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MAC tournament preview

Mar 5, 2012, 10:00 AM EST

Peyton Siva  D.J. Cooper

The MAC is a perfect example of why divisions within a conference in college basketball don’t always work.

The Eastern Division of the MAC is where all of the power resides. How unbalanced is it? The six teams in the east went 30-6 against the six teams in the west. 30-6! By comparison, the SEC East, which was considered the much weaker division in 2010-2011, went 24-12 against the SEC West.

There’s more.

Unlike the SEC last season, the MAC seeds their conference tournament by overall conference record, not by where they finish in their divisions. That’s why the top four seeds and five of the top six seeds in this year’s tournament are from the east. Those five teams went a combined 27-3 against the six teams in the west. Only one team — Kent State, the No. 4 seed — had more than one loss. Even Miami OH, the MAC’s No. 10 seed, went 3-3 against the west while winning just two of their ten intra-division games. Toledo and Eastern Michigan both went 2-4 against the east, which was the best record for a western division team.

Competitive balance. Its glorious.

The MAC also happens to have the strangest conference tournament bracket. The bottom eight teams whittle themselves down to two teams. The survivors advance to the quarterfinals where they take on the three and the four seeds, who got double-byes. The winners of those two games advance to play the one and the two seeds, who get triple-byes, in the semifinals.

The Bracket

Where: First round games are hosted by the higher seeds, before the final eight head to Cleveland, OH.

When: March 5th-March 9th

Final: March 9th, 9:00 p.m., ESPN2

Favorite: Akron

The Zips started the year off on a good note, winning their season-opener at Mississippi State, but proceeded to drop five of their next six games against (good-but-not-great) Division I competition. But once conference play started, Akron was able to turn things around. They started out the year 11-1 before hitting a hiccup in the season’s final stretch, losing three of their last five games and having to beat Kent State on the road just to hang on to the outright regular season title. The Zips don’t have a star, per se, but they are as balanced as any team in the country. Their rotation goes nine-deep, with all nine averaging at least 4.8 ppg and the top six scoring between 8.1 ppg and 10.3 ppg.

And if they lose?: Ohio

If you live and die by Kenpom’s numbers, than Ohio may actually be the favorite to win this tournament as they are the highest-rated team in the conference at 74th, four spots above Akron. The Bobcats are led by the talented back court of DJ Cooper (who, as a freshman, led OU to an upset of three-seed Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament) and Ohio State transfer Walter Offutt. The Bobcats have the best defense in the conference largely because they are so adept at forcing turnovers. They are second in the country in defensive turnover percentage and fourth in steal-rate.

Sleepers: Buffalo, who finished second in the conference, and Kent State, who was a preseason favorite that beat West Virginia in West Virginia, are less “sleepers” than they are other contenders. The problem? Its tough to find a reason that anyone else in the conference will be capable of winning five straight games — seriously, if you’re not in the top four, you need to pull a Kemba — and stealing the automatic bid.

Studs:

DJ Cooper, Ohio: Cooper is one of the best kept secrets in the country if you aren’t a Georgetown fan. He averaged 14.1 ppg, 5.6 apg and 2.5 spg.

Mitchell Watt, Buffalo: Javon McCrea is the player that got all of the publicity early in the season, but Watt is the guy that has been Buffalo’s star. He averaged 16.0 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 2.5 bpg and 2.3 apg. McCrea was good as well. His numbers: 15.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 1.7 bpg. That’s a good front line.

Julian Mavunga, Miami OH: Mavunga doesn’t get much attention because the Redhawks are only so-so, but he had a great year, leading the conference in both scoring (16.6 ppg) and rebounding (9.1 rpg) while averaging 3.3 apg.

Rian Pearson, Toledo: Pearson finished the year with averages of 16.4 ppg and 8.3 rpg while standing just 6’4″.

Zeke Marshall, Akron: His 10.3 ppg and 5.4 rpg aren’t overly inspiring, but he anchors a good Akron defense as a seven-footer that blocks 2.9 shots per game.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.