Photo Credit: Hustle Belt/MAC Sports
The MAC Basketball Tournament (#MACtion) has officially headed to Quicken Loans Arena to decide which team will punch their ticket and represent the conference in the big dance. Three of the last four years have seen Buffalo emerge as the champion, and the Bulls are the number one seed in the tournament, currently ranked number 14 in the country.
As the tournament shifts to Cleveland, Western Michigan, Ohio, Miami (OH) and Eastern Michigan have all been eliminated, losing in their respective first-round games played on Monday night.
Thursday’s games are as follows (all times ET): #8 Akron vs. #1 Buffalo – 12:00 p.m. #5 Central Michigan vs. #4 Kent State – 2:30 p.m. #7 Northern Illinois vs. #2 Toledo – 6:30 p.m. #11 Ball State vs. #3 Bowling Green – 9:00 p.m.
The Zips won 17 games on the season, but 14 of those wins came at home and Akron only managed a single win on the road this season. An 8-10 record in the conference and an 80-51 win over Miami in the first round gives them a matchup with Buffalo. The biggest wins for the Zips were over St. Bonaventure in the Cayman Islands, and a senior night rout of Bowling Green on March 5th. Junior forward Daniel Utomi led the Zips with 14.3 points per game and 93 threes, shooting 38.1 percent from distance. The 93 three-point makes led the MAC this season. Akron’s proximity to Cleveland will give them a bigger following, and their crowd will be a potential factor against Buffalo, and an even bigger factor if they pull off the upset against the Bulls.
Photo Credit: Olean Times Herald
After handily defeating Arizona in last year’s NCAA tournament, the Bulls have looked stronger than ever. They have been ranked since November 19th, and the 14th-ranked Bulls are set up well for an at-large bid even if they lose in the tournament. Buffalo finished the regular season 28-3 overall and 16-2 in the conference, including a perfect 14-0 at home. Stopping the Bulls’ has been difficult for most teams this season, as Buffalo averages 84.8 points per game, good for fifth in the country. Buffalo pulled off non-conference wins at West Virginia and Syracuse, and won both games against Toledo, scoring 110 points in their first matchup. The high-powered offense, led by seniors Nick Perkins and Dontay Caruthers has shown no signs of slowing down and should be exciting to watch this week.
The Chippewas had a 22-10 record but were a modest 10-8 in conference play. They defeated Western Michigan 81-67 on Monday and face Kent State, whom they defeated at home in their only matchup. Central Michigan had a very weak non-conference schedule, and their MAC schedule has mostly consisted of beating the teams below them and losing to the one’s above. Senior Larry Austin Jr. leads the team with 17.3 points per game, while senior Shawn Roundtree Jr. and junior David DiLeo are both shooting above 40 percent from three.
Photo Credit: Kent State Athletics
The Golden Flashes had a respectable 22-9 season, and earned a first-round bye with an 11-7 conference record. Kent State pulled out wins over Vanderbilt, Wright State, and Oregon State in non-conference play and their biggest win was an 87-85 OT thriller at home vs. Toledo. The overall statistics are not flashy (pun not intended), but senior Jaylin Walker is a player to watch, averaging 21.9 points per game, 5.5 rebounds per game, and shooting better from outside the arc than inside, strangely enough.
Northern Illinois was only 16-16, 8-10 in the MAC on the season. It may seem easy to write them off, but stranger things have happened in March. The Huskies defeated Oakland on the road on November 25th, and suffered a heartbreaker against Horizon League Champion Northern Kentucky, losing in double overtime on November 9. Most notable was their 77-75 upset win over Buffalo on January 22. The Huskies are led by junior Eugene German who scores at a solid 19.8 points per game. Senior Lacey James is only three offensive rebounds away from reaching 100 on the season.
Photo Credit: Toledo Blade
The Rockets are an interesting case of taking advantage of a weak non-conference schedule and playing a solid conference season, but never being able to do enough for the at-large conversation. Right now, Toledo ranks 60th in the NET with a 25-6 record (Buffalo ranks 16th). A 13-5 conference record was good enough for the Rockets to earn the 2-seed, but they lost both matchups to Buffalo, allowing a total of 198 points in the two meetings. If the two make the championship, the Rockets will have to make every possible defensive adjustment to match Buffalo’s offense. Toledo might be able to carry over three neutral-site wins in November to tournament success in Cleveland. The Rockets do not blow anyone away on the stat sheet, but a balanced attack with five players averaging at least nine points per game helps. Toledo has also averaged nearly 10 more points per game than their opponents as well. The Rockets also shoot notably well from the foul line, averaging 77.3 percent on the season, 11th in the country. Junior and Cleveland native Willie Jackson has 282 total rebounds, good for fourth in the MAC.
The Cardinals were the only lower seed to pick up a win on Monday, a bright spot in a tough MAC campaign this season (6-12). Ball State did pick up a win at Loyola Chicago on December 5th and defeated Toledo on the road on January 4th. Redshirt senior Tayler Persons leads the Cardinals with 16.4 points per game. Of the teams remaining, Ball State is 2nd-worst in team three-point percentage at 32.6 percent. Only Akron is worse at 32.3 percent.
Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated
Fun Fact: In the 2016 tournament, the 12-seeded Falcons made it to the semifinal before falling to top-seeded Akron. This year’s team was 20-11 on the season, 12-6 in the MAC. The biggest concern for the Falcons may be their 6-9 combined record in away and neutral games. Bowling Green did not have an exciting non-conference resume, but won twice over Kent State and defeated Buffalo at the Stroh Center on February 1st. That said, four losses in their last five games may have hurt the Falcons’ confidence heading into the tournament. Senior Demajeo Wiggins is second in the MAC with 337 total rebounds (10.9 per game). Redshirt sophomore Justin Turner leads Bowling Green with 18.2 points per game while shooting a solid 47.8 percent from the floor.
Thursday’s games will be broadcast on ESPN+. Friday’s early game will be on CBS Sports Network and the later game will be on FOX College Sports. Saturday’s championship game will be aired on ESPN2 at 7:30 ET.
My championship prediction is Buffalo vs. Bowling Green, with Buffalo winning their fourth MAC tournament title in five years.