By Mike Ivcic
UltimateCapper Contributing Writer
Raise your hand if you remember Wally Szczerbiak leading Miami Ohio to the Sweet16. Now raise your hand if you remember that it happened before Y2K, ESPNU, and YouTube… that’s what I thought. Miami’s Szczerbiak-led run happened in 1999, which is coincidentally the last time the Mid-American Conference was relevant on a national stage. This year the MAC is a guaranteed one-bid league with no bubble teams. In fact, Ball State won the Western Division with a LOSING RECORD in conference play. Despite the league’s drop from the upper mid-major tier, they will still send a team to the Big Dance just like everyone else, so we’ll handicap the chances of the 12 teams competing for that one berth.
Note: All games held at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, OH.
1. Bowling Green (18-12, 11-5) – The top overall seed went to the Falcons, who earned the tiebreaker by beating Buffalo twice this season. They have three players averaging in double figures, led by Nate Miller’s 12.7 ppg. This is also a team that dropped games to Eastern Michigan (8-23), Canisius (11-20), Central Arkansas (10-19), and independent Savannah State, just four years removed from a 0-28 season, so they are anything but a lock. BGSU beat possible quarterfinal foes Western Michigan once and Ohio twice, so their biggest challenge to the finals should come from Miami or Akron in the semis.
2. Ball State (13-16, 7-9) – How a conference can design a tournament where the second overall seed goes to a sub-.500 team is beyond me, but here are the Cardinals at 7-9, coming in on a three game losing streak, with a first round bye. What’s worse is they’ll face a fellow Western Division foe is either Central or Eastern Michigan, teams they beat out to earn the bye in the first place, though they did split with both schools in the regular season. Strangers things have happened though – the Cardinals did beat Buffalo, a potential semifinal opponent, so a finals appearance isn’t totally ridiculous.
3. Buffalo (19-10, 11-5) – The preseason favorite posted the best overall record but stumbled down the stretch, losing four straight before recovering to win two of their final three, including a win over Miami on senior night to clinch the 3 seed. Despite the recent setbacks, they should be the prohibitive favorite to win the tournament. They played UConn tough in a 68-64 loss in December and posted the best non-conference win of any MAC school, an 83-73 win over Temple.
4. Miami (17-12, 10-6) – The Redhawks 50-45 overtime win over Bowling Green last week did wonders, giving Miami a sweep of their potential semifinal foe as well as the tiebreaker over Akron. As such, it’s Miami with the 4 seed and the first round bye. As evident by the aforementioned score, the Redhawks won’t dazzle anyone with offensive skill. Instead, they’ll slow the game down and harass opponents defensively into turnovers and mistakes. Though they whiffed on all of their shots at a marquee win (lost to West Virginia, Pitt, UCLA, Dayton, and Xavier) the bracket is set up for them to make a tournament run.
5. Akron (19-12, 10-6) – This is the team that suffers because of the MAC’s tournament structure, surrendering a potential bye to Ball State. The Zips instead will get a Toledo team in the first round that posted an underwhelming 7-24 record overall, but that also went 5-11 within the conference. Barring a major upset, Akron will earn themselves a rubber match with a rested Miami team in the quarterfinals. The day off in between games will help, but expect the bye to play a role in that game. Akron did split its series with Bowling Green and beat both E. Michigan and C. Michigan, so Miami stands as their most difficult challenge to reaching the finals.
6. Kent State (18-13, 10-6) – The Golden Flashes are the forgotten team in this tournament, posting the same record as Akron and Miami yet getting half the recognition. They finished the regular season strong, closing with wins over Buffalo and Akron, earning the 6 seed and a first round date with Northern Illinois. Kent State needed overtime to hold off UNI in their regular season meeting, so the upset potential is there. Their path also goes through Buffalo in the quarters, so the Flashes will have to earn it, but scoring 69.1 ppg will go a long way towards helping that cause.
7. Central Michigan (11-18, 7-9)
8. Western Michigan (10-20, 7-9)
9. Ohio (14-16, 7-9)
10. Eastern Michigan (8-23, 6-10)
11. Northern Illinois (10-19, 5-11)
12. Toledo (7-24, 5-11)
While Toledo and Northern Illinois will face tough games against Akron and Kent State respectively, two of the other four teams will advance to the quarterfinals out of necessity more than anything else. Ohio is the tough-luck loser in the Eastern Division, finishing with a 7-9 record equal to the West winner but three games back of their closest East rival. They did beat Tulsa in nonconference play, but they enter on a three-game losing streak and dropped their game with Western Michigan, 76-62, in Kalamazoo. Conversely, that was the Broncos only win over an Eastern Division team all year. Meanwhile, at least one directional Michigan will advance to the quarterfinals, as Central and Eastern will meet in the 8-9 game. EMU beat CMU both times in the regular season, and both split their meetings with quarterfinal foe Ball State.
Analysis: Akron and Kent State keep the bracket in tact, CMU avenges two regular season losses to EMU, and WMU also advances. After that, look for some highly competitive games in the quarterfinals, but expect all four higher seeds to advance again. The semis will be where the “upsets” occur, with quotations because Buffalo beating Ball State would be an upset in seed only. It’ll set up the best possible championship game, as the third-seeded Bulls and fourth-seeded Redhawks will meet for an NCAA Tournament berth.