The outstanding Dave Tuley, who picks NFL games for ESPN Insider, often goes with a "dog or pass" philosophy for picking games. That's what this mid-week is shaping up as, as the entire team of analysts at Line Drills is largely backing the dogs, who are 9-3 ATS on the young MAC season. Historically Tuley's results are good, and statistics often back him up. I'm also dragging him into this muck because as great as he is, even Tuley went sub-.500 this season. We can't win all the time. As Keith says, there's a reason Vegas has the big buildings.
Rally caps on. Off we go. And remember, a wise philosopher once said "we don't make mistakes - we just have happy accidents."
Ball State @ Ohio (-14.5)
Ohio destroyed Ball State last year by 27 (in Muncie), holding the Cardinals to just 14 first half points. I still feel like I need another game or two to figure out just who this Ball State team is. Senior-heavy strong front-court? Probably. Promising freshman guard combination? Certainly. How about 1-10 against division I opponents? Why, yes! But how about a team that can hang with Akron until the final minute and have a 10-point second half lead against Kent State? Last year, when I actually had a good year picking the spread in the MAC, I based most of my judgments on relative strength against other MAC teams. By that criterion, the Cardinals still look potentially peppy. Just don't look too hard at the overall resume.
The Bobcats narrowly missed out on a chance to plant their flag atop the Eastern division. Even though they lost to Akron in double-OT, it's hard to fault just about anything I saw on the court last Sunday. If they can play like that all the time, at least 12-14 conference wins await as their reward. I will say that when Ndour wasn't in the game, the Bobcats struggled to work offense other than passing around the perimeter and working high screens. Jon Smith blocked 8 shots but wasn't a force on the offensive end.
Player(s) to watch: Majok2 has found his mojo but can't do it alone - either Jesse Berry or Chris Bond needs to step up in key situations for the Cardinals. Maurice Ndour had an outstanding game against arch-rival Akron for the Bobcats, but once again faces a front-court with a lot of size in a challenging matchup here.
The pick: Ball State +14.5, and that's not even coming from my Line Drills bro Keith, the Ball State homer. Ohio is clearly the better team - that's not in question. But Ball State lost to Akron & Kent State by an average of 8 points, and lost to Butler by 1. The Cardinals have been competitive against the better teams.
Miami @ Akron (-11.5)
Akron swept the season series in 2012-13, but only by a total of 18 points, remarkable given the disparity in the teams' overall profiles last season. Overall the Zips have won 5 straight in this series. No team can be much happier after the first two games of league play than Miami. Despite a horrid year last year, and a staggering array of roster changes, Miami opened with a road win, then a stirring overtime loss to one of the conference's better teams. Can Bill Edwards' return really propel this offense like that moving forward? Akron is already playing March basketball - survive and advance. They've come out of their slump with hard-fought wins against Ball State and Ohio, and are 2-0 in conference. When you play King of the Hill, kids, you're King until someone knocks you off. The Zips pound the boards, they shoot the three, and they're the kings. The problem here is the matchup - Akron fans may not want to remember, but last March they played a pressing talented team in VCU and got annihilated. Then South Carolina started pressing them in the second half in Honolulu, and for three halves (there and back home) the Gamecocks punished the Zips. That's the Miami hope here - and it's real.
The pick: Miami +11.5. Akron didn't manage to beat Coppin State or Marshall by this many points, and I do think that Miami's pressure will cause them some fits. I think it's going to be a game of runs - probably a roller-coaster for those who choose to place some hard-earned wages on either side of this spread.
Central Michigan @ Bowling Green (-7)
The Chippewas logged one of their few conference wins last year against the Falcons, though it was on the back of 31 points from Kyle Randall. It's been a disappointing start to conference play for Central Michigan, with the home loss to Miami and then a comfortable loss to Toledo. Understand this: the Chippewas play essentially all underclassmen, there's a lot of scoring talent here, and they are going to be a competitive team in this league. The questions that remains unanswered are (1) whether they can stop anyone from outscoring them, and (2) whether they might still be a year away.
For the Falcons, offensive struggles are threatening to make the bottom fall out on this season. Bowling Green has lost 4 straight including two straight home games to open conference play. That's the most interesting matchup in this game: it's the stoppable force against the moveable object. Can Central Michigan's suspect defense contain Bowling Green's struggling offense. It's season-on-the-line for the Falcons. We don't see many mid-season coach dismissals in college hoops, but I wouldn't bet against it if the Falcons drop another turd in this one.
