"So it is down to you, and it is down to me." - Vizzini.
All season we have been noting that the talent gulf in the MAC was especially notable between the top six and the bottom six. Four teams got nice first round wins, and especially for Miami and Northern Illinois, these were validations of surprisingly competitive seasons. But last night, despite solid efforts, neither underdog could punch their way through to the next round.
And so we have the MAC tournament that we all expected, and that fans & teams deserve. It is down to the six best MAC teams vying for a ticket to the dance.
By the way, it is notable that quite a few one seeds have failed to capture smaller conference crowns to date. This makes an NCAA berth all the more palatable for the top teams in the MAC. If quite a few of those top seeds had advanced, the MAC champion might have been looking at as low as a 15 seed. As it is now, especially the MAC's top teams (Western Michigan, Toledo, maybe even Buffalo) could realistically eye a 13 seed with the automatic bid, a much more savory position from which to make a March run.
Line Drills comes into tonight 2-2-2 in MAC tournament picks. Northern Illinois pushed both of their games while scoring only seven points combined in the last three minutes of both regulations. Todd especially wishes there could have been just one more frigging foul shot either night to push us over the top, but we're still plus money on the year.
Away we go.
No. 5 Ohio vs. No. 4 Akron (-1.5)
You can't ask for a better way to start the serious competition: a rematch of the last two title games (split) and the rubber match of a titanic MAC rivalry in which the road teams won both games.
Ohio really did not look very good in its win over Miami on Wednesday. Especially in a mistake-filled first half, the Bobcats settled for quick long-range jumpers rather than working their half-court offense inside against a team with an inferior backcourt (Will Felder even missed half the game for foul trouble). Behind hot shooting from Javarez Willis and an especially encouraging series of minutes from Stevie Taylor, Ohio managed a win, but left little to encourage fans hoping for a deep March run.
Akron rallied to win their last three MAC games - all at home - and the Zips come in well-rested. Nick Harney has returned from suspension to contribute again, but Jake Kretzer's health remains unclear. Regardless, it's unlikely that the same depleted Zips squad that lost by 16 at home to Ohio just three weeks ago will show up come tournament time. We hate to repeat statistics too often, but some are just too good to lay off of: in nine years, coach Keith Dambrot has never lost in the first game in the MAC tournament. He's had all week to prepare for an all-but-certain matchup with the Bobcats. And he's only laying a point and a half.
The pick: Akron -1.5. These are fairly evenly matched teams, but we're going with the fatigue and coaching advantages for the Zips.
No. 6 Eastern Michigan vs. No. 3 Buffalo (-3)
Eastern Michigan enters tonight's quarterfinals matchup with high hopes, but results that suggest disappointment ahead. They easily handled Central Michigan in round one, but struggled (for the third time this year) to dispatch Northern Illinois. Before last night's neutral site game, the Eagles had dropped five of their last six conference road games, and while we can't draw definitive conclusions from the pre-conference road slate (brutal), it is safe to say that this team remains totally unproven away from Ypsilanti. Their best road win of the year was at Oakland, with an RPI of 184. Karrington Ward has shown signs of being the streaky, splashy scorer that he was out of conference, but the team overall continues to struggle to score consistently.
Buffalo topped Eastern Michigan 76-66 in only the second game of MAC league play, and this was despite Javon McCrea being held to only ten points. For a team that struggled last season and in fall 2013 to win away from home, it is meaningful that they won four of their last five road games before losing at Akron last week. McCrea should have been a unanimous choice for conference player of the year as he has emerged into a true superstar, and the Bulls' underappreciated guards have been magnificent as well. This is a talented team coming into its own that should be ready for a tough tournament. And they're fortunate in their first game to not have to face an Ohio-based team likely to bring with them a big home court advantage.
The pick: Buffalo -3. This is another one we're surprised by. Sure, there's always the chance that EMU's defense will shut down an opponent, and they've done it to luminaries like Western Michigan and Toledo. But Buffalo has the kind of shooters that can be zone-busters, and the kind of inside force that makes a zone collapse. It may not be easy, but we expect a Bulls win.