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MAC Preview: Is the West where the MAC’s power lies?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the MAC.

The MAC is in a strange position entering the 2017-18 season. While the league’s East Division has been the dominating force among the league’s two divisions the past few years this year the West Division, led by Western Michigan, is receiving a bigger share of the preseason buzz.

Speaking of Western Michigan, they became the favorite as soon as senior guard Thomas Wilder opted to pull out of the 2017 NBA Draft. A top-100 player in college basketball this season, Wilder is the runaway favorite for Preseason MAC Player of the Year after leading the MAC in three-point shooting while putting up 19.3 points and 3.8 assists per game. Besides having a pro prospect on the roster, the Broncos have depth on the interior and some promising sophomores to keep tabs on. Centers Seth Dugan and Drake LaMont can be tough to contain and sophomores Brandon Johnson and Reggie Jones both showed flashes of strong play last season.

Staying in the West Division, Ball State is quietly coming off of back-to-back 20-win seasons as head coach James Whitford returns quite a bit of production. Junior guard Tayler Persons is a very strong mid-major floor leader while center Trey Moses and floor spacers like Francis Kiapway and Sean Sellers are back as well.

Buffalo is the preseason favorite for the East Division as they combine talented newcomers with solid veterans. All-league candidate C.J. Massinburg is back for his junior season at guard while forward Nick Perkins should also see a bigger role. The Bulls also received some solid additions with Missouri transfer Wes Clark in the backcourt and highly-touted JUCO prospect Jeremy Harris on the wing. With NCAA tournament experience from the upperclassmen on the roster, it wouldn’t at all be surprising to see Buffalo make another postseason run.

After making a surprising NCAA tournament appearance, Kent State has a chance for another strong season. All-MAC forward Jimmy Hall is gone by MAC Tournament MVP Jaylin Walker is back after a very good sophomore season. To maximize their potential, the Golden Flashes need production from newcomers Akiean Frederick and Jonathan Nwanko in the frontcourt.

Toledo has had a tough time winning close games the past two seasons as the Rockets return junior wing Jaelan Sanford and sophomore center Luke Knapke from the starting lineup. Junior forward Nate Navigato is an intriguing floor spacer and Toledo gets some transfer help from Tre’Shaun Fletcher (Colorado) and Willie Jackson (Missouri).

Losing Jaaron Simmons to Michigan was tough for Ohio but they still have a few starters coming back. Sophomore forward Jason Carter has the upside to be a major factor in the MAC while junior guard Jordan Dartis is one of the league’s best shooters.  Eastern Michigan gets back the league’s top big man in James Thompson IV as the double-double machine is only a junior. The Eagles lost a ton this offseason but senior wing Tim Bond is back and Robert Morris transfer Elijah Minnie is a player to watch in the frontcourt.

Bowling Green remains a young team but they have a lot of returning experience. Sophomore guards Dylan Frye and Rodrick Caldwell gave the Falcons a boost when they were inserted into the starting lineup last season while junior big man Demajeo Wiggins is an all-league threat.  

Hit hard by offseason transfers, Northern Illinois still returns some intriguing, but unproven, players. The frontcourt of juniors Jaylen Key and Levin Bradley could be solid and sophomore guard Eugene German gets backcourt help from JUCO All-American Dante Thorpe.  Akron now has former Illinois coach John Groce at the helm as they have eight newcomers on the roster. Junior guard and double-figure scorer Jimond Ivey returns and Oregon State graduate transfer Malcolm Duvivier should also help.

Despite having the scoring prowess of Marcus Keene last season, Central Michigan still floundered to 6-12 in the MAC as they lose Keene and Braylon Rayson. Sophomore forward David DiLeo and senior forward Cecil Williams could be a solid frontcourt but the Chippewas have to replace a ton of scoring while also improving defensively. Miami gets a new head coach in former Purdue assistant Jack Owens as he takes over a very depleted roster to begin the rebuild. Senior forward Logan McLane is a returning bright spot for the RedHawks.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON MAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Thomas Wilder, Western Michigan

One of the most complete guards in the country, Wilder is back for his senior season as he could be a sleeper pro prospect. Leading the MAC in three-point shooting, Wilder was also third in assist-turnover ratio, fourth in scoring and top-ten in assists and steals. The 6-foot-3 Wilder is capable of big scoring nights but also versatile enough to fill up the box score.


  • James Thompson IV, Eastern Michigan: Averaging a double-double during his freshman and sophomore seasons, this junior big man is one of the more underrated post players in the country.
  • Jaylin Walker, Kent State: Last year’s MAC Tournament MVP was strong down the stretch as he could be in for a big season if he improves his efficiency as a shooter.
  • Tayler Persons, Ball State: A former ASUN Freshman of the Year at Northern Kentucky, Persons lived up to the hype in the MAC, putting up 15.5 points, 4.9 assists and 3.9 boards per game last season.
  • CJ Massinburg, Buffalo: A junior guard with NCAA tournament experience, Massinburg had a great sophomore season as he put up 14.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.



