Regular Season Hits Final Stretch

With two weeks left in the Mid-American Conference regular season, the only thing we seem to know is that Akron will be the top seed and Miami seems destined to be the 12th. Everything else is still at play with four regular season games left, although we finally have seen some separation among the pack.

Just two weeks ago only one game separated the second seed from the 10th. Now Ohio and Buffalo have emerged with Akron at the top, with a multiple game lead on a coveted bye in the first round of the conference tournament.

Below is a quick preview of how I see the conference tournament going in Cleveland, but be on the lookout for a complete breakdown in two weeks of the Mid-American Conference Tournament, including brackets and game times.

THE FAVORITE

Akron (22-5, 12-2 MAC)

Key Player – Isaiah Johnson

CONTENDERS 

Ohio University (17-8, 9-5 MAC)

Key Player – Jaaron Simmons

Buffalo (15-12, 19-5 MAC)

Key Player – Blake Hamilton

DARKHORSE

Central Michigan (16-11, 6-8 MAC)

Key Player- Marcus Keene

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MAC Madness Heads to Cleveland

What a difference a week makes. I don’t think it is possible for the Mid-American Conference to get any tighter. One thing we know for sure, the Mid-American Conference headquarters will be up all night figuring out tiebreakers.

As March starts to really get into gear, it is finally time for The MAC’s edition of March Madness to join in the fun. Most conference tournaments will really get going Thursday.

THE FAVORITE

Akron (24-7, 13-5 MAC)

Key Player – Isaiah Johnson

CONTENDERS 

Ohio University (20-10, 11-7 MAC)

Key Player – Antonio Campbell

Buffalo (17-14, 10-8 MAC)

Key Player – Lamonte Bearden

Central Michigan (27-14, 10-8 MAC)

Key Player- Chris Fowler

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MAC Madness Heads to Cleveland

With apologies to ESPN’s Bowl week, this is truly the most wonderful time of the year. As major conference tournaments get underway, and the NCAA bracket begins to take shape, excitement and passion can be felt around the country.

The MAC’s edition of March Madness looks to join in the fun when their conference tournament really gets going Thursday night as two of the four favorites, Ohio University and Kent State, finally take the court.

The Akron Zips, who have a bye into Friday night’s semifinal, have to be considered the favorite.  The Zips, ironically built perfect to handle the stress of playing multiple games in a week because of its impressive depth, sit just two victories away from its second straight NCAA Tournament appearance, something that did not seem likely after a rough 3-5 start.

Although Akron led the MAC wire-to-wire, there are no shortage of challengers that will gather in Cleveland this weekend.

The Favorite

Akron (21-10, 13-3 MAC) – Akron heads into the tournament a week after experiencing its first conference losing streak of the season. Any residual effects from that probably were eliminated after defeating rival Kent State on the road to close out the regular season and its first regular season championship.  Akron’s balanced attack helps take the pressure off its offense during big games, but who will step up and want the ball when the pressure is on?

Key Player – Zeke Marshall

Zeke Marshall, when on, can influence a game more than anyone in the conference. His seven foot athletic frame makes him unique in a mid-major conference and a nightmare for opposing coaches to figure out. Although his offensive game has improved, it is his ability to block and alter shots defensively, that puts him in a class by himself.

Contenders

Ohio University (24-7, 11-5 MAC) – The Bobcats must get production from big men Ivo Baltic and Reggie Keely to cut down the nets this weekend. After scoring in double figures in 11 out of 12 games during the middle of the season, including efforts of 22 and 20 points, Baltic has failed to score in double figures in each of his last ten games.

Walter Offutt’s toughness, which has been felt all year, will have an even bigger impact in a tournament setting.

Key Player – D.J. Cooper

It is no secret that to win in March, you must have good guard play. With Cooper, the Bobcats have the best. Although Cooper has had a disappointing statistical season, the great ones know when it is time to turn it up. In four of his last seven conference games, Cooper has scored at least 18 points and was the aggressive and assertive point guard Ohio fans remember in 2010, during the Bobcats run through the MAC Tournament and upset of Georgetown.

Buffalo (19-9, 12-4 MAC) – While Akron has the balance, and the Bobcats have the guards, it has been the play of the Bulls big men that has put Buffalo on the brink of the programs first ever invite to the NCAA Tournament.

Mid-American Conference Player of the Year Mitchell Watt and last season’s Freshman of Year, Javon McCrea, have formed one of the most dynamic inside tandems  not just in the MAC, but in the nation. If the Bulls receive average guard play, Buffalo’s inside dominance might be good enough to win the title.

