No more are the days when, in projecting the best teams in the Mid-American Conference, one could eliminate half the deck before even starting their breakdown.
Since the MAC went to divisions in 1997, the East Division has dominated play with few exceptions. That was especially true of late, as East teams Akron, Kent State, Miami (Ohio) and Ohio accounted for all nine league NCAA Tournament appearances from 2005-13. Meanwhile, the MAC West seemed proficient at only being as bad as the East was good. Just one of its teams even qualified for the MAC tourney final in that time (Toledo in 2006), and its weakness was never better displayed than 2007-08 when three teams combined to ‘win’ the West in a three-way tie at 7-9.
All of that changed quite suddenly this year, for after some polite progress the past couple years, the West made a huge leap. The MAC’s top two teams (Toledo and Western Michigan) both came from the West. So did three of the four semifinalists in the MAC Tournament. Western Michigan became the first West Division team to make the NCAAs in 10 years. Three West programs-Toledo, Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois-were all vastly improved. It’s safe to say: the West has caught the East.
Toledo and Western Michigan were the story of 2013-14 for the MAC. The Rockets wrote a good share of the book, getting off to a sizzling 12-0 start and winning 27 games with a high-energy offense that averaged nearly 80 points per game. The Broncos, meanwhile, provided a dramatic conclusion, improving as the season went on to charge to a tie for the West crown with Toledo, and then blitzing the Rockets in the MAC Tournament final for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Incidentally, the West’s surge overshadowed the improvement by Bobby Hurley at Buffalo resulting in its first East Division title, as well as the usual solid play by standbys Akron and Ohio. While still lacking a serious national threat, the MAC this year also was deeper than it has been in a while, with a finish of 12th in the RPI and five teams winning 20+ games. The balance of power has shifted, but more to the middle than completely to one side or the other. These are positive developments for a conference that had slumped into mediocrity in the minds of many, but has shown time and again in the past that it is capable of more.
The MAC Tournament is anywhere from a sprint or a marathon, depending on your seed. The bizarre format requires teams to win from 2-5 games to claim the title, but it worked according to plan this year, as higher seeds won 10 of the 11 games and just one team won more than two games in the tournament.
The longest run in the tourney came from Eastern Michigan, the sixth seed which won three games before bowing to second-seeded Toledo in the semifinals. The Eagles topped No. 11 Central Michigan (72-60) and No. 7 Northern Illinois (53-48), and then surprised No. 3 seed and East Division champ Buffalo 69-64 to become the only team outside the top four seeds to make the semis.
The Rockets stopped EMU 59-44 in the semifinals, while top seed Western Michigan also advanced to the final, but not without a significant amount of stress. Illustrating the fine line there often is in tournament play between winning titles and being just another team falling by the wayside, the Broncos fell behind No. 4 seed Akron by 17 points at halftime and still trailed by 15 with just over 10 minutes left in regulation. WMU thundered back, though, going on an 18-0 run to take the lead late, and the game eventually went to overtime, where David Brown scored nine of the Broncos’ 12 points in a 64-60 victory.
The championship game was close for a half, but Western Michigan raced away from Toledo in the final 20 minutes. The Broncos led by just two at the break but shot 67.9% and scored 56 points in the second half for a 98-77 win and their first NCAA bid in 10 years. Brown scored 32 points in the game and was named tourney MVP, while Tucker Haymond scored 21 and Shayne Whittington added 20 points and 13 