It's a quick turnaround to a full slate of Tuesday games for MAC basketball fans, and the crew at Line Drills as well. Here's what's still at stake as we head down the stretch:
SORTING IT OUT AT THE TOP
Buffalo, Toledo, and Western Michigan are guaranteed to own the top three seeds, but the order remains to be sorted out. As a side note, we at Line Drills would like to say that the seeding of the tournament is unsatisfactory to us - at the least we'd like to see the division champs get the top two seeds, but the powers-that-be disagree.
The team that wins the top seed not only gets the bye into the semifinals, but also presumably the easier semifinal matchup. Second seed isn't a bad consolation prize, still having to win just twice to capture an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Third place - potentially for a 14-4 team in conference play if they all win out - is definitely the booby prize. The three seed has to win three times, most likely against the six/seven winner, the two, and the one.
THE LAST OF THE DOUBLE-BYES
The four seed also gets a bye through the first two rounds of tournament play. Akron has a one game lead over Ohio and Eastern Michigan, and really a 1.5 game lead over the Eagles given the season sweep. The Zips have two home games this week, making them the solid favorites for the four, but neither is a sure thing - in fact they lost to both Buffalo and Kent State the first time around.
FIRST ROUND HOME COOKING
It's hard to argue huge differences among the five through eight seeds, but nobody wants to fall to nine or ten and have to hit the road in that first round, where home teams have had a huge advantage in the last decade (and there's a little coin to be earned with the extra home game).
Ohio and Eastern Michigan are guaranteed no lower than the eight seed, so they're safe. Bowling Green is very likely to end up on the road - they're down all kinds of tiebreakers, and have to play Ohio and Buffalo in the closing week. This leaves Northern Illinois, Kent State, and Miami most likely vying for the seven through nine seeds.
NIU gets a home date with Ball State at the end of the week - the "easiest win" for the group - but also travels to Western Michigan mid-week for the toughest test. Kent State hosts Miami in a clash with enormous implications, then has to finish the season at Akron. Miami is in the most dire straits given tiebreakers, and even if they beat Kent State, they may have to win at home against Ohio next Saturday to earn a first round bye.
THE NATIONAL REPUTATION OF LINE DRILLS
Todd and Keith have turned down appearance offers from ESPN, Ellen, Rachael Ray, and the Property Brothers to focus on finishing with a flourish. The record on the year sits at 48-46-2 for team Line Drills. Let's assume there will be no pushes down the stretch, giving us a total of 106 results on the year. Betting $110 to win $100 is a standard Las Vegas "vig" - and we assume that high-minded Line Drills readers wouldn't dream of betting offshore. Buy American, people.
Some quick math reveals that the cutoff for making money is the 56 win mark, meaning Line Drills has to go 8-4 this week to make bank. I'm going to be honest - I'm just hoping to win two games mid-week so the pressure is still on Keith come Friday & Saturday. I can't win this thing on Tuesday, but I can sure as hell lose it.
Ball State @ Eastern Michigan (-13)
The first matchup between these two followed the script that Eastern Michigan wants every night. Da'Shonte Riley dominated defensively with six blocks and three steals, and at least one player - in this case Ray Lee with 24 - filled it up on offense as the Eagles won easily.
As much as the Eagles have shown flashes of promise, inconsistency at both ends has made them a .500 team in conference. Karrington Ward showed early season flashes of being a potent scorer but is down to 11 points per game in conference. Their best weapon is probably Mike Talley on the offensive end. And while Riley leads the conference in blocked shots, EMU actually averages losing the rebound battle.
The boards are the best hope for Ball State, a team that rebounds fairly well and has two players - Majok Majok and Chris Bond - in the top ten individually in conference play. The Cardinals have played five tight games in a row, so tight that if you count only scoring in regulation, they're averaging just a two-point deficit margin in that time. The Cardinals have really struggled at times away from home, though, and five of their seven conference road losses are by double digits.
The pick: Ball State +13. That's a lot of points, and the Cardinals really have been tougher lately. If you've followed virtually any of Line Drills this season, you know how much I love the points. And you know that double digit favorites in MAC league play are covering at about a 33% rate on the season.
Ohio (-2) @ Bowling Green
One of the most interesting games of the day is at the Stroh, where the reeling Ohio Bobcats take on a Bowling Green team that beat them in Athens on January 22nd. The Falcons get consistent play from Richaun Holmes, but other major players like Spencer Parker, Jehvon Clarke, and especially Anthony Henderson have been streaky. We took a good look, and no one of these three has performances that specifically correlate with Falcons wins or losses. In the end the Falcons are last in the conference in scoring offense, but second in scoring defense, so you know what kind of game to expect.
Ohio's loss to Bowling Green early on seemed to be the only real blemish on the record. Out of conference they had two of three losses against ranked opponents, and in conference the only other early loss (they started 6-2) was a double-overtime thriller to Akron. You can do the math - a 6-2 start means they're 3-5 since - and figure out that they've struggled lately. This has correlated almost entirely with the injury to, and subsequent ineffectiveness of, Stevie Taylor. When the Bobcats were rolling, Taylor was an effective distributor and scorer. As he's been out (and as their schedule toughened), Ohio has wilted. Taylor's injury is one of the few specific player health issues that we think is important down the stretch in the MAC.
The pick: Ohio -2. We're slow learners - Ohio may be on the slide, but they've also played a brutal schedule. It'll take some good games from recently slumping Maurice Ndour and Jon Smith, but we think the Bobcats get it done.
Northern Illinois @ Western Michigan (-11)
These two played in DeKalb on February 9th, and what looked like an easy Broncos win got tense late as the Huskies rallied to only lose by three. Line Drills loves the starting five for Western Michigan, but we're starting to get concerned about the complete lack of bench contributions for the Broncos. Of course it's a worry for next year - David Brown and Shayne Whittington are seniors - but we also worry about fatigue. The Broncos looked spent in the collapse against Toledo. If they remain as the three seed, can we really trust them to string together three wins in three days in Cleveland? More than any other team, we think Western Michigan needs a top two seed to have a shot. And we wonder if other teams might turn up the pressure a little to try to wear down these Broncos by late game.
While Keith is a total Ball State homer, Todd is a relative newcomer to the MAC scene, and a little partial to the underdog Huskies. Despite all they've accomplished this year, it's important to note that their last two losses have been very disappointing - a road loss to Central Michigan and this weekend's road loss (despite a big second half lead) to Eastern Michigan. The mark of a middling team is inconsistency, and while it's a huge win for the Huskies to even be considered middling, they're seemingly not ready to take that next step. Yet.
This game matches the best shooting team in conference (WMU - 48%) against the worst (NIU - 38%). And yet, we have a feeling it will be fairly tight.
The pick: Northern Illinois +11. The Huskies play most everyone tight, they lost by three the first time, and there is the chance that the Broncos are getting a little winded.
Buffalo @ Akron (-1.5)
In a league full of stiff defenses and struggling offenses, the Bulls and Zips surprised everyone by staging a 186 combined point game (in regulation!) on February 19th, with Buffalo coming away the winner. Akron has lost four of six and - other than at Buffalo - has not topped 62 points. The Zips shut down Bowling Green on Saturday for a much needed halt to the losing streak and get the last two games at home. We mentioned Stevie Taylor's health issue - another big one is Jake Kretzer, the 3-point sharpshooter and energetic defender who has missed several games now with concussion issues. He and Reggie McAdams (who's basically Kretzer lite, out with mono) are the guys Akron usually relies on for opening up the outside offense. Against Bowling Green, both Quincy Diggs and Nyles Evans were able to contribute from outside. Akron will need more of the same if they're to get back to a level where they can threaten for the MAC championship.
Buffalo has the league's MVP in Javon McCrea, but it's high time we started giving their backcourt a little love. Joshua Freelove has a sweet stroke from downtown, and in league play has outscored more well-known players like Rian Pearson and Quincy Diggs. Jarod Oldham and Shannon Evans are both (!) top five assists guys, Oldham is third in the league in steals, and Oldham and Evans are numbers one and three in the league in assist / turnover ratio. It probably helps the assist numbers to have Javon McCrea on the other end, but it may also be that coach Bobby Hurley has imparted some of his skills to the team. Line Drills despised Hurley during his playing career at Duke, but there's no doubting the talent or the numbers, and Buffalo was fifth last year in assist / turnover ratio - first now.
The pick: Buffalo +1.5. Really you should put your bookie on hold, go to the game, and watch pre-game warm-ups. If Kretzer warms up and looks healthy, we slightly like Akron with home court advantage and in more desperate need of the win. Without Kretzer, Akron is a middling MAC team, and Buffalo is on a roll as one of the league's best. We have to pick in advance, and we'll go with the Bulls.
Miami @ Kent State (-6)
This game has gotten a lot of press already on Hustle Belt, as it's previewed in the crowdsourcing experiment over at Q-gazing, and its significance is largely reviewed above with regard to tiebreaker importance. Miami competed for about 30 minutes in Buffalo before apparently walking off the court for the last ten. Don't believe me? Check the stats and tell me that they didn't use cardboard cutouts at the end. Will Felder is the only premier forward playing in this game - we've said it before: he hasn't shown the inclination to try to take over a game. Felder is a senior with over 1300 points and 700 rebounds in his career. If there's a chance to establish a real legacy, though, speak now or forever hold your peace.
Kent State is 4-2 in its last six games. Over that time, junior Devereaux Manley is 21 for 40 from behind the arc - a sick 52.5%. Manley has scored in double figures six times this year in conference for the Flashes - they've won four of those games. They've only won three of ten in which he didn't hit ten. His fellow junior Derek Jackson - with whom he figures to make a formidable senior backcourt next season - is nearing 1000 points already in his career, and has also been in double digits seven of the last eight games. Jackson is 12 for 26 from long distance over the same six games - a 46% clip. One would think that opponents will make Kent State penetrate and/or take some shorter jumpers in order to slow down this potent twosome.
The pick: Miami +6. Kent State shot the freakin' lights out in the win in Oxford - if not for 70% shooting behind the arc, this would have been a close game. Someone has to figure out to defend the trey, and Kent State will have a hard time blowing someone out without that weapon in their arsenal. And the RedHawks did just beat Akron last week - there's some spice in that bouillabaisse yet.
Toledo (-7) @ Central Michigan
Toledo fairly well controlled the first matchup between these teams way back on January 11th, winning by a comfortable 15 points. This is a tough, tough matchup for the Chippewas. Central Michigan has one of the league's weakest defenses, and Toledo has one of the most potent offenses. All five Toledo starters average more than nine points per game, with Julius "Juice" Brown, Rian Pearson, and Justin Drummond all averaging more than 14 points per game. Toledo is fortunate to be sitting in the one seed position - if Western Michigan had held on to the win Saturday, the Rockets would be the three.
Central Michigan gets its last two games at home in Mount Pleasant - hooray! - but the games are against Toledo and Western Michigan. We suppose Senior Night will be the Western Michigan game - for the Chippewas this could (should) mean starting roles for DeAndray Buckley and Zach Saylor. Saylor is four points away from 100 career points as a four year player for Central Michigan. Make it happen, Keno Davis. Make it happen.
The pick: Toledo -7. We know - we've made some good coin recently riding the streak of Toledo not covering the spread. Then Keith (correctly!) won on Toledo this weekend - needing the late collapse by Western Michigan to do it. We just really, really like this matchup for Toledo, and the game has extreme importance. They figure to bring the very best game they've got.