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The Chase for Cleveland: 2021 MAC Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournament Projections, Feb. 1

Toledo firmly entrenches itself as the team to beat on the men’s side, while Central Michigan claws its way back up on the women’s bracket.

NCAA Basketball: MAC Conference Final Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

It’s February 1st, which means that college basketball fans all around the country are starting to pay closer attention to the games played on the hardcourt and how it affects their favorite team’s chances of finding the postseason.

Whether that postseason invite is to the NCAA tourney, or the CBI, is yet to be determined, but hope springs eternal in the darkness of the winter months, and the next five weeks will determine the fates of the 12 Mid-American Conference teams in the two leagues.

This year introduced a bit of a twist to the festivities, as the campus round games which have comprised the first round of the MAC tournament for the better part of two decades have been eliminated due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic. The change, which is expected to continue for the next four academic seasons, creates that much more tension at the mid-point of the conference tables, as there is suddenly an elimination zone to be concerned about.

We’ll do our best over the next month and change to help you navigate the new-look postseason for the MAC. Starting today, we’ll follow the Chase to Cleveland, and note significant changes to the potential brackets and postseason projections.

Without further ado, let’s get to the nitty-gritty:

Men’s Basketball

Toledo, at 10-1 in the MAC, has been far and away the team collecting the most momentum over the month of January, finishing the month strong with four-straight victories, including one over overwhelming preseason favorite (and blood rival) Bowling Green, to firmly entrench themselves up top.

The division-less nature of the new regular-season standings sees quite the cluster of “MAC East” teams fighting for the high-seed positions, with Akron, Kent State and Miami all within a game of each other for seeds 2-4. Akron (10-3, 8-2 MAC) seems best positioned for the second seed, given they are one of two teams undefeated at home (with #1 Toledo being the other team) at the moment, with a better overall record than their competitiors.

Buffalo and Ohio engaged in some small warfare over the last week, resulting in Ohio (6-4 MAC) gaining ground on both the Bulls (4-4 MAC) and Bowling Green (6-5 MAC), who are in the midst of a free-fall after losing four-straight games. Ohio is positioned in the fifth spot as a result of their win over Buffalo, with Buffalo and BGSU close behind to round out the East schools.

The race for the bottom is a fairly interesting one, as the remaining five spots all belong to “MAC West” teams, who are all fighting to be the eighth—and final— seed in this year’s tournament. Though, perhaps, fighting might be charitable description of what exactly is happening at the bottom of the table.

Ball State (6-8, 4-5 MAC) holds that spot at the moment, even despite a three-game losing streak. It probably helps them that three of the four teams below them in the standings all have losing streaks of at least three games or longer, with only NIU (2-10, 1-6 MAC) having tasted victory within in the last month or so.

(NIU, for what it’s worth has been “on pause” since Jan. 19, with their last game vs. Ball State on Jan, 16.)

Central Michigan (6-10, 2-7 MAC) is the only other team with multiple wins, and had an opportunity for a potential win this weekend get wiped off the board with NIU’s COVID-related postponement forcing the game to a later date. NIU, by virtue of less games played, sits at #10, while EMU and WMU are at least three games behind Ball State for the eighth seed, and looking fairly dead in the water, with six overall wins in 25 games between the two programs.

So what does that look like for the tournament race?

Per the Mid-American Conference, the tournament will start play on March 11, with all eight teams playing in the quarterfinals, eliminating the “top seed BYE” that had been relevant to projections over the past 20 seasons since the tournament expanded to 12 teams.

This means 1-8, 2-7, 3-6 and 4-5 will all begin play on that first day in the tournament bubble.

Also relevant to the seedings is the winning percentage. Since there are no guarantees that each team will have the same number of games played due to COVID-related postponements or cancellations, the conference will be using said percentages to determine seeds, as opposed to records (though, they generally tend to corellate.)

