According to some experts, the basketball being played in the Mid-American Conference is the best it’s been since the 1990s.
Back when Gary Trent, Bonzi Wells and Wally Szczerbiak ruled the league before going on to have decade-long careers in the National Basketball Association. Back when Miami fans packed Millett Hall to the rafters. Back when many current collegiate players were infants, and before some of them were even born.
The claims merit discussion.
The MAC is currently listed as the ninth best conference out of 15. The Buffalo Bulls rank 20th in the nation and only two MAC teams hold losing records.
After finishing their non-conference schedule with eight wins for the first time since 1996, the Miami RedHawks (8-5) face that gauntlet this season.
According to second-year head coach Jack Owens, they’re ready for it.
“This is why the guys came [to Miami],” Owens said. “To play in a league like this … The league is so good. There is never going to be a night off.”
Miami tried to imitate this no-night-off schedule with its non-conference opponents.
The RedHawks played five of their 13 games this season against 2018 NCAA Tournament teams, including road contests against Butler and Xavier.
Win or lose, Owens kept repeating the phrase “learning experience” and encouraged his team to view every day as “another opportunity to get better.”
They might have even more opportunities to get better than most teams have going forward.
While other schools are getting ready to start their second semester in the next week and a half, classes in Oxford don’t kick off until Jan. 28, allowing the RedHawks to focus solely on basketball.
“We’re using the time wisely,” Owens said. “I know guys are getting in the gym and getting extra shots up. Obviously, we’re practicing as much as we can, but we’re also giving them extra days off, so they can rest their bodies. It’s an important time for us because the conference is starting. It’s right here. This is what we work so hard for.”
Besides the delay in concentrating on schoolwork, the RedHawks remain almost fully healthy to face their MAC foes. The lone question mark is sophomore guard Isaiah Coleman-Lands, who re-aggravated a preseason foot injury last week and is set to be out for the foreseeable future. According to Owens, it’s unknown whether Coleman-Lands will return to the court this season.
The loss of Coleman-Lands means more playing time for freshman guard Mekhi Lairy, who filled in admirably Sunday against Evansville by scoring 14 second-half points.
He is expected to play an important role off the Miami bench when the RedHawks open their conference schedule against Central Michigan (11-2) tomorrow and for the rest of the season.
Miami enters Saturday playing its best basketball of the season.
After starting the season 3-4 in their first seven games, the RedHawks have won five of their last six and are currently slotted as no. 155 out of 353 teams in the NCAA net rankings.
Saturday’s matchup with the Chippewas at Millett Hall is scheduled for 2 p.m. and will air on ESPN3.