"I saw this girl, she cool rocked my world, and I had to adjust my fly."
The 20th century philosopher Anthony Terrell Smith reminds us that at momentous times in our lives, some adjustment is necessary. Today marks the halfway point of the MAC season, and the challenge to teams - and aspiring bettors - is how to adjust expectations for the second half of conference play.
As pointed out in yesterday's preview of Miami / Northern Illinois, those two teams combined for a 6-10 start to conference play in 2012-13, and followed that up with an 0-16 finish. Ball State and Western Michigan had opposite changes of fortune in the 2012-13 season. Who will make appropriate adjustments this year? We'll look at some adjustments by team in each game's preview.
One thing's for sure - Vegas will learn and adjust. Hopefully your Line Drills crew can too, and can rebound strong in the second half. We've all got three major factors weighing in to our perceptions of MAC teams' strengths right now:
- Historical performance, including the 2012-13 season;
- Non-conference play in November & December of 2013;
- The first half of MAC league play.
Over- or under-emphasizing any one of these could lead to significant errors in judging any one team. Miami might make for a convenient example. The RedHawks were fairly hideous last year, but the current starters bear little resemblance to that team, so we probably shouldn't use historical context much at all.
In non-conference play, Miami struggled mightily - this was with the current year's roster, though perhaps in some flux. In the first half of conference play, Miami has posted a 5-3 record (before the NIU game), though without having to play many games against the league's upper echelon.
Remember, young bettors, it's not a team's overall record that matters, but how well they compete against our perceptions. Or more importantly, the expectations of our friends in Las Vegas. For your reading pleasure, note the following table of performance to date against the spread in MAC league play 2014:
Buffalo 6 - 2
Miami 6 - 2
Ohio 5 - 3
They are who we thought they were
Akron 4 - 4
Bowling Green 4 - 4
Central Michigan 4 - 4
Eastern Michigan 4 - 4
Kent State 4 - 4
Northern Illinois 4 - 4
Ball State 3 - 5
Toledo 2 - 6
Western Michigan 2 - 6
Surprised at the underachievers in particular? That's the point. While Toledo and Western Michigan have competitive conference win/loss records, it's our job as bettors to reassess how confident we are in placing a presidential portrait at the betting window and uttering their names.
And away we go with previews of Wednesday's MAC basketball offerings.
Eastern Michigan @ Akron (-5)
An appropriate start to a discussion of adjustments is this rematch of a game just 14 days ago. Akron went to Ypsilanti and blew out the Eagles based on a Jake Kretzer barrage in the first half. Check Line Drills for that game (we have to trumpet the ones we get right) and you'll see that we specifically said that Akron's 3-point shooting could pose problems for EMU's zone.
Presumably the Eagles will look to extend their zone a bit, which could open up opportunities for Demetrius Treadwell inside. On the offensive end, Glenn Bryant had only 6 points in that first meeting, and Raven Lee had 2 points in 8 minutes. Never more - I'd guess both of them will get a chance to do better today.
The pick: Akron -5. These two teams are both performing in an analogous manner to last season, and we have little reason to believe that the talent has changed appreciably in two weeks. Last year Akron won by 8 in Ypsilanti, this year they won by 10. Both of these teams could really use a win coming off of disappointing weekends - I think Keith Dambrot will have his troops, and the JAR, ready for #MACtion. Honestly I thought this spread would be closer to 8 points - this is almost a bargain!
Bowling Green @ Toledo (-13)
Do you realize that Bowling Green has beaten Western Michigan, Ohio, and Buffalo this season? Read that sentence again - that's three of the top five teams in this conference. The first win - WMU - was unique, in that it was a huge second half comeback when Anthony Henderson went ballistic. In the other two, the Falcons' best player may have been the underappreciated Spencer Parker. The sophomore forward totaled 39 points and 13 rebounds in the Ohio & Buffalo wins, but has received little press. Check out these numbers:
- Parker in 4 BGSU MAC wins: 72 points, 22 rebounds
- Parker in 4 BGSU MAC losses: 28 points, 27 rebounds
Still think Richaun Holmes or Jehvon Clarke is the key to the Falcons' success? Perhaps it's time to adjust your thinking. Meanwhile, Toledo is playing excellent basketball at 6-2 in conference, but the cumulative experience is also reinforcing their defensive liability. As shown above, they're only 6-2 against the spread - Vegas to this point has overvalued their overall record, and ignored the familiarity with which the conference may match up with this team.
On the offensive end, Toledo hasn't been held under 75 points in conference, while Bowling Green hasn't scored over 75 against a division I opponent. This is far too simplistic to be a real analysis, but points out how hard the Falcons will have to work at both ends to compete. Toledo in some ways has an embarrassment-of-riches problem at the offensive end, perhaps more commonly called "too many mouths to feed." There are so many weapons that statistically, each of their starting five might be considered to have off games on occasion.
The pick: Bowling Green +13. I know the Falcons have struggled offensively - facing the porous Rockets defense may be the right cure. BGSU has certainly shown that they have the potential to compete with the big boys in conference. I can also easily envision them losing by 30, but I think the odds are that they keep this fairly close.
