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College notes: Oakland, WMU hoops drawing early hype

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Martez Walker returns after leading Oakland in scoring last season at 17.8 points per game.

The college-basketball season hasn't even begun yet – not to mention, we'd still like to get through Thanksgiving and Christmas, thank ya very much – but that doesn't stop the national pundits from trying to rush us into March Madness.

Sports Illustrated took the first leap Tuesday, releasing its preseason projections for the 68-team NCAA Tournament field.

Four Michigan schools are among the 68, as projected by Michael Beller.

Michigan State is the no-brainer, as a No. 1 seed in the East Region. The Spartans, buoyed by the surprise return of Miles Bridges, are the No. 2-ranked team in the country in the preseason coaches’ poll, behind Duke, another No. 1 seed. Arizona and Wichita State also are No. 1 seeds.

Michigan gets in at a No. 9 seed, Beller apparently viewing the Wolverines suspiciously after losing their on-floor leaders to graduation, Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin.

The other two Michigan schools in Beller's field are Oakland, the heavy favorite to win the Horizon League, with several star fifth-year seniors – not to mention the departure of Valparaiso to the Missouri Valley Conference – as well as Western Michigan.

Oakland, which hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 2011, checks in at a No. 13 seed – it'd be one scary 13 seed – and Western Michigan, which last made the NCAA Tournament in 2014, appears as a No. 15 seed.

Western Michigan is the pick to win its division in the Mid-American Conference, led by star senior Thomas Wilder, who briefly flirted with the NBA last offseason before returning.

Oakland and Western Michigan are getting plenty of recognition nationally among mid-majors, with ranking Oakland the No. 5 mid-major program in the country, and Western Michigan No. 23.

Kicking the can

The men's soccer season is winding down, and several Michigan teams have high hopes of playing in the NCAA Tournament.

That includes No. 12-ranked Michigan, which on Sunday beat No. 21 Maryland, 2-1 in double-overtime, to earn the Wolverines their first-ever Big Ten regular-season championship.

Michigan learned late in its match with Maryland that No. 2-ranked Indiana had tied with No. 8 Michigan State, 1-1, meaning the Wolverines knew a win would earn them the crown.

"Hearing the result of the other match with about 20 minutes to go gave us a big lift, and we started to get ahold of it a bit in the second half," Michigan coach Chaka Daley said.

It's quite a turnaround for the program, which, led by England's Jack Hallahan (17 points) and Ghana's Mohammed Zakyi (16 points), was 4-11-4 last year. The Wolverines are 11-4-2 this year, 6-1-1 in Big Ten play.

Michigan will open Big Ten tournament play against either Rutgers or Northwestern, on Sunday at UM Soccer Stadium in Ann Arbor.

As for Michigan State (11-2-3, 5-0-3) – which finished with an .813 winning percentage, same as Michigan and Indiana – it will host Ohio State on Sunday.

Michigan was last in the NCAA Tournament in 2012, Michigan State made it last season.

The other state team to keep tabs on is Western Michigan (14-2-1, 4-0-0), which won its first Mid-American Conference championship, snapping Akron's 13-year stronghold on the title. The Broncos close regular-season play Saturday, before jumping right into the MAC tournament semifinals Nov. 10. Its lone NCAA Tournament appearance was in 2003.

This and that

Some other notable fall-sport performances to catch up on:

* Michigan men's and women's cross-country teams swept the Big Ten regular-season championships for the first time since 1993, when men's coach Kevin Sullivan was a freshman for the Wolverines. The season continues for both with the NCAA Great Lakes Regional on Nov. 10 in Indiana.

* Also sweeping league cross-country championships were the Oakland men's and women's teams (Horizon League) and the Eastern Michigan men's and women's teams (MAC). For EMU's men, it marks an eighth consecutive league title. On the women's side, WMU senior Hanne Christensen (Grand Blanc) became the first Bronco to win an individual league title since 1993.

* Heartwarming story at Oakland, where the soccer team this week announced 10-year-old super fan Alex VanHolder, of Mayville, was "signed" to an honorary contract to join the team. The Golden Grizzlies consider him a good-luck charm, as he was in attendance when Oakland stunned Michigan, 2-1, in September. In 2016, Alex was diagnosed with a tumor on his brain stem, and continues to undergo treatment at Mott in Ann Arbor.

* Michigan State's 2018 baseball schedule is out. Notable items: A 12-game home stand, its longest since 2000; early road games against Fresno State (four games), Pepperdine (three), Washington, Arizona and Clemson; and an April 24 game against Eastern Michigan at Comerica Park. Michigan's baseball schedule hasn't been released, but it meets Michigan State four times, three in March and one in April, two games at each site.

* Western Michigan hockey hosts No. 1-ranked Denver, the defending national champion, on Friday and Saturday. Michigan Tech (20th) is the lone state team ranked in the top 20; Michigan is the first team outside the bubble.