer Mike Talley should be an impact player on the perimeter.

But even with the West showing signs of improvement the East’s run of success can’t be ignored. Defending champion Akron lost center Zeke Marshall but head coach Keith Dambrot welcomes back two quality forwards in Nick Harney and Demetrius Treadwell. The Zips have some questions to answer, most notably at point guard, but they once again have the pieces needed to reach the NCAA tournament. Ohio also lost multiple key contributors, most notably point guard D.J. Cooper, but the Bobcats will be a factor provided their young front court rises to the challenge.

And then there’s Buffalo, which has a new head coach in Bobby Hurley but also has the league’s best player in senior forward Javon McCrea. McCrea averaged 18.0 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game last season, and with three other starters returning the Bulls should be a contender. Kent State shouldn’t be overlooked either, with point guard Kris Brewer and forward Darren Goodson expected to lead the way.

PRESEASON MAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: F Javon McCrea (Buffalo)

McCrea (18.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 2.6 bpg) isn’t just one of the most talented forwards at the mid-major level, he’s one of the most talented forwards in all of college basketball.

FOUR MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • F Demetrius Treadwell (Akron): Treadwell is the guy that the Zips will lean heavily on with Zeke Marshall and Alex Abreu gone.
  • G Rian Pearson (Toledo): McCrea’s the clear favorite to win POY, with Pearson being the MAC’s second-best player.
  • G Julius Brown (Toledo): With D.J. Cooper gone Brown may be the MAC’s best point guard.
  • C Shayne Whittington (Western Michigan): Whittington made a major jump production-wise last season, earning second team All-MAC honors.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @HustleBelt

PREDICTED FINISH

East Division
1. Akron
2. Ohio
3. Buffalo
4. Kent State
5. Bowling Green
6. Miami (Ohio)

West Division
1. Toledo
2. Western Michigan
3. Eastern Michigan
4. Ball State
5. Central Michigan
6. Northern Illinois

VIDEO: Mike Brey celebrates Maui win shirtless

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Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey celebrated his team’s win in the Maui Invitational by going shirtless in the team locker room:

This came after Brey spent the entire tournament coaching in shorts and a t-shirt:

Mike Brey (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

I think it’s safe to say Brey enjoyed himself on the islands.

No. 13 Notre Dame lands come-from-behind win to beat No. 6 Wichita State in Maui

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Notre Dame led twice during Wednesday night’s Maui Invitational title game.

At 4-2, and, after Martinas Geben hit the second of two free throws with 2.3 seconds left, at 67-66.

That score would end up being the final, as the 13th-ranked Irish erased a 14-point second half deficit to knock off No. 6 Wichita State and bring home that Maui trophy.

Bonzie Colson led the way with 25 points and 11 boards while Matt Farrell chipped in with 15 points, four assists, four boards and three steals. Geben chipped in with 12 points, including those two free throws that served as the eventual game-winners.

Beyond the simple fact that they did it against one of the best teams in the country, what makes this comeback so impressive is that the Irish didn’t rely on a flurry of threes to change the course of the game. This comeback came through grit, toughness defensively and, if we’re being honest, a little bit of luck.

With less than 20 seconds left on the clock and the Irish down by three points, Colson airballed a pretty good look at a three from the top of the key. On the ensuing inbounds, Farrell stole the ball and happened to find Colson under the rim for a layup. The lead was cut to one, and Wichita State proceeded to miss the front end of a one-and-one after being fouled.

The ball once again ended up underneath Notre Dame’s basket, but this time it was the Irish ball, and after a gorgeous inbounds play, Geben headed to the line for two shots. The first shots somehow managed to go down after bouncing off the back of the rim, the backboard and the front of the rim twice.

And with that, Notre Dame would get off of the islands with another quality win for their résumé and a title to their name.

No. 8 Kentucky finally has it easy against Fort Wayne, 86-67

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Nick Richards had career highs of 25 points and 15 rebounds, and 70 percent first-half shooting propelled No. 8 Kentucky to an 86-67 rout of Fort Wayne on Wednesday night.

Kentucky’s 19-of-27 shooting before halftime countered the Mastodons’ eight 3-pointers that kept them close for a while. Once Fort Wayne started missing, it couldn’t match the length or speed of the young Wildcats (5-1), who eventually led 78-48 with 6:50 remaining on the way to their most decisive win this season.

Richards thrived in both halves and on both ends, making 9 of 10 from the field and all seven free throws for his first career double-double. The 6-foot-11 freshman’s previous highs were 10 points against Utah Valley and nine rebounds against Kansas last week.

Quade Green, Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander each added 11 points as Kentucky shot a season-best 33 of 55 (60 percent) and dominated the rebounding 44-21.

Junior guard John Konchar had 19 points and Bryson Scott 18 for Fort Wayne (3-2), who had won three in a row before losing on 40 percent shooting.