Ball State @ Buffalo (-14)
Buffalo is 4-0 in conference at home, both win/loss and against the spread. Last year the Bulls exhibited a similar - though milder - home/road split. Ball State has been horrendous on the road, losing their four away games by a total of 78 points.
These two facts alone will make it hard to pick the Cardinals with any confidence - the odds makers know that and will try to make it very uncomfortable for a points-lover like me to take the homestanding Kraken & company. After all, the Bulls are proving more and more that they really don't belong in the conversation about MAC elite - why lay a dozen points or more?
In non-conference play, Ball State's young backcourt - which forced senior Jesse Berry to a surprising back-up role - showed encouraging signs. But look at Zavier Turner and (especially) Mark Alstork over the last several games and you will see major regression. I can see this two ways from the Cardinals' perspective.
On the one hand, I would consider ‘protecting' the kids from losing self-confidence by re-inserting Berry into the starting lineup. If he gets hot he can help the offensive woes, and you can decide which of the other kids to play more based on who's hot that night. It's the kind of midseason adjustment that could make a real impact on team performance.
On the other hand, this team is on an Ed Rooney first class ticket to nowhere this year. A reasonable argument could be made for throwing Turner and Alstork out there for 30 minutes a game, figuring that the experience will help as the team rebuilds in the next few seasons.
The pick: Buffalo -14. I am so terrified to pick this game - I think I've been wrong about nearly every game these two have played. And I really, really hate giving 14 points. But after being at least a partial Ball State apologist for the front half of their conference schedule, I'm done endorsing them unless something changes dramatically.
Kent State (-3) @ Central Michigan
Can one shot save a season? Darren Goodson's 25-foot glass-crashing 3-pointer on Saturday has the potential to do just that for the Golden Flashes. I'm not sure whom that game said more about - the Zips living down their abilities or the Flashes playing up to theirs - but I'll tell you it was one ugly game. But if you're the winning team, style points matter a lot less.
So can Kent State turn it around? This was supposed to be a competitive, balanced squad that would be near, but not likely at, the top of the east division. You'd like to think the Akron game can be a rallying point, but the statistics are just terrible.
Realize that this Kent State team does essentially nothing well - they don't turn the ball over much, but otherwise they're in the bottom half of conference statistics across the board. Speaking of boards, they're worst in the league in rebounding margin, though if there's an one game where that may matter least, it's against one of the league's smallest squads in Mount Pleasant.
Meanwhile, the poor young Chips are floundering. Even one win among their many recent close shaves would have been nice, but so far it just doesn't seem they have it in them. You could say the same thing about their size issues - that it may matter less in this game against a Kent State team that doesn't rebound - but they really don't appear to have the makeup to be a threat this year.
That doesn't mean we should ignore them as fans, or bettors. Their games are fun to watch because of frenetic pacing, and I can't emphasize enough how good Chris Fowler is. The kids is only a sophomore - at this point he has to be an odds-on favorite to win MAC player of the year at least once in his career if he stays healthy. And remember, they've covered the spread in half their conference games this year.
The pick: Kent State -3. I think Kent State has the better athletes, and I'm guessing that the rebounding edge will go their way. Both teams may lead by 10 points at times in what should be a volatile affair. Maybe the Golden Flashes really will come off of the Akron win with some momentum.
Ohio @ Western Michigan (-1)
And finally we get to the game of the night. More than in any other game, I'll be fascinated to see what style of game this evolves into. Could it be wide open running? Interestingly, low-scoring Ohio used a lot of Stevie Taylor run-outs in the first half to open up the floor and keep pace with Toledo.
Early movement on offensive possessions also opened up all those wide-open shots for Nick Kellogg later in the game, but at heart, the Bobcats have been more of a half-court team. I liked what I saw (well, who wouldn't - they beat the Rockets) on Sunday, but there was a price to pay at the defensive end, where Toledo and all their weapons were able to fairly well shred the previously stout Bobcat defense for long stretches.
For Western Michigan, I really think it's all about finding the third threat on offense. This is perhaps an average defensive team - they've slowed some of the struggling offenses but not consistently been a group of defensive stoppers. The Broncos are going to have to score to win. David Brown and Shayne Whittington will get their points - the question is where else the support is coming from. In early conference play, Connor Tava put up some spectacular numbers. Not only has he regressed, but Tava is turning the ball over at a staggering pace - 3.4 turnovers per game, up to more like 4 or 5 per game recently.
Unfortunately coach Hawkins may have to keep putting the ball in Tava's hands unless... you guessed it, unless a mid-season adjustment can help identify another scoring option. Tucker Haymond has shown signs of promise at times, or maybe one of the younger guys will come off the bench - we're not talking about finding a 15-point scorer somewhere, just one or two guys who can contribute maybe 6-10 points when needed.
Otherwise, I think this Broncos squad will end up very much like last year's team. They beat the teams they're supposed to beat - this year the league is more competitive, so that's fewer overall wins - then win maybe 1 or 2 games in March before quietly bowing out.
The pick: Ohio +1. I think Ohio is the more complete team, I think they're the better shooters overall, and the better team defense. Maurice Ndour should be able to compete physically with Shayne Whittington inside, and I think Ohio has been the more consistent of the two teams.