You see, being the next hot team in the Mid-American Conference hasn't been the easiest thing to deal with in recent years. Two seasons ago, Buffalo entered the year with aspirations of reaching the NCAA Tournament. Last season, the thought was that Ohio would parlay its 2005 NCAA appearance into something greater.
As this season begins, much of the attention in the MAC is on the Zips -- and for good reason. Akron returns its top five scorers from last season and gets a key frontcourt player back from injury. In a league where experience is crucial, Akron coach Keith Dambrot likely will have a starting lineup of all juniors and seniors.
"We have high expectations," Joyce said. "We've been close the last couple of years and we want to take it to the next level. We want to win the MAC outright and get to the NCAAs and win a couple of games.
"I want to win every game in the MAC and I think we have the potential to do that."
For many programs, one of the biggest adjustments is making that transition from being the scrappy team that is competitive enough to win more than it losses to one that wins every night. Can the Zips handle being a target? Are they consistent enough to win on a regular basis?
While that will be an adjustment for several on the Akron roster, both Joyce and Travis know a little bit about big games, attention and large crowds. The reason is simple: The two played with a guy named LeBron James at Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. They traveled across the country for games. They played on national TV while most prep players are lucky to be on local-access cable. They constantly were targets.
"When I got to college, it was easy to play," said Travis, who led Akron last season with 13.8 points per game. "The hardest thing was playing in front of no crowd. At Akron, my first two years, we didn't have a lot of fans."
Dambrot -- who coached James, Joyce and Travis in high school for two seasons before returning to the college game at Akron -- acknowledges that his two senior leaders have a good understanding of what it takes to win.
"What they've been through is a lot of big games," Dambrot said.
Said Joyce: "Playing in big atmospheres and having all that hype, you have to keep your composure. Things aren't always going to perfect, but if you stay calm and not panic, things will be fine."
While James' residence in the upper crust of the NBA seems to be a completely different world from the MAC, there certainly is a connection between the NBA star and the Zips program because of Dambrot, Joyce and Travis. James has been known to show up for an occasional Akron game. He held his camp there over the summer. Pick-up games with James, some of the other Cleveland Cavaliers and college players from Akron, Kent State and Cleveland State often take place at Akron's Rhodes Arena.
"Our players have all pretty much played with LeBron or tried to guard him," Dambrot said. "He's kind of adopted us. He's so huge right now. It's amazing how we can get in the door [of recruits] with that connection. It's not all that different than with what [John] Stockton's done with Gonzaga."
James, however, won't be there to help the Zips make the next step. The current Akron players are going to have to do that on their own.
A year ago, Akron seemed destined to face Kent State in the championship game of the MAC tournament and play for a berth in the NCAAs. The Zips led Toledo by 12 points with under 13 minutes to play but couldn't complete the job. Down the stretch, Toledo outscored Akron 30-10 and advanced.
"That Toledo game, we win eight of 10 of those," Dambrot said. "We had a three-minute bad stretch."
While the Zips went and defeated Temple in the first round of the NIT, the Akron players still remember that loss to the Rockets.
"I think about it every day," Travis said. "We gave it to them, we crumbled.
"I think that game can be a reference point. We don't want to feel like that again."
Both Joyce and Travis acknowledge that for Akron to be successful, they need to play better together.
"Sometimes, guys would get upset when they wouldn't get the ball," Travis said. "It's been coming along a lot better than I would've expected. A lot of guys are staying here for the summer."
Now we'll all see the results. And we'll see if the MAC's newest hot team can live up to billing.
The Hot Zone
Will this finally be the season in which the MAC gets more than one team into the NCAA Tournament? It hasn't happened since 1999, when Miami (Ohio) and Kent State both advanced. In the seven years since, the MAC has been leapfrogged in college basketball's hierarchy by the Missouri Valley Conference, which has made a total of 17 NCAA Tournament appearances in that span.
