Q-Gazing Part 3: Looking Ahead to the MAC Tournament in Cleveland

Coach Bobby Hurley and the Buffalo Bulls are up to a #3 seed in the latest tournament projection - Adam Hunger

The Hustle Belt pros perform the kind of data review that has Joe Pulitzer squirming in his grave, and clue in to trends to watch for in the MAC tournament.

Welcome back to Q-gazing, our weekly look ahead to the MAC tournament in Cleveland.  It's starting to get serious now as we're past the halfway point of conference play.  Some clear separation is starting to develop between the top, middle, and bottom tiers of the league, and we're at the point where it's going to take more than one good (or bad) week for a team's projected seed to make a huge move.

Last week we looked at coaching factors that might affect tournament outcomes - if you missed it, please go check out the statistical homage to Keith Dambrot that ensued. This week let's take a look at seedings and outcomes in the first round, and ask ourselves what constitutes a significant trend.

One of the blessings of March Madness is that every team has a chance. In England's FA Cup, in which every soccer club in the country right down to in utero squads gets a bid, the Luton Town Hatters (from the 5th division - basically a team of Hustle Belt all-stars) advanced to the 5th round last year and captivated the hearts of dreamers everywhere.  NCAA basketball fans pretty much live for Gus Johnson screaming "THE SLIPPER STILL FITS!" as each season's Cinderella squad is crowned.

The first round of MAC tournament games is played on campus at the home courts of the No. 5 through No. 8 seeds, and offers even the doormats a chance to dream of tournament glory.  Last year the No. 5 seed got a first round bye due to Toledo's post-season suspension. One could hypothesize that the littler home guys - who probably weren't much better than .500 in conference - would be ripe for upset, or alternatively that the visitors - with the added burden of playing a true road game - would have a fantastically low chance of pulling the upset.

A glance at the data reveals conflicting evidence, and this is where the aspiring bettor is offered two different conclusions based on the chosen sample...

POOL 1:

In the 2012 and 2013 first rounds, constituting a total of seven games on campus sites, the underdogs thrived.  Not only were there three (43 percent) upsets, but the other four games won by favorites were decided by a total of 16 points.  Conclusion: it's a dog's world and we're just living in it.

POOL 2:

In the previous eight seasons, 2004 through 2011, there were a total of two (!!) upsets in these 34 first round games (note: for two of those years there was a No. 13 versus No. 4 in the first round when the MAC had 13 teams), equaling a 6 percent chance of the underdog winning.  This represents a dismal opportunity to bet the money line (the chance of a team winning outright) - let's look a little further to see about betting the spreads, our job on the Line Drills page.

Of those 34 games...

  • # of games favorite won by 5 points or fewer (or underdog wins): 15 (44 percent)
  • # of games favorite won by 6 - 10 points: 6 (18 percent)
  • # of games favorite won be at least 11 points: 13 (38 percent)

Taken together, these data strongly suggest that underdogs in the first round may not win very often, but they make it uncomfortable about half the time.  So assuming that the motivated home team and home crowd will beat up on the poor road dog that's mailing it in would be inaccurate.

We can go even further and look at the last decade of tournament results by seeding line.  We'll present this from the underdog's perspective, just because Gus Johnson is still echoing in our ears.

No. 13 or  No. 12 seed @ No. 4 or No. 5 seed:

Underdog won 1 of 11 (9 percent)

Victory margin for favored team:

1 - 5 points: 3 times

6 - 10 points: 2 times

11+ points: 5 times.

No. 11 seed @ No. 6 seed:

Underdog won 2 of 10 (20 percent)

Victory margin for favored team:

1 - 5 points: 4 times

6 - 10 points: 1 time

11+ points: 3 times

No. 10 seed @ No. 7 seed:

Underdog has not won in the last decade.

Victory margin for favored team:

1 - 5 points: 4 times

6 - 10 points: 3 times

11+ points: 3 times

No. 9 seed @ No. 8 seed:

Underdog won 2 of 10 (20 percent)

Victory margin for favored team:

1 - 5 points: 4 times

6 - 10 points: 2 times

11+ points: 2 times

What are the take-home messages here?  Well apparently you don't mess with the #7 seed.  Otherwise it's notable that the chance of blowout win does go up a little with the better teams hosting, but the overall win percentages for the underdogs just aren't very good even when apparently closely matched teams square off.

So we don't mean to squash dreamers everywhere - remember that as recently as 2010, the No. 9 seed Ohio Bobcats won it all - but you really don't want to bet on a long tournament run for most of the teams playing away from home on Monday, March 10th.

Tiebreaker notes:

  • Toledo just keeps winning, and can functionally own the tiebreaker over all three east division contenders if they can defend their home court against Ohio this week. Don't forget that they did lose to Western Michigan, so the home rematch on March 1st will have extra tiebreaker importance if the Broncos keep winning (or the Rockets stumble).
  • Ball State beats Central Michigan on the strength of a better win (Buffalo > Kent State).
  • The three-way tie among Buffalo, Ohio, and Western Michigan is settled based on head-to-head results. Buffalo and Ohio have not yet met. The Bulls beat the Broncos, and the Broncos beat the Bobcats. So it's Buffalo > Western Michigan > Ohio. Buffalo will have to work to earn that #3 seed, however, as they have yet to play either Ohio or Akron.
  • Northern Illinois is ahead of Bowling Green based on their head-to-head road win. Those two teams swap seeds this week, and it's the important 8/9 switch.

What the MAC tournament would look like if played today:

MONDAY

No. 12 Central Michigan  @  No. 5 Ohio

2014 head-to-head: Ohio squeaked out a four-point win at home on January 29th, the first in what seems like an endless parade of second-half comebacks recently.

