And away we go for Thursday #MACtion, where the Buffalo Bulls look to start a statement-making road trip, and Broncos and Flashes look to climb out of mediocrity.
Western Michigan @ Kent State (-4.5)
For coach Steve Hawkins and his crew, January 14-19 can be relabeled "The Broncos and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week." No team had a better first week of MAC play, given Western Michigan's victory over Toledo and hard-fought road overtime win at Miami. But as roaring twenties as that first week was in Kalamazoo, the great crash followed with a 19-point road debacle against Eastern Michigan, then a second half collapse against Bowling Green. As high as I was on them after that first week, I have to look at the overall body of work now and ask if I can trust this team on the road. They've played 6 true road games this year, with only the Miami win on the right side of the ledger. They've scored under 40 twice (!!) on the road, and have 2 other losses to circa 150 RPI teams. This isn't very many points to get for that kind of track record.
Middling is exactly where Kent State finds themselves. The road win at Temple looked so good early, but it turns out the Owls are way down this year. The 2-point road loss to Seton Hall was similar, and then a string of home wins - against lesser teams, for the most part - to move to 8-1. Since then, 3-5, and two of the three wins are Ball State and Northern Illinois. But don't worry - at least they defend their home court well. They've... lost 3 of their last 4 home games, including games against Cleveland State and Bucknell.
The trend: 6 and under. The last 5 games between these two teams have been decided by 6, 5, 3, 2, and 1 points. The rosters have turned over, of course, over those 4 years. Steve Hawkins is a constant, while Rob Senderoff is the new kid in the rivalry.
The pick: Kent State -4.5. I dunno. Initially I had WMU penciled in here, but the road record scares me. I can't believe I'm thinking about laying 4.5 points with a so-so team. I wouldn't mind watching this game as a fan - one of these teams will get an important win here - but as a prognosticator and potential bettor, I'd rather not touch this with a (thump, thump) 39-and-a-half foot pole. No - wait. I'm changing my mind. There's not much difference between these two teams. Kent State has done nothing at home to earn my trust. When in doubt, take the points. Western Michigan +4.5.
Buffalo (-8.5) @ Ball State
Buffalo has flexed its team muscle to the tune of a 3-1 start, thwarted only by the heroic Julius Brown buzzer-beater in Toledo. Now it's time for the Bulls to show us all the money. Five of their next seven on the road. Zero of their next seven against the other 3-1 conference frontrunners. Let's see what you've got, Bulls. You've played acceptably well in very limited action away from home. #ReleasetheKraken.
The Ball State Cardinals will be two of those next 7 Buffalo contests. It is my constitutional duty to say something nice about them, so I went to the very nice MAC basketball home page to dig up some statistics. Ball State is near the top of the conference in 3-point shooting percentage and rebounding margin. They're at the dead bottom of turnover margin. James Whitford, here's your friendly strategy tip: let Zavier Turner, Mark Alstork, and Jesse Berry launch from downtown. Don't pass - launch. Majok Majok can try to get offensive rebounds. Hope to score in bunches. Channel Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers and let fly, Cardinals.
The trend: seriously? You need me to quote a trend here? Uhhh... if you haven't heard me say it before, Ball State has beaten a single division I opponent.
The pick: Buffalo -8.5. Still drinking the Bull Run Kool-Aid. They told me it's free. And I think the Bulls are for real.