A year ago, MAC coaches anxiously awaited the move from an 18-game league schedule to one in which the teams would play only 16 games. The hope was that the move would mean the MAC schools would beat up on each other less than in the past and that the best teams would have better overall records. The rub, however, is that filling out the schedules has become more and more difficult. While teams projected to finish near the bottom of the league don't have problems finding games, the better teams do.
Akron coach Keith Dambrot is among the coaches who is struggling to fill his schedule for next season.
"We've offered money, good money, to get people to come in and play us," Dambrot said. "It's been impossible. I used to think it was a great idea; now, heck, we'd rather play every [MAC] team twice."
Hot recruiting class
That belongs to Western Michigan. Much of the time, Michigan's Mr. Basketball ends up playing for the Wolverines or the Spartans. He almost always ends up at a major conference. Michigan's 2006 winner, David Kool of Grand Rapids South Christian, however, signed with Western Michigan. Kool, a 6-foot-3 guard, is also joined in this class by Jon Workman, who originally committed to Iowa. While Workman ultimately wasn't good enough to play at Iowa, he should be a solid player for the Broncos.
Fortunately, this isn't as big of a deal as it once was, but the MAC schools have embraced the idea of diversity in their coaching ranks. Each of the past three head coaching hires in the league -- Charles Ramsey (Eastern Michigan) last season and Ronny Thompson (Ball State) and Ernie Ziegler (Central Michigan) this past spring -- have been black. With those three hires, six of the 12 MAC schools currently have black coaches (Miami's Charlie Coles, Toledo's Stan Joplin and Buffalo's Reggie Witherspoon are the others). In the offseason, both Joplin and Witherspoon were given contract extensions.
It wasn't that long ago -- the 2001-02 season -- when Ball State defeated both Kansas and UCLA in the Maui Classic before losing to Duke. More recently than that, Chris Kaman -- who then was sporting a little less hair -- led Central Michigan to the 2003 NCAA Tournament.
Now Ronny Thompson and Ernie Ziegler are trying to rebuild both of those programs into what they were just a few seasons ago.
Thompson -- the son of former Georgetown coach John Thompson and brother of current Hoyas coach John Thompson III -- might have the easier of the two jobs. Arriving at Ball State after being an assistant to Stan Heath at Arkansas, Thompson does inherit two quality players in Skip Mills and Peyton Stovall.
Because of his varied background, it's a fair question to wonder how Thompson wants the Cardinals to play. He acknowledges it's going to feature a combination of styles.
"Ideally, I want to play the best way possible to win games," Thompson said. "I want to play a little more up-tempo than my brother, more along the lines of the way my father played. It will end up being a smorgasbord of things, with a splash of me in there, too."
Thompson has been given a bit of a primer on the MAC from Heath, the former Kent State coach.
"He told me the league is very tough, very competitive and there's a lot of parity," Thompson said. "It's a guard-oriented league and there's not a whole lot of difference between the supposed best team and the bottom teams."
If anything can be gleaned from Thompson's first few months on the job, it's that he isn't going to limit his recruiting to the MAC's traditional geographic region. In the spring, Thompson signed a pair of players from California and a wing from Mt. Zion Academy. While Thompson certainly wants to recruit players from the Midwest and Indiana, college basketball has changed over the last decade.
"I think recruiting now is national -- hell, it's international," Thompson said. "It's no longer just a situation where you recruit the guys in your backyard. With the Internet and TV, there's a lot more exposure and a lot more information out there than before. It's all about finding the right kids."
While Thompson has been on the job a few months and is beginning to feel comfortable, Ziegler is still in a transition phase. Former Central Michigan coach Jay Smith didn't resign until late and Ziegler wasn't hired until early June.
Because of that, he wasn't able to have any individual workouts with his players and hasn't seen any of them other than on film.
So what does he have to work with?
"It's really too early to tell," said Ziegler, most recently an assistant coach to Ben Howland at Pittsburgh and UCLA.
That experience with Howland will certainly come in handy, as Ziegler has been a part of the rebuilding of two programs. There's certainly a lot of work to do at Central Michigan. The Chippewas went 4-24 last season (1-17 MAC) and lost 19 of their final 21 games.
Ziegler wants Central Michigan to be a disciplined team.
