January 30, 2008 2:04 pm ET by Kyle Whelliston
The grand old Mid-American Conference has been tragically misunderstood this decade. A league that's produced some of the most competitive, exciting and thrilling hoops at the mid-major level has had a lot of trouble with respect on the national scene, not having received a second bid to the NCAA Tournament since 1999 or a first-round win since 2003. All this despite producing an Elite Eight team (Kent State 2002) and several productive pros.
The 2007-08 season has proven to be interesting and important for the MAC, though. There's a standout 16-4 team at Kent State that's aiming for its tenth straight 20-win campaign. Ohio and Miami have notched big non-conference wins and have nabbed top 75 RPI's as a result, Akron's won 14 games overall, and the league's RPI rating overall is at 13 despite four rebuilding/retooling projects at the bottom. As a result, the MAC's "two-bid buzz" that's been quashed by Christmas in recent years is alive and well deep into conference season.
And there's nobody better to discuss the current state of the league and its immediate future than Elton Alexander, longtime Cleveland Plain-Dealer reporter and purveyor of the fantastic MAC Insider blog on the P-D website. You won't find anybody with a more thorough and unbiased perspective of the league and its history, and Mr. Alexander has been known to talk MAC hoops for hours on end (we can attest to that). Let's go ahead and pick his brain for a bit.
TMM: When I saw Kent State last month, the Flashes had somewhat of an off-night but still beat IPFW. So I can't really tell how good they are on a firsthand basis. How good are these guys, and how does this version fit in with the previous nine 20-win teams?
EA: Good question. The core of this team is its sophomore class and while several have had their moments, none has really stepped into the consistent category. If that happens, this team could get significantly better in a hurry. As for comparisons to previous nine 20-win teams, that's tough to say. But currently they are tracking like Jim Christian's first team (2002-2003), which began the season 19-2. However, late-season injuries (Nate Gerwig and Antonio Gates) slowed that team down the stretch.
TMM: Among the available BracketBusters home teams, who would you pick for Kent? Who out there do you think would help them the most?
EA: Selfishly, I think most midwest fans might like to see Kent State-Butler, only because those two played two overtime games, won by the home team in a past BracketBuster matchup and rematch. Realistically, I think ESPN sends them to St. Mary's. One premise of BB is to play teams you would not ordinarily play (though KSU-St. Marys did play in 2005-2006).
TMM: Akron. I'm still figuring this team's capabilities out, so I'll leave the question as open-ended as possible. Akron?
EA: Simply stated, opposing teams are starting to take advantage of the Zips backcourt with tons of pressure. As you noted when you saw them earlier, they really have no backcourt size at all, and teams are starting to slow their running game down and taking advantage of that backcourt size in a halfcourt game.
TMM: OK, Miami. Beat Xavier, beat Illinois, and is really struggling in conference play. What's going on there?
EA: Injuries are huge with this team right now, but the second more troublesome challenge is finding the kind of guards that can deliver like coach Charlie Coles likes. As Akron coach Keith Dambrot said earlier this season, "Miami is always very good early and very good late'' so expect them to rise up before it's all said and done.
TMM: Ohio had some great nonconference wins, the Bobcats' RPI is great, and they're seemingly impenetrable at home. But this team has a lot of trouble on the road, and the defense seems suspect enough to encourage any doubters. What's your take on this team, and do you think they'll be a factor in March?
EA: Past shortcomings seem to limit optimism for the Bobcats, but you can't deny the victory over Maryland, the near upset of Akron or the upset victory over Kent State. They play four of their next five on the road, with the last road game being at Kent State. Where Ohio U. stands after that run will tell a lot not just about their MAC title chances, but post-season chances as well.
TMM: One team that's really fallen off the radar in the last couple of years has been Buffalo. Do you have any insight as to why the Bulls have had such a hard time since being a heartbeat away from the NCAA's in 2005?
EA: Reggie Witherspoon's biggest plus is also his biggest minus. He is one of the few MAC coaches who has gleaned talent, particularly big talent, from overseas. But the 6-10 plum he signed from Sweden two seasons ago, opted to turn pro instead of going to UB and that is a setback they haven't yet recovered from. Can't remember his name, but, statictically, he was a player!
TMM: I can't either, but I'll bet we'll get an answer e-mailed in within the day. OK, not only have the Western teams not represented the league since WMU 2004, the last three finals have been East-only parties. Why do you think the West Division teams have had trouble in recent years?
EA: With the exception of Stan Joplin at Toledo and Steve Hawkins at Western Michigan, all the MAC West coaches are two years or less on the job. Joplin's Rockets won the overall league title last season. Hawkins' Broncos are making a run this season.
As you know, drawings and pairings are key in anyone's tournament chances. In the MAC, everybody has an Achilles, and somebody who can exploit it. Toledo winning the MAC Tournament last season would not have been a surprise. Just as Miami winning was no shocker, either. The real key is getting one of the four first-round byes. While MAC East teams may keep each other from winning the overall title, in recent years, three of the four byes have gone to the East. That's a huge advantage.
TMM: Out here, outside of MAC country, the prevailing "wisdom" is that the conference is somehow flawed for not managing to get an extra team in since 1999. You're there on the ground, what's the feeling on this around the league? Is it something that hangs over the conference, or are folks really all that concerned with outsiders' perception?
EA: On one hand, MAC fans obviously, desperately want that second team in the tournament. But they are amazingly realistic and I believe most will tell you four teams were clearly, and in their eyes unfairly, snubbed. In 2002 both Ball State (23-12, 12-6) and/or Bowling Green (24-9, 12-6) were NCAA caliber and BSU already had non-conference wins over Kansas and UCLA. Of BG's nine losses three were to the Kent State team that went to the Elite Eight. In 2003 Kent State finished 22-9, 12-6 and lost in the MAC title game and defeated Boston College and Rhode Island in non-conference. And the 2005 Miami RedHawks were the regular-season MAC champ of a Top 10 league and became the first with that tag not to get an at-large call from the NCAA.
That said, if everything tracks favorably with Ohio University and Kent State the rest of the season, combined with several mid-major leagues having down seasons, I think it would be hard to turn a second MAC team down in 2008. But as we know, a lot can change in a week, so don't hold me to that one.
TMM: I know we're still six weeks away from the final judgment, but from where we stand now, what do you think the chances are for that second bid?
EA: Let's put it at 60 percent ...today?
TMM: Last one. What's your favorite building in the conference, and why?
EA: I think former MAC Player JR Van Hoose said it best. "Anderson Arena [Bowling Green]. They (fans) are so close they can pick the hair off your legs.''
Thanks again to the man who's so close to the MAC, he could pick the hair off the league's legs. If it had legs. Go and bookmark his columns and blogs at the Plain-Dealer website, put the RSS feed in your newsreader. Get informed, stay informed, love that MAC!
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