- Matt Cox
3MW’s All Conference Team:
1. Akron goes back-to-back
For the 2nd year in a row, the Zips polished off a relatively dominant MAC performance, finishing 3 games ahead of the 4-way tie in second place. They carried an impressive 30-game home winning streak deep into the conference season, until Kent St. came into Rhodes Arena and stunned the Zips on February 17th. Shortly after, the last place Miami (OH) RedHawks did the exact same thing in Akron's building, leaving many to question whether their early season 9-0 MAC run was somewhat flukey. While the recent woes are a valid reason for concern, this Zips team has not forgotten about what happened last year when a hyper athletic Buffalo Bulls squad took them down in the championship game of the MAC tournament. In fact, 4 of those 5 starters are back this season, including 6'10, 290 lbs. Isaiah "Big Dog" Johnson, to avenge that frustrating loss in which the Zips were up 4 with 2 minutes remaining, only to watch the Bulls steal their automatic bid to the Big Dance.
2. Can Buffalo go back-to-back-to-back?
After a relatively disappointing 2013-14 campaign (14-20 record overall and 7-9 in MAC play) - the last of the 11-season Reggie Witherspoon era at Buffalo - the Bulls wasted no time returning to top-tier MAC form. Current Arizona State head coach Bobby Hurley led the Bulls to a MAC regular season title in his first season and followed that up with a MAC tournament championship the following next year, giving Buffalo it's first NCAA tournament appearance in school history. After Hurley bolted for the Pac-12, in stepped Nate Oats to the helm, who seamlessly carried Hurley's momentum to a 2nd straight trip to the Big Dance, when the Bulls - led by a fantastic 4-guard backcourt in Blake Hamilton, CJ Massinburg, Willie Connor and Lamonte Bearden- took down the regular season champ Zips in the title game last year. With Bearden graduating, Oats discovered he had diamond in the rough ready to go in senior David Kadiri, who has blossomed out of nowhere into one of the more reliable rebounders and rim-protectors in the conference - precisely what this guard-oriented Bulls team has needed. This potent lineup should once again pose Akron, and the rest of field, a world of problems with their lightning-quick pace out in the open floor.
3. Marcus Keene's Encore
It's no secret how quickly Marcus Keene took the MAC by storm this year after coming over from Youngstown St. via the transfer wire this offseason. Keene's highlight reels were routinely featured on Scott van Pelt's late night SportsCenter segments and put on display for the world to see just what an electric scorer he can be on any given night. Keene, along with backcourt mate Braylon Rayson (who actually resembles Keene in many aspects), can catch fire at any moment and bury opposing defenses with unguardable, highly difficult shots from pretty much anywhere on the floor. However, what the casual viewer fails to see from only watching the highlights is the "matador" defense played by the Chippewas on the other end of the floor, which is THE reason they finished 6-12 in the conference - dead last in the West division. In fact, Keene and his crew have been free falling over the past month, losing their last 6 games after sitting at 6-5 in the league back in early February. Keene will need to put on his superman cape for the next few days if he wants to showcase his talents on the national stage and lead the Chips to a improbable tournament run because just about every team in the MAC has proven they can score at will against this poor defensive unit.
The top-4 seeds earn first round byes and will book their travel directly to Cleveland, while the rest of the pack will have to win a "play-in" game before heading off to Quicken Loans Arena - the house that Lebron built. Top seeds in the preliminary round will get to host at their home venue, making the tiebreaker that separated 8-seeded Eastern Michigan and 9-seeded Northern Illinois enormous. Both the Eagles and the Huskies finished 7-11 in the West division and split during the regular season, but NIU has to now win in Ypsilanti, MI to get a crack at the top-seeded Zips.
Best Team(s) and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed(s):
Akron & Ohio: 14-seed(s)
Even though Akron finished comfortably ahead of the Bobcats in the regular season standings, the advanced numbers see little to no difference between these teams heading into the MAC tournament (current kenpom.com overall rankings: Ohio - 102; Akron - 104). Many thought the Zips would slowly separate themselves down the stretch, especially after Ohio suffered a devastating blow when their go-to big man and preseason 1st-team all MAC selection, Antonio Campbell, broke his foot back in mid-January. However, the shockingly consistent play of freshman forward Jason Carter has mitigated the interior concerns for head coach Saul Phillips and kept the Bobcats right on course. Ohio closed out the year 8-5 after Carter was abruptly thrown into the starting lineup after the 3rd game of the conference season, and the Bobcats have shown few signs of regressing since then. However, a looming matchup with Akron in this year's title game will surely reveal just how critical the loss of Campbell is, who at 6'9 250 lbs., presents one of the best matchups in the entire league for the beast that is Isaiah Johnson.
Dark Horse Team(s):
While Buffalo's experienced perimeter nucleus makes them a sexy pick for a dark horse here, I'm going with the white-hot Western Michigan Broncos, who have reeled off 8 straight wins heading into the tournament. After a sluggish 3-7 start in league play, the Broncos inexplicably flipped a switch and have now been surging for the past month and a half, led by their do-everything playmaker in Thomas Wilder - 3MW's preseason prediction to win player of the year. At 6'4 195 lbs., Wilder is a smooth, rangy slasher who has a devastating spin move that helps him escape traffic when he gets deep into the teeth of the defense. He especially excels at drawing contact against bigger defenders, which earns him consistent trips to the line and makes him one of the most efficient players in the entire country (121.7 O-Rating), given he's an 84% free throw shooter on such a high volume. Both Wilder and his 'Robin' - swingman Tucker Haymond - have both significantly improved their outside shooting this year, making them extremely tough covers for opposing MAC guards who have always had issues keeping this 1-2 punch out of the lane. When this duo collectively plays well, the Broncos may have the highest ceiling of any team in the conference and should pose a dangerous threat in this year's MAC championship.
(5) Western Michigan defeats (12) Miami (OH)
(6) Kent St. defeats (11) Central Michigan
(10) Bowling Green defeats (7) Toledo
(8) Eastern Michigan defeats (9) Northern Illinois
(1) Akron defeats (8) Eastern Michigan
(5) Western Michigan defeats (4) Ball St.
(2) Ohio defeats (10) Bowling Green
(3) Buffalo defeats (6) Kent St.
(5) Western Michigan defeats (1) Akron
(3) Buffalo defeats (2) Ohio
(3) Buffalo defeats (5) Western Michigan
It's no coincident that I'm picking the two hottest teams with dynamic, veteran guards to make deep runs and ultimately face-off in the championship game. If Buffalo prevails, this will be the Bulls 3rd straight MAC Tournament title.