For 19 weeks the teams of the Mid-American Conference have been working their way towards one goal: to win a MAC Championship and get an NCAA berth. Roughly nine weeks ago the began beating up on one another in conference play with hopes of bettering their odds of achieving said goal. After a week of MAC Madness only two of the 12 teams remain standing: No. 1 seed Western Michigan (22-9) and No. 2 seed Toledo (27-5).
Tonight at 6 p.m. on ESPN2 on the floor of Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland they meet for a chance to cut down the nets. In the first All-MAC West Championship game since 1996 Toledo and Western Michigan are fighting for the conference's lone NCAA Tournament bid and a chance to send a MAC West team to the big dance for the first time since 2004. In a stroke of coincidence that was the same year the No. 1 seeded Broncos won it all in Cleveland. For Toledo it's been 34 long years since the Rockets have claimed a MAC Championship and went on to the NCAA's.
This match up is how it was supposed to go. The two best teams in the MAC, co-regular season champions, meeting up in the MAC Tournament final to finally declare the winner. For roughly nine weeks these squads worked their way through conference play, standing out above the rest.
It all started when conference play opened up in January with Western Michigan handing Toledo just its second loss of the season at that point in a stunning 87-76 win in Kalamazoo, Mich. Western Michigan burst out in front of UT thanks to Connar Tava's huge night. The sophomore went a perfect 9-for-9 for the field and drained seven free throws to score 25 on the Rockets, while helping Shayne Whittington lock down the post.
The two were neck and neck atop the conference standing from there on out, occasionally slipping, before bouncing back up to the top. They met again on March 1, this time in Toledo, in a thrilling overtime rematch. The Rockets took home the W that day, 96-85. The teams stretched the floor for the better part of the first 40 minutes, showing off their offensive styles and putting up buckets with ease. WMU pulled away in the second half as the dynamic duo of Shayne Whittington and David Brown combined for 54 points. But, UT battled back from a 13-point second-half deficit riding Justin Drummond's 28 points to capture the come-from-behind OT win.
From there on the two did what they needed to do, winding up with an identical 14-4 conference record and tying for the top spot in the MAC West. A tie-breaker determined WMU as the No. 1 seed due to their better record vs. MAC West opponents (three of Toledo's conference losses came against the West).
The two teams earned direct byes into the semifinals, and each survived close games to advance on to the Championship. Western Michigan came back from a 17-point halftime deficit to win in overtime. Shayne Whittington locked down the paint and David Brown outscored Akron in overtime on his own to give the Broncos a the highly improbable win.
In the second half of Friday night's double MAC Madness feature Toledo ground out a win against EMU's stifling defense, showing poise and determination in the process. The Rockets survived one of their worst offensive outputs of the season, and showed some strong defense in the win.
But now that they're here, none of that matters. The only thing that will determine this game is who wants it more. Both team's are fairly evenly matched up. Toledo runs a high-octane full court offense and likes to get out and stretch the defense. Western Michigan runs a more traditional offense, focusing mostly on a strong post presence and feeding the MAC scoring champion David Brown on the outside. WMU has the defensive edge.
Saturday night both will try to dictate the pace of the game, and there should be plenty of scoring as both ranked in the Top 4 in the conference in scoring, and were the two most efficient offenses in the conference. As for keys to the game it's pretty simple. Toledo wants to spread out WMU, working the 3-point line to draw the bigs out and make room for Rian Pearson to slash to the hoop and Nathan Boothe and J.D. Weatherspoon to control the glas. Western Michigan wants to slow down the Rockets, forcing UT to rely solely on 3-pointers and locking down the post. WMU has the size to do it, and Toledo's not known for being a particularly post-focused offense, so it very well could come down to which team has the hotter hand.
There's some key match ups to watch here as well. Obviously Tava and Whittington vs Weatherspoon and Boothe will be huge. The UT bigs will need to stop WMU's offensively gifted bigs from controlling the paint, and WMU's bigs will need to play stellar defense against a duo that combined for an average of 20 points a game. In the guard ranks Juice Brown will be looking to set the tone for Toledo's offense. He is coming off arguably his worst performance ever in Friday night's semifinals win, and will need to coordinate crisp, quick ball movement to keep WMU on its toes. The Rockets have four scorers averaging over double digits, including Pearson and Drummond and if Brown can effectively spread the rock around, and create opportunities Toledo could build some nice runs and incrementally put the game away.
As for who will win? We'll leave that up to you. Let us know who you're rooting for in this one. We're just rooting for one hell of a game.