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.
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.
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.