Player(s) to watch: For Bowling Green, Jehvon Clarke has shot 6 for 29 in the conference opening losses - he'll need to pose a threat from the backcourt to get the team going. For the Chippewas, both the sensational Chris Fowler and backup guard Braylon Rayson are really fun to watch, but the key may be Blake Hibbits. Hibbits had a promising freshman year and fall, but has hit double digits in only 1 of their last 7 games, and will have a tough matchup against Richaun Holmes at the Chips' offensive end.
The pick: do I have to? Oh yeah - I volunteered for this. Central Michigan +7. I'm a sucker for underdogs. I am concerned about the mismatch with the Falcons' front line against the smaller Chippewas, but I just can't stomach laying points for a team that just put up 36 in a loss to Northern Illinois. If you can, be my guest - you're more man than I.
Kent State (-4.5) @ Northern Illinois
It's fun to see how much things can change in sports in a short period of time. Here's a great example: flashback to January 30, 2013. Northern Illinois beats Kent State by 2 in DeKalb, improving their conference record to 3-4, while the Golden Flashes fell to 2-5. The Huskies haven't won a conference game since then - 9 regular season games last year, a game in the conference tournament, and (presumably) 2 regular season games this year. Meanwhile Kent State got it together to close 7-2 in the regular season last year and advance to a tight 3-point semifinal loss to Akron in the tournament.
Well Kent State was less than 20 minutes away from digging another real early season hole for themselves in conference on Saturday, trailing by 10 to Ball State in the second half. We've wondered for a while who's going to step up and be the scorer when the Golden Flashes need it, and off the bench Saturday it was Darren Goodson with a season-high 23. That's Goodson who scored in double-digits 10 times last year in conference play. Goodson who had his only double-double of the year against these same NIU Huskies last year.
Meanwhile for the Huskies, the departure of Dontel Highsmith to injury threatened to rob the team of their main backcourt scoring threat, and they opened with a loss at Buffalo. But the Huskies played good defense there, then clamped down on Bowling Green to the tune of 36 points Sunday afternoon, and they're 1-1 in conference. The problem remains the scoring - 91 points in 2 league games is unlikely to get it done against a Kent State team that tends to find balanced scoring.
Player(s) to watch: I'm going with Goodson for the Flashes again. For the Huskies, keep an eye on sophomore guard Travon Baker, in double digits 3 of the last 5 games and perhaps the main guard threat to score. Baker scored 6 points in the last 2 minutes to help the Huskies pull away from Bowling Green on Sunday.
The pick: Kent State -4.5. The NIU defense will show up for sure. Odds are their offense won't. That's not much of a premium to pay for a Golden Flashes team that still, in theory, wants to compete for a division title.
Buffalo @ Toledo (-7.5)
Buffalo comes in at 2-0, having beaten Northern Illinois and Eastern Michigan at home. The Bulls have won 4 straight, including a road win at Drexel. On the other hand, Buffalo has only played 4 games away from Alumni Arena this season, losing the other three. Over the past two seasons, the Bulls are 13-5 in MAC play at home, but 7-9 on the road. Buffalo handled the Rockets comfortably last season in a 15-point win that saw the Bulls in control from early in the game.
The Rockets' promising season had a hiccup against Western Michigan, a team that seems to have their number and took advantage of their defense in a huge first half run. They rallied strong - if unsuccessfully - and then dispatched Central Michigan. This week will be the Litmus test for Toledo as they host Buffalo then hit the road at Akron. The Buffalo matchup is better for them, not only because it's at home, but because the Bulls' offense is somewhat less likely to take advantage of the Rockets' defensive liabilities. Of course, the Bulls scored 46 in the second half against Eastern Michigan, so it could be that this is exactly the wrong time for Toledo to draw them.
Player(s) to watch: I admire Javon McCrea as much as the next guy (and love #releasethekraken), but I don't think Buffalo's offense really clicks - and they might not have won on Saturday - without Jarryn Skeete. Let's see if he can spark the scoring from the guard position again. For Toledo, I'm calling out Nathan Boothe. The 6'9" sophomore center has made strides towards being an impact player, but had a hideous game in the loss to Western Michigan at both ends of the floor (1-9 from the floor, 3 rebounds, and 5 personal fouls). He played very well against Kansas, and will need to establish his presence inside against the Bulls' formidable frontcourt.
The pick: Buffalo +7.5. Toughest pick of the day. Buffalo has the potential to match Western Michigan's ability to play a talented, diverse roster for a lot of minutes. Maybe I've been spending too much time drinking the Kool Aid over at our sister site Bull Run, but I'm beginning to wonder if Buffalo might be one of the real contenders here. They also might have an offensive dry spell and get run out of the building.