Friday, November 12, 2010

A new era begins: CMU at the Rainbow Classic and previewing the MAC

The Central Michigan men's basketball program is hours away from tipping off a new season.

The expectations are cautiously optimistic for the 2010-11 version of the Chippewas, who play Cal State Fullerton at 2:30 a.m. EDT Saturday in Honolulu, Hawaii as part of the Rainbow Classic.

It's easy to see that expectations have never been higher for coach Ernie Zeigler and his team. Zeigler has never had this kind of talent to work with before. He began his tenure by taking over a team that was coming off a 4-24 season in 2005-06.

Zeigler has slowly but consistently brought this program back to respectability. It's hasn't been easy — and Zeigler had his share of detractors. A good number of players Zeigler has brought in left the program because they couldn't fit his "Think Tough, Be Tough" mantra. Some, like Jacolby Hardiman and Marcus Van, got in trouble. Others, such as freshman Tyler Brown, were injured and homesick. But for whatever reason, be it the sorry state of Mid-American Conference basketball or Zeigler's unwillingness to accept nothing less than 100 percent effort, CMU has gained a share of the MAC West Division title the past two seasons. It hasn't translated to success in the MAC Tournament in Cleveland, however, as he has yet to guide the Chippewas past the quarterfinals. But that could be changing immediately.

Trey Zeigler is CMU's "Next Dan LeFevour." Unfortunately for Trey, this burden has been placed on him before his first collegiate game. With the football team fading into the cellar of the MAC and the best quarterback in school history now playing (or sitting) on Sundays, the university community is looking for Trey to heat up the winter. It's quite the order for an 18-year-old kid. But if there's a guy who can handle it, it's Trey. Mature beyond his years, Trey has handled the attention in stride thus far. And the bandwagon will only grow in size if the wins keep coming.

The good thing for Trey is, he's going to have some help. He's a big part of one of the largest recruiting classes in school history. Ten players (55.5 percent of the team) will suit up for CMU for the first time tonight. The team includes eight true freshmen and only seven upperclassmen. A look:

3Auston BarnesF6-6190Fr.Lansing, Mich. (Waverly HS)
35Jevon HardenF6-8218Fr.Detroit, Mich. (Loyola)
23Derek JacksonPG6-0170Fr.Cleveland, Ohio (Benedictine)
1Brook TursonG/F6-3190Fr.Plymouth, Ohio (Plymouth HS)
12Nate VanArendonkC6-9230Fr.Grand Haven, Mich. (Grand Haven HS)
33Colin VossF6-7235Fr.Grand Rapids, Mich. (East GR HS)
20Luke WiestG5-10175Fr.Caledonia, Mich. (Caledonia HS)
0Trey ZeiglerG6-5195Fr.Mt. Pleasant, Mich. (MPHS)
10Andre CoimbraF6-9222Jr.Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
11Paris ParamoreG6-0175Jr.Chicago, Ill. (Triton) (Washington HS)

A few predictions for the 2010-11 season:

Leading scorer: Trey Zeigler. He was the only freshman to be named to the preseason All-MAC team, and with good reason. The 6-foot-5 guard could have played anywhere he wanted, but chose to stay home to play for Dad. I expect him to average around 20 points per game during his first season. Look for a few 30+ point games, though. We could be looking at the MAC's next great player here.

3-point shooter: This one's hard to call. It was CMU's bread-and-butter the past few years, mostly because there was no inside threat. Here's how the Chippewas ranked in the MAC last season:

1. C. Michigan302297.63
2. Ohio372787.51
3. Buffalo302076.90
4. Akron352356.71

With the loss of Robbie Harman and Jordan Bitzer, who ..... well, let's just look at some numbers for a minute:

Last season's MAC rankings:
1. Robbie HarmanCMUSr.301053.50
2. Tommy FreemanOhioJr.37932.51
3. Jordan BitzerCMUSr.30722.40

