2014 MAC Tournament Semifinals, Eastern Michigan vs. Toledo Preview: A Clash for the Ages

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

EMU and Toledo split their regular season series, but in the MAC Tournament, everybody starts out with a clean slate. Who will win this clash of styles: EMU's stingy zone d, or Toledo's break-neck full-court offense?

Conflict, it drives the world. It's what sparks innovation, promotes societal growth and provides us with a mixture of benefits from emotion to pure destruction. It's also the main driving force behind sport. The conflict of one team vs another. The conflict of a David vs. Goliath. The conflict propels the action, and gives an otherwise meaningless event immense meaning.

When it comes to basketball you can't get better natural conflict than when the distinct styles of Eastern Michigan and Toledo clash. One team is built on hard-nosed fundamental defense and a scheme that makes games crawl. The other is is predicated on speed, working the court to build its leads rapidly and wear out the opponent.

But the conflict isn't just in the style of play, it's also in the meaning behind each team's goals.

One was a heavy favorite to be here, and earned a top seed. The other, predicted to finish middle of the pack and had to earn its way to the semifinals. Tonight when No. 6 Eastern Michigan takes on No. 2 Toledo at The Q in the semifinals (tentatively scheduled for 9 p.m., or 30 minutes after to conclusion of Akron-WMU) we'll be treated what should be a clash for the ages.

These two teams have already faced off twice this season, splitting the series. Toledo fell victim to EMU's 2-3 zone back in February, falling in a 21-point loss that saw the Rockets hit a season-low 25.9 percent from the field; this is a team that is among the most efficient in the nation on offense. Toledo got its revenge in the season finale six days ago, beating the Eagles by 11.

But when they step on the court Friday night, none of that will matter. The past is the past, and only what happens in the moment will count. With a MAC Tournament berth on the line, expect each squad to pull out all the stops.

EMU's on a quest to prove that with the right combination of luck and preparation an underdog can surmount even the most difficult of tasks. In this case, winning four times in five days to make it to the MAC Championship. Toledo's on a quest to prove that it's just as good as people originally thought and that the few losses in conference were nothing more than brief hiccups.

The Eagles have already done something that's never been accomplished: advance to the semifinals in the new tournament format without receiving a bye (granted, the MAC's only been using this heavily top-favoring format since 2012). EMU shook Buffalo to its core Thursday night, upsetting the Bulls 69-64 and pulling off its third victory in four days. The Eagles zone defense held the MAC Player of the Year to one of his worst performances of his career, and was able to comeback from a 10-point second-half deficit to win.

Meanwhile Toledo hasn't played in six days, having received a triple bye, and direct placement in the semifinals due to winning the No. 2 seed. Clearly the rest that Toledo has gotten will make the Rockets the fresher squad, but you know how when a shooter gets hot they just keep shooting? Well EMU's defense is that shooter, and it just keeps going out there and suffocating offenses, so fatigue shouldn't be an issue.

What it really boils down to is the match ups. The first game, the one that EMU won, the eagles dominated the match ups. Clogging the lanes EMU held the four starters not named Julius Brown to just 13 points. In the game Toledo won, two of those other starters combined to add 39 points on to Juice Brown's 13, and EMU actually had a good night shooting.

Friday night when the meet up if the Eagles can exert the pressure for 40 full minutes and prevent UT from building any significant runs, the Eagles have a good shot of winning. If Toledo can stretch the floor, and make EMU's defenders run with them, UT could win by 15, easily. EMU's proven it's zone can even survive a hot sharpshooter (Joshua Freelove drained eight 3s last night and it still wasn't enough to bust the zone), so it will take Toledo being able to get inside on those runs.

Vegas seems to feel this will be a close one, with UT as a 2.5 point favorite. I tend to think Vegas is right. I think we'll see a mix of both tonight. Toledo will go on some stretches, like Buffalo did Thursday night, and EMU will follow up by playing some stifling D for a few minutes. A player like Glenn Bryant, a match up nightmare who plays ferocious defense, could be the x-factor, but so to could Toledo's Justin Drummond and Rian Pearson, lengthy wings who can score a variety of ways.

EMU will need Da'Shonte Riley to keep out of foul trouble. If he can he will make it near impossible for the Rockets to get inside.

Expect a physical game that's full of short, quick bursts of scoring, and grueling stretches of stagnation. In the end it very well could boil down to something as simple as how the free throws fall. But it will likely be won in the final few minutes.

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