The members of the Mid-American Conference have created a history of making deep runs in the NCAA Tournament (2002 Elite Eight – Kent State, 1999 Miami (OH) – Sweet 16). But in the last two seasons the MAC has lost its luster when it comes to tournament respect and success, and this season looks to be no different.
Let’s face it, no matter how much Dick Vitale or Digger Phelps want to insist that it isn’t, the MAC is a one-bid league that over the past two seasons has seen its conference champion lose in the first round.
Vitale wrote this in his weekly column last year for ESPN.com:
“Miami-Ohio and Notre Dame should have gotten into the field of 65 instead of Northern Iowa and UAB.” The Blazers destroyed LSU in the first round and Northern Iowa gave Wisconsin all they could handle.
While it's possible to make the argument that Miami perhaps deserved a bid, it's tough to say based on their first-round performances that the other two teams deserved to be left out.
This year league parity has once again swept through the MAC, making it difficult for the Selection Committee to justify sending more than the conference tournament champion to the Big Dance.
Essentially, MAC teams have either failed to recognize the criteria used by the Selection Committee in awarding at-lare bids, or have failed to implement a scheduling strategy that presents an opportunity to thrive under these criteria.
Conferences like the Horizon League and Missouri Valley Conference have figured out how to raise their collective league rankings and individual RPI’s to get multiple bids consistently. What indirectly hurts every MAC school's tournament resume is the 6-26 record against top-RPI conferences (1-3 vs.ACC, 0-4 vs. Big Ten, 1-0 vs. Big 12, 1-3 vs. SEC, 1-3 vs. Pac 10 and 0-8 vs.Missouri Valley). In addition, not one school in the entire 14-team league owns a victory against a team ranked in the RPI Top 50.
Since the East division (Akron, Ohio, Kent State, Miami-Ohio and Buffalo) seem to be the cream rising to the top of the MAC, conference officials announced a change in the format of the conference tournament.. In the past, the two division winners received first round byes and automatically advanced to the quarterfinals in Cleveland after the lower seeds played their opening round games at campus locations. With the change this season from 12 teams to 14 teams, in order to balance the tournament schedule, the two division winners will still receive first round byes and and open MAC Tournament play at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland in the quarterfinal round but they will also be joined by the overall third and fourth seeds this season in receiving automatic first-round byes. The lower seeds will still compete at campus locations to determine which of the teams (seeds 5 through 12) advance
Here’s a breakdown of the favorites going into the stretch run and championship week.
Akron Zips (14-4, 8-1) RPI: 75 SOS: 217
Akron won its first four opening MAC contests for the first time since winning its first six conference games in the 1999-2000 season. The Zips, under second-year head coach Keith Dambrot, might be the favorite to win the conference tournament as they'll be the beneficiaries of a near-home-court advantage. The bad news is they are going to have to win the Tournament to punch their ticket to the Dance. Unfortuately, the Zips' non-conference schedule has led them to a number of wins that are simply not going to matter come Selection Sunday. A 26-point loss to Louisville (bubble team) and the inability to get victories against California and Clemson may make the Zips an NIT favorite if they can’t run the table in Cleveland. Akron’s schedule is not that intimidating--the toughest game left on the Zips' plate is the Bracket Buster, when they will travel to Reno to face Nevada and star forward Nick Fazekas.
Kent State Golden Flashes (13-6, 8-1) RPI: 127 SOS: 221
The consensus on Kent State is that they simply are not for real and will fade away now that the calendar has turned to February. The Golden Flashes do not have a victory against any team ranked in the Top 100 RPI, and only two (#117 Northern Illinois, #107 Miami (OH)) in the Top 150. They had opportunities to create a buzz on their non-conference slate but opened the season with a loss against Delaware State, lost to Rutgers in South Padre Island, lost at Southern Illinois, and lost at St. Mary’s (CA) and Syracuse in an eight-day stretch. The Golden Flashes will have to split their four remaining games with Akron and Ohio if they want that final bye into Cleveland.
Ohio Bobcats (11-5, 6-3) RPI: 88, SOS: 162
The defending MAC Tournament champions have lost their last two conference games in disappointing fashion (19-point loss at Buffalo, 14-point loss vs. Miami (OH)). Ohio’s inability to score consistently has hurt them all season long (averaging only 72.5 points per game). They've scored fewer than 60 points in four of their five losses this season. That kind of a drought popping up in a single-elimination tournament setting is a major concern for head coach Tim O’Shea. An RPI number of 88 is not going to be enough to get in any at-large discussion, especially with only two wins against the Top 100 RPI.
Miami (OH) Redhawks (10-8, 7-3) RPI: 100, SOS: 113
We’ll give Redhawks' head coach Charlie Coles credit for scheduling the big boys out of the power conferences in this year's non conference schedule. The problem is with a roster of only three seniors trying to gel with a host of newcomers, Miami was always battling uphill. In a 17-day stretch during Christmas break, Miami lost to Xavier, at Wichita State, at Michigan and at Cincinnati to drop them to 4-5 on the season. The Redhawks have battled back and put themselves in contention for one of those byes into Cleveland. The schedule looks positive for Coles’ bunch the rest of the way, as they still see Buffalo twice but get Ohio and Akron at home in mid-Feburary.
Buffalo Bulls (14-5, 5-4) RPI: 103, SOS: 231
After BU officials used the dreaded “snub” word to the Committee last year about not being given an at-large berth, the Committee publicily said that Buffalo needed to do a better job of scheduling teams from major conferences. Apparently, Buffalo officials weren’t listening. Buffalo took that advice from the Committee and proceeded to schedule five teams below the Top 200 and a Division II team. Because the Bulls lost to Boston College by 29 and have dropped three of their five conference road games, we won’t hear the boys in Bristol bring up the Bulls even as a bubble team during Championship Week.
Northern Illinois (10-7, 6-4) RPI: 118, SOS: 137
Believe it or not, Northern Illinois is leading the West Division of the MAC and the fact that they play in the league's ugly stepsister division may lead Rob Judson’s Huskies to pull off an upset run through the conference tournament. Judson has relied on experience and balanced scoring with junior forward James Hall, senior forward and sharpshooter Todd Peterson and senior guard Mike McKinney all averaging 10 points per game. NIU has found all kinds of ways to win and lose games which explains its near-.500 record. The Huskies have won by scoring in the 80s and last Thursday beat Central Michigan by scoring only 49. The key with this squad is the veteran leadership that has seemingly bought into the scheme that Judson envisioned when the former Illini assistant took over the program in 2001.
The overall projection for the MAC is again a one-bid league whose champion will receive a double-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament (Bracketography.com currently lists Kent State as a 13-seed) and since the league doesn't feature a prominent star who can singlehandedly take a game over (2003 - Central Michigan’s Chris Kaman , 1999 – Miami (OH)’s Wally Szczerbiak) a third straight first-round exit is likely for the MAC.