Key Player – Mitchell Watt

We all knew Watt was a great defensive player and shot-blocker, what we didn’t know is that he had the offensive game to go with it. At 16 points per game, Watt not only leads his team in scoring, but also wants the ball in his hands at the end of games.

Kent State (20-10, 10-6 MAC) – No one seems to know what to expect from the MAC preseason favorite. At times the Golden Flashes have looked like the team that won the regular season title last year. However, Kent has also looked lost and disinterested.

Still, the Golden Flashes possess the most athletic team in the conference and is scared of no one. Kent must run and play up-tempo to have success, and if they do, have the talent to win the championship it missed out on last year.

Key Player- Justin Greene

Whether it was an injury or something else, Greene finished the season uncharacteristically and not like the dominant player MAC fans are accustom to.  If Greene can find last season’s player of the year form, and provide the Golden Flashes with easy baskets, Kent might be dancing on Saturday.

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Bobcats Suffer Tough Week

What a difference a week makes. Heading into a two-game road trip Ohio University sat at 19-4, one game out of first place and still with dreams of building a resume for at-large consideration for the NCAA Tournament.

However, one week and two losses later and the Bobcats sit in 5th place and have eliminated any chance of working their way into the “bubble” discussion come March. So what went wrong for Ohio? The answers are in the box score.

In a 77-73 loss at Toledo, the Rockets amazingly had more offensive rebounds than Ohio had defensive rebounds. This deficit led Bobcats head coach John Groce to question his team’s toughness and defensive execution.

Three days later in a loss to Eastern Michigan, it was the offensive end that gave Ohio problems. The Bobcats shot a pathetic 31 percent for the game and did not score its first point until 9:50 left in the first half. That is an amazing ten minutes of scoreless basketball.

The big question in Athens is was this just a bad week, or something to be concerned about. The quick and honest answer is, I don’t know. On one hand, a team that built a 19-4 record speaks for itself, and there is no doubt in my mind that the Bobcats will still be one of the favorites come conference tournament time in Cleveland.

But the Bobcats struggles offensively in conference play don’t seem to be getting any better. Add to that the sporadic play of star point guard D.J. Cooper and forward Ivo Baltic and Ohio University for the first time this season will have to deal with some adversity. Two straight home games at the Convocation Center should help.

Here is this week’s power rankings:

1. Akron (18-7, 10-1 MAC) – The Zips continue to roll up the wins and as they do, their RPI continues to rise. A bracketbuster win at Oral Roberts on Saturday should put Akron firmly on the bubble in March.

2. Buffalo (16-6, 9-2 MAC) – A come from behind victory over Western Michigan kept the Bulls on track for a regular season title.

3. Kent State (18-6, 8-3 MAC) – An optimist would say Kent is back with their current six game winning streak. A pessimist would point out that all six wins came against the inferior West division.

4. Bowling Green (13-11, 7-4 MAC) – The Falcons surprised some by winning at Ball State and then came home to defeat conference rivals Toledo.

5. Ohio (19-6, 7-4 MAC) – The Bobcats have the opportunity to jump back into the coveted top four (top four teams receive byes in tournament) as they host Bowling Green on Wednesday.

6. Eastern Michigan (11-14, 6-5 MAC) – The Eagles were the only team in the West to hold their own against the East Division.

7. Western Michigan (10-15, 4-7 MAC) – Three straight gut wrenching losses might hurt now, but taking Akron and Kent to overtime and having the lead late at Buffalo will give the Broncos confidence in March.

8. Miami (8-15, 4-7 MAC) – Miami has won three of its last four, however it has to be pointed out that the one loss came against Northern Illinois (3-20).

9. Ball State (12-11, 4-7 MAC) – Trust me, it’s hard to even rank the Cardinals this high after their 0-6 effort against the East. But that’s how bad the MAC West is.

10. Toledo (11-14, 3-8 MAC) – For the first time this season the Rockets showed some life with an upset victory over Ohio followed by a close loss at Bowling Green.

11. Central Michigan (7-17, 2-9 MAC) – Trey Ziegler must really like his Dad to go through this.

12. Northern Illinois (3-20, 2-9 MAC) – Stop the presses, the Huskies made it into the win column again this week.

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East Asserts Dominance

For once the Mid-American Conference is providing no surprises. One week into cross-divisional play, the East is again showing it possesses more talent and better teams.

