Line Drills: Northern Illinois is Competitive, and Other Inconceivable Notes on MAC Basketball for February 12th

Coach Tod Kowalczyk and the Dread Pirate Roberts sail the ship Revenge into the rematch against Ohio. - Ed Zurga

Join Line Drills, Vizzini, Inigo, and the Man in Black as we preview a fantastic slate of games set for Wednesday using quotes from The Princess Bride.

This weekend I took my daughter to see The Lego Movie. Animated movies usually aren't awful, and this had gotten some decent reviews. Well, let me save you some time - it was terrible. Not only was it the most painful infomercial since Battleship, but most was unfunny (Batman has some good lines), and the protracted ending is practically unwatchable.

One of the main messages in this movie is the catchy line from the little song, "everything is awesome when you're part of a team!" This season it has been a great pleasure to be part of the Hustle Belt team, and especially to pair up with Keith for Line Drills. For Keith and I, it's been sink or swim as a team (and yes, wise ass, more sink than swim), as although we don't actually post the data, we've agreed on the overwhelming majority of the picks posted here.

So it came as a bucket of cold water to the face last weekend to find that my teammate has never seen The Princess Bride, clearly one of the ten best movies ever made. This mid-week edition of Line Drills will feature only quotes from The Princess Bride in what is likely a futile effort to exhort Keith to watch the movie. By the way, bro, it's not a bad Valentine's Day option, especially when you consider the drivel that constitutes most alternatives.

By the way, every gambler loves to tell stories of their bad beats, but I'd just like to throw out there that both Akron and Western Michigan missed foul shots with seconds remaining on Sunday that would have given Line Drills a tremendous weekend. As it is, at least Keith posted a 3-2-1 weekend that should serve as a momentum builder.

Let's all look forward to a fantastic night of #MACtion on Wednesday, including two games pitting MAC leaders against each other. Away we go.

Akron @ Western Michigan (-1.5) - A great game in Kalamazoo leads us off. These two haven't met since the conference opener in January, 2013, when the Zips defense throttled the Broncos to the tune of a 65-43 win. Although both teams figure to be threats in March and both may earn consideration for various post-season opportunities, they've also both been frustratingly inconsistent. Akron does it within game, like they did Sunday, pulling away by 15 before letting a sloppy and inferior Bowling Green squad back all the way to a tie. The Broncos do it week to week, having posted two of the season's most impressive wins (Ohio & Toledo) but also barely showing up for games against Eastern Michigan and Buffalo.

Akron is still having a hard time generating offense. Their main mechanisms are either a 3-point barrage, or having Quincy Diggs create (as he did to save the win on Sunday). Much of that team struggles to create their own shots, and they really don't have a reliable distributor. Nick Harney is a high energy guy who's posted some good lines lately, but has played some of the worst games I've seen in the MAC over the past few years.

I like the way Western Michigan has responded to its biggest challenges this year. The two wins above are noted, as are a 6-point loss to then-undefeated Missouri on the road, and a neutral court win against New Mexico State. Austin Richie and Connar Tava are keys to offer other scoring options, but David Brown took over against Central Michigan all by his lonesome.

The line: "It's not my fault being the biggest and the strongest. I don't even exercise." Akron's tremendous size poses match-up problems for most other teams, especially at the 2 & 3 positions.

The pick: Western Michigan -1.5. And I'd be happy to pick against them with confidence if the game were at the JAR. But I think they step up here and get a big home win.

Bowling Green @ Kent State (-6) - The Falcons and Flashes meet for the first game of a home-and-home that will play out over the next two weeks. While Kent State has little to show for a season that is increasingly spiraling downward, the Falcons have shown flashes (see what I did there?) of potential. While the game may lack in national interest, there are plenty of sub-plots for loyal MAC fans (and if you're reading this, go ahead and plead guilty). Either team can still host a first-round conference tournament game with a decent second half to the season, and honestly anything up to the #6 seed is still wide open. Both coaches have to be playing for job security at this point. And no matter how ugly or low-scoring the game, or the quality of the opponent, both these teams will take any win to try to kick start the program.

The line: "Since the invention of the kiss there have been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure." Darren Goodson's miraculous three-pointer was a Bill Raftery special, a kiss off the glass that's been about the only thing to evoke passion in Kent State basketball all year.

The pick: Bowling Green +6. I saw this as close to a pick'em game - despite the Falcons' occasional offensive woes, they're coming off a well-played second half against Akron, and are a stingy defense that will challenge Kent State's ability to fill it up.

Buffalo (pick'em) @ Miami - Miami had the tough week last week, but their reward now is five of their last eight games at home. Can RedHawk nation get it going for their favorite squad? On the one hand, Miami is 0-4 against the other top teams in conference, though the losses are by a total of 28 points, which really isn't bad. Coach Cooper's squad has seen outcomes more dictated by quality of opponent than location of game - they've won on the road and lost at home - and all this generally bodes poorly for a matchup against another of the top teams.

Except it is still not clear if the Bulls fit that bill. Buffalo has beaten Western Michigan at home, but is 1-3 on the road in conference, losing their only other game against top competition on the road in Toledo. And there's last year's track record of lousy road play as well, which coach Hurley doesn't have to answer for, but Will Regan and Javon McCrea owned that team too.

The line: "You just wiggled your finger! That's wonderful!" Miami has already achieved more than one might have thought around New Year's day, but they're unlikely to be satisfied at this point unless they can post at least one win against one of the better MAC squads.

The pick: Buffalo (even). Man, there are a lot of games I would love to watch tonight. Actually pretty much all of them except Kent State. It's the expected contender versus the up-and-comer here. Miami has kept it close against most of the big boys, but hasn't yet shown that they can break through. A tough, tough choice. Better to sit it out at the betting window and just pull up a seat and enjoy. But I'm going with the better overall talent.

