Friday night goes a long way towards determining how the 2015-2016 men's basketball season is remembered. Only one school knows at this moment where and when they will be playing to start the MAC Tournament next week, and that's regular season conference champion, Akron. Outside of the Zips there's a four way tie for second, a division championship in the West yet to be wrapped up and a three team boxing match in the conference cellar. Friday determines which school gets to hang a championship banner or who has to travel for yet another game on the road. It decides who gets a few extra days rest or who gets to host a game on Monday. It's a night that will be filled with uncertainty until the final buzzers sound, but one thing is certain:
It's going to be fun.
If the tournament started today
Beautiful isn't it? My favorite part is there's one night left in the season and still nobody has a damn clue what's going on. Look at the logjam that is the four way tie for second place, and imagine if that was a five way tie. Fortunately (depending on who you ask) it absolutely could happen, and doubly fortunate for us is Hustle Belt's Matt Daley already went ahead and made sense of the chaos for us. Before this chaotic Friday night gets underway, let's take a quick look at what's on the line in each game.
Kent State vs Akron - 7:00 p.m. ESPN2
At stake for Akron - Nothing, really
Akron has rebounded nicely from a loss to Miami to the tune of two straight wins to clinch the MAC East and the regular season MAC Championship. While there's no seeding implication for the Zips in this game, there's still plenty to play for against the Flashes, namely, avoiding a regular season sweep.
At stake for Kent State - Guaranteed trip to Cleveland
Kent State, on the other hand, is playing for a spot in the tournament quarterfinals in Cleveland right off the bat. A win means the Flashes finish no worse than fourth in the league and potentially as high as second overall, though they'll need a little extra help in that regard. The new tournament format is a little kinder to those who will play in the opening round on Monday, but it's not ideal. The only way to avoid that for Kent State is to beat Akron on the road. You know, easy stuff.
Ball State vs Northern Illinois - 7:00 p.m. CBS Sports Network
At stake for Ball State - A chance at redemption
All the Cardinals had to do to be MAC West champions was beat Central Michigan on Tuesday and, well, that didn't happen. But don't go cancelling the championship banner order just yet, Ball State. There's still plenty of hope. Regardless, an 11-7 finish even without the division title remains on the line for the Cardinals and is a fantastic turnaround from the disastrous 2014-2015 season.
At stake for Northern Illinois - Avoiding Akron in the second round
Probably not wise for the Huskies to look ahead to the second round, but I'm not the Huskies, so I will. NIU has the benefit of knowing its hosting a first round game no matter what happens tonight, but a win gives them the best shot to stand at the 7 seed. That's important because the reward for winning the 7/10 matchup is a quarterfinal match up against not-Akron, compared to the 8/9 which is definitely Akron.
Buffalo vs Bowling Green - 7:00 p.m. ESPN3
At stake for Buffalo - an improbable finish
About this time last year the Bulls were on their way to winning a MAC Tournament championship, but shortly after their loss to West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament were left without a head coach and star guard Shannon Evans. Making matters worse was the dismissal of Justin Moss from the team. In walks former assistant coach Nate Oats, in the midst of a challenge far greater than winning basketball games, and the Bulls have hardly missed a beat. A likely win over Bowling Green means that with a little help the Buffalo Bulls could finish third overall in conference. All this just a year removed from the ending of a beautiful season and the start of a calamitous off season.
At stake for Bowling Green - pride, maybe?
It's been a sad, gradual decline into the MAC cellar for the Falcons. A decline so painful that only fans of Toledo could find pleasure in it. Dealing with a coaching change of their own, albeit a completely different scenario, Bowling Green was facing an uphill climb all season. It didn't start that way, however, as at 3-1 BGSU appeared to be joining NIU and Ball State as one of the conference's surprise teams. After picking up their fourth win late in January, the Falcons would win only once more, finding themselves in last place entering the season's final night. There is good news, however, as owning the tiebreaker with Western Michigan means the Falcons could very well climb out of last place after all.
Western Michigan vs Central Michigan - 7:00 p.m. ESPN3
At stake for Western Michigan - a chance to play spoiler
Is Western Michigan the worst team in the conference? Probably not. Could they be the 12 seed on Saturday morning? Absolutely. All it would take is a loss to Central Michigan and a Bowling Green win, and Steve Hawkins squad will be the 12 seed just two years removed from being regular season champions. Oh, time is a cruel, cruel thing sometimes. The Broncos are one of three teams (BGSU and Miami) that are confined to one of the final three seeds, meaning the improbable road win over one of the MAC's best won't make much of a difference for WMU.
At stake for Central Michigan - a division crown
If the Chippewas want to keep it simple Friday night, they'd best start by just winning. With a win, CMU clinches the MAC West division crown for the second year in a row and is the undisputed second overall seed in the MAC Tournament. Not bad after such a slow start to conference play. Losing will certainly complicate things and could set off a chain reaction in numerous tiebreaking scenarios, and could also alter the course of CMU men's basketball history. If the game stays close, the difference between having the second easiest path to the championship game or hosting a game on Monday could be just a few bounces of the ball.
Ohio vs Miami - 7:00 p.m ESPN3
At stake for Ohio - a spot in the quarterfinals
Like everyone else tied at 10-7 the Bobcats are fighting to hold their spot in the quarterfinals. Especially daunting for Ohio is that with a loss they could miss the first round bye by just a single game. The Bobcats are a lot like Central Michigan with their slow start and hot finish, and need to stay hot if they want to be booking a hotel in Cleveland instead of playing one more game in Athens. From an individual standpoint, Antonio Campbell's status as the front runner for the MAC Player of the Year award could be at stake. A poor performance to close the season could see the award slide to Toledo's Nathan Boothe.
At stake for Miami - Transitive regular season championship
The RedHawks are RedHot! I've been dying to write that for awhile now, and the football team certainly didn't grant me the opportunity. Miami fans have to be pleased with the way the team is playing down the stretch, beating Buffalo, Akron and Kent State in their last three games. Adding Ohio to that list would mean the RedHawks are pretty much the best team in the conference by the transitive property, which is indisputable science and you can't tell me otherwise. Also on the line is the chance to play in the 7/10 game. I know they look like world beaters now, but should Miami escape a first round away game to get to Cleveland, probably best they don't see Akron Thursday at noon.
Eastern Michigan vs Toledo - 7:00 p.m ESPN3
At stake for Eastern Michigan - A first round home game
The Eagles' fan base catches a lot of crap for their poor attendance, much of which is deserved, but they'll get another chance to prove the doubters wrong (or right) should they beat Toledo for the second time this season - provided they get some help from Ball State. Beating Toledo proved no tough task last time out as Willie Mangum had himself a day, spoiling what was supposed to be perfectly good match up between James Thompson IV and Nathan Boothe. The Eagles punishment for a loss will be to pack their bags for at least one more road game.
At stake for Toledo - same as Eastern (almost)
The general implications for each team in this game are identical. Lose, and you're headed on the road again. Win, and you get to play at home for a chance to play in the quarterfinals. The only difference is the Rockets, with some help, can climb as high as the sixth seed. This is also a big game for Directional Michigan University, who with an EMU win claims three wins over Toledo in as many weeks. Poor Toledo, so much promise, so little results.