"We're going to take good shots, hopefully we'll make them, and we're going to defend," he said.
If there's one thing in favor of both Thompson and Ziegler, it is the parity of the MAC.
"Most of the time in most leagues, there are five or six teams that are in the top half almost every year," Ziegler said. "You look at the MAC and just about every team has been able to win the conference or be close [in recent years]. That definitely gives hope to new head coaches. If you can get some guys to buy in and improve, you have a chance to be really successful. It's about having upperclassmen and it's about being able to nurture them.
"It's just going to take some time."
* -- NCAA Tournament
Akron: A key to the Zips' season may be the ability to get Jeremiah Wood back in the flow of things. Wood, an Akron native who was in the same recruiting class with Dru Joyce and Romeo Travis, missed half of the 2004-05 season and all of last season with a knee injury. The 6-7 Wood had a promising start to his sophomore season (in which he averaged 10.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game) before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in a game against Ohio. Now, after more than 18 months off, Wood should be at or near 100 percent.
Ball State: Barring a setback, junior guard Peyton Stovall is expected to be physically ready to go by the time practice starts in October. Stovall entered last season as the MAC's top returning player, but he tore his left ACL for the second time in his college career in a November game and didn't play again. If Stovall can return to the form that helped him average 16.7 points per game in 2004-05, Ball State has a chance to be much improved from a year ago.
Bowling Green: The Falcons don't enter this season with an abundance of momentum after going 9-21 overall and 5-13 in the MAC last season, but Dan Dakich does have perhaps the league's best shooter. Martin Samarco enters this season as the MAC's leading returning scorer after averaging 18.9 points per game. Just as impressive is the fact that he made 45.7 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Buffalo: Considering where Buffalo basketball used to be, this season's expected slide is nothing really. That said, the Bulls likely won't be where they have been the past three years. After losing double-figure scorers Calvin Cage, Roderick Middleton and Mario Jordan, promising big man Yassin Idbihi is going to need to be an even larger focal point of the offense. Another key to the season will be keeping wing Parnell Smith healthy. He reached double figures in eight of Buffalo's first 11 games, but only once afterwards. Smith also missed five games after the first of the year because of injury.
Central Michigan: While first-year head coach Ernie Ziegler doesn't really know what he has, he knows one thing: If the Chippewas are going to be improved from last season's 4-24 mark, they are going to need good play from point guard Giordan Watson. The 5-10 Watson was one of few bright spots for Central Michigan last season as he averaged 13.8 points and 4.4 assists. "He's going to have to be our leader offensively and defensively," Ziegler said. "I think he's a player who definitely has the ability to put pressure on teams when we have the ball and apply pressure defensively."
Eastern Michigan: Charles Ramsey's first season with the Eagles was a difficult one -- after beating Cal in the opener, EMU didn't record another victory over a team better than No. 240 in the RPI -- and now he has to deal with significant losses. Eastern Michigan went 7-21 overall with the MAC's leading scorer and rebounder, as John Bowler averaged 20.1 ppg and 10.8 rpg. A year ago, Carlos Medlock played huge minutes as a freshman. Expect his role to expand as a sophomore as he is Eastern Michigan's leading returning scorer. Ramsey also went the junior-college route and recruited some experience for this season.
Kent State: The Golden Flashes have been the benchmark in recent seasons in the MAC with eight consecutive 20-victory seasons. If Kent State can extend that streak to nine, it will be extremely impressive. That's because the Golden Flashes' top three scorers last season were all seniors and Jay Youngblood, DeAndre Haynes and Kevin Warzynski combined to average 28.1 points per game last season. Kent State's leading returning scorer is guard Omni Smith (8.1 ppg last season).
Miami (OH): The easy thing would be to assume the RedHawks are going to take a slide in the MAC East standings. Miami, after all, has to find a way to make up for the loss of guard William Hatcher and three of its top seven scorers. The problem with that is that Charlie Coles seems to always find a way to be in the mix at the end of the season. Defense is much of the reason why. Last season, the RedHawks led the MAC in points allowed and that should continue this season. If Miami can find a consistent third scorer to go along with Tim Pollitz and Nathan Peavy, the RedHawks could sneak into the mix in the East.
