Rocket normally does this weekly article and my territory is usually football so forgive me if my sensibilities for picks this week are fairly different, but there’s still a lot of great #MACsketball on the horizon for this week, especially as conference play starts to reveal who’s who in the run to Cleveland.
Here’s the four games I’ll be keeping an eye on this week:
Northern Illinois vs. Kent State (Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 7 p.m. EST on ESPN3)
One of the more surprising storylines of the season has been Kent State’s recent struggles to open the MAC slate. The Golden Flashes were considered a dark-horse favorite to run through the MAC East with emergent guard Jimmy Hall leading the way.
But less than a month after upsetting Texas on the road, the Flashes find themselves in the wrong part of the MAC standings table with a bleak schedule ahead in the hyper-competitive East, which includes preseason favorite Akron, two-time defending MAC champ Buffalo and the pesky Ohio.
Kent State’s defense seized the day in a much-needed way, helping secure an 85-61 win over the Toledo Rockets in a cross-division matchup and looks to build a foundation on that winning ways if they hope to get out of the middle of the table.
Northern Illinois, meanwhile, has had a resurgent season and a half over in DeKalb, and sit up top of the MAC West, tied with Eastern Michigan for the division lead. NIU is reeling from a cross-division loss to Ohio, who was missing its star player Tony Campbell and will seek to re-establish dominance as top dog in an attempt to keep pace with the Eagles.
Central Michigan vs. Bowling Green (Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 7 p.m. EST on ESPN3)
Marcus Keene scored 50 points and set Twitter aflame with his career-high single-game performance at McGuirk Arena on Saturday afternoon, which was also the first time since 2013 that 50 points or more were scored by any Division 1 player in a single game.
Oh, and backcourt mate Braylon Rayson had a quiet 21 points in the same game. Needless to say, the Chippewas are a lot of fun to watch on the offensive side.
CMU is currently in a pivotal part of their schedule, needing to get back onto the right side of the win column after what could best be described as a rough start to its conference season, currently sitting at 2-4 after a win over Miami.
This game will also serve as a sort of revenge game; twelfth-seeded Bowling Green eliminated the fourth-seeded Chippewas in Cleveland last season to reach the semi-final against Akron, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth of CMU fans everywhere.
Zach Denny and Demajeo Wiggins for Bowling Green will seek to exploit CMU’s extremely, no good, very bad interior defense to try and keep up with CMU’s excellent perimeter shooting. No alternative facts will be able to cover up how inefficient that defense is.
If BGSU can take advantage of CMU’s lack of size inside, the Chips’ overall defensive woes and keep or exceed the Chips’ offensive pace (which they can do with an impressive 34 percent three-pint percentage on the season), they’re in prime position for a standing-shaking upset.
Western Michigan vs. Ball State (Sat. Jan. 28 at 1 p.m. EST with TV TBA)
It’s not the sexiest of matchups, but hey, I didn’t want to repeat anywhere and the rest of Saturday’s slate that didn’t repeat were “meh” at best.
While this is definitely a battle for the middle of the MAC table, there’s a couple interesting storylines to watch here. WMU is three years removed from the NCAA Tournament and have dealt with a lot of adversity this season, including an extremely tough out-of-conference schedule, and now finds itself at the bottom of the conference table at 2-4.
Thomas Wilder and the rest of the Broncos will seek to climb from the basement against Ball State, who has emerged as a solid contender under James Whitford’s guidance over the last season and a half. Ball State is at 3-3 and if NIU and EMU both fall this week, the Cardinals could find themselves in contention for the top of the MAC West.
There’s a lot to fight for here for both teams and a lot of fun names to watch for, including Ball State’s Franko House, Francis Kiapway and Trey Moses and WMU’s Wilder and Tucker Haymond. Get to know your potential MAC Tournament spoilers.
Buffalo vs. Akron (Sat., Jan 28 with time and TV TBA)
This right here is my game of the week of all the games of the week.
Any game with Akron is a must-watch, as the Zips are coasting on a nine-game win streak and look to be unstoppable in conference play. Isiaiah “Big Dog” Johnson has been an absolutely devastating force at center while Jimond Ivey and Antino Jackson have been assassins on the box score, providing deadly options for the Zips from the backcourt.
Akron just might be the most complete team in the conference and it’s difficult not to say so if you’ve watched them. The problem they’ve had is getting over that mental hurdle in the MAC Tournament. The last two seasons? That hurdle has been the Buffalo Bulls.
Buffalo is having a down year by its own standards, with a couple tough rivalry losses out-of-conference and a 3-3 start to this year’s conference slate. But this is still the two-time defending conference representative for the MAC and Coach Oats will have his team coming out to play.
It’s a very different roster for Buffalo, due in part to attrition and due in part to transfers of key contributors, but Blake Hamilton, Willie Conner and CJ Massinberg have led the Bulls up to this point with balanced contributions to help Buffalo keep pace with the top of the MAC East and are carrying a two-game win streak prior to a very winnable game against a hapless Miami RedHawks squad that could give the Buills positive momentum coming into this match.
The atmosphere for the game will be bonkers, as these two teams met for the MAC Championship last season and have been fierce competitors on the court for the better part of the last three seasons.