Every year, it seems that our Mid-American schools incur some beatdowns in non-conference play that have us all saying "hey just wait until conference play right? That's what really matters!" We all know that conference play means battling it out for a top seed in the conference tourney in Cleveland, and that everyone is duking it out to take the advantage of a bye (or byes), and then look to perform well enough to make the NCAA tournament.
But hey, these schools are not just fodder for bigger programs, and they don't always just face-off with the Coppin State's and Central Penn's of the world, so just take a look at the effort some MAC schools put up against Big 5 basketball schools in nonconference play.
In what was easily the biggest non-conference win at the time for a MAC team (and arguably the best win for a MAC team thus far this season) the Eastern Michigan Eagles traversed the grueling eight miles to Ann Arbor in what was a grind of an early-season matchup that saw the visiting Eagles come out on top of the Wolverines by a score of 45-42. Nevermind that Michigan has since had a rough go at things, this game still had an extremely positive affect on the confidence of this Eagles squad (let's pretend the MSU game didn't happen). On a Tuesday night early in the season, the win put EMU in a new light in the eyes of fans of the MAC and outside. The team has since garnered votes in mid-major polls, like with our friends at Mid-Major Madness.
CMU controlling the tempo the whole game against Northwestern on Dec. 17th in an 80-67 win, was another solid effort to look at. On the night, the Chippewas looked at ease on offense, hitting 10 3-pointers, and held a comfortable double-digit lead for much of the contest as Braylon Rayson, Luke Meyer, and Chris Fowler had impressive nights respectively. As of Monday evening, the Chips, in their second year under Keno Davis, are second in the country with 85.9 points a game, 17th in the nation in rebounding margin at +9.1 a game, and 11th nationally with an assist to turnover ratio of +1.47. While utilizing a lot of possessions this season, the Chips have been brutally efficient, and are tied for 5th in the country in terms of fewest turnovers. Where am I getting with all these statistics? Well, CMU hasn't tested itself with the hardest schedule, but has taken care of business otherwise in the non-conference, and that much is worth noting here.
An Akron win over South Carolina (keep in mind, the latter has a victory over Iowa State) on Nov. 23rd highlighted an inconsistent stretch of several days in which Akron defeated the University of Southern California 66-46, got thwacked by Miami by a score of 79-51, and then defeated the Gamecocks 68-63 (Frank Martin was spittin' mad).
As exceptional as Buffalo has looked this season a year after losing Javon McCrea, the play of the Bulls hasn't necessarily resulted in a big win for Bobby Hurley's improving Bulls team. Big games against Kentucky and Wisconsin in which the Bulls led both top fives teams at halftime, showed what this Buffalo team is really capable of. The Bulls are winning the games they are supposed to, and are impressing greatly as Justin Moss is one of college basketball's most improved athletes, and Shannon Evans and Lamonte Bearden make up quite the talented backcourt.
Notable first half performances by Toledo against Duke at Cameron Indoor, and Kent State against Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse were bright spots that shed light on the possibilities represented by MAC squads. At their best, MAC teams from the top, all the way to the conference's seventh and eighth best teams (think Kent State/Bowling Green, the latter of whom defeated South Florida on Dec. 28.) are capable of taking down noteworthy competition.
Ohio beat a P5 school in DePaul, but given the skid that Oliver Purnell's squad had been on, you'll forgive me if we dismiss that one, even after considering how dominant that performance was for Saul Phillips' team.
Lest we not forget...
MAC women's hoopsters picked up a couple impressive victories of their own in nonconference play. Central Michigan and the always dangerous Chrystal Bradford barely fell to No. 9 Kentucky in a 71-68 battle on Nov. 23rd, except on this night, it was not Bradford who kept the Chips in the game. Jennifer O'Neill hit a game-high 19 and poured in five 3-pointers in the loss that featured a 20-point deficit for CMU. About a week later at the Las Vegas tournament, CMU took down the Oregon Ducks 73-67.
Additionally, Toledo posted back-to-back victories against Virginia and Arizona at the FIU Thanksgiving Classic. Inma Zanoguera put up 48 points and 14 total assists in the victories.
Overall, MAC teams finished 94-51 in nonconference play, which was among the 10 best winning percentages in the country among all D-1 conference. Knowing all this, we MAC fans/observers/connoisseurs, have many reasons to anxiously greet the conference slate of games. Let the conference #MACtion begin.