By Joe Caputo
The Mid-American conference tournament generally flies under the radar. Part of the reason for this could be the last time it produced a team that won an NCAA Tournament game was 2012, when Ohio made an improbable Sweet 16 run nearly defeating UNC in the process. The last few years, the MAC has seen its top seeds lose in the conference tournament, thus producing a weaker team for the big dance. This year, however, the MAC may have its best team in a long time. Will the Buffalo Bulls be able to make a clean run through Cleveland in early March?
The Team to Beat:
Buffalo – Nate Oats has done a tremendous job taking over for Bobby Hurley at Buffalo, as the team has barely missed a beat. Despite not being overly-experienced, this is the best Buffalo team in a long time. Ever since the return of senior point guard Wes Clark they have been on another level, winning their first 8 conference games. They slipped up last week at Kent State (a game they led by 18 in the 2nd half), but have absolutely blitzed the rest of the conference. It will be difficult to find a team that poses a threat to them on a neutral court, and they are definitely the most likely representative of the MAC in 2018.
Next Team Up:
Toledo – This conference definitely has distinct tiers, and Toledo is in a tier all by themselves. What makes a potential Buffalo/Toledo tournament match-up interesting is that these two teams played their first conference game against each other on January 2nd, and will not meet again. Toledo has the best offense in the conference, but the defense leaves something to be desired. Another young team, the Rockets will need to sure up the defense (mainly defending the 3-point shot) if they want to not only defeat Buffalo, but avoid an early upset in the tournament. They are definitely legitimate contenders, but firmly in a class a bit below the Buffalo Bulls.
The Dark Horses:
Two teams that have turned up the heat since tournament play began. Watch. Out.
Kent State – I love this Kent State team. The defending champs in the MAC, the Golden Flashes lost their best player in Jimmy Hall, and it took a while for them to find their identity this season. They appear to be finding it. Extremely-improved Junior 7-footer Adonis De La Rosa is becoming a force down low, and guards Kevin Zabo and Jaylin Walker have really stepped up their game since conference play began. Depth is a concern for Kent State, but in a short conference tournament, may not be too big of an obstacle to overcome. Rob Senderoff has done a brilliant job as his time in Kent, and as the only team to beat Buffalo so far this season, the Golden Flashes better not be taken lightly.
Miami OH – In his first season as a Division 1 head coach, Jack Owens has worked wonders with this Miami OH team. One of the youngest teams in the conference, the RedHawks were picked to finish dead last in the conference. Now, after running off 4 of their last 5, Miami OH is suddenly a team that no one wants to see in early March. They have been very good defensively all season long, but their offense is drastically improved from early this season. They are a balanced bunch, getting significant contributions from Nike Sibande, Darrian Ringo, Logan McLane, and Dalonte Brown, and they can go deep into their bench. Being an extremely young team, these RedHawks may very well still be a year away, but they are going to be fun to watch for the remainder of this season and into the future.
The Middle Tier:
Western Michigan – Not great, not terrible. This group of teams is rather uninteresting in my opinion, and will not pose a threat to the top teams. We’ll start with Steve Hawkins’ Western Michigan crew. Western Michigan has been incredibly inconsistent, but they generally tend to take care of the weaker teams in the conference. This will help in avoiding an early-round upset, but the only way I can see them winning this conference is if they get help from other teams to knock off the Buffalos and Toledos of the world. Another team that struggles defensively, the Broncos will need a little bit of luck to make a deep run into this year’s MAC tournament.
Eastern Michigan – I really want to like Eastern Michigan. Behind Buffalo, probably the second-best defense in the conference, but this team has a really difficult time scoring the ball. Shooting just 33% from deep, 65% from the free-throw line, and turning the ball over more than any team in the conference is not helping. The Eagles will frustrate their opponents in the tournament, and they are not a squad I would want to see if I were a top seed, but I just don’t think Rob Murphy’s crew has enough firepower offensively to win this thing. The old adage “Defense wins Championships” can only go so far.
Ball State – It’s been a very strange year for James Whitford’s crew. Despite having one of the better players in the conference in Tayler Persons, the Cardinals have been another team plagued by inconsistency, especially offensively. Since Whitford showed up in Muncie, Ball State has always been known for it’s wide-open style and propensity to hoist the 3-point shot, but this season the 3 has simply not been falling. In conference play, the Cardinals are shooting just 32.6% from beyond the arc, and rank 11 of 12 teams in offensive efficiency according to kenpom.com. I see the the Cardinals posing no real threat to the top teams in this conference, but this Ball State team generally tends to do the opposite of what everyone is thinking. We shall see.
Ohio – One of the better teams in the MAC last season, the Bobcats were picked to finish 3rd in the MAC East this season, but it just simply has not come to fruition. Losers of 7 of 8, Saul Phillips’ bunch is having extreme scoring issues. They rank dead last in offensive efficiency in the conference and 263rd in the nation. Kevin Mickle and Jordan Dartis have not been themselves, missing games along the way, and it has been all-in-all a train wreck of a year so far for these Ohio Bobcats. There is still time to turn things around, but it may take a minor miracle for this team to contend in this year’s tournament.
Maybe Next Year:
Akron – Definitely the best of this group, the Zips have improved throughout the course of the season. Having been the class of this conference for quite some time, it’s odd to see Akron competing to stay out of the basement, but Keith Dambrot’s departure for Duquesne definitely put them in a hole. Former Illinois head coach John Groce has done what he can, but this team has been simply dreadful away from their home court. Not necessarily unexpectedly for a very young team, the Akron Zips have yet to win a non-home game, and this is not a good sign for when they will take the court at Quicken Loans Arena in a month. This team doesn’t have quit in them, but it will be a long shot for them to make noise in this year’s tournament.
Central Michigan – Buoyed by their incredibly weak non-conference schedule, the Chippewas entered conference play at 12-2, but that has not lasted. After winning their first conference game, Central Michigan proceeded to lose 6 of its next 7, and currently sits at 4-6 in conference. Picked to finish 11th of 12 teams in the conference before the season, it doesn’t come as a shock that the Chips are struggling, but unlike teams like Ohio and Akron, this team can at least score. Sporting the 4th-best offense in the conference and the best offensive rebounding rate, you will need to be on top of your game defensively when you play them. One of the most experienced teams in the field, I would not be surprised if Central Michigan stole a game or two in March.
Bowling Green – A team with literally no expectations coming into the year, Bowling Green has had a very respectable season to date. Standing at 5-5, they’ve won games at Miami OH and Eastern Michigan. Despite being inconsistent, there is definitely some promise for Michael Huger’s bunch for the future. Ranking just 337th in the nation in experience, this team will return a large portion of its players for years to come, so it is nice to see them competing and winning games this early on in the rebuild. Nice season for the Falcons, but cannot see them being a problem in the conference tournament.
Northern Illinois – It’s been a pretty bad year for Northern Illinois. One of the few teams in the conference that has performed just about how they were expected to perform, and in their case, that’s not a good thing. Ranked on kenpom.com as having the 319th-best defense in the country, these Huskies will not be posing any threat in the MAC tournament. They have been flat out terrible at defending both the 2 and 3-point shot, do not rebound well, and cannot turn you over. A silver lining could be that this team is relatively young, and will hopefully improve next season, but for now, you can count out Mark Montgomery’s Huskies for 2018.