Eastern Michigan (-6.5) @ Ball State - I know, I said I'm going to stop being a Ball State apologist. But though it may not be relevant to this game, or even this season, let me be the first to point to some real optimism for next year in Muncie. Mark Alstork has gone backwards since the new year began, but freshmen Zavier Turner and Franko House look like the real deal. Next year they lose Majok Majok and Chris Bond, but don't forget that Matt Kamieniecki will return from his wrist injury to be a senior leader in the frontcourt. The Cardinals have been a tough out at The Nest this year and really looked pretty good in the tight loss to Toledo over the weekend. I'd happily bet on Ball State winning one of their next two games, and next season I'd expect them to make a good run at .500 in conference again.

While the Eagles have faded from contention for the top tier in the MAC, it's too early to count them out completely. Eastern Michigan still has two dates on the schedule with Ball State and Northern Illinois, four games in which they'll likely be favored. A run at the west division title is nearly impossible, as they still get Toledo and Western Michigan on the road. But this upperclassman-heavy team has played everyone tough, and they could just as easily be 7-3 at this point.

The line: "You've been mostly dead all day." Ball State has spent most of the season pulseless, but has shown signs of life in home games, especially against the better competition.

The pick: Ball State +6.5. I like Da'Shonte Riley's chances of controlling Ball State's frontcourt better than Boothe did last weekend, and I still see Ball State struggling to score. But EMU has played five road games in conference, only one resulting in a comfortable win. They can have their own troubles scoring, and I liked the Ball State vibe on Sunday.

Ohio @ Toledo (-3.5) - If this is anything like their first game, you need to put the cell phone on call forwarding and DVR the Olympics. For Toledo, a win here leaves only a road game against Western Michigan between them and a realistic #1 seed in the conference tournament. Those are also their last two chances to make a national impression in case they need at-large consideration. Ohio finds itself in a dogfight for the #3/#4/#5 seeds, and even still with a possible shot at top two. But the Bobcats will need to play more consistently to win the big games, including road contests at Toledo, Akron, and Buffalo.

The big news out of Toledo early this week was the arrest of Justin Drummond on DUI charges, a topic well-covered in a separate Hustle Belt thread that I hope you all caught. From a human perspective, I'm glad nobody was injured, and hope this results in a wake-up change in behavior. Drummond has been suspended for this Ohio game, and while the one-game suspension is a fairly light punishment, at least the reaction was swift. A first response might be to think that losing a top-10 scoring threat will be a huge blow to the Rockets, but I really don't think that's the case. Even pre-season reviews of the Rockets noted that they have so much talent that some players' stats would suffer from a simple lack of touches. Rian Pearson, Julius Brown, and J.D. Weatherspoon are all top-20 scorers who are more than capable of making up for Drummond on the offensive end, though Pearson and Brown might struggle to approach Drummond's nearly 50% field goal percentage. Frankly, Nathan Boothe would probably do fine with more touches on the offensive end as well - big fella's got some touch.

If anything, I think it's an interesting opportunity for strategy from coach Tod Kowalczyk. Jonathan Williams is actually the best 3-point shooter for the Rockets - he's struggled a little when asked to do primary ball-handling, but could fill a sharp-shooter role here. Or Kowalczyk could choose a defensive specialist to fill the minutes, who wouldn't need to score but could be a designated Nick Kellogg stopper on the other end.

The line: "You seem a decent fellow. I hate to kill you." It's a shame that one of these teams has to lose - they're both pretty good basketball teams.

The pick: Toledo -3.5. The losses have been on the road for the Rockets, and although it's not good to lose Drummond, I don't think it sets them back much. These inconsistent halves are going to catch up with Ohio at some point.

Central Michigan @ Northern Illinois (-3) - West division rivals and presumptive bottom-feeders square off for the first of two in an 11-day span. But the Huskies have defied the haters and actually put together a very solid year. Even Sunday, outside observers would not have been judgmental (or surprised) if they'd mailed it in for the second half of the Western Michigan game. Instead the Huskies clamped down on D - as they seem apt to do - and rallied furiously to almost pull it out. I love what's happening in the Huskies' frontcourt. Transfer Jordan Threloff may have had initial trouble with the game plan in DeKalb, but for the last four or five games, he's been a force at both ends of the floor. And don't overlook bench player Pete Rakocevic either - they big guy gives quality minutes especially on the defensive end.

Part of the (tempered) optimism for the young Chippewas this year was based, it turns out, on what may have been a mistaken assessment of their schedule. The out-of-conference results showed that they could compete with - and beat - some lower tier division I teams. I, among others, looked ahead and saw twin dates with Miami early in the schedule, and twin dates with NIU later, and thought this would add up to some wins for Central Michigan. It's interesting - I don't think that the top MAC teams are quite as good as Akron or Ohio were last year. But the overall level of play mid-conference is better, and two teams that are notably better are Miami and Northern Illinois. Bad timing for coach Davis and the Mount Pleasant crew, though it's still possible that they'll make something out of the back half of the schedule with two Northern Illinois and two Ball State games on the slate in the next month.

The line: "Get used to disappointment." These are two programs that have spent a long time getting used to losing, but for the Huskies this year, the tide may be turning.

The pick: Northern Illinois -3. I do think this isn't a bad matchup for the Chips, in that NIU's defensive strength is inside, while Chris Fowler and company are predominantly backcourt threats. Still, there's no question that the Huskies have played much better for most of the year. Three points is a relatively bargain price to pay for what should be a solid home favorite.

Honorable mention: "Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something." You try picking games publicly on the internet for a season of enjoyable parity in MAC basketball. Those missed free throws for Akron and Western Michigan? They brought the pain.

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