Northern Illinois: Everybody knows that the NBA is infatuated with big men. Because of that, don't be shocked if you roll into a Northern Illinois game and see guys with team-logoed shirts writing in portfolios made of faux basketball leather. The reason? James Hughes. Yes, we know Hughes didn't average in double figures last season (9.6 points per game), but he is 6-11, he is long and he can block shots. What does that mean? It means that Hughes will get every opportunity imaginable to become a NBA draft pick.
Ohio: Much of the reason the Bobcats didn't return to the NCAA Tournament last season was that Ohio had a serious dropoff at point guard after Jeremy Fears left midway through the season. If Antonio Chatman -- who was forced into the job -- can make a jump this season, the Bobcats can again be a contender. Ohio still returns five of its top six scorers from last season, including wing Sonny Troutman and undersized big man Leon Williams.
Toledo: As has been the case for each of the past several seasons, much of the talk in the Mid-American Conference will be about the East Division. That's, after all, where Akron, Ohio, Miami and Kent State all reside. Because of that, the Rockets quietly will go about their business as the favorites in the West. Toledo, which should have a strong perimeter, returns its four leading scorers and six of its top seven from last season. After a slow start, the Rockets won seven of their final eight regular season games last season and then advanced to the championship game of the MAC Tournament before losing to Kent State.
Western Michigan: The Broncos are an interesting team. Like Toledo, Western Michigan struggled early in the season and was 4-11 overall after a loss at Kent State in mid-January. Western Michigan then went 10-6 the rest of the way. The Broncos return three of five starters, including big man Joe Reitz, who was fifth in scoring and second in rebounding in the MAC as a sophomore.
Anybody who's spent some time watching MAC ball at a member school's home gym or on regional TV can appreciate how good this conference is. The Mid-American simply produces great, fun-to-watch hoops. It's full of fundamentally sound squads that play great defense and shoot well, most games are exciting and close, and any team can win on any given night.
But most folks still don't measure a conference's quality in raw thrills, but rather by the number of NCAA Tournament bids. In this regard, the strange gravitational pull that drags most MAC teams toward the .500 mark has hurt the league. The mighty Mid-American hasn't sent an at-large team to the Tournament yet this century and has only delivered multiple teams four times since 1986.
Unlike the CAA, which saw its two-decade dry spell end in 2006, the MAC likely have to wait an entire generation for more multi-bid magic. Although defending champ Kent State lost 71 percent of its scoring from last season's NCAA team, there's no unfilled vacuum at the top.
Akron won 23 games last season and returns four starters from the league's highest-scoring team (72.9 PF), including 6-7 paint-pounding leading scorer Romeo Travis (13.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg). The Zips won't have a problem with motivation: Coach Keith Dambrot will be holding their embarrassing exit in the 2006 conference semis to No. 7 seed Toledo over their heads, as a galvanizing reminder of unfinished business.
Then there's 2005 league champ Ohio, which underperformed last season after being tabbed as ESPN.com's "It" team, in large part due to off-court issues regarding starting point guard Jeremy Fears (who later transferred to Bradley). The good news for the Bobcats is that herky-jerky Tony Chatman was blossoming into a capable point toward the end of the season. He'll have plenty of receivers to choose from, including junior power forward Leon Williams (11.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg).
Can two Mid-American teams, Akron and Ohio (or even potential dark horses Miami or Toledo), make the Dance? A lot will depend on their performance in November and December and their ability to rack up some eye-catching non-conference wins before the MAC's annual 18-game grind. To the delight of the league's fans and the horror of the NCAA selection committee, there's always a lot of attrition there.
Our resident Bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, thinks Akron will earn the MAC's auto bid for the 2007 NCAA Tournament.
The bigger news Flash? He has defending champ Kent State in as the league's first at-large since 1999.
Have an opinion or just want to see what our users think about the conference? Click here for SportsNation's MAC poll page.