1. Tommy FreemanOhioJr.3793195.477
2. Randy DavisBall St.So.3044100.440
3. Robbie HarmanCMUSr.30105245.429
4. Dee BrownBGSUSo.303582.427
5. Darryl RobertsAkronSr.353689.404
6. Jordan BitzerCMUSr.3072179.402

CMU's all-time 3-point list:

1. Robbie Harman5942332007-10
2. Giordan Watson5421992005-06
3. Jordan Bitzer5421962007-10

So ... They were pretty good shooters. In the exhibition game (box), 6-8 Andre Coimbra made 2-of-2 from long range. Sort of a surprise and I'm not sure coach Zeigler wants to rely on a big man for 3s, but, hey, maybe he's the guy.

The returning CMU player with the most 3-pointers made last season is Jalin Thomas, who made a whole 12 on 43 attempts (27.9 percent). It looks like Derek Jackson (2-for-5 in exhibition) has the green light, as does Trey (1-for-3) and Paris Paramore (0-for-4). This will be determined. But CMU doesn't need to live or die on the 3 like it did last season. They have guys who can, umm.. make plays.

The Chippewas attempted 20.51 3-pointers per game last season, second only to Eastern Michigan's 20.59. They did come out firing in their exhibition opener, shooting 23. But the sooner they figure out that it's easier to get points inside the arch, the more success they'll have.

Assists leader: Trey Zeigler. Amir Rashid must step up in this area. With teams likely keying on stopping Zeigler on the offensive end, he will have the chance to create offense for his teammates as a solid passer. But ultimately, the responsibility of Amir Rashid, or whomever takes over the starting point guard slot (my bet is on freshman Derek Jackson), is to find Zeigler, Jalin Thomas, Andre Coimbra (who sort of resembles the NBA's Lopez brothers when he has a 'fro going) or whomever else emerges as a scoring threat.
Sidenote: I don't know how long CMU can go starting 6-foot-8 center Will McClure. I wrote a column about McClure's effectiveness without scoring last season, but with other post guys (who are able to score) pining for time, coach Zeigler might have to use McClure sparingly. That said, McClure does present a defensive presence. He ranked sixth in the MAC last season with 38 blocks (1.27 per game). But if the other guys show their worth on the defensive end, McClure could definitely fall in the pecking order, despite coach Zeigler's love for the guy.

Rebounds leader: Jalin Thomas. Without Thomas, who stands just 6-foot-4 by the way, the Chippewas' rebounding severely suffers. Thomas ranked eighth in the MAC in offensive rebounds last season, grabbing 2.26 per game. CMU ranked eighth in the conference last season in rebounding margin (+1 per game). Will McClure is an inside presence, but isn't tall enough a lot of the time. The additions of Andre Coimbra, Jevon Harden and Nate VanArendonk will help, too. Harden had six rebounds in just 3 minutes in CMU's lone exhibition game.

Steals leader: Rashid. He averaged 1.32 per game last season, good for 13th in the MAC and second on his team after departed senior Jordan Bitzer. He's got the quickness on defense to have another good defensive year.

Under the radar breakout performer: Jalin Thomas. If his back can stay healthy throughout the season, look out. This guy is all over the floor. Not the best jump-shooter, but he makes plays. He's not flashy, but gets the job done. The 6-foot-4 senior will start throughout the season and will provide leadership along with fellow senior Antonio Weary (a.k.a. "Peanut").

Projected MAC finish

West Division
1. Central Michigan. Most talent in the division. The big question is the team's experience. Will it gain enough of it before the conference season? How will the freshmen adjust to the college level? How will coach Zeigler's new up-and-down-the-court philosophy work? A lot of unanswered questions, but when you have a top-50 recruit playing for you in a less-than-stellar conference, he makes things happen. It'll be close and maybe even another tie with Ball State. It'll take more than a 9-7 league mark to take it this time, though.
2. Ball State. This team has a lot of talent, namely junior 6-9 forward Jarrod Jones (12.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, seven double-doubles, and Jauwan Scaife (10.2 points as a starting freshman). They have the talent. The question is the team's chemistry. Didn't seem too strong last year in losses at Toledo and Western Michigan to stumble into a tie in the West with CMU.
3. Western Michigan. Losing MAC Player of the Year David Kool to graduation really hurts the Broncos' chances. Can 6-7 junior forward Flenard Whitfield have a breakout season? 6-6 forward Juwan Howard, Jr. (Detroit Pershing) likely will start as a freshman.
4. Eastern Michigan. 6-6 senior forward Brandon Bowdry is coming back for the Eagles, and he might be the conference's best player. He can do it all — shoot the 3, muscle it inside, or drive for a dunk. Bowdry put up MAC-Player-of-the-Year-like stats again last season (16.3 points, 10 rebounds, 16 double-doubles). He could use some help from senior Jay Higgins on the wing. He averaged eight points and 3.3 rebounds last season. The Eagles' backcourt is not good. Darrell Lampley and Antonio Green hardly make up for losing graduated team leader, starting guard and leading scorer Carlos Medlock (16.9 points, 3.8 assists (both fifth in MAC). Medlock's departure might cripple this team.
5. Northern Illinois. 6-5 senior guard Xavier Silas, who transferred from Colorado two years ago, is the Huskies' lone serious scoring threat. Silas ranked second in the MAC and 11th nationally last year at 19.7 points per game. Shut him down, or even let him go off — doesn't really matter. NIU has no one else to be worried about, and Silas (1.3 assists per game) doesn't know how to pass. Last year's second-leading scorer, Darion Anderson, now plays for Iowa State. Third-leading scorer Sean Kowal was released from his scholarship because he wanted to attend grad school instead of play for the Huskies again. Yup, not looking good in DeKalb.
6. Toledo. Might be the most dysfunctional program in Division I right now. Went 4-28 last season, coach Gene Cross resigned amid a sex scandal and the Rockets return no talent whatsoever. Their best player (freshman Jake Barnett, 12.9 points per game last season) transferred to St. Louis. I'm giving first-year coach Tod Kowalczyk (formerly at Wisconsin-Green Bay) the benefit of the doubt for a few years to sort out this mess.

East Division
1. Ohio. Can D.J. Cooper avoid a sophomore slump? He made a splash on the national scene last season in the NCAA Tournament, lighting it up from 3-point range and displaying one of the quickest dribbles in the country. Unfortunately, leading scorer Armon Bassett (now on NBDL's Maine Red Claws) departed early amid some legal trouble, leaving some questions. Can 6-6 freshman guard T.J. Hall (Gainesville, Fla.) fill in off the bench? The MAC's best 3-point shooter in Tommy Freeman (10.5 points) returns, but will it be enough?
2. Akron. Seven players led the Zips in single-game scoring last season. They do lose three of those — Jimmy Conyers, Chris McKnight and Anthony Hitchens — but return 6-2 senior guard Steve McNees (One of the top 3-point shooters in the MAC), 6-6 senior forward Brett McKnight (10 points, 4.5 rebounds), 6-foot guard Darryl Roberts (7.3 points) and Nikola Cvetinovic (6.7 points, 4.2 rebounds). Akron's top-100 recruit from two seasons ago, 7-foot center Zeke Marshall (5.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, has been largely disappointing. He needs to step up big for Akron to win the division.
3. Kent State. This team still has enough talent to compete for a MAC title, but might not have the experience, even with returning guys such as 6-8 Justin Greene in the frontcourt and Rodriquez Sherman in the backcourt.
5. Miami (Ohio)
4. Bowling Green
6. Buffalo

MAC Tournament champions: Ohio. The Bobcats will shake off a lower seeding to get back to the Big Dance against Central Michigan in the title game.

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