Prediction: We would love, love, love to take Central Michigan in a first-round upset.  Nobody blows them out, and they've got the scorers to keep up with anybody.  But Ohio's character has been proven again and again.  If you're a Bobcat fan, don't tune in until the second half.  But expect to see the ‘Cats move on.

No. 11 Ball State @ No. 6 Miami

2014 head-to-head: Miami went to Muncie January 18th and won 64-52.

Prediction: As noted above, Ball State has been feisty at home this year, and has promise for next year.  Miami, however, has found a spark this year, and the fans in Oxford will be stoked for this one.  Rock, chalk, RedHawk as coach Cooper's team takes the tournament opener.

No. 10 Kent State @ No. 7 Eastern Michigan

2014 head-to-head: EMU dominated Kent State in a 17-point win this weekend.

Prediction: What could possibly make you think that Kent State has what it takes to beat anyone?  Despite being seeded ahead of two other teams, the Flashes earn my vote as biggest disappointment of the 2013-14 season.  And for those of you who skipped to the end, go back and check the last decade of tournament results before picking Kent State to pull the upset.  The Eagles stymie the inconsistent Flashes and win comfortably.

No. 9 Bowling Green  @ No. 8 Northern Illinois

2014 head-to-head: The Huskies defense smothered the Falcons en route to a commanding road win in January.

Prediction: Bowling Green continues to compete very effectively against top MAC teams, and the young talent may be maturing.  That said, they struggle to score at times, and were already beaten once by a Northern Illinois squad that plays a very similar style of basketball.  We'd pay good money to see this game pitting two pretty decent teams against each other, but we're sticking with the home team based on a little more consistency from the Huskies and coach Orr's (ahem) spotty tournament record.

WEDNESDAY

No. 8 Northern Illinois  vs. No. 5 Ohio

2014 head-to-head: Ohio crushed the Huskies by 19 in DeKalb on January 18th.

Prediction: It's really tempting to look for ways to pick the Huskies given the toughness they've shown on the road this year.  The Bobcats, however, are also accomplished away from Athens, sitting at 3-1 in conference play with a win at Richmond and a hard-fought loss at Ohio State as well.  Pick the under and, if offered, the ugly.  Ohio takes it.

No. 7 Eastern Michigan vs. No. 6 Miami

2014 head-to-head: Miami took the only 2014 meeting between these two, 65-61, on February 1st.

Prediction: The fans will be raucous and overwhelmingly from RedHawk nation.  But the senior-led Eagles have played so many tough road games this year that they'll be ready for this one.  Miami's inside game can be controlled by Eastern Michigan's defense, and the Eagles win a tight one in a low-scoring mild upset (they may even be favored).

THURSDAY

No. 5 Ohio  vs. No. 4 Western Michigan

2014 head-to-head: The Broncos won in Kalamazoo this past week with a spectacular second half offensive performance.  They match up again February 19th in Athens.

Prediction: The Broncos have struggled a little away from home, but have won three of five MAC games on the road.  Ironically both these teams have beaten Toledo, so neither will be intimidated or caught looking ahead.  At some point, doesn't Ohio's inability to play a first half have to catch up with them?  Broncos take a 52 point lead early and hold on for a one point win on a late Bobcats missed free throw.

No. 7 Eastern Michigan vs. No. 3 Buffalo

2014 head-to-head: Buffalo controlled the game at home on January 11th, winning 76-66.

Prediction: This is where the double bye matters.  Buffalo has really struggled on the road this year, but a rested Javon McCrea is not what you want to face in your third game in four days.  The Eagles play a spirited 30 minutes, but Buffalo pounds them in the final stanza to win.

FRIDAY

No. 4 Western Michigan vs. No. 1 Toledo

2014 head-to-head: Western Michigan ambushed Toledo 87-76 in Kalamazoo January 8th.  The rematch isn't until March 1st.

Prediction: Well, we know we're not picking Toledo against the spread - we're slow learners but 2-8 ATS on the season has got to be telling us something.  This would be worth the cost of admission as the teams are both likely to end up north of 80.  If Toledo's Nathan Boothe and J.D. Weatherspoon play to their abilities, they can control the paint against Shayne Whittington and Connar Tava.  Toledo in a nail-biter.

No. 3 Buffalo  vs. No. 2 Akron

2014 head-to-head: Would you believe not yet?  If this comes to pass, it'll be the third meeting in 25 days for the two east division rivals.

Prediction: Akron, Ohio, Toledo... the top teams in the MAC are top but not at all dominant.  Akron seems unable to play complete games or put away opponents early - take away the home Ball State purple-out blow-out win, and the Zips have outscored their MAC opponents by a net 19 points in the other 9 games.  As of this moment, though, they keep winning, and Buffalo hasn't earned our trust away from home.  It's Akron for now, especially keeping in mind Keith Dambrot's tournament history, but we've got an uneasy feeling.

SATURDAY

No. 2 Akron vs. No. 1 Toledo

2014 head-to-head: Toledo pounded Akron 75-61 at the JAR on January 18th.

Prediction: Wow - other than having Eastern Michigan pull the most minor of upsets, we've ended up with almost straight chalk in this bracket.  Most of these have been great games, continuing to showcase the high levels of both parity and talent in the MAC this year.  Well, for the second straight year, the much anticipated #1 versus #2 final disappoints.  Akron falls apart with turnovers and missed foul shots, and can't make up for it with 3-point shooting.  Toledo pulls away early and keeps running in the second half, all the way to an NCAA berth.

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