Mid-Con race to feature new faces at top

By Rob Bolton

Only one can finish first.

Only the most talented and most experienced float to the top of the sea of competition.

The Mid-Continent Conference boat has been rocked.

The University of Akron jumped ship and headed for the Mid-American.

This year, Mid-Con commissioner Jerry Ippoliti has captained the invitation of Youngstown State for the upcoming campaign and the addition of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for next year.

Last season’s hero was Eastern Illinois. The Panthers were the lone Mid-Con representative in the NCAA Tournament. EIU’s stay wasn’t long as it’s first-round matchup featured a clash with eventual Final Four member Indiana.

But, this season’s outlook drowns the Panthers in the bottom half of the preseason polls.

On top?

Last year’s Mid-Con runner-up—the University of Illinois-Chicago.

The Flames, with 210 points, took the preseason honors over Wright State by six points and third pick Cleveland State by 18.

The Tony Bennett-less Phoenix of Wisconsin-Green Bay placed fourth in the ranks, while Brian Hammel’s Huskies grabbed the No. 5 slot with 134 points (eight behind UWGB).

The bottom half of the league is anchored, in order, by Eastern, Valparaiso, Western Illinois and Youngstown State.

Here’s a look at the top contenders for the Mid-Con title:

UIC’s surface as the favorite is defined by a couple of reasons … good reasons—Kenny Williams and Sherell Ford.

Both were selected to the preseason All-Conference team—the only two non-seniors of the five chosen. But Williams has proven he can compete at the collegiate level, Ford has not.

Ford fell to the shortcomings of Proposition 48 and missed out on last year’s campaign, but returns as a sophomore who will dominate.

Ralph Underhill’s Raiders from Wright State enter this season testing their talent quicker than it takes to shoot a layup. WSU opens it’s year on the road at Kentucky—the victims of Duke’s miracle overtime murder in last year’s NCAA tourney.

With help from preseason All-Conference member Billy Edwards and Sean Hammonds, the Mid-Con leader in field goal pct., the Raiders should post some hefty numbers.

The stats will certainly help as Wright State will host the conference tournament in March.

Cleveland State and UWGB are good but lack a tool that could push them over the hump of success.

For the Vikings, experience might hurt. A total of six juniors and seniors fill roster spots, while pressure will fall on the underclassmen when starters need a rest.

For the Phoenix, the absence of Tony Bennett will hurt the scoring attack.