Ohio’s Walter Offutt powered down the left side of the hardwood, leapt into the air, and finished with his right hand at the rim, drawing contact in the process. Tie game, 63-63.
This moment stands as the most recent glorious moment for the Mid-American Conference in March Madness. On March 23, 2012, the 13-seed Ohio Bobcats forced overtime against North Carolina, No. 1 overall in the NCAA Tournament.
Offutt commanded the heavy underdogs with 26 points, but his potential game-winning free throw clanked off the back iron of the rim. Instead of a coveted Elite Eight appearance, the Bobcats fell 73-65 in the overtime period.
Since, the MAC is 0-5 in the NCAA Tournament with four different programs representing the conference.
The 2012 Ohio team stunned the 4-seed Michigan Wolverines in the Round of 64 with a score of 65-60. Then, the Bobcats benefited from a 5-12 upset and clashed with the 12-seed South Florida Bulls in the ensuing round. In the Round of 32, Ohio emerged victorious 62-56 before narrowly losing to the Tar Heels in the Sweet Sixteen.
Between 1991 and 2012, the MACreached the Sweet Sixteen only once, when the 10-seed Kent State Golden Flashes shocked 2-seed Alabama and 3-seed Pitt to cap off a thrilling Cinderella run in 2002.
But what happened to the conference in the other years this millennium?
The typical result for a MAC program is a first-round disposal, with the exception of 2003 Central Michigan and 2010 Ohio. The MAC struggles as a one-bid league, often drawing an unfavorable seed in the 12-14 range. And based on the MAC’s success in March Madness, earning multiple bids looks bleak for the conference’s future.
So, how can the conference earn more respect from the selection committee?
Earning respect starts with non-conference victories over major programs. Only two MAC teams knocked off a major-conference foe in 2016, and one would be the team that wound up winning the automatic bid.
Kent State invaded Austin in late-December toward the conclusion of conference play and shocked Shaka Smart’s Texas Longhorns 63-58. It was a down-year for Texas, but the Golden Flashes’ victory over a program that has played in the dance 17 of the last 19 years definitely qualifies as a signature win for the MAC.
Consequently, it paid off for Kent State. Although the Golden Flashes struggled at the beginning of MAC play, the rebounding-oriented team powered through the conference tournament at Quicken Loans Arena to earn its first March Madness appearance since 2008.
Unfortunately for Kent State, the Golden Flashes drew a difficult opponent in the first round: a (perhaps under-seeded) UCLA team that ranked first nationally in scoring and features several future NBA prospects, including Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf.
Before six minutes of game-time passed, the MAC champions found themselves in a 16-2 hole. Even though the Golden Flashes, led by Jaylin Walker (23 points, six rebounds) and Jimmy Hall (20 points, 15 rebounds), cut the lead to single-digits, they were clearly outmatched by the championship-contender Bruins.
And thus, following a 97-80 loss, 2017 was the fifth-straight year without the MAC in the Sweet Sixteen.
In order for a conference to become a staple in the Sweet Sixteen, its champion must first pull off several upsets in a short time-span. For example, Middle Tennessee from Conference USA captivated viewers by upsetting Michigan State as a 15-seed in 2016. One year later, the Blue Raiders drew a 12-seed and pummeled 5-seed Minnesota. Middle Tennessee fell short of the Sweet Sixteen on both occasions but earned a much-needed reputation along the way.
Middle Tennessee actually was the Vegas favorite in the game, further solidifying the team’s status as a newly-respected basketball program. Wins like these are imperative for a small conference’s future success. When a small conference’s winner earns a reputation as an annual tournament “Cinderella,” the entire conference benefits.
Let’s glance at the West Coast Conference. Gonzaga’s 1999 Elite Eight run and continued success strengthened the overall competition in the conference.
The Bulldogs’ reputation for defeating blue blood programs paved the way for other WCC teams to reach the tournament. Gonzaga began earning high seeds in tournaments, causing WCC teams that defeated Gonzaga in regular season action to appear stronger. Now, Saint Mary’s and Brigham Young have become tournament frequenters, with the former earning a seven-seed and a near Sweet Sixteen appearance this season.
Gonzaga never backed down in scheduling. The Bulldogs risked their non-conference records to battle college basketball’s marquee programs, and the decision eventually paid off — not just for the Bulldogs, but for the entire conference.
Multiple teams from the WCC have danced in March Madness every year since 2010, save 2016. More teams equals more opportunities at advancing. As a result, the WCC has been represented in the Sweet Sixteen five of the last nine seasons.
If the MAC hopes to regularly surge past opening weekend and field a team in the final 16, the conference must emulate the WCC’s route to success.
Kent State earned a solid start by knocking off Texas this season, but a single MAC team must form a dynasty by consistently scheduling and defeating opponents of high caliber in order to discontinue the current first-round exit trend.
The question is, whether or not a MAC program will be willing to commit to such a lofty goal.