Welcome to Line Drills, a new feature in which two HB contributors will alternate picking the MAC league games against the spread for the remainder of the season. It's a terrific slate of opening day games in the MAC, with great matchups. For today, I'm listing the games from lowest perceived interest to highest.
Here at Line Drills HQ we are going to try to post this column as soon as opening spreads become available to us through our network of inside sources. Those will typically be the lines in the game headers. When there are significant line moves from the open, you'll see those noted.
Northern Illinois @ Buffalo (-13)
Given the perceived differences in team strength, you'd think this would be a comfortable home opening win for the Bulls. But the style matchup here isn't bad for the Huskies, who generally play a slower, lower-scoring game. And the RPI difference between these two teams is the same as the RPI difference between Buffalo and Ohio (in the other direction), and that would be perceived as a close matchup. In fact, last year, Buffalo won their only meeting (also in Buffalo, as it happens) by only 5 points.
Northern Illinois recently lost their leading scorer, Dontel Highsmith, to an ACL injury, but then played a good game (against a lesser opponent) in the 1 game without him. I don't know that I could endorse this Huskies team on the road, though they may well keep it close.
Buffalo has been tough at home recently, and the most encouraging Bulls note is that they're coming off of their two best games of the year - a home thumping of Binghamton, and a road win at Drexel. In those two games, it looked like senior leader Will Regan was finally getting comfortable - and used appropriately - in new coach Hurley's system. If the Bulls want to establish themselves as upper tier contenders in the MAC this year, this should be heavy doses of Regan and Javon McCrea, and a comfortable win. Of course if sports always went as they should, there would be no need for speculation like this column, and gambling (I mean, pretend gambling for entertainment value only) would not exist.
The pick: Northern Illinois +13. Buffalo should be the better team, but I wouldn't count on them for a blow-out. Unsurprisingly the 'sharps' (like us) picked up on this early and the line was down to 11 within 6 hours of posting. To my mind the right line is closer to 8 or 9 so i still like the Huskies, though not as strongly.
Akron (-6.5) @ Ball State
In a relatively quiet way nationally, Akron has put together an amazing 8 year run, winning at least 22 games per year, appearing in the MAC tournament final in 7 consecutive years, and making 7 post-season appearances. Their five consecutive postseason losses take the bloom off the rose a little, but for a small conference team that won a single game in the MAC tournament in its first dozen years in the league, this has been quite a roll. I mention this because, for the first time in a while, there is real uncertainty about how this reeling Zips team will do in conference. They come off of a 1-point home squeaker against a banged up Marshall squad, and have failed to cover in five consecutive games since the win over Oregon State in Hawaii. Of course Ball State is also reeling, with only 1 win against a division I opponent this season. The Cardinals returned the bulk of a squad that finished at .500 last year in conference, so it's quite possible that they'll be able to regroup and be competitive in league play. Here's another game that matches strength to strength. Akron hosted and won their only matchup last year, squeezing out a 7-point win (up just 1 with a minute to play). Surprisingly, Majok Majok put up 26 & 13 - this with both Treadwell and Zeke Marshall around last year. And Majok had a huge week last week, earning the critical designation of Hustle Belt MAC Western Division Player of the Week. I don't want to put too much importance on the first conference game of the year - for Akron, any win is a win at this point - but for the Cardinals, this is a 1-game invitation to press reset on a very disappointing season.
The pick: Akron -6.5. I spent all week getting ready to take the Cardinals and the points, but now I see that the odds makers have appropriately downgraded their expectations of the Zips too.
Miami University (Ohio) @ Central Michigan (-2)
Honestly I'd love to see this game, and it speaks to the overall quality of matchups that it's this low on the interest-o-meter. I'm a little slow on the uptake, so let me point this out: these teams are in opposite MAC divisions, but they have a home-and-home in the first 5 games. This means they're playing more than 16 league games this year! Indeed, I counted - it's 18, so there will be asymmetric schedules (which I do not like in general). Last year Miami won in Mount Pleasant for their only meeting of the year. Both teams are coming in with at least a little momentum - CMU off of an exhibition drubbing of Marygrove, and Miami off of a strong showing at ranked Massachusetts. Miami's only road win this year was at Tennessee State, themselves winless against D-I opponents at the time. The Chippewas lost two of their first three at home this year, but have since defended their turf successfully, and their only bad loss this year was at a very talented Dayton club. I like both of these young teams to make some occasional noise this year in the MAC, well beyond their 7 combined league wins last year. This early home-and-home series may determine if either of them will make a run at .500 in conference.
The pick: Central Michigan -2. I'll label this a best bet. I do like both of these teams, but I slightly prefer the Chippewas both in terms of overall talent and what they've done this year.
