The MAC Conference Tournament gets underway tonight with four games and runs through March 11. The winner of the tournament is designated the MAC Tournament Champion and receives the conference's automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament, which begins March 14. The Buffalo Bulls are the two-time defending tournament champion and will have a lot of work to do in order to defend the crown. The Bulls have had a down year by their standards and will be in tough against the likes of solid teams like Akron and Ohio.
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If you've been following along with me all season long, you would know that the MAC is one of the craziest conferences in the NCAA. On any given night, any of the 12 teams could emerge victorious, and it would rarely matter who the home team was. Two teams averaged more than 80 points per game, but neither were crowned regular-season champions. The Akron zips finished the regular season with a 13-4 conference record, which makes them the favorite heading into the conference tournament. They were nearly unbeatable at home this season (13-2) but managed to go only 5-6 on the road . Playing on a neutral floor could hinder Akron's chances to secure the conference's only NCAA spot.
For those unfamiliar with the MAC format, the top four teams earn byes into the quarterfinals, which will be held at Quicken Loans Arena in Ohio. These games are slated for Thursday March 9, with the semis and final being held on subsequent days.
For the remaining eight teams, the action gets underway tonight when No.8 Eastern Michigan ( -6) takes on No.9 Northern Illinois. The remaining three games look like this: No.5 Western Michigan (-11.5) hosts No. 12 Miami-Ohio, No.7 Toledo (-9) hosts No.10 Bowling Green and No.6 Kent State (-8.5) hosts No.11 Central Michigan. All of these games can be seen on ESPN 3.
Let's take a look at how this tournament is shaping up. All odds are courtesy of 5Dimes .
The Favorite: Akron (+260)
Akron may not have the statistical numbers to "wow" you, but they have been a picture of consistency for the majority of the year. The Zips average just 77.4 points per game while giving up 74.1, which puts them smack-dab in the middle of the conference in both categories. They rank last in free-throw percentage (.668) but make up for it in assist-to-turnover ratio (15.4-1.4.). Simply put, Akron doesn't turn the ball over and they are at their best when they make the extra pass and find the open shot.
The key players for the Zips come in the form of big men. Center Isaiah Johnson is averaging 17.6 points per game and 7.6 rebounds per game, which has him ranked fourth in the MAC in scoring and eighth in rebounding. His teammate, Kwan Cheatham Jr., is averaging 13.7 points per game and 8.2 boards per game, which has him sixth overall in terms of rebounding.
On paper, Akron is the class of this conference and should figure to be in the mix come Championship Day on March 11. I always say that to be a successful team you must avoid turnovers. Akron definitely takes care of the rock, and because of that teams will need to hit a high percentage of their shots or rebound the ball well on the offensive glass for second-chance opportunities. The latter of which is nearly impossible because the Zips are one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the conference.
There are three or for teams I could slot into this category, but I am going to stick with the two I think are the best options. Those teams are Buffalo (+500) and Western Michigan (+950).
Let's start with the reigning MAC Champion Buffalo Bulls. The Bulls
have one of the best offensive units in the MAC. Four players average
double-figures in points, and they are led by Blake Hamilton (16.9).
When the Bulls offense is clicking, it's damn near impossible to defend
because there are simply too many guys on the floor that can knock down
shots. The weakness of the Bulls is their inconsistent play. They are
7-5 at home and 8-8 on the road. Some games they play lights out on
offense and the defense goes missing. The Bulls will likely beat
themselves before a team dominates them and wins the game deservingly.
The second team in this category are the Western Michigan Broncos. They are the hottest team in the league right now, reeling off seven wins in a row . They started off conference play poorly at 3-7 before catching fire and capturing the fifth seed on the last day of the regular season. The Broncos are seventh in points for (76.4) and fifth in points against (74.2). They are about as even-keel a team as you will find in the MAC. The key for the Broncos is that every player has a role and they fulfill those roles to the best of their abilities. They play as a unit. and you'd be surprised how much having solid team chemistry can help you out during the rigours of a long season. I wouldn't bet against them in the first or second round.
The Sleeper: Kent State (+975)
Kent State is the hottest team in the league if we exclude the previously-mentioned Western Michigan Broncos. The Golden Flashes are currently riding a five-game winning streak and have beaten the likes of Ohio, Buffalo and Akron during the streak. We already know those teams are no slouches, so that's what makes this run impressive. In order for Kent State to make a run they will need to continue to play solid defense and hit the offensive boards hard for those second-chance points. During the streak, they have limited held opponents to less than 70 points in all but one game. The lone game above 70 was when they gave up 72 to Miami-Ohio. They have a very winnable round one game against Central Michigan on tap, but they will be in tough in the quarters against a good Buffalo team.
MAC Conference Tournament Predictions:
I've followed this league very closely all season long, and picking a winner is not going to be an easy task. Any one of the top six teams could make the finals and secure the conference's only NCAA Tournament bid. Matchup wise, the winners of the Western Michigan/Miami-Ohio and Toledo/Bowling Green games have the easier paths to the semifinals. They will avoid Akron, which is a matchup nightmare for most teams, and the reigning champion Buffalo Bulls, who are a nightmare for shaky defenses. With that said, I believe Akron and Buffalo will be the two teams in the finals, duking it out for MAC supremacy.
Akron and Buffalo met twice in the regular season, with both games coming down to the wire. Akron prevailed in both games by a combined seven points. These two teams match up well with each other. And should they be lucky enough to contest the finals, we will be lucky enough to witness a great game.
Since this is a prediction piece, I will predict the Akron Zips will knock off the reigning champions and stake their claim to an NCAA Tournament spot. I also believe they have what it takes to win one, if not two, games at the Big Dance.
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