MAC Tourney Preview: Predicting the Winner in a Wide-Open Field
Buffalo forward Nick Perkins
After a pretty epic hoops weekend, we are now in the calm before the real March storm. Tonight is a very light college hoops card, but we at least have MACtion!
Buffalo is the favorite to win its third MAC Tournament in the past four years. However, Toledo’s outstanding offense and Eastern Michigan’s effective 2-3 zone lurk on other side of the bracket in what should be a very wide-open tourney.
Let’s dive into the bracket to identify any potential sleepers and then finish up with ATS predictions for each of the following first-round matchups tonight:
- Bowling Green at Central Michigan (-8.5) – 7 p.m. ET on ESPN3
- Northern Illinois at Kent State (-6.5) – 7 p.m. ET on ESPN3
- Ohio at Miami Ohio (-3) – 7 p.m. ET on ESPN3
- Akron at Western Michigan (-8) – 7:45 p.m. ET on ESPN3
2018 MAC Tournament Overview
All 12 teams in the league qualify for the postseason tourney, but only eight make it to Cleveland for the quarterfinals, which start on March 8. The top-four seeds (Buffalo, Toledo, Eastern Michigan and Ball State) get to bypass the first round and head straight to Quicken Loans Arena. Conversely, the bottom eight seeds all play on Monday night for the remaining four spots. All four of Monday’s first round matchups will be played in the gym of the higher seed.
Who Should Win
The top-seed Bulls are the most balanced team in the MAC. Head coach Nate Oats can spread the floor and attack with four ball handlers on the court in Wes Clark, Dontay Caruthers, CJ Massinburg and Davonta Jordan. However, the Bulls have had lapses defensively this year, despite being comprised of individually solid defenders. Buffalo has particularly struggled to defend size in the post. Kent State’s frontcourt duo could be a problem for the Bulls in a potential semifinal matchup.
Buffalo’s first test will come against the winner of the 8/9 game between Central Michigan and Bowling Green. Buffalo’s offense handled both of these teams in the regular season, but Bowling Green big man Demajeo Wiggins is the type of post player who has given Buffalo issues. However, in the last regular season game of the year, Oats doubled and even tripled Wiggins on every touch. The Falcons simply aren’t a strong enough shooting team to make the Bulls pay from the perimeter. That’s also bad news for Bowling Green against CMU, as the Chips press full court and fall into a 2-3 zone in the halfcourt. BGSU’s press and zone offenses have been mediocre, at best.
If Not Buffalo, Then …
Toledo +375 or Eastern Michigan +570
No. 2 seed Toledo and No. 3 seed Eastern Michigan would be a fascinating semifinal matchup should it happen.
EMU is known for its 2-3 Syracuse zone defense. Head coach Rob Murphy has length and athleticism all over the floor. Plus, with James Thompson IV and Elijah Minnie, the Eagles have the MAC’s most dominant frontcourt. Minnie has done an excellent job covering for some of Thompson’s defensive deficiencies on the back end of the zone. As a result, the Eagles were the only MAC team to hold league opponents under 1 point per possession. The Eagles thrive off turnovers that guard Tim Bond’s active length usually plays a part in forcing at the top of the zone. However, in a potential semifinal matchup with Toledo, EMU would run into one of the country’s best zone offenses.
Toledo head coach Tod Kowalczyk has bigs who can spread the floor, which helped the Rockets score 1.21 ppp vs. zone defenses (99th percentile nationally, per Synergy). Kowalczyk put his bigs (Tre’Shaun Fletcher and Nate Navigato) at the high post vs EMU, forcing both Thompson and Minnie to defend away from the rim. While the Rockets’ offense was fine in a late season sweep of the Eagles, their defense struggled. Thompson and Minnie dominated the Rockets’ frontcourt, scoring a combined 84 points on 31-of-46 shooting.
Toledo will start with the winner of No. 7 seed Miami (Ohio) and No. 10 seed Ohio, both of which couldn’t beat the Rockets in the regular season. It’s been a long season for Ohio, as the Bobcats have been one of the most injury-plagued teams in the country. The good news is that they’re now relatively healthy and they’ve defeated rival Miami seven straight times.
Miami head coach Jack Owens has had a successful first season in Oxford, as the RedHawks immediately picked up on his commitment to defense, limiting MAC opponents to the third-lowest ppp rate in the league. The heart and soul of Miami’s defense is ball-hawk guard Darrian Ringo, who really disrupts the perimeter. He could impact the outcome against an Ohio team that has the league’s highest turnover rate.
EMU will face the winner of No. 6 seed Western Michigan and No. 11 seed Akron. John Groce had a disappointing season in his return to the MAC as head coach at Akron, but he did basically lose his entire frontcourt to injury and/or medical issues. The Zips can be a difficult matchup for some teams since Groce basically runs a 5-out spread pick-and-roll offense. Akron also plays a very high variance game, as it chucks up 3s at an incredible rate.
In Akron’s only meeting with Western Michigan this year, it had rim protector Manny Olojakpoke, who is out for the year with a heart condition. His loss will really hurt against a WMU team that runs a lot of ball screen motion to free up Thomas Wilder, one of the best rim attackers in midmajordom. WMU can dominate Akron on the glass, as well, but the Broncos could be missing one of their best rebounders in forward Brandon Johnson.
Kent State +1350
The defending champs lurk as a potential problem. However, as the No. 5 seed, Kent State will have to defeat No. 12 seed Northern Illinois (something it didn’t do in the regular season) in the first round in order to get to Cleveland. Kent State is arguably the most balanced team in the league, as it has a solid guard trio in Jalen Avery, Jaylin Walker and Kevin Zabo, and the legit frontcourt duo of Adonis De La Rosa and Danny Pippen. Unfortunately, De La Rosa has trouble staying on the floor because of foul problems, which could certainly be a major issue against rim-attacking NIU. The Huskies, who completely eschew the 3, shot 26 free throws in their regular season home win over KSU.
The winner would face No. 4 seed Ball State. The Cardinals split with both squads in the regular season. BSU offers some intrigue simply because point guard Tayler Persons is finally playing up to his offensive potential after a slow start to the season. However, Ball State ended the regular season on a three-game losing streak, and it would struggle against either KSU or NIU’s frontcourt. Opportunity knocks in this section of the bracket.
Monday ATS Predictions
Bowling Green +8.5
Western Michigan -8
MAC Final Prediction
Buffalo over Eastern Michigan
Photo via Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports