(PLEASE NOTE: Our final regular season power rankings will be released on SUNDAY, MARCH 9TH, after the conclusion of the regular season but prior to the start of the MAC tournament.)
The calendar has finally flipped to March, and that should signal time for true championship-caliber basketball. Also, several tournament-related questions remain unanswered with only two regular season games to go for each team.
Who will be the #1 seed, Bowling Green or Central Michigan? This is a huge issue, because whomever becomes the #2 seed will likely have to play Akron in the MAC tournament semifinals. The Zips, who are now locked into the #3 seed, are in the midst of a 12-game winning streak and have one of the best scoring tandems in the country. This year, the #1 seed carries enormous weight.
Who will be the #4 seed and earn the final bye to the third round of the tournament? Four teams are still in contention for this coveted spot -- Buffalo, Toledo, Western Michigan and Ball State. The Bulls hold a one-game edge, but if they lose, Western Michigan could sneak back into the spot with a pair of wins. Both Toledo and Ball State need to win twice, and they also need Buffalo to lose twice and Western Michigan to lose once.
Who will be the #8 seed and get the final home game in the first round of the tournament? Eastern Michigan has the edge over Northern Illinois after their head-to-head win over the Huskies on Sunday, but both Ball State and Ohio will have a say in how this question is answered.
As you can see, there's a lot of intrigue remaining, but there's one question that's bigger than all the rest. Can anyone challenge the top three teams? BGSU, CMU and Akron are now a combined 39-1 against the rest of the MAC. It seems like a foregone conclusion at this point that two of those teams will play for the conference championship.
Now, on with the rankings...
1. Bowling Green Falcons (25-3; 15-1 MAC) -- LW: 1
Last week: Kent State (W, 82-38), Ohio (W, 63-39)
This week: at Miami (3/5, 12:00 p.m.), at Akron (3/8, 2:00 p.m.)
The Falcons are playing at an elite level right now. After earning back-to-back wins over CMU and Buffalo, BGSU held two straight opponents under 40 points. They're still fighting for the #1 seed, so focus should continue to not be an issue. The Falcons should be careful with their game in Oxford, but the real test is in Akron on Saturday. If they lose that game, BGSU will almost certainly drop to the #2 seed. To avoid Akron in the MAC semi-finals, they'll need to win on Saturday -- and even that might not be good enough.
2. Central Michigan Chippewas (19-9; 15-1 MAC) -- LW: 2
Last week: Ball State (W, 85-72 OT), at Toledo (W, 80-77)
This week: Western Michigan (3/5, 7:00 p.m.), at Eastern Michigan (3/8, 2:00 p.m.)
The Chippewas are late-game magicians that would make Harry Houdini jealous. There are some vulnerabilities on this team, but they are so good in "late-and-close" situations that they overcome their problems. They've now earned comebacks against Ball State twice, as well as NIU and Toledo. Even if this trend continues, we would expect CMU to win their two games this week. However, it would not be a wise idea to keep playing with fire in the MAC touranment; they might get burned.
3. Akron Zips (19-8; 13-3 MAC) -- LW: 3
Last week: Miami (W, 88-63), at Kent State (W, 80-66)
This week: at Buffalo (3/5, 7:00 p.m.), Bowling Green (3/8, 2:00 p.m.)
The Zips are now locked into the MAC's #3 tournament seed after comfortable wins last week over Miami and Kent State. They're the hottest team in the league, with 12 straight wins, and they have a chance on Saturday to prove they can beat anyone in the league. A win over BGSU would provide a huge confidence boost (as if they need one). Of course, the game in Buffalo tomorrow night will be anything but easy. Regardless, this team is very capable of erasing the NCAA dreams of both BGSU and CMU.
4. Buffalo Bulls (16-11; 9-7 MAC) -- LW: 4
Last week: at Ohio (L, 83-71), at Miami (W, 74-61)
This week: Akron (3/5, 7:00 p.m.), Kent State (3/8, 12:00 p.m.)
The Bulls took what appeared to be a devastating loss last week at Ohio. It could have cost them a bye in the MAC tournament. However, they rebounded with a win at Miami, while Western Michigan dropped a game at home. Now, the Bulls are back in control of their own destiny and have two games at home this week. If they can beat Akron on Wednesday, Buffalo should have no problem clinching that tournament bye on Saturday against Kent State.
5. Toledo Rockets (13-14; 8-8 MAC) -- LW: 5
Last week: at Northern Illinois (L, 68-59 OT), Central Michigan (L, 80-77)
This week: Eastern Michigan (3/5, 7:00 p.m.), at Ball State (3/8, 2:00 p.m.)
Both Buffalo and Western Michigan handed that #4 seed and tournament bye to Toledo on a silver platter last week, but the Rockets did everything possible to give it back. First, they lost at Northern Illinois in overtime, then they blew a late second-half lead at home against CMU. The latter could have been a season-defining win for Toledo, but instead, it turned into the latest in a long series of disappointments in Toledo's 2013-2014 season. Both games this week are winnable, so the #4 seed is still in play...but a MAC tournament 1st round home game is more likely.
6. Ball State Cardinals (12-15; 7-9 MAC) -- LW: 6
Last week: at Central Michigan (L, 85-72 OT), at Western Michigan (W, 79-73)
This week: Northern Illinois (3/5, 7:00 p.m.), Toledo (3/8, 2:00 p.m.)
It would be impossible for the Cardinals to not look back on their two games with Central Michigan this year and wonder, "What might have been?" For the second time in three weeks, Ball State blew a big second-half lead against the Chippewas before ultimately losing in overtime. This team has hung with BGSU and Buffalo, so they're clearly a dangerous tournament team. However, to be a threat, they're going to have to actually beat one of those teams. Two home games this week leave open a small window to the #4 seed and a bigger one to a 1st round home game.
7. Western Michigan Broncos (12-15; 8-8 MAC) -- LW: 7
Last week: Eastern Michigan (W, 81-72), Ball State (L, 79-73)
This week: at Central Michigan (3/5, 7:00 p.m.), at Northern Illinois (3/8, 2:00 p.m.)
Clearly, nobody wants that final bye to the third round of the MAC tournament. Buffalo was upset by Ohio. Toledo lost twice. And here, Western Michigan lost at home. The Broncos are as maddeningly inconsistent as any team in the conference. They can beat Buffalo, but they can lose to Kent State. They can lose games at home, and they can win at Toledo. Two road games this week will almost certainly doom this team to a 1st round tournament game at home next Monday, and there's no telling what to expect from that.
8. Eastern Michigan Eagles (16-11; 6-10 MAC) -- LW: 9
Last week: at Western Michigan (L, 81-72), Northern Illinois (W, 54-45)
This week: at Toledo (3/5, 7:00 p.m.), Central Michigan (3/8, 2:00 p.m.)
The lone change in our rankings this week involves flipping EMU and NIU, after the Eagles beat the Huskies on Sunday. In retrospect, the Eagles probably belonged ahead of the Huskies all along, but their string of mid-season losses clouded that view. EMU holds the lead for the final 1st round tournament home game, but the road to get there will not be easy, as they have to travel to Toledo and play host to CMU.
9. Northern Illinois Huskies (9-17; 5-11 MAC) -- LW: 8
Last week: Toledo (W, 68-59 OT), at Eastern Michigan (L, 54-45)
This week: at Ball State (3/5, 7:00 p.m.), Western Michigan (3/8, 2:00 p.m.)
After the Huskies' loss at EMU on Sunday, they have some work to do in order to earn a home tournament game. They have arguably an easier road (WMU, Ball State) than EMU (Toledo, CMU). It may come down to tiebreakers, though. The home game is very important for NIU; they've generally played much better at home than on the road this season.
10. Ohio Bobcats (9-18; 4-12 MAC) -- LW: 10
Last week: Buffalo (W, 83-71), at Bowling Green (L, 63-39)
This week: Kent State (3/5, 7:00 p.m.), at Miami (3/8, 2:00 p.m.)
The Bobcats could be a tournament team to watch if things go their way this week. They can't get a home game, but they can earn the #9 seed, especially if they sweep Kent State and Miami. That sweep is very possible, and earning that #9 seed could provide a path to, at the very least, a third game with Buffalo in the MAC quarterfinals.
11. Kent State Golden Flashes (6-21; 3-13 MAC) -- LW: 11
Last week: at Bowling Green (L, 82-38), Akron (L, 80-66)
This week: at Ohio (3/5, 7:00 p.m.), at Buffalo (3/8, 12:00 p.m.)
Not much to see here. The Flashes have played better in the second half of the season, but they're headed for a first-round road loss, likely against one of the middle-of-the-pack Western Division teams.
12. Miami RedHawks (7-20; 3-13 MAC) -- LW: 12
Last week: at Akron (L, 88-63), Buffalo (L, 74-61)
This week: Bowling Green (3/5, 12:00 p.m.), Ohio (3/8, 2:00 p.m.)
See what we just said about Kent State (minus the "played better in the second half of the season" part) and cut-and-paste here. It's still unbelievable that this is the one team in the MAC to take down one of the "big three".