Like the girl from the Alicia Keys song, "Line Drills is on fire." Yes, as Nelly would say, "it's getting hot in herre." What say you, old school Dan Patrick? "We are el fuego" (true story - he started saying that before switching it later to en fuego). Hustle Belt fans vacationing in Vegas last week went to see Britney and Celine for free when they put their faith in us, as Line Drills posted a 9-3 mark on the week, improving our record to 34-37-1 on the season.
We return with mid-week prognostication augmented by quotes from America's presidents, in honor of Monday's holiday. As this holiday more than any other seems to be about things being on sale, you may all take 25% off your membership fee to Hustle Belt. One day only. Thank us later.
Akron @ Buffalo (-5) - Wednesday gives us two head-to-head matchups of the MAC big boys. Guess who beat Akron last year to break their 19-game winning streak? Yes, it was the Bulls, at home in Buffalo, by 14. Javon McCrea gave a command performance with 26 points, and actually Demetrius Treadwell also had a good game with 17. The issue last year for the Zips was horrible shooting from Alex Abreu and Nick Harney - they've got something in common, and part of it is that neither will be playing a role in this one.
The line: "Must swear off from swearing. Bad habit." Ok, so Rutherford B. Hayes wasn't at the top of your presidential quote list. It's not easy finding useable quotes from all those Ohio presidents, though given the MAC geography I thought it relevant. Bobby Hurley can get pretty fiery on the sideline - could a critical technical foul be a difference-maker in a big game for this team?
The pick: Akron +5. More importantly, what are the odds against both Treadwell and McCrea emerging unbloodied from this game? It'll be a battle down low and probably a toss-up overall. I'll take the points, even though this is absolutely a gut check game for Coach Hurley and the crew. The thing is, I feel the same way about the importance of this one for Akron - both of these teams need to show that they can handle another tough squad, and really anything from a one seed down to a six is still very possible. This is already Akron's second-to-last road game of the year (!), so they're road-tested, and a total of zero times have they lost by five points or more on the road in conference.
Western Michigan @ Ohio (-5.5) - You know, Vegas treats the big games (like this one, or the Super Bowl) differently from others, and sometimes the existence of "prop" bets adds flavor to the young gambler's experience. I'm sure there are a few hundred prop bets out there for this one - if not, I offer up some possibilities for my old friends at the LVH: Maurice Ndour posterizing dunks over Shayne Whittington - over/under 1; Travis Wilkins 3-pointers - over/under 4 (kid can shoot, and the MAC hasn't adjusted to him in the lineup yet); Connar Tava assists + rebounds - over/under 11.
The line: "Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." President Lincoln emphasized the importance of preparation before decisive action, but now it's time for #MACtion. It's been about four months of preparation since Midnight Madness (artistic license taken), and these two have six conference games left to stake their claim to the top of the MAC.
The pick: Western Michigan +5.5. I'm not thrilled with this, as Ohio showed me something in the road win at Buffalo. As noted in this week's Q-gazing, I'm pretty convinced that these are the two best teams in the MAC at the times when they put it all together. For Ohio that's almost always the last ten minutes of the game - the exception being the last ten minutes against Western Michigan in the ‘Zoo, when the Broncos ran the Bobcats out of the building. Is there something really that different about the Broncos that allowed them to run away from the ‘Cats when nobody else can? I don't know, but I'm not willing to bet on the outcome being 20 points different from the first game.
Kent State @ Miami (-2.5) - It's hard to separate these similar teams as we head into the last month of conference play. A glance at the (well-maintained) conference statistics page shows that the Golden Flashes and RedHawks are nearly indistinguishable across the board when comparing conference-only stats through 12 games. Both teams are middling overall offensive and defensive teams. Miami shoots free throws better than anyone else in conference at 81%, while Kent State is below the MAC equivalent of the Mendoza line - meaning even worse than Akron - at 66%. Miami leads the conference in steals, but is last in the conference in blocked shots, with Kent State middle of the pack in both.
As both these teams are poor rebounders (each about minus-four rebounds per game), and especially bad at collecting offensive rebounds, the game may hinge on one team's ability to establish themselves inside. At least statistically, the best big man in this game is Miami's Will Felder, and I'm calling the big man out. Felder has a tall order when he's matched up against some of the power frontcourts in this league. But here is an opportunity for a guy I thought might be a player-of-the-year candidate to assert himself against a smaller team, and he figures to get plenty of looks. When Kent State has the ball, the matchup of their guards - near tops in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio - against the pressuring quick hands of Miami's defense will be fascinating.
The line: "They misunderestimated me." The four teams at 5-7 in conference have shown that they can make some noise - someone's going to finish strong, and they'd best not be misunderestimated (whatever President George W. Bush meant by that) by the top teams.
The pick: Miami -2.5. At this point it's well documented that (1) the RedHawks are sliding, and (2) their successes have come against the weaker teams in the conference. This is sort of a watershed game for Coach Cooper and company, as a fellow 5-7 team comes a-calling, and one certainly hopes that the anemic Miami fan base - averaging a lower home attendance than Northern Illinois! - will show up to support. Kent State has been too inconsistent to pick for a big road win, though there is the chance that this Golden Flashes team is finally playing to their potential.
Ball State @ Central Michigan (-5) - In the "you know you're having a bad year" file goes this entry for the Cardinals: you're a five point dog to one-win Central Michigan. The other ten teams in this conference would be favored in this game, anywhere from three points or so (Miami, Kent State) up to a dozen (the top five).
This game will clearly attract the smallest streaming audience, and is relevant only for sorting out the 11 and 12 seeds in the upcoming tournament. And yet there are still story lines of interest here. These are divisional rivals that are both throwing multiple underclassmen, including many freshmen, out on the floor every night. How those young players match up against each other head-to-head may dictate which of these teams at least ascends into the next tier up next year, and which team is the presumptive doormat.
There are more immediate concerns than next season as well. Recall that two of last year's bottom feeders, Miami and Northern Illinois, lost significant talent via transfer. Now it's interesting that both of those programs have seen significant improvement this year despite that - one wonders about locker room chemistry, for example - but it is clear that talented players in the modern era are more apt to consider transfer when their teams are floundering. If you want to make sure a Braylon Rayson, or John Simons, or Zavier Turner, or Franko House stays on campus a few years, it's in your best interest to finish strong. These two face each other twice in the last six games. One team could sweep, maybe add on another win, and finish with a 3-3 spurt. The other would have real concerns about losing talent.
The line: "A day that will live in infamy." Surely this is the day that President Franklin Roosevelt was referencing - one of these two teams (and their fan base) is going to be exceptionally unhappy when they lose this one.
The pick: Central Michigan -5. About every other game I pick Ball State and they stink up the joint, then I pick their opponents and they... stink up the joint, but in a less malodorous manner so as to approach or cover the spread. Majok Majok is going to pose major matchup problems for the Chippewas, but I'm not convinced he can really take over a game. If he can do it enough to open up shots for everyone else, then the Cardinals are looking at their second win. Instead I'm betting on the young Chips to be motivated, off, and running. Fowler scores 26 and they hold off a late Ball State rally to win by six.