Posting a 9-3 record (with 5-14 Miami providing two of the three losses) the East Division is taking full advantage as they look to increase seeding and bolster at-large profiles.

The leader of the pack continues to be Akron as the Zips continued its run of good form after two road victories against Ball State and Central Michigan. Akron has been road warriors this conference season, playing five of its first seven on the road. With an abundance of home games coming up, the Zips look to be in command to wrap up one of the two top seeds, although trips to Ohio and Kent State could still alter that course.

The biggest surprise so far has to be the play of Eastern Michigan. No one saw the Eagles as a legitimate contender, even for the West Division title, but at 5-2, Eastern Michigan sits alone in first place. Defense has carried the Eagles as they have held opponents to a remarkable 51 points per game in conference play.

Here is this week’s power rankings:

1. Akron (14-7, 6-1 MAC) – Akron received a huge opportunity by being selected to play at Oral Roberts for ESPN’s made for television Bracketbuster weekend.

2. Ohio (17-4, 5-2 MAC) – It wasn’t pretty, but the Bobcats did what they had to do with home victories over Western Michigan and Ball State.

3. Buffalo (12-6, 5-2 MAC) – At over 41 rebounds per game, the Bulls rank fourth in the nation.

4. Kent State (14-6, 4-3 MAC) – Two easy victories over Northern Illinois and Toledo doesn’t mean the Golden Flashes are back.

5. Eastern Michigan (10-11, 5-2 MAC) – If you saw this coming out of the Eagles I suggest you buy a lottery ticket as soon as possible.

6. Ball State (12-7, 4-3 MAC) – The Cardinals played Akron and Ohio tough last week, but tough isn’t good enough to win a conference championship.

7. Bowling Green (9-11, 3-4 MAC) – The Falcons are just hanging out in the middle of the standings and will be a tough draw for some higher seeded team in the conference tournament.

8. Western Michigan (10-11, 4-3 MAC) – At only one game out of first, the Broncos still have eyes on a West Division crown.

9. Toledo (10-11, 2-5 MAC) – It may just be a baby step, but the Rockets moved up to fourth place in the West Division.

10. Central Michigan (7-13, 2-5 MAC) – Trey Zeigler can only do so much.

11. Miami (5-14, 1-6 MAC) – Losing at home to Toledo has to be rock bottom for the RedHawks.

12. Northern Illinois (2-17, 1-6 MAC) – It doesn’t get any easier for the Huskies as the Bobcats make a midweek visit.

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Akron Takes Early Lead

It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. The Akron Zips seem to be living this moniker. Despite trailing at the half in each of its first three Mid-American Conference games, Akron has posted a 3-0 record and has taken the early lead in the MAC East.

Two factors can be looked at for Akron’s early success. The first has been the play of center Zeke Marshall. At seven feet tall the intimidating man in the middle has been a force on the defensive end. Already at over 200 blocks for his career, Marshall is constantly altering shots and forcing offenses out of rhythm.

The second factor is the Zips balance attack. Akron is able to wear opponents down with nine players averaging over 14 minutes a game. This keeps everyone fresh during “winning time.”  The lack of a go-to scorer could hurt in the long run, but as long as someone keeps stepping up, the Zips might be on their way to a repeat title.

The upset of the week belonged to Eastern Michigan who went on the road to defeat MAC West favorites Ball State. The win created a four-way tie for first place and although the West lacks the talent of the MAC East, it looks to be just as competitive.

Here is this week’s power rankings:

1. Akron (11-6, 3-0 MAC) – Good teams find ways to win and that’s exactly what the Zips have done this season. Akron has won its three MAC games by a total of 11 points.

2. Kent State (12-4, 2-1 MAC) – The Golden Flashes will get to prove this week if they truly are the favorites with trips to Ohio and Akron.

3. Ohio University (13-4, 1-2 MAC) – Despite its top two scorers shooting 7-32 Saturday at Akron, the Bobcats led almost the entire game and proved they can still be effective when the offense struggles.

4. Ball State (10-5, 2-1 MAC) – Despite a slow start to the MAC season (loss to Eastern Michigan and 2-point win over Toledo) the Cardinals still have the talent edge in the West.

5. Buffalo (8-6, 1-2 MAC) – After two tough losses Buffalo gets a chance to jump right back into the division race as they host Akron on Wednesday.

6. Bowling Green (7-9, 1-2 MAC) – The Falcons put up an impressive 87 points in Kent on Saturday. Unfortunately they gave up 92.

