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MAC Preview: Akron hopes to avenge its tourney title game loss to Ohio

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Zeke Marshall (Getty Images)

Yahoo! Sports is breaking down each league for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 31 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 13 league, the MAC.

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In a largely successful 2011-12 season, Akron won 22 games, defeated Mississippi State, Detroit and Marshall in non-league play and captured first place in the MAC's rugged East Division.

About the only thing the Zips didn't accomplish is returning to the NCAA tournament.

A one-point loss to Ohio in the MAC tournament championship game denied Akron an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament and relegated the Zips to the NIT. The sting of that painful loss should provide ample motivation next season to an Akron team that returns four starters from last year.

Akron surrendered the second least points per possession of any MAC team last season, an accomplishment that can largely be attributed to the presence of 7-footer Zeke Marshall in the paint. Marshall blocked 2.8 shots per game and altered countless others, enabling the Zips to pressure the ball and deny the passing lanes on the perimeter without fear of being beaten off the dribble.

Although Marshall is a threat to score in the paint or on the offensive glass, Akron largely will be a perimeter-oriented team when it has the ball.

MAC sixth man of the year Quincy Diggs being dismissed from the team this month is certainly a considerable loss, but the Zips have plenty of other backcourt options. Point guard Alex Abreu is a good shooter and distributor, Chancey Gilliam is hustle player who does all the little things and Brian Walsh is an accomplished long-range specialist.

Despite all the key players Akron returns from last year's regular season champs, the Zips still may not be the favorites in the MAC. That honor probably goes to Ohio, which wasn't as consistent as Akron last winter but caught fire in March and advanced all the way to the Sweet 16.

All the important pieces from last season return for the Bobcats, including a backcourt featuring league player of the year favorite D.J. Cooper, versatile guard Walter Offutt and shooter Nick Kellogg. Ohio has adequate talent in the paint and a deep bench. The loss of coach John Groce to Illinois might normally be a concern, but new coach Jim Christian knows the league well from his successful Kent State tenure.

Behind Akron and Ohio, another MAC East team — Buffalo — likely has the best chance of making the NCAA tournament. Eastern Michigan and Toledo will be the favorites in the weaker MAC West, though Eagles coach Rob Murphy must make sure he didn't lose his team with his flirtation with an NBA job this summer and Toledo coach Tad Kowalczyk must find a way to motivate his players despite a postseason ban due to low APR scores.

MAKING A LIST
Best shooter: Nick Kellogg, Ohio
Best playmaker: D.J. Cooper, Ohio
Best defender: Zeke Marshall, Akron
Coach on the rise: Keith Dambrot, Akron
Coach on the hot seat: Billy Taylor, Ball State
Three must-see games: 1. Ohio at Memphis, Dec. 5 (Lone chance for a marquee non-league win for the Bobcats; 2. Akron at Puerto Rico Shootout, Nov. 15-18 (The Zips could theoretically face Oklahoma State, Tennessee and NC State); 3. Eastern Michigan at Syracuse, Dec. 3 (Rob Murphy returns to the school where he served as an assistant from 2004-2011)

FACTS AND FIGURES
New coaches: Jim Christian, Ohio (Had been coach at TCU); John Cooper, Miami (Ohio) (Had been coach at Tennessee State)
Regular-season winner last season: Akron (East); Eastern Michigan (West)
Tourney winner last season: Ohio
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2011-12: 17th ; 2010-11: 20th, 2009-10: 15th
Last NCAA tourney win by a league team: 2012, 13th-seeded Ohio defeated Michigan, South Florida

More conference previews from Yahoo! Sports:

Horizon League (No. 14): An unlikely Florida recruiting pipeline has sparked Youngstown State's revivalValparaiso won't sneak up on anybody this season

Ohio Valley Conference (No. 15): Isaiah Canaan talks about coming back to Murray State, his most famous shot and how Hurricane Katrina altered his lifeMurray State, Belmont poised to continue league's run of recent success

Ivy League (No. 16): Princeton's Ian Hummer excels at a school he has adored since childhoodIvy League Capsule Preview: Harvard is still a title threat despite cheating scandal

Patriot League (No. 17): C.J. McCollum bypassed the NBA and returned to Lehigh to fulfill a promise to his parentsExpect another spirited two-way battle between Bucknell and Lehigh

MAAC (No. 18): Mitch Buonaguro enters important year optimistic Siena can climb back into contentionNext step in Manhattan's stunning turnaround could be league title

Southern Conference (No. 19): Trading soccer for hoops has paid off for College of Charleston star and Great Britain Olympian Andrew LawrenceDavidson is loaded for another run at a league title, NCAA bid

WAC (No. 20): Will the beleaguered WAC survive as a basketball league beyond next season?;WAC Capsule Preview: Utah State hopes to rebound from frustrating 2011-12 season

Sun Belt League (No. 21): In likely his final season at North Texas, Tony Mitchell wants to leave a legacyMiddle Tennessee State vies for the NCAA bid it narrowly missed last year

Summit League (No. 22): In the small town of Brookings, S.D., Nate Wolters is a reluctant superstarSouth Dakota State looks like the clear favorite

NEC (No. 23): Oft-overlooked Shane Gibson hopes to go from hidden gem to stardomNEC Capsule Preview: Three-way battle for league title could hinge on LIU Brooklyn suspensions

Big Sky (No. 24): New stars must emerge for Weber State to succeed without Damian Lillard;Montana remains the favorite despite Will Cherry's injury

Big West (No. 25): With San Diego State on its way, Big West teams are investing in hoops to avoid being left behindRevamped Long Beach State takes aim at another Big West title

Atlantic Sun (No. 26): Humble, unassuming Torrey Craig leads South Carolina Upstate's resurgenceWhich team will capitalize on Belmont's departure?

Big South (No. 27): Unwanted in high school, guards Saah Nimley and Arlon Harper are now powering Charleston Southern's resurgenceCoastal Carolina hopes home is sweet this March

Southland Conference (No. 28): Pat Knight's epic rant had unintended benefits for LamarOral Roberts assumes the role of instant favorite in its new league

America East (No. 29): Stony Brook basketball draws inspiration from baseball team's College World Series runEarly departures drain league of some of its top talent

MEAC (No. 30): Rush of publicity from Missouri win has long-lasting impact at Norfolk StateSavannah State seeks NCAA bid to cap remarkable turnaround

SWAC (No. 31): Mike Davis prefers challenge of winning at Texas Southern to torture of taking a year offBalanced league will crown new champ this year

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