It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season — from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: What's next in the MAC?
Fans of Mid-American Conference basketball, please don't take this the wrong way: The MAC is not exactly the most exciting conference in the world.
In some very real ways, this is a compliment. The MAC has been relatively untouched by conference realignment in recent years. Members know each other well and play each other tough. Road trips are geographically compact. Rivalries are regional, and real.
The reason this doesn't always lead to excitement, at least for those of us with a full hoops plate, is that the MAC has always felt relatively predictable. It would produce a decent team, maybe two, would send its tournament champ to the NCAA tournament, and maybe there'd be an upset, and maybe not.
The past two years have been different. In 2012, Ohio blitzed its way to the Sweet 16, nearly took down North Carolina in the Elite Eight and earned its coach, John Groce, a chance to put his intense intelligence to work as the coach at Illinois. Last season, the surprise was even more dramatic: Just a few days before title favorite Akron's final regular-season game of the year, star point guard Alex Abreu was arrested and charged with felony drug trafficking. Abreu was selling marijuana, and not casually; police caught on when dogs sniffed a five-pound package filled with the stuff that was shipped through the postal service to the home of Abreu’s friend in Akron. Last month, the Akron Beacon Journal's reporting -- including the transcript of a meeting Abreu and his attorney had with narcotics agents, at which Abreu asked repeatedly about his chances of playing Kent State on March 12 -- revealed how harrowing, and how devastating, that situation might have been. The Zips had every excuse to fold down the stretch, but they didn't, overcoming the drastic loss of their point guard in time to take the MAC tournament crown and head to another NCAA tournament under Keith Dambrot.
There was a chance Abreu could have returned to the Zips this season; a judge suspended his two-year sentence (and waived his fine) in favor of an 18-month probation. Abreu was trying to work his way back into his team's good graces when he was arrested in July for an unspecified probation violation. School officials told the Beacon Journal Abreu has left the school.
The narrowest upshot from all this is that the league's most consistent NCAA tournament participant in the past five years is out a point guard in addition to star center Zeke Marshall. The other point(s) worth making is that Akron managed to cope without Abreu last season, never seemed to expect his return in the first place, returns three solid starters (Demetrius Treadwall, Brian Walsh, Jake Kretzer), and has 6-foot-11 center Pat Forsythe and 6-foot-7 wingman Reggie McAdams ready to step into larger roles as sophomores. It's kind of amazing that Akron still could look like a favorite to win its league after everything the program lost last spring, but that's a testament to the program Dambrot has built.
The wider upshot is this: The MAC got kind of crazy! Sweet 16 runs? Felony drug trafficking arrests? I realize the league surely would not want the Abreu situation tacked on to its image, and for good reason. But you have to admit, it's exciting. And with so much turnover, and an apparently new willingness to live on the edge, perhaps MACtion need not be reserved for Thursday nights anymore.