BIG PICTURE

Fort Wayne: A year after upsetting Indiana, the Mastodons led Kentucky 37-36 with 3:51 left in the first half behind 8-of-22 shooting from long range. They went cold from outside and elsewhere after that and the Wildcats pounced to lead at the break and stretch the advantage to 30 points in the second half. The Mastodons’ 12 3-pointers were their third-highest total this season.

Kentucky: Something had to give after all those tense performances and the Wildcats thrived because of their size and best shooting effort this season. Richards couldn’t be stopped on either end, and teammates seemed in sync for the first time. Sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel came up just short of a double-double with 10 rebounds and nine points.

UP NEXT

Kentucky hosts Illinois-Chicago on Sunday to wrap up the Rupp Classic before getting a few days off.

Fort Wayne visits East Tennessee State on Saturday. ETSU lost 78-31 to Kentucky last Friday.

VIDEO: Providence beats Belmont on Kyron Cartwright’s buzzer-beating three

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We got the first wild buzzer-beater of the college basketball season on Wednesday night, as Kyron Cartwright answered a Belmont bucket with 3.7 seconds left by going 94-feet to hit a leaning three at the buzzer:

Providence won the game 65-63.

Cartwright finished with 17 points in the win.

Four Takeaways from N.C. State’s upset win over No. 2 Arizona

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Five games into the Kevin Keatts era and N.C. State already has themselves a signature win.

The Wolfpack upset No. 2 Arizona in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis, 90-84, sending Sean Miller home without reaching the Final Four once again. Allerik Freeman led the way with 24 points, while Braxton Beverly chipped in with 20 points off the bench and the combination of Abdul-Malik Abu and Omer Yurtseven combined for 21 points and 17 boards.

This wasn’t a fluky win, either.

N.C. State had control throughout. They were up 15-6 before Arizona woke up, they didn’t trail in the first half and they were the ones that made the Wildcats chase them down in the second half. It was quite impressive, as Keatts had this group playing hard and pressing for 40 minutes. It’s been a while since N.C. State fans can say that they’ve seen that.

Here are three things to takeaway from that win.

1. Arizona is going to have some things to figure out on the defensive end of the floor if they want to win a national title: Deandre Ayton is a man amongst boys. In his first college basketball game against competition that actually deserved to be on the same floor as him, Ayton finished with 27 points and 14 rebounds, a performance that makes me so damn excited to see just how good Marvin Bagley III, Miles Bridges and players of that ilk are if Ayton does not end up being the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.

Trier struggled in the first half, but he still managed to put together a 27-point performance, with 24 of those 27 coming in the second half. They put up 84 points. That wasn’t the issue.

The 90 points they allowed was.

Even more concerning was the fact that the Wolfpack scored those 90 points on just 73 possessions. The bottom-line is this: That’s not good enough, not when N.C. State is hardly a contender for the Final Four, let alone a national title challenger.

2. Kevin Keatts is making the most of the talent Mark Gottfried squandered: I’m not sure quite how good the Wolfpack actually are. I don’t think it’s possible to tell this early, even after a win over a team like Arizona. But what is undeniable is the simple fact that this N.C. State team plays are and with most passion and intensity than any Mark Gottfried team did.

They look like they are trying. They look like they care. And frankly, that often matters more than the simple stock-piling of talent. There’s no way anyone could look at this N.C. State roster and think that it has more talent on it than, say, a team with Dennis Smith Jr. or a team with T.J. Warren. The Wolfpack may not have a future lottery pick on this roster. But they do have guys that play their tails off, that play as if they have a point to prove and that play as if they are being coached.

It makes you wonder what could have been had Keatts been in Raleigh last season.

3. Braxton Beverly getting ruled eligible is going to be a big deal for N.C. State: Earlier this fall, Braxton Beverly was one of the biggest stories in college basketball, believe it or not. He had transferred to N.C. State from Ohio State after enrolling in summer courses prior to Thad Matta’s firing. He was ruled ineligible for this season with the Wolfpack, and it turned into the cause celebre for college basketball media members looking to circle the wagons and bash the NCAA.

It took longer than it should have, but Beverly was eventually cleared by the NCAA. He’s eligible to play this season, and he just so happens to be the point guy on the N.C. State press and one of their best shooters. He put up 20 points on the No. 2 team in America. I think he’s going to be relevant this season.

4. Arizona’s point guard issues rose to the forefront: When the Wildcats made their push in the second half, they did it on the strength of hustle plays and transition buckets. Jumping passing lanes and going coast-to-coast. Beating N.C. State’s press and getting a layup. Points that came off of offensive rebounds. Where they struggled was with their half court execution. The question with this team entering the season was with the point guard play. Was Parker Jackson-Cartwright going to be good enough to carry this team to a title? I’m not sure we can truly say we got on answer on Wednesday – N.C. State’s pressure, which was ratcheted up by the fact that Arizona couldn’t get a stop, played more of a role than anything – but Jackson-Cartwright certainly did not put in the kind of performance that would make Arizona fans feel comfortable.