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MAC takes step in the right direction with tournament changes

Although it seems like a subtle change, this tweak makes the MAC Tournament as good as it can get.

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The MAC concluded their spring meetings last week, and one item may have flew under the radar for most casual MAC basketball fans. The Conference approved a revamp of the MAC Basketball Tournament starting next season, giving the top four seeds byes to the quarterfinals. This is a change from the past two seasons, where the top two seeds received byes to the semifinals and the third and fourth seeds were given byes to the quarterfinals.

Consistent with last season, seeds 5-12 will play first round games on campus sites. The seeding will be determined by winning percentage, regardless of division.

In my eyes, this is great to see. With giving the top two seeds byes into the semifinals and only requiring them to win one game to make it to the finals, the format basically gifted those two teams berths in the final game. Is that really fair?

Last year I watched 7th seeded Akron Zips win three games in four days to make it to the quarterfinals against the Buffalo Bulls. That was a fresh Buffalo team that hadn't played a game yet in the tournament. The chips were already stacked against Akron, and the exhaustion on their faces after a nine-point loss to the eventual champions showed how much they had gone through just to get to that point.

I'm not saying Akron would have made it to the Sweet Sixteen, but if Buffalo had played the night before don't you think the Zips (and all lower-seeded teams) would have had a better shot? I get that the goal is to send the best team to the NCAA Tournament. With the way conference tournaments are now, sometimes the so-called "best team" doesn't get to the big dance all of the time. Giving those top two teams a huge advantage makes the other ten teams believe they really don't have a great chance of getting there.

I hate to bring this up, but has the conference really benefitted from sending the best regular-season team to the NCAA Tournament? The Ohio Bobcats are prime example; their Sweet Sixteen run in 2012 came after they won the MAC Tournament as the 3-seed. Two years before, those same Bobcats, a 14-seed in the NCAA Tournament, upset the Georgetown Hoyas in the first round and were incredibly a 9-seed in the MAC Tournament.

The MAC is such a balanced league now that the fourth- or fifth-seeded team in the tournament really is about as talented as the first- or second-seeded team. Although it's only one game of a difference between, say, being the second seed and the fourth seed, it plays a huge effect on the outcome.

During the past four years that the old format was in place, three out of the four championship games pitted the one-seed versus the two-seed. The other game was a one-seed versus a three-seed. Obviously the conference would like to see its best two teams in the tournament championship game. When the most successful NCAA Tournament team the conference has had in over ten years came into the MAC Tournament as the third seed, why give the top two seeds such an advantage?

The new format is really the way to go. It rewards the teams that had great regular seasons with byes, but doesn't over-reward the best teams so much so that the ten other teams basically have no shot at making it to the championship game.

The beauty of college basketball and March Madness specifically is that any school can win the National Championship - there are no polls or voters to decide. With the new format, the magic that the MAC Tournament provides is more likely to occur. More teams have a good shot at making it to the big dance now, and that benefits the conference as a whole.

This leads me to this question: What should be the next change up for potential consideration? If the seeding for the conference tournament is decided regardless of division, what is the point of having them? The SEC scrapped divisions in 2011 because of the competitive imbalance between the Eastern and Western divisions.

Now, the imbalance between divisions in the MAC is starting to disappear. It was at its worst in 2009, when five of the six teams in the East were over .500 in conference play while the entire West division was under .500. With the MAC Tournament rules in place at that time, 7-9 Ball State nabbed the two seed as winners of the division. Thank goodness that rule is gone.

It's a serious question though. Yes, having divisions cut down on travel costs. But this isn't the Big Ten we are talking about, which spreads from Nebraska to New Jersey. The longest bus ride between two schools is nine hours (Buffalo to DeKalb). If Akron or Kent State have to travel to Ball State or Eastern Michigan instead of Miami or Ohio one year, does it make that big of a difference?

The move to an 18-game schedule a couple of years ago made the divisions more meaningless. Now, all MAC teams play ten games against their division foes and eight games among the six teams in the other division. Instead of needing the luck of the draw in what cross-divisional team you play twice, rotate the schedule so that every couple of years all schools play each other twice at least one season.

sometimes the so-called "best team" doesn't get to the big dance all of the time.

I understand that rivalries need to be protected. Akron and Kent State need to play twice every season, as do Ohio and Miami. The Big Ten (sorry to keep bringing them up) doesn't do this, and some seasons Ohio State and Michigan only meet once on the basketball floor. While this is a football rivalry first, those schools really should play each other twice every season.

This is a step in the right direction for the conference. It really wasn't fair for some teams to have to play four games to get to the championship game while another only has to play one. Yes, you should be rewarded with a bye (or two) based on how you did during the season. But a bye to the semifinals was one too many. 2010 and 2012 Ohio proved that someone other than the top two teams in the conference can be a Cinderella in March. Hopefully with the new format more teams will have better shots of getting chances to be the MAC's next NCAA Tournament giant-killer.