If the season ended today, that would look like this:

  • Game 1: #1 Toledo vs. #8 Ball State
  • Game 2: #2 Akron vs. #7 Buffalo
  • Game 3: #3 Kent State (.667 MAC WP) vs. #6 Bowling Green (.545 MAC WP)
  • Game 4: #4 Miami (.625 MAC WP) vs. #5 Ohio (.600 MAC WP)

Assuming high seeds rule out, Toledo is the likely favorite to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, should they win the MAC tourney. They would also qualify for the NIT as a regular-season champion, should they somehow lose. History has also dictated that at least one or two teams will accept post-season bids to the CBI or CIT; favorites to grab a spot would likely include BGSU, Buffalo and Ohio.

Women’s basketball

Much like their men’s counterparts, the women have had a hell of a time trying to determine their tables in a clean fashion.

With the emphasis on winning percentages determining top seeds, this places Kent State, who has only played seven games, in first place with a 5-2 (4-0 MAC) record. Even granting Kent State was on a five-game winning streak prior to their extended pause, they haven’t stepped on court since Jan. 9 vs. Ball State.

With two more delays this week, which will affect EMU and Buffalo’s schedules moving forward, it could start to become a problem if Kent State can’t get back to the court within the next two weeks.

As a result of KSU’s inability to play, there are mutiple teams with six or more victories who can’t properly progress and break ties below them.

Perhaps the most frustrated team to be affected is Bowling Green (13-3, 9-2 MAC), who holds the best record in the conference. BGSU is on a five-game winning streak, and are an impressive 7-1 on their home floor, the best mark in the MAC for teams playing more than five games at home. They’re stimied at #2, due to a .818 winning percentage.

Central Michigan, after a couple head-scratching losses, stopped the bleeding after falling one spot in the overall rankings, with a 10-5 (8-3 MAC) record, securing #3 with a .727 winning percentage, with two more wins than Buffalo, despite holding the same amount of losses. Their win vs. the Bulls last week helped them to stay ahead of their traditional rival.

Speaking of the Bulls, they’re heading up a logjam in the middle of the table, as they’re one of three teams sitting at 6-3 in-conference, granted the high seed thanks to their 9-5 overall record. Ball State and NIU shift behind them in the standings as a result of lower overalls.

Ohio, who has the same overall as Buffalo, has the misfortune of being the seventh-best by conference standings due to a 7-4 in-conference mark.

The battle for the eighth seed is a fascianting one, with the top eight teams all with winning records, and five teams within one-tenth of a percentage point of one another.

Slotted into the spot currently is Eastern Michigan (9-6, 6-4 MAC,) as the lone team remaining with a record above .500 in-conference. Toledo (8-7, 4-7 MAC), as the current #9, could rebound from a three-game losing streak to challenge for the spot, which is possible given their performance at the start of the season. There’s also the potential for one of the teams sitting from 4-6 falling down into this range as more games clarify the log jam in the middle of the table.

It’s safe to assume at this point that Akron (4-9, 1-9 MAC), WMU (2-10, 1-9 MAC) and Miami (1-14, 0-11 MAC) probably won’t factor in.

With the information we have now, the tournament would look something like this:

  • Game 1: #1 Kent State vs. #8 EMU
  • Game 2: #2 BGSU vs. #7 Ohio
  • Game 3: #3 CMU vs. #6 NIU (.571 overall WP)
  • Game 4: #4 Buffalo (.643 overall WP) vs. #5 Ball State (.615 overall WP)

As always, the high seed will be the likely favorite to move on to the NCAA Tournament, which would normally mean that Kent State would be here. But, given their layoff, it might be wrong to follow convention. Bowling Green, at the #2 seed, will likely be the proper projection for most prognosticators.

If results hold, and KSU is declared regular season champions, they would automatically qualify for the WNIT, and that’s their likeliest destination given how affected their season has been. If it’s left to an NCAA at-large choice, KSU will likely get left behind.

The MAC is one of the better women’s basketball conferences, and will likely achieve multiple spots in the NCAA tournament, depending on who wins the MAC title. A KSU win would assuredly mean BGSU gets an at-large, with CMU and Buffalo fighting for another bid. A BGSU win would mean that CMU and Buffalo could feasibly both get a spot, as KSU would auto-qualify for a different tournament.

Other teams who could achieve postseason bids could include Ball State, NIU and Ohio.