As Stan Lee says, welcome true believers! We're now six conference games in to the MAC schedule, and teams are just now starting to sort themselves out into tiers. It's never too early to wonder what lies ahead at the MAC Tournament, if the standings remain unchanged.
Before we look at the tournament as it would be if it started today, let's set some ground rules:
- No regular season guessing. If you want to read eloquent diatribes about what might happen between now and the Q, you're welcome to dive in to the mid-season report cards featured this week on the Belt. Here we're going to go with current standings and not presume specific wins or losses in the remaining games.
- Postseason guessing encouraged. We're unlikely to guess a tournament outcome that's straight chalk. Where's the fun in that?
- Usual tiebreakers. Similar to rule 1 - we're going with the tiebreakers as they currently exist, not what they would be if likely scenarios play out. But please keep in mind...
- Tiebreakers may be inexact in the short term. Don't get your knickers in a knot if we mess something up in the first few weeks - it doesn't matter right now anyway. We promise exacting attention to detail starting around Valentine's Day.
Ok, now on to the tournament. For those that don't remember, the MAC initiated a new format recently that strongly favors the very high seeds by making lesser seeds play a lot of games to reach the finals. It looks like this:
FIRST ROUND (campus sites, Monday)
12 @ 5
11 @ 6
10 @ 7
9 @ 8
For the lesser teams in conference, it can mean something to a program just to make it to Cleveland, or even host a first round game. As we get closer to March, we'll drop some stats on you that remind you how important it is to be at home in the first round. For now, suffice it to say that lower tier teams should be focused on attaining that 7 or 8 seed. It's important.
SECOND ROUND (Cleveland, Wednesday)
12 @ 5 winner vs. 9 @ 8 winner.
11 @ 6 winner vs. 10 @ 7 winner.
One thing about this new format: most of the time, a difference of 2 in a team's seeding can make a big impact on their tournament schedule. Look at the likely outcomes for a 5 seed versus a 7. In round 1, the 5 seed gets the worst team in conference, on their own home floor. The 7 gets No. 10 - right now that's Ball State. The Cardinals aren't playing well right now, but would you rather have them or winless Central Michigan?
Then in the second round team 5 gets the 9/8 winner - a solid but unspectacular opponent who likely finished below .500 in conference. Team 7 draws the 6 seed, against whom they're likely to have around a 50/50 shot at advancing. Basic probabilities: 5 seed (95% first round, 70% second round) might have about a 65% chance of seeing Thursday action in Cleveland, whereas 7 seed (85% first round, 45% second round) is more likely to be watching from home on Thursday, with just under a 40% chance of surviving that long.
Bottom line: In the current MAC tournament format, seeding is really important, and that makes every regular season game matter. That's part of what makes tournament projections fun - even in January.
THIRD ROUND (Cleveland, Thursday)
12/5 vs 9/8 winner vs. 4
11/6 vs 10/7 winner vs. 3
We don't want to prattle on forever - the most important note here is the ENORMOUS difference between the 4 & 5 seeds, probably the biggest in the whole dang thing. The 5 seed has already had to play twice - and as just noted, might have a 1/3 chance of not even getting this far. The 4 seed is playing for the first time.
SEMIFINALS (Cleveland, Friday)
12/5-9/8 vs 4 winner vs. 1
11/6-10/7 vs 3 winner vs. 2
The difference between 3 and 2 is also huge. Duh.
FINALS (Cleveland, Saturday)
Here are the conference tournament seeds of the last 10 MAC conference tournament winners (not in chronologic order):
1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 3, 4, 9
Most of these were before the current format that heavily rewards top seeds - and even then, you see the value in being a top seed entering the tournament.
Finally, what you came for: what the tournament would look like if played today:
12 Central Michigan @ 5 Buffalo
2014 head-to-head: coming up 2/8
Prediction: We're not even discussing this. Buffalo.
11 Northern Illinois @ 6 Miami
2014 head-to-head: coming up 2/4
Prediction: Love the Huskies' fire so far, but Miami has clearly been the better team. We're sitting on picking the Huskies against the spread down the road because they're a tough out. Not tough enough. Roll RedHawks.
10 Ball State @ 7 Eastern Michigan
2014 head-to-head: coming up 2/12 and 3/4
Prediction: Third meeting in a month between the two west rivals. Totally the wrong matchup for a Ball State team that can't generate a lot of offense. Low scoring, ugly, comfortable win for the Eagles.
9 Kent State @ 8 Bowling Green
2014 head-to-head: coming up 2/12 and 2/26
Prediction: This would be also the third meeting in a month between the two teams. Kent State has the experience advantage and made noise in the tournament last year, but they haven't done much this year to make us think they'd go on the road and cause trouble. Fly Falcons.
8 Bowling Green vs. 5 Buffalo
2014 head-to-head: coming up 2/2 and 3/8
Prediction: The Bulls continue to struggle away from home, and the Falcons play ferocious defense. The young birds grind out a gritty upset win in the opening game at the Q, to the delight of the partisan crowd. Bowling Green advances.
7 Eastern Michigan vs. 6 Miami
2014 head-to-head: coming up 2/1
Prediction: The word that best describes MAC madness? You never know. The Eagles clamp down on the RedHawks in the half-court, and Mike Talley deals with the pressure t end with a dozen assists. Eagles win.
8 Bowling Green vs. 4 Ohio
2014 head-to-head: Bowling Green won @ Ohio 58-56; rematch 3/4
Prediction: The young Falcons are rolling, confident... and tired. Ohio is able to bury a slew of 3-pointers and the Falcons hit an early scoring drought. Bobcats move up with a blowout win.
7 Eastern Michigan vs. 3 Western Michigan
2014 head-to-head: EMU won the first matchup 56-37; rematch 2/23
Prediction: It's déjà vu all over again for the Broncos, as they go cold against the Eagles' matchup zone. WMU loses the turnover battle by 12, and the game by the same number.
4 Ohio vs. 1 Toledo
2014 head-to-head: coming up 2/1 and 2/12
Prediction: Ohio's defense is good, but not good enough to stop the superior Rockets. Toledo may still be playing for at-large consideration (note that the NIT is guaranteed for regular season conference champions). The Rockets pull away in the second half and win by 15.
7 Eastern Michigan vs. 2 Akron
2014 head-to-head: Akron won in Ypsilanti 78-68; rematch 2/5
Prediction: The magical run ends for EMU, as their tired frontcourt is dominated by Akron's bigs, opening up opportunities for 3-pointers like rain from the backcourt. Friday ticket-holders leave without seeing a close finish, as the Zips win by 20.
2 Akron vs. 1 Toledo
2014 head-to-head: Toledo won 75-61 at the JAR
Prediction: Akron's been waiting all season to get revenge on the Rockets. They come out possessed, dominating on the glass and building a 10-point first half lead. Early in the second, Rian Pearson and Justin Drummond start breaking down the Zips' defense off the dribble as Toledo storms back. Nathan Boothe hits a tip-in at the buzzer to send the game to overtime, where J.D. Weatherspoon takes over with 10 points, propelling Toledo to an 11 seed in the NCAA tournament.