  1. Western Michigan
  2. Ball State
  3. Buffalo
  4. Kent State
  5. Toledo
  6. Ohio
  7. Eastern Michigan
  8. Bowling Green
  9. Northern Illinois
  10. Akron
  11. Central Michigan
  12. Miami


Bill Self’s least impressive Kansas team is 40 minutes away from the Final Four

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OMAHA, Neb. — Kansas is vulnerable, exploitable and limited. The Jayhawks have no depth, are without a superstar and possess a middling defense.

They are Bill Self’s worst team.

And they have won the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles, secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and are a win away from the Final Four.

The Jayhawks shrugged off some late sluggishness to dispatch No. 5 Clemson 80-76 on Friday night in the Midwest Regional semifinal at CenturyLink Center to put themselves in the Elite Eight for the third-consecutive year with a date with Duke on Sunday.

This year has often been about what this Kansas team couldn’t do after the losses of Frank Mason and Josh Jackson and then the ineligibility of Billy Preston. Early-season losses to Washington and Arizona State, the latter at the usually impregnable Allen Fieldhouse, were the proof this Kansas team might finally be the one not to win a Big 12 title. Then Texas Tech beat the hell out of them in Lawrence and it looked like the streak was on its way to over.

Devonte Graham was a poor imitation of Mason.  Svi Mykhailiuk was too timid and inconsistent. Udoka Azubuike was foul-prone and unproven. The supporting cast was a rung or two lower than a team with national-championship aspirations could carry.

Those problems are real. Those issues are troublesome. Those deficiencies are critical.

In spite of it all, Kansas won the Big 12 by two games, ripped through the conference tournament and are on the doorstep of playing for a national championship.

Bill Self’s worst team has a chance to be the country’s best.

“I’m so proud of our team because I think of all the teams that we’ve had here, this would be the team that everyone would have thought would not be in this game,” Self said Friday. “And so, hey, we’re in this game. We’ve got a legitimate shot to go to San Antonio.

“You prepare the whole year to play in this game. So I think we’ll play with no what-ifs. I think we’ll let it go. I think we’ll be as loose as we can be and still you’ve got to make shots.

“I’d like nothing more than to take my team this year to San Antonio and let them experience what the best of the best is in college basketball.”

The key to Kansas’ season has been embracing its shortcomings. Azubuike is the only big they’ve got that can give them both scoring and defense consistently. It’s a 180 for a program that’s featured Thomas Robinson, Cole Aldrich, the Morris Twins and Jeff Withey. Kansas almost always plays through its bigs. This year, they’re playing around one.

“I never played like this,” Self said. “It just goes against the grain from the teams that we’ve had in the past, but these guys have figured it out. They’ve learned how to play through it, and we’ve had unbelievable guard play and unbelievable leadership from our vets, and had some guys have some outstanding seasons.

“There’s less margin for error but these guys have certainly rallied around that.”

Kansas’ shooting is why they’re in the Elite Eight. The Jayhawks are 10th nationally with a 40.5 3-point shooting percentage. It’s Azubuiike, though, that makes so many of those good looks possible. The man makes 77.5 percent of his shots from the floor. That demands defensive attention. And that means defenders aren’t shadowing shooters.

“He’s a guy we can throw the ball into and he can go get a basket,” Malik Newman, who had a team-high 17 points Friday, said. “I think his passing is underrated. That’s another big key for him. When we’re able to throw it in and the defense collapses on him, he is able to kick it out and find an open shooter.

“It just opens up the whole game for us.”

It’s opened up a whole world of possibility for Kansas and a world of hurt for their opponents.

“Most teams have somebody that you can kind of scratch off,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell mused. “So one of the reasons they’re so hard to guard is they’ve got a center that scores if he catches it deep, and he’s bigger than everybody on the floor so he does get position. And then you’ve got guards that can all make shots and drive by you and they play with great spacing.”

Now, Kansas isn’t full of slouches. Graham was the Big 12 player of the year, Azubuike’s talent was apparent even if it was raw before injury robbed him of a freshman year. Mykhailiuk is all-Big 12 while Malik Newman and LaGerald Vick were heralded prospects. Still, there’s not a lottery pick among them. No Andrew Wiggins or Ben McLemore or Josh Jackson. The fit is strange and the depth is zilch.

All that has eroded Kansas’ wiggle room for mistakes, but when they operate within their comfort zone, it can make for great offense. The first two minutes of the second half when the Jayhawks hit back-to-back 3s was a thing of beauty, ball movement and shot making. It was the blueprint for a buzzsaw.

Maybe Self’s worst team is pretty damn good.

Keenan Evans closes strong (again) as Texas Tech advances past Purdue to Elite Eight

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BOSTON — Second Half Keenan struck again on Friday night.

