Doesn't it feel like we just started conference play a couple of weeks ago? Well, maybe not if you're a Ball State or Central Michigan supporter. Still, the MAC Tournament starts tomorrow and the final regular season standings are set in stone. There were a couple surprises and a couple disappointments, but all in all this was just your average MAC regular season: crazy and confusing.
Well, I think I did kind of okay on my preseason power rankings. I was way down on Western Michigan (and was for awhile) after Darius Paul's transfer. Can you imagine where the Broncos would be if they still had Paul in the lineup? But, on the other hand, his transfer opened the door for the emergence of Connar Tava, who would have likely come off of the bench and not gotten as many minutes with Paul still on the floor.
I pegged Northern Illinois in the last spot and said it would be a minor miracle if they won ten games. Well, they won fourteen and went 8-10 in conference play, so I overlooked them incredibly. I also underestimated Miami as although they ended up 12-17 (8-10), they had a much better season than I thought they would.
Leading up to conference play, we did a Top 25 players in the conference rundown which created a lot of arguments as top 25 lists tend to do. We weren't perfect but got the top ten pretty close. Including three Ball State players in the top 17 didn't turn out too well, and having Western Michigan's David Brown at 22 was an oversight. Here's a list of the guys we didn't rank, and that list included Justin Drummond, J.D. Weatherspoon, Mike Talley and Maurice Ndour. Players like Tava, Karrington Ward and Will Felder didn't even make it on that list. Whoops.
In other offseason/preseason news, we picked up two new coaches in Bobby Hurley and James Whitford. We mourned the loss of Charlie Coles and had some great memories of him to share. The MAC and Time Warner Cable agreed to a new television contract and many of us had new reasons to extremely dislike the cable provider (especially Bryan).
The first night of MAC Basketball gave us a preview of what was to come, especially for the Western Michigan Broncos who took down New Mexico State in the first round of the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii. The Broncos won the tournament and the win over the Aggies turned out to be a good one; they finished the season as the second-best team in the WAC. A few days later Toledo beat Boston College in Chestnut Hill which put the rest of the conference on alert that Toledo was going to be a contender this season. Ohio had a fantastic November beating solid teams like Northern Iowa, Valparaiso and Mercer. The Bobcats lost at Ohio State by just ten, and in that game we figured out just how good Maurice Ndour could be.
Kent State started off strong with a nice win over Temple in ESPN's 24-hour marathon of college basketball and followed that up with a close loss to the Big East's Seton Hall. James Whitford and Bobby Hurley both picked up their first wins as head coaches: Whitford against Southeast Missouri State and Hurley against Robert Morris. Northern Illinois lost to a Nebraska team that ended up in the top half of the B1G standings by just five. Oh, and Miami lost to a Division 3 team.
The holiday season brought about gifts of cupcakes, blowouts to B1G teams, and seventeen days between games for the Akron Zips. That didn't bother Akron too much, as the Zips came out and beat Oregon State in front of President Obama in the first round of the Diamond Head Classic. Eastern Michigan picked up a nice win over Green Bay, who has only six losses on the year and could have a shot at an at-large bid after losing in the Horizon League Tournament Semi-finals. Ohio had an opportunity to knock off a top-25 team at home against UMass but couldn't get it done in the end. They followed up with a good win over Richmond a few days later.
Unfortunately it wasn't all good news as we learned of Akron assistant coach Dan Peters' battle with pancreatic cancer. The Zips have rallied around Peters and now sport "4PetesSake" purple shirts during warm-ups. In January Akron held a "Purple Out" in support of Coach Peters which was a smashing success.
The month came to an exciting end with Toledo playing outstanding against Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse. The Rockets weren't able to stay undefeated, but they showed the nation that night that they could play with anyone.
As the calendar turned so did the schedule, with early January starting off conference play. MAC play started off with a bang as Western Michigan (seemingly) improbably took down the Rockets in Kalamazoo. We would learn much later on that this game wasn't really an upset, just a better team winning the game. The game of the year to that point came on January 12 in Athens, as Akron took down Ohio in two overtimes. In the final standings Akron led Ohio by one game, showing how important that victory was.
Eastern Michigan walloped Western Michigan, and we thought that the Broncos maybe weren't for real after beating Toledo. Glenn Bryant put poor Tucker Haymond on a poster; a play that ultimately landed on SportsCenter's top 10. Toledo needed a Juice Brown buzzer beater to knock off Buffalo which may end up being a quarterfinal contest in the MAC Tournament. The Rockets struck again, beating another MAC East foe in Akron on national TV at the JAR.
Bowling Green notched their win of the season by beating the Broncos in Kalamazoo, the second straight bad loss for Western Michigan. The Falcons followed that up with a win at Ohio, which lead us to think that maybe Bowling Green could be a player in this league after all. Kent State followed a promising non-conference season with a dull thud in conference play, losing four straight in January all culminating in a home loss to Northern Illinois.
Buffalo had an odd month in that they beat Western Michigan by twenty-one but lost at Ball State, becoming one of the Cardinals' five wins on the season. Meanwhile January became the month that the Cardiac 'Cats started to become a thing, as Ohio made massive comebacks to topple Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan.
February the First had two fantastic games all in one day. Ohio beat Toledo in Athens in overtime as the Cardiac 'Cats had to make yet another second-half comeback. Just hours later Kent State beat Akron on a Darren Goodson buzzer beater that had to be seen to be believed. Northern Illinois had a three game winning streak in late January/early February which many had no idea that sort of thing could have been possible when considering the recent history of the program.
Western Michigan owned February, winning every single game they played during the month. They weren't just playing MAC West cupcakes either. The Broncos hung 90 on Ohio, came back to beat Akron at home and then beat Ohio again, this time in Athens. It's really hard not to lose a game in a whole month, but the Broncos did it and that streak vaulted them into the top spot in the MAC Standings and eventually led them to a number one seed.
Javon McCrea had maybe his most complete game of the year in a win at Central Michigan. McCrea posted 25 points and 20 rebounds, which was a career high. The thing about his stat line in that game was that it came so effortlessly you didn't even realize what was going on. Ohio did their thing again, coming back from down almost twenty to beat Miami at home and did it to Buffalo too.
The month was not good to Toledo, as it started off with Justin Drummond's DUI and included bad losses at Eastern Michigan and at Northern Illinois. The Rockets ended up sharing the regular season championship with Western Michigan so winning one of those games would have given them the outright title.
Central Michigan and Ball State had themselves some fun on a late, cold February night, needing three overtimes to decide who actually was the worst team in the conference. Not many may have watched it, but it definitely happened and it'll be three hours we will never get back. The Huskies then went to double overtime against Eastern Michigan. You then stop wondering why people don't go to the NIU games.
So here we are, the greatest month of all. We started it off with Kent State surprisingly demoralizing Ohio and Toledo and Western Michigan giving us another thriller. The Broncos clinched the number one seed on the final weekend of the season, while Toledo locked up two and Buffalo notched their first ever MAC East title. Akron played their way into the fourth seed, needing to beat both Buffalo and Kent State to earn that precious double-bye.
The bracket is set, and first round games start tomorrow. It's time to settle in for what should be another crazy week in Cleveland.