Of all the things to take away from the news that the Massachusetts Minutemen have decided to part ways with the the Mid-American Conference after the 2015 season, one thing stands out to me above the rest: MAC basketball has an identity crisis. The league wants to be viewed as one of the cool kids, but it's not walking the walk and the nation is calling BS on it.
On the surface, UMass leaving seems to be a football move, but it's actually a statement about the MAC's basketball state. The statement says loud and clear, without any hint of stammer or thick Bostonian accent to get in the way: MAC basketball stinks.
More on UMass Leaving
More on UMass Leaving
You see, for all the money and resources the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has pumped into their fledgling football bowl subdivision program in the past few years, football is not, and likely never will be, king at UMass. Sure football has a storied history for the Minutemen. They even won a national championship at the FCS level in somewhat recent history (OK, 1998 might not be recent, but it's really not that long ago either). But basketball is the sport that drives the bus of UMass athletics. You see, the rest of the MAC may have sold their souls for football but for UMass shooty hoops is the top dog.
By turning down the invite for full membership, UMass said as politely as it could that it'd rather toil away in football obscurity than water down its prestigious basketball program by having it hang out with the lame group of kids in the MAC.
The MAC is a beautiful little conference. It has strong geographical ties, is relatively stable, and has personality. But there's no denying it's not a good basketball conference. It hasn't been for some time, and though fans may be in denial, the rest of the nation knows this as fact.
Once home to teams that featured stars like Gary Trent, Wally Szczerbiak and Earl Boykins, the MAC hasn't had a player drafted to the NBA since 2003 when Chris Kaman and Brandon Hunter were both selected. Kaman has been the only MAC alumnus in the league for some time now. For a conference that hasn't put more than one team into the NCAA Tournament in a year since 1999, it's easy to see why people don't think of good mid-major basketball when they think of the MAC. The schools aren't giving them any reason to.
Just look at how the MAC is ranked in conference RPI compared to others over the past decade (all figures provided by CBSSports.com)
|YEAR||CONFERENCE RPI RANK||Non-Conference (WIN %)|
In any given year there are about 32 Division I basketball conferences. You of course have your big high major conferences, then varying levels of mid-majors. You have bottom-feeders like the SWAC or Big Sky, and you have elite mid-major conferences like the Atlantic 10 or Missouri Valley. Then you have a vast wash of middle tier mid-majors. More often than not, the MAC has come in in the bottom half of that middle ground, as you can see from above.
The MAC usually struggles in the non-conference season. Only twice in the last decade has the MAC actually won more non-conference games than it lost: this past season and 2004-2005. You're not going to be taken seriously when you're losing 54 percent of your games against other conferences. What's worse is that on any given year the MAC plays at least 10 non-conference games vs. non-Division I opponents.
Let's take this past season for example. The MAC, which switched back to an 18-game conference slate - thus reducing the number of non-conference games each team can play - went 72-59 and surpassed the 50 percent winning mark for the first time since 2004-2005. But the MAC's 12 teams combined to face 14 non-Division I opponents (five of these opponents aren't even NCAA members), and actually lost to one of them. Subtract those 14 games from the MAC's non-conference record and suddenly the league is struggling to keep its head above the 50 percent mark (59-58). Now imagine if we took those easy wins away from some of the other seasons. Doesn't look so good now does it?
It's easy to get why the MAC teams are scheduling these cupcake games: They add wins to the non-conference record. But that's a cheap, shortsighted solution to the problem.
The MAC already has a reputation for weak strength of schedule, and for years these cupcake games have only made it worse. Over the past decade we've had school's whose S.O.S. came in at 282, 284, 300, 316, 326 just for a few examples. Here's a look at the average of each MAC team's S.O.S. over the past decade, and the MAC's S.O.S. during that same period (which I even left in Miami's abnormally high average to help; all numbers provided by CBSSports.com):
To be fair, this season was the MAC's best in nine seasons with an average S.O.S. of 143, but still, you had some teams severely pulling down the weight (Kent State, CMU) and EMU picking up a lot of the slack with its hellacious schedule (the same way Miami used to help out the rest of the MAC).
Here's a look at the five worst years on average for the MAC in S.O.S.:
Keep in mind these numbers are inflated by the conference season, as I was unable to find just non-conference S.O.S. figures for all of the seasons.
In 2011-2012 the MAC won 46 percent of its non-conference games against schedules that, on average, were in the bottom third of the nation (remember there's games against non-DI opponents that inflated win totals). In 2009-2010, with an average schedule ranked 218 on the S.O.S. scale, the MAC managed to win just 48 percent of its games. 2012-2013, 44 percent. Before this past season, the one year where the average S.O.S. was better than 160 (2008-2009 the MAC had an average S.O.S. of 153), the conference won just 38 percent of its non-conference games.
Here's the problem, when you routinely schedule cupcake games, not only are you diluting your reputation, you're not giving your players the competition they need to develop. Then when you do actually face good programs, it's harder to compete because you're not as used to doing it.
Since the 2005 postseason, including this year, the MAC has gone a combined 20-39 in ALL postseason tournaments. In that same 10-year period the MAC has gone 3-10 in the NCAA Tournament, with eight first round knockouts. All three of those wins? By one magical Ohio roster, once in 2010 against Georgetown and two of them two years later against USF and Michigan.
Those eight first-round losses were by an average of 16 points, with Akron losing by 46 a year ago and WMU losing by 24 this March. Look at this postseason for example. The MAC's top four teams from the regular season didn't win a single postseason game. Buffalo didn't even compete in the postseason. Toledo, which many people around the MAC were claiming was snubbed by the NCAA Tournament selection committee, got a six-seed in the NIT and lost by seven points in the opening round. One way to continue to perpetuate the reputation that the MAC is weak is to prove it in the postseason.
Again, a lot of this falls back on poor scheduling in the regular season that doesn't allow for proper challenges. We should note this issue seems to be getting better. The 18-game conference slate means less opportunities to schedule weak non-conference games, and the S.O.S. improved significantly this season as a result. But it's not enough.
The conference needs to keep scheduling good quality opponents while also avoiding taking too many paid losses to the elite programs. While getting paid a couple hundred grand to take an L helps line the athletic departments coffers, it is not helping the reputation when MAC teams are getting blown out on national TV.
But scheduling better isn't the only thing that is needed to help the MAC once again be viewed as a good basketball league. Look around college sports and one thing is clear—those who invest the money win. Unfortunately in the cash-strapped MAC we funnel so much into competing at the FBS level of football that it seems to have led to our AD's putting basketball programs in a financial chokehold.
Louis Orr was making less than $200,000 a year to coach Bowling Green. How the hell do you expect to compete when you're paying your head basketball coach less than what some assistants at mid-majors are making? It's not an issue isolated to basketball. We've gone over how the rising costs of coaching are making it hard for the MAC to compete in football, but still the MAC is competing (on some levels) at football because certain schools have invested the money. By giving Chris Jans a $130k pay raise over his predecessor, BG has shown its willing to invest some cash in its program, but the rest of the league needs to play ball.
Fielding a better product may cost a bit more in the beginning, but like any investment, it has its payoffs in the end. Better programs draw more interest, pack arenas better, and sell a lot more gear. The MAC will never be the ACC or Big 10. It doesn't need to be. But it shouldn't be losing out to the likes of the Colonial Athletic Conference, Horizon League or Summit League. If Witchita State, a program which one of our schools was able to hire its AD away from, can turn into a national power, then with the right investment around the league, the MAC can at least become a respectable basketball conference again.
It can become one of the cool kids, but it needs to start shedding its lame habits now.