"The most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heart-rending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football!"
The regular season is winding down, and with it comes the possibility of some fantastic finishes. This week, Line Drills pays its respects to a number of famous finishes in sports as we try to add to our own fantastic finish. Once beaten, bleeding, and left for dead, Line Drills has rallied to post a 42-40-2 record against the spread. And while we never generate the kind of excitement of The Play - for our money, the greatest call ever by a sports announcer - we'll happily take your satisfied comments. And 10% of your net profits.
Central Michigan @ Eastern Michigan (-13)
Make no mistake - this is a huge game. They almost all are as we approach the end of the season, and this is no exception. For the young Chippewas, back-to-back wins (yes, against Ball State and Northern Illinois) offer the possibility that this team may be beginning to put it together in meaningful ways. The wins have always been possible, but it's how they're winning that's a little surprising. Chris Fowler's shooting has actually regressed, and the frontcourt guys - whom we thought would have to step up to get this team over the top - were largely absent in the second win against the bigger NIU Huskies. But freshman Braylon Rayson and sophomore Austin Stewart have combined for 92 points in the past two games. We've said it before - explosive talent in the backcourt for these Chippewas.
For Eastern Michigan, any dreams of a particularly high seed in the MAC tournament have largely vanished with their disappearing offensive consistency. The Eagles' offense generally relies on points off turnovers, and when that doesn't happen, they need someone to create. We liked their offense best in the early conference season when Mike Talley was penetrating and creating - like when he scored 20 to lead them to a 12-point win over these same Chippewas. But what's happened to the forward threats? Remember when Karrington Ward was scoring like crazy in out-of-conference games? Ten points per game in conference. Remember when Glenn Bryant was a powerful man-child laying down repeatedly thunderous dunks as a frontcourt force? Yeah, that's the guy who's scored in double digits once in the last seven games and is averaging less than 20 minutes per game. They can win sometimes just with their defense, but for EMU to make a postseason run, they need someone to kick it up a notch. They'll be favored in their next three home games - here, then home Northern Illinois and Ball State - before traveling to Toledo to close the season. Two wins should be enough to lock in the six seed. But an upset loss here, and suddenly a first round game on the road is very possible.
The line: "Go crazy, folks! Go crazy!" Ozzie Smith hit his first ever left-handed home run to catapult the St. Louis Cardinals to a playoff victory. Sometimes it takes something totally unexpected for a team to triumph. Da'Shonte Riley doesn't have a made 3-pointer this season. Just saying, if they need to generate some late offense...
The pick: Central Michigan +13. Honestly this is a pretty shocking spread - we were expecting more like 7-9 points. The Chips have played most teams close and may have a tiny bit of actual momentum. Double digit favorites have fared poorly across the MAC this year. Take the points.
Kent State @ Bowling Green (-2)
Bowling Green closes the season with games against Akron, Ohio, and Buffalo. As they're already owners of head-to-head losses against the three teams in front of them in the standings (including Kent State), this game is pretty much the last chance to lay any claim to a first round home playoff game. We really hate to fall back on standard sports clichés, but it really does feel like this Falcon team needs to "learn how to win." They've lost five of their last six... by an average of only three points per game. At least the last three home games have been encouraging - two point losses to Akron and Toledo, and a six point win over Buffalo. This is not an old team - Cameron Black is the only senior playing real minutes - but they're not young either, as most of the heavy contributors are juniors. These last several games will tell us a lot about whether these guys might or might not be able to put it together next year.
The Golden Flashes are in slightly better position for a first round home game (see Q-Gazing for full details), though with three road games in the final four - including trips to Athens and Akron - this game is huge for them too. They've beaten both Northern Illinois and Miami on the road, showing that they can compete against members of their ‘peer group.' They've got a major problem matching up against the big Bowling Green frontcourt. Last time Cameron Black had one of his best games of the year with 18 points and nine boards, but Spencer Parker and Richaun Holmes were held down. The Flashes dug themselves a 13-point hole before rallying behind the under-appreciated Derek Jackson. We're not sure if they'll be able to pull the same trick twice.
The line: "I don't believe what I just saw!" Two in a row for the fabulous Jack Buck, this time calling the Kirk Gibson home run in the 1988 World Series. Kent State has already had a couple of spectacular finishes this year, including the Devereaux Manley 3-pointer to beat these Falcons just two weeks ago.
The pick: Bowling Green -2. It's a fair spread for an evenly matched game. The Flashes do have the better record, but it's literally the difference that a single 3-pointer made. We'll take the Falcons to rally for an important home win.