Keenan Evans scored 12 of his 16 points and handed out three of his four assists in the final 10 minutes of the game as No. 3-seed Texas Tech held off No. 2-seed Purdue, 78-65. Zach Smith and Justin Gray paced Tech early, combining for 26 points that helped the Red Raiders build a lead that reached as high as nine before Evans went into takeover mode. Zhaire Smith added 13 points of his own, while the Red Raiders forced 17 Purdue turnovers.

And with that, Texas Tech will to advance past the Sweet 16 for the first time since … ever.

This is uncharted territory for for the Red Raider program that has never been to an Elite Eight and will be playing for their first-ever trip to the Final Four.

“To build a program there has to be a lot of firsts so myself and Keenan have only been together for two years, so we’ve never been to the Elite Eight in two years,” Beard said. “That’s more accurate.”

It’s also fitting, really.

Because it more or less sums up what makes this Texas Tech program so interesting.

On a night where their three-leading scorers never really got going, the Red Raiders advanced on the stretch of two things: Their defense, and the fact that they can stay in a game on the nights when their best players don’t play their best.

With just over 10 minutes left in the game, when Purdue was getting ready to make one final run at advancing to the Elite Eight, is when Evans took over. And there’s no question about it: He closed out this game. Everything that the Red Raiders got on the offensive end of the floor came through Evans down the stretch, even the stuff that doesn’t show up in the score book; for example, the Red Raiders executed a pick-and-roll to perfection with three minutes left, but the lob that Evans threw to Zach Smith ended up as a missed dunk that Zhaire Smith was able to put right back in. Evans doesn’t get the assist, but he made that bucket possible.

I saw all that to say this: With 10 minutes left, the three leading scorers in the Tech program — Evans, Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver — were a combined 4-for-16 from the floor with just 11 points.

And Texas Tech held a 50-41 lead. If Evans is Texas Tech’s closer, this was a save that he earned with a three-run lead.

“It’s our identity,” Beard said. “We have a lot of faith in our whole roster, we use a lot of different guys and tonight was fitting. That is the way we have played all year.”

If that doesn’t sum up Chris Beard’s program, I don’t know what does.

No. 2 Duke goes inside to defeat No. 11 Syracuse

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OMAHA, Neb. — Second-seeded Duke made just 5 of its 26 3-point attempts against No. 11 Syracuse on Friday in the two ACC programs’ Sweet 16 matchup.

So the Blue Devils just went inside.

Marvin Bagley III and Wendel Carter, Jr. both had big games to help the Blue Devils outlast the Orange, 69-65, to put themselves in the Elite Eight on Sunday against top-seeded Kansas.

“This was a heck of a game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I thought both teams played their hearts out. A great game to win, a really difficult game to lose, because Syracuse played such winning basketball.”

While Duke couldn’t beat the zone that took Syracuse from the First Four to the second weekend with its outside shooting, its two big underclassmen provided plenty of production. Bagley had 22 points and eight rebounds while Carter added 14 points and 12 boards.

“It was a hard fought game. We knew they were going to compete every second of the game,” Bagley said, “and we just tried to compete as well. We had a little point in the game where we started turning it over, and things weren’t going our way, but we stayed tough mentally and we finished it out.”

Bagley was on the receiving end of a number of lobs behind the Syracuse zone that helped the Duke offense stay out in front.

“We practiced it all week,” Bagley said. “We try to look for different things and different ways to score against that zone, and we did a great job at that and got the win.”

Tyus Battle had 19 points to lead the Orange. Oshae Brissett added 15 points and seven boards while Marek Dolezaj had 13 points.

Syracuse shot 53.8 percent from the floor in the second half while Duke shot 36.4 percent (and 11.1 percent from distance), but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Orange’s 16 turnovers or Duke’s 17 second-chance points.

Grayson Allen had 15 points and eight assists for Duke. The Blue Devils had 32 points in the paint.

Duke will now turn its attention to the Jayhawks, who defeated Clemson earlier Friday to make it to their third-straight Elite Eight. The game will tipoff Sunday at 5:05 p.m. (ET).

“We just got to come out ready to play from the beginning,” Bagley said. “We were kind of slacking in this game. I think we’ll be ready for that game. Everybody’s going to be up. We should be coming out strong.”

VIDEO: Allen-to-Bagley oop beats the Syracuse zone

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Usually, you’ve got to shoot a team out of a zone.

Duke might be able to dunk Syracuse out of it.

Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley connected for a beautiful alley-oop Friday in the second half of the Blue Devils’ Sweet 16 contest against the Orange.

That will work as a zone-buster.

VIDEO: Duke slaps the floor on defense…while playing zone

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Slapping the floor on defense has its advocates and its detractors.

Some applaud the old-school, hard-nosed nature of putting hand to floor. For others, its a bit corny.

What everyone agrees on is that you don’t drop a floor slap if you’re playing zone.

Unless you’re Duke, apparently.

Presumably, the whole point of slapping the floor is to psyche yourself and intimidate your opponent with aggressive man-to-man defense. Not sit-back-and-guard-this-spot-whether-there’s-a-guy-there-or-not defense.

C’mon, Duke. You’re making it too easy for your haters.