Eastern Michigan @ Bowling Green (-1)
Whereas the Miami / Central Michigan winner is still facing long odds to compete, I think this Eagles / Falcons game will be the early barometer of which team might be the young, exciting, and competitive upstarts of the 2013-14 MAC season. The Falcons won the only meeting last year by 2, but the rosters are different enough that I'm not sure it's relevant. They'll get each other twice this January. The Eagles come in having played an outrageously tough schedule, without much success to speak of against nationally ranked opponents. Bowling Green has had some good results and some amazing stat lines from its new talent like Richaun Holmes, but is coming off of two disappointing (albeit close) losses to finish non-conference play. EMU leads the MAC in defensive field goal percentage and Bowling Green has had trouble scoring - I like this matchup for the Eagles, and I'm not sure BGSU has found their rhythm yet as a team. The only kicker could be if the road-weary Eagles are a little beaten down by all those losses.
The pick: Eastern Michigan +1. I was hoping to get a few more points here because I really do feel that the matchup favors the Eagles, but was thinking the Vegas types might not agree. In fact this game was bet to pick 'em within hours of opening - that's not really a change from either team by 1, frankly. This will be my second best bet of the day - for all that's worth.
(late note: by Wednesday morning, 18 hours after the lines were posted, the line has swung all the way to EMU -2.5)
Ohio @ Kent State (-1.5)
Now we're cooking. Here's a sensational early battle for eastern division supremacy. The Bobcats swept last year... winning the first matchup by 1, and the second by 3 in OT. Both of these teams were fortunate to return a large portion of their talent, and both came in with high expectations. Certainly at the year's opening, I would have liked Kent State here. The Golden Flashes started 8-1, with a road win at Temple and a 2-point road loss at Seton Hall. If you'd told me that a MAC team would be getting top 25 votes in January, I would have looked at their schedule and said for sure it would be the Flashes. But the high profile wheels came off in December, as Kent State lost 3 of its last 4 games. None of these were to embarrassingly bad teams, but the net result was to place Kent State clearly back into the pack of decent MAC teams. Ohio, on the other hand, did lose my pick for 2012-13 MAC player of the year in D.J. Cooper. In the games I watched last year, I saw no player more valuable to his team, and no player who meant more at critical times. As Nick Kellogg's stats took a slight dip last year as well, I foresaw the Bobcats backsliding into the pack as well. But other than a 17-point stink bomb half at Oakland, this team has played very well. Ohio's other two losses were to ranked teams, they've beaten some decent teams (Valpo, Northern Iowa, Richmond), and as a result their RPI is 50 spots better than Kent State. Kellogg has re-emerged as a leader, including a second half surge this past week to save the team at UNC-Asheville. And transfer Maurice Ndour is one of the top 10 impact players in the league, and a real candidate for conference player of the year.
The pick: Who the heck knows. It should tell you something about the directions these teams have gone in that the spread here is only 1.5 - in early December I would have put it at 6 or 8. When in doubt, pick the team you think is going to win. I think the Bobcats are the better team. Ohio +1.5.
Toledo (-2.5) @ Western Michigan
And here's the corresponding battle for western division pole position. Funny note about both this and the Ohio - Kent State game: the rematches of both of these important games are not until March 1. The Broncos swept the Rockets last year en route to their western division championship, winning the game in Kalamazoo by 23 points. Of course Toledo added a couple of quality transfers and Western lost Darius Paul (who scored 43 points combined in the two matchups last year) to transfer. Although they've lost 5 games already (4 on the road), this talented Western Michigan team may be flying a little under the radar thus far. They did lose by only 6 at Missouri, and have protected the home court well with the exception of a loss to (RPI #23!) North Dakota State, with whom they were very competitive. Fun fact: Western Michigan was one of only two MAC men's basketball teams to win a game after the conference tournament last year, posting two overtime wins in the CBI before their eventual ouster at George Mason (the other was Kent State in the collegeinsider.com tournament against Fairfield, by 2, at home... not really very impressive). Whereas Toledo may have among the deepest talent pools in the league, Western Michigan can counter with 2 (or maybe 3, if you count Connar Tava) of the MAC's top talents in Shayne Whittington and David Brown. It's hard to pick against Toledo winning this game given how good they've looked, but note that Toledo's opponents thus far have been quite weak. Beating an ACC team on the road can't be bad, but Boston College is having a dismal year. Even Kansas just recorded their 4th loss of the year, snapping their home non-conference winning streak to San Diego State. I won't be surprised if the Broncos keep it very close, or even pull the upset.
The pick: Toledo -2.5. Again I spent the week hyping the Broncos in my mind and expecting to get 5-6 points here. The Vegas types are keenly aware of Toledo's strength of schedule and of the history here - WMU won't sneak up on them. I think Toledo will win this game, and think laying 2.5 points is a low price to pay for an undefeated team playing well, and one that's already demonstrated tenacity on the road. Within 5 hours of posting, this spread is up to 3.5 at some sites. I still like Toledo, though i wouldn't lay much more than 4 or so.