Western Michigan (-5.5) @ Ball State
This is one of those games that is only interesting to Western Michigan fans, Ball State fans, and people who enjoy gambling. Count yourself fortunate to be among the few people entertained by this apparent mismatch. Ball State has managed to cover some spreads this season, including the silly 16 points they were given at Toledo on Sunday. As of the writing of this column, the status of Majok Majok - who missed Sunday's game with an ankle injury - is unknown. Though we wish the senior a rapid return to health so that he can continue to confound the grammar check on our word processor, we're not sure his absence means much. On the offensive end they're just as well to give their other scorers the extra touches, and while Majok gathers ten boards a game on defense, he's not nearly the intimidator that we once thought he could be. Chris Bond may be the best athlete on this team and he went for 22 & 8 against Toledo - here's guessing he does the same if Majok is again absent.
For the Broncos, the main concern here is getting caught looking ahead to the Toledo game on Saturday. Seeding is still an issue, as they only lead Buffalo by one game, and lost head-to-head to the Bulls. But Buffalo has the tougher road, and frankly it's likely that Western Michigan can still clinch a top two seed if they take care of the rest of their business. We wrote earlier in the year about the Broncos needing to have at least a third contributing scoring threat emerge - and both Connor Tava and Austin Richie have improved over the course of the year. And we wrote earlier about the worst-in-MAC turnover ratio needing to improve. You wouldn't know it just glancing at the leaderboard - they're still second worst - but it's improved tremendously, from a minus-6 per game margin to minus-1 per game during the current winning streak. Whether it's player maturation or excellent coaching or both, the Broncos have improved in all the right ways as they build towards a possible repeat as west division champions.
The line: "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" We watched that 1980 USA / USSR hockey game live on a black and white television with knobs to select channels. Miracle on Ice indeed. It'll take a miracle for the woeful Cardinals to upset the red hot Broncos.
The pick: Western Michigan -5.5. Can someone explain to us how Eastern Michigan - at 7-7 in conference on the year - is getting 13 points over the 11th place team, while the conference-leading Broncos get only five and a half against the cellar dwellers? We know home & away matter a little but allowing for about the usual 3.5 point home allotment, this means the odds makers still like the Eagles as the bigger favorites. That can't be right.
Akron (-1.5) @ Miami
One of these teams played really well in the early conference season, looking like a real contender, before suffering some injuries and hitting a late season fade that calls their competitiveness into serious question. The other is the Miami RedHawks. Loyal Hustle Belt readers have been rewarded with details about the Zips that the mainstream media outlets have missed, and that are critically important. First there was the Nick Harney suspension. Harney is a high energy, high risk, high reward player who can take bad shots and give bad fouls. He can also penetrate and create on offense, and defensively is a big athletic tough matchup. Harney was suspended after playing his four consecutive best games of the year in the Zips' starting lineup, averaging 13 points and five rebounds per game while shooting over 50%. Akron has promptly lost three of four, albeit to tougher competition. For their last game, both Jake Kretzer (concussion) and Reggie McAdams (mono) were out. Kretzer is the higher-achieving of the sophomore twins who are both swingmen with potentially killer zone-busting 3-point shooting abilities. Without them, it's easy for defenses to contract inside and dare the rest of the Zips' guards to beat them. Even with these players and an 8-2 start to MAC play, Akron had exactly one conference win by more than ten points. They weren't blowing people out, and their margins were small. It is very possible that you're looking at an average MAC team if those guys are out for any period of time.
Miami snapped their five game losing streak with a win over Bowling Green last weekend, but despite that, is not quite even looking like an average MAC team. Take away the sweep of Central Michigan and a win against Ball State (at home in Oxford) and they're packing a 3-8 record against the rest of the MAC. Furthermore, while Bowling Green may be able to lay claim to a number of very close losses, only one of Miami's losses was by fewer than seven points. The RedHawks are lacking severely in scoring punch - only Will Felder reliably scores in double digits. Quinten Rollins and Geovonie McKnight are exciting to watch for their abilities to press, or steal, or occasionally create, but this team really needed either Will Sullivan or Willie Moore to emerge as a legitimate two-guard scoring threat. Instead Sullivan has badly regressed in the last six games, not topping nine points, and Moore is shooting 37% from the field with significantly more turnovers than assists. One wonders if the RedHawks might try feeding Felder to the tune of 20-25 shot attempts some time, just to see if he has the ability to put this team on his shoulders. It's been a long season of tinkering and it's just not clear how they're otherwise going to get enough offense to consistently compete.
The line: "Havlicek stole the ball! Havlicek stole the ball!" Miami still leads the conference in steals, and we won't be surprised if they dial up the pressure to insane levels on the Akron guards.
