MAC Preview: Can Central Michigan make a run?

Chris Fowler, AP Photo
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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the MAC.

The MAC enters the 2015-16 season with one clear favorite and a lot of teams fighting to form an identity. The two-division conference has some interesting candidates emerging from both sides of the equation, but one team stands out above the rest.

Central Michigan and head coach Keno Davis are coming off of a 23-win season and return all eight players who averaged at least 15 minutes a game last season, when the Chippewas made the NIT and won the West Division. Now the goal is the NCAA tournament as they have the pieces and experience to try to make a run. Led by MAC preseason player of the year favorite Chris Fowler at point guard, all eight of Central Michigan’s returning players can hit 3-pointers and they can space the floor in any lineup.

After a .500 finish in the MAC in 2014-15, Akron comes in as a major player thanks to the return of four starters and a solid backup guard in Antino Jackson. Senior center Pat Forsythe is a load to handle at 6-foot-11 and the Zips will ride his post touches and double-figure scoring as far as it can take them. Akron is coming off of a 21-14 season and the key could be the return of guard Noah Robotham, who tore his ACL in February.

Kent State checks in right behind Akron in the East Division thanks to the return of its three frontcourt starters and All-MAC junior power forward Jimmy Hall. The 6-foot-8 Hall is joined in the starting group by Chris Ortiz and Khaliq Spencer while Maine transfer Xavier Powell and redshirt guard Kellon Thomas, a former starter, could become the new starting perimeter tandem.

Similar to the Flashes in backstory is second-place in the West Division: Western Michigan. The Broncos lost some experienced guards but get back potential All-MAC forward Connar Tava for his senior season along with wing Tucker Haymond and 6-foot-10 sophomore Drake LaMont. With the addition of 7-foot recruit Seth Dugan and talented guard Bryce Moore, the Broncos could be a team that could make a surprise run.

Trailing Western Michigan in the West Division is Toledo, who has to replace the dynamic senior trio of double-figure scorers that are gone. Senior center Nathan Boothe returns and he’s joined by junior guard Jonathan Williams, so two double-figure scorers remain, but from there it will be interesting to see who takes over at point guard for the Rockets.

Things were looking very positive for Buffalo this summer, even with the loss of head coach Bobby Hurley to Arizona State. But then new head coach Nate Oats had to deal with the dismissal of MAC Player of the Year Justin Moss, which leaves the Bulls with a huge hole. Talent is still around, especially on the perimeter, where senior Jarryn Skeete and versatile sophomore Lamonte Bearden are back. But can the program withstand the loss of Hurley and the talent he took with to the Aztecs?

One team to keep tabs on is Miami (Ohio), as the RedHawks return four starters and six scholarship seniors, led by potential all-league selection Eric Washington. Miami is looking for its first winning record since 2009, but they have the potential talent of a postseason team. Northern Illinois has trended upward since head coach Mark Montgomery took over and the Huskies hope that three returning starters and three top rotation players gives them a winning record. Seniors Travon Baker and Darrell Bowie have both started a ton of games while junior Aaric Armstead has All-MAC potential.

It’s hard to say how Ball State will look but the addition of Youngstown State transfer Ryan Weber, graduate transfer center Nate Wells and the return of guard Jeremie Tyler will certainly help. MAC Freshman of the Year Sean Sellers also returns and he’s a threat to hit shots from all over the floor. Ohio has some talent in potential All-MAC center Antonio Campbell, but the Bobcats have to rely a lot on transfers for big production as former Houston point guard Jaaron Simmons and former Michigan State forward Kenny Kaminski earn primary roles.

Questions marks also fill the lineup of Rob Murphy’s Eastern Michigan squad. Junior guard Raven Lee is an All-MAC talent, but he’s the only returning starter to a team that will ask a lot of role players and recruits. Bowling Green brings back a starting backcourt, but loses a player to the NBA in Richaun Holmes. With a new head coach in Michael Huger and a five-man recruiting class, there are a lot of people acclimating to new roles in Division I basketball.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “When you return that much of your team like Central Michigan did, it’s hard to argue with the success they already had with 23 wins and the NIT appearance. Fowler and Simons are such a solid one-two punch.”
  • Sleeper: “Miami has a core of seniors that really wants to win and Eric Washington is a solid playmaker at guard. I could see them having a good season.”
  • Star to watch: “Chris Fowler is the ultimate leader and winner. He makes everyone else on Central Michigan better.”

PRESEASON MAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Chris Fowler, Central Michigan

Central Michigan enters the 2015-16 season as the most complete returning team in the MAC and Fowler is the engine that makes them go. An experienced guard with over 1,000 career points and loads of assists, the 6-foot-1 senior averaged 16.2 points and 6.1 assists per game last season while he helped lead the Chippewas to 23 wins and a NIT appearance.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-MAC TEAM:

  • Eric Washington, Miami (Ohio): If Fowler is the MAC’s top lead guard, then Washington is right behind him. The 5-foot-10 senior put up 14.2 points and 5.5 assists a game last season.
  • Jimmy Hall, Kent State: Coming off of a breakthrough sophomore season, the 6-foot-8 Hall will look to somehow improve on 15.9 points and 7.7 rebounds per game on 53 percent shooting.
  • Raven Lee, Eastern Michigan: A scoring guard coming off of a big sophomore season, the 6-foot-3 guard averaged 16.7 points per game and was a second-team All-MAC selection last season.
  • John Simons, Central Michigan: The talented running mate of Chris Fowler, Simons is a lethal shooter, hitting 91 treys last season at a 45 percent clip. Averaging 12.3 points and 6.8 boards as a junior, the 6-foot-8 forward could be in line for a big senior season.

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PREDICTED FINISH

EAST
1. Akron
2. Kent State
3. Buffalo
4. Miami (Ohio)
5. Ohio
6. Bowling Green
WEST
1. Central Michigan
2. Western Michigan
3. Toledo
4. Northern Illinois
5. Ball State
6. Eastern Michigan