We continue with our league breakdowns for the upcoming season; we're working backward from league No. 32 to our top-ranked league.
The breakdowns will become more in-depth as the leagues get bigger.
Akron went more than two decades without an NCAA tournament appearance not too long ago. Now the Zips seem ready to make it an annual rite of spring.
The Zips return three starters from a team that went 23-13 and won the Mid-American Conference tournament last season. Akron is seeking its third NCAA bid in the past four seasons after failing to make the tournament from 1987-2008.
Akron looks particularly strong up front, as it returns 6-foot-8 F Nikola Cvetinovic and 7-footer Zeke Marshall. Cvetinovic averaged 11.7 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists last season. Marshall, the MAC tournament MVP last season, is a premier shot blocker who needs to polish his offense.
The Zips should be in the thick of contention for the MAC title again this season, but they're not prohibitive favorites by any means.
Kent State returns the nucleus of a team that went 25-12 and won the MAC regular-season title last season, though the Flashes did undergo a coaching change in the offseason. Kent State promoted former assistant Rob Senderoff to replace Geno Ford, who has taken over Bradley's program.
Ohio reached the second round of the NCAA tournament just two years ago and returns arguably the conference's best overall player in junior PG D.J. Cooper, who ranked fifth in the MAC in scoring (15.8) and led the league in assists (7.5 per game) last season.
Miami (Ohio) went 11-5 in conference play last season and could challenge for the league title if it can avoid the injury problems that haunted the RedHawks a year ago.
Buffalo won 20 games last season and returns plenty of size in 6-6 sophomore Javon McCrea (11.8 points, 6.5 rebounds), 6-7 senior Titus Robinson (4.9 points, 2.3 rebounds) and 6-10 senior Mitchell Watt (8.0 points, 5.3 rebounds). The Bulls led the MAC in blocks and ranked second in rebound margin last season.
It should come as no surprise that all five teams we've mentioned play in the Eastern Division. The East has been far stronger than the West for a few years now. Last season, five of the six East teams had stronger RPIs than anyone in the West.
Western Michigan and Ball State will try to give the MAC a little more balance. They're the two best teams in the West and could be talented enough to challenge for the overall conference title as well.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Ohio G D.J. Cooper
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Kent State F Chris Evans (6-7/210, Jr.; junior college transfer)
PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH East Division 1. Akron
2. Kent State
4. Miami (Ohio)
6. Bowling Green
West Division 1. Western Michigan
2. Ball State
3. Central Michigan
4. Northern Illinois
5. Eastern Michigan
MAKING A LIST BEST FRONTCOURT: Buffalo
BEST BACKCOURT: Ohio
COACH ON THE RISE: Akron's Keith Dambrot COACH ON THE HOT SEAT: Bowling Green's Louis Orr PROGRAM ON THE RISE: Western Michigan
PROGRAM ON THE DECLINE: Bowling Green
MOST UNDERRATED PLAYER: Kent State G Michael Porrini
FACTS AND FIGURES New coaches: Rob Murphy at Eastern Michigan (had been assistant at Syracuse), Rob Senderoff at Kent State (promoted from assistant), Mark Montgomery at Northern Illinois (had been assistant at Michigan State)
Regular-season winner last season: Kent State
Tourney winner last season: Akron
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 20th in 2010-11, 15th in 2009-10, 21st in 2008-09
Last NCAA tourney win by a league team: 2010, Ohio, as a No. 14 seed in the first round
2012 conference tournament: March 5, 7-10, first round at campus sites, with rest of the tournament in Cleveland