The pick: Akron -1.5. We would love to know some health status updates for the Akron infirmary, but Miami still hasn't beaten one of the top teams in this conference. Until they do, we can't endorse them only getting 1.5 points against one of the big boyz.
Buffalo @ Ohio (-4)
The stakes are enormous as two of the MAC's "Big Five" meet in the game of the night. The Bulls come in with a one game cushion in the east division, but still with something to prove against the league's top teams. This is especially true away from home, where the Bulls' best road wins are against Drexel and Kent State. The player-of-the-year competition in the league is over, and the Bulls have learned that they can win by relying on Javon McCrea to carry them. It remains to be seen what will happen when (or if) he is contained, or in foul trouble. Man is he impressive in person - McCrea has such a wide variety of post moves on offense, and such a rebounding motor, that he essentially guarantees at least some degree of consistent performance. And in fact, their last three conference losses have come against teams with fairly bona fide inside stoppers - Ball State (Majok Majok), Bowling Green (Richaun Holmes) and Ohio (Jon Smith) - though McCrea's stats are solid in those matchups.
Ohio hasn't put together back-to-back wins in a month, but they've also spent February playing Akron, Toledo, Western Michigan, and Buffalo. Their offense especially has been inconsistent, but the team is coming off of one of their best games of the season, essentially dominating a depleted Akron team on the road. After this Buffalo game, the Bobcats close with the lesser three members of the east division, so a win here puts them in very strong position to challenge for a top two seed. As it would also give them a season sweep over Buffalo, and Buffalo and Akron still face each other, Ohio would essentially guarantee a top four seed and double bye. This is a team with seniors who are doing what seniors are supposed to do - peaking at the right time. Nick Kellogg is a premium scorer who also has an assist-to-turnover ratio of over 2.0 - phenomenal - and who has improved as the year has gone on. Jon Smith is sometimes overlooked, but plays a major defensive stopper role and recently averages about ten points per game contributing on the offensive end. It will be a plus for Ohio if Stevie Taylor can get healthy, but the overall talent and health level is high and seems to predict a strong March.
The line: "Send it in, Jerome!" Ok, not actually a fantastic end to the game, but people do talk about the ability to ‘finish' at the rim, and this was the classic Bill Raftery call.
The pick: Ohio -4. We like both these teams, but Buffalo's slightly spotty record away from home and Ohio's good health and recent conditioning run against the league's best suggest that it's the Bobcats' night to shine.
Toledo (-6.5) @ Northern Illinois
The night's final matchup pits co-leader Toledo against defensive-minded Northern Illinois. Toledo isn't garnering a lot of respect around Hustle Belt - when we poll for conference tournament winners, they get very few votes, and Q-Gazing hasn't projected them to win in quite some time. It's possible that they're being undersold because they keep winning by such narrow margins. But while the Rockets bring in a most unsavory 3-11 record against the spread in conference games, it's worth remembering that their actual job is to win basketball games. And at that, the Rockets have excelled. This team can score from all over, but we've been most impressed by them when the frontcourt of Nathan Boothe and J.D. Weatherspoon plays a physical, assertive game. That hasn't necessarily been the case recently, and it may be challenging against Northern Illinois.
Although the Line Drills staff have yet to be given an official vote, we see only three viable coach-of-the-year candidates in the MAC. Steve Hawkins has gotten little love for leading the top seeded Western Michigan Broncos, and if they finish on top, he deserves consideration. We might prefer those who have done the most with the least, in which category John Cooper (at Miami) and Mark Montgomery with these Huskies. But we have a gripe with Coach Montgomery after the Huskies' surprising loss at Central Michigan. The Chippewas are the smallest team in the conference, and Jordan Threloff was coming off of a series of exceptionally strong games. Yet Threloff took FOUR shots in the game. In the recent EMU win, the Huskies patiently worked the ball inside despite the presence of Da'Shonte Riley - can't they do that again? The guards and small forwards have intermittently made strong supporting appearances for this team, but an anchor inside is the glue that makes them able to compete with the Akrons - and Toledos - of the world. Here's guessing that the same mistake won't happen again tonight.
The line: "In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!" Kirk Gibson's home run was doubly immortalized, and even though we are eternally in awe of the great Jack Buck, we must be honest and say that the Vin Scully call is perhaps the more poignant. It's already been an improbable run for the Huskies. Can they break through with the impossibly unlikely big upset?
The pick: Northern Illinois +6.5. On the one hand, it is sort of all gravy at this point for an NIU team expected to win maybe two conference games all year. On the other, this is the kind of program-defining game that kids get up for. While NIU may have been caught looking ahead against CMU, Toledo may make the same mistake with the epic Western Michigan matchup looming. Did we mention Toledo is 3-11 ATS this season in league play?