The MAC Tournament gets started in earnest today as the remaining eight squads assemble at Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland to fight for an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Both Buffalo (28-3) and Central Michigan (19-13) got to this position in very different fashions.
Buffalo, the #1 seed, relatively breezed through the conference schedule, scoring over 80 points per game in conference play and only suffering two losses, securing the MAC East with relative ease. They had an extremely tough strength of schedule in the non-conference as well, making them, at one point, a potential at-large bid. But that looks largely out of the cards now after two ugly losses to NIU and Miami on the road.
The eighth-seeded CMU, meanwhile, had an extremely up-and-down season. CMU rode a seemingly good defense and a nation-best free throw percentage to a 12-2 out-of-conference record which included a closer-than-indicated loss to Big Ten tournament champion Michigan, but floundered in conference play, averaging 77 points per game allowed, eventually falling to 18-13. They’re on a three-game winning streak carried over from the end of the regualr season and will have their postseason end if they lose this game.
The last time these teams met was at McGuirk Arena on Feb. 6, where the Bulls had to hold off a furious comeback rally from the Chippewas, who scored 53 second half points in what wound up becoming a 88-82 Buffalo victory.
It was a valiant effort from the Chippewas, who had four players scoring in double-digits, including Cecil WIlliams (23 points) and Shawn Roundtree (20 points,) but the guard trio of Jeremy Harris (23 points), CJ Massinberg (18 points) and Wes Clark (16 points) overwhelmed a poor CMU defense.
Coincidentally enough, both of these teams’ last games were played against Bowling Green. The Bulls’ last game was a 100-70 trouncing of the Falcons on the road on March 2, giving the Bulls six days of rest leading up to the Thursday matchup. CMU, meanwhile, played the Falcons at home on March 5 in the first round of the tournament, squeaking by with an 81-77 victory to secure a trip to Cleveland.
So what should we expect from this Thursday afternoon matchup in Cleveland?
Oddsshark.com has the spread favoring Buffalo at -8.5, which is approporiate given recent games between the teams and taking into account how each team has fared in the conference season. When these teams face off, it’s normally a helter-skelter, last basket wins sort of game, and that’s certainly reflected in the over/under, which is currently set at 160 points.
The X-Factor for Buffalo may just be riding the pine to start the game, as their recently-named sixth-man of the year Nick Perkins has a chance to turn the table. Perkins relinquished his starting role to Wes Clark upon his debut in Buffalo colors, but has still put up excellent numbers in relief, posting 16.7 points and 6.2 assists per game. Having such a deadly offensive weapon in Perkins allows the Bulls to keep a deep bench, especially at the guard spot, which is where the majority of the team’s points are produced from.
For Central, they’ll rely on Kevin McKay’s ability to provide the Chippewas a well-rounded offensive attack who can play both guard and forward to balance out the scoring options on the floor in Roundtree and David DiLeo. He averages 11.6 points per game, 6.6 rebounds per game and 1.8 assists per game. When McKay struggles, the rest of the team does as well, especially since the Chips lack genuine guard depth.
It’ll be a bit of a revenge game for the Chippewas on multiple layers. The last time these two teams met at the Q was for the 2015 MAC Basketball Championship, in which Buffalo ultimately upset the top-seeded Chippewas by a final of 89-84. It prevented CMU from going to its first NCAA Tournament since the 2003 Chris Kaman-led squad, while Buffalo punched its ticket to the dance for the first time in program history.
History has shown over the last three years that the tournament is not so kind to #1 seeds. While all the #1 seeds have made it to the conference title, none have won. CMU (2015,) Buffalo (2016) and Akron (2017) all fell to lower seeds and were unable to secure NCAA tournament bids.
The winner will play the winner of the #4 Ball State v. #5 Kent State matchup. If Buffalo loses, they’ll wait to be placed in the NIT as a regular season champion. If CMU loses, it’s likely the end of their post-season run, as they’re below .500 in-conference.
It’s bound to be a competitive game with plenty of chance for chaos being in a truly neutral location.
Location: Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, Ohio.
Tip-off: March 8, 12:00 p.m. EST
Odds: Buffalo -8.5, O/U 160