7. Miami (5-10, 1-2 MAC) – Miami picked up its first MAC victory over the weekend and should have beat Kent midweek. Despite the record the RedHawks will continue to be a tough out.

8. Western Michigan (8-9, 2-1 MAC) – The Broncos took care of business at home last week with two convincing victories to keep pace with Ball State.

9. Eastern Michigan (7-10, 2-1 MAC) – In the Eagles two MAC victories this season they have scored 47 and 51 points. Something tells me this won’t last.

10.  Central Michigan (7-9, 2-1 MAC) – Losing at Northern Illinois (previously only 1 win this season) had to cancel any good feelings from a 2-0 conference start.

11. Northern Illinois (2-13, 1-2 MAC) – The Huskies will look for its first winning streak of the season Wednesday at Toledo.

12. Toledo (8-9, 0-3 MAC) – The Rockets are 2-35 over the last three season in MAC play. That is not a misprint.

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Opening Weekend Reinforces Depth

Welcome back conference play, we have missed you. The Mid-American Conference kicked off its grueling three month campaign over the weekend and two prevailing thoughts emerged.  Number one, the MAC East is as strong and competitive as ever. Number two, Ball State looks to be the team to beat in the MAC West.

What makes these points even more important is the change of format for this year’s MAC Basketball Tournament. In an effort to reward regular season success, and to help the best MAC team reach the NCAA Tournament, the winners of each division will get a bye into the semifinals.

In addition, schools seeded three and four will get a bye into the quarterfinals. This means schools seeded 5-12 would have to win five games in one week to get the MAC’s automatic bid to the Big Dance, compared to just two, for the division winners. To put the enormity of the change into perspective, both Akron and Ohio University, the last two winners of the MAC Tournament were seeded below the 5th seed, and probably would not have won the tournament with this new format.

Regular season games are now more crucial than ever, so expect exciting basketball through March. Here is this week’s power rankings:

1. Ohio University (12-3, 0-1 MAC) – Based on the strength of the Bobcats non-conference success, Ohio barely starts the year as the No. 1 team.  Only a few weeks ago the Bobcats had a top ten RPI ranking. Point guard D.J. Cooper is the front-runner for league MVP.

2. Kent State (10-4, 0-1 MAC) – The consensus pick to win the conference has been inconsistent to start the year. A huge win at West Virginia was canceled out by an equaling depressing trip to Utah where the team lost to Texas-Arlington and Utah State, and only barely defeated St. Peter’s.

3. Akron (9-6, 1-0 MAC) – The Zips might have the most talent in the MAC and are finally healthy, and it shows. Akron has won six of seven and will be gunning for one the top seeds again this season.

4. Ball State (9-4, 1-0 MAC) – Playing in the MAC West will certainly inflate this team’s record, but make no mistake, the Cardinals are legitimate title contenders. Led by Jarrod Jones, Ball State should have the West Division title wrapped up by March.

5. Buffalo (8-4, 1-0 MAC) – Javon McCrea might be the biggest force in the conference as the sophomore is already a double-double machine. A lack of guard scoring could be the Bulls downfall.

6. Bowling Green (7-7, 1-0 MAC) – The Falcons had one of the MAC’s best non-conference victories when it defeated Temple in November and again showed over the weekend that it can compete with anyone in this conference. Throw in a tricky zone defense that most teams don’t see and Bowling Green will be a tough out this year.

7. Western Michigan (6-9, 0-1 MAC) – A brutal schedule to start the season, coupled with injuries put the Broncos behind the eight-ball. However Western Michigan has weathered the early storm and has won five of seven.

8. Miami (4-9, 0-1 MAC) – The RedHawks traditional tough non-conference schedule did not help this roster in turnover. However Miami might have the league’s best player in Julian Mavunga who is averaging a double-double.

9. Central Michigan (6-8, 1-0 MAC) – Trey Zeigler doesn’t have much talent around him, but if the game is close, Zeigler can close the deal. The Chippewas might just surprise and compete in the weak MAC West.

10. Eastern Michigan (6-9, 1-0 MAC) – The Eagles have trouble scoring the ball. How much trouble? At only 53 points per game, Eastern Michigan ranks as the No. 342 scoring offense.

11. Toledo (8-7, 0-1 MAC) – With only four total wins last season no one can blame the Rockets for its unbelievably soft non-conference schedule.

12. Northern Illinois (1-12, 0-1 MAC) – I wish I had something good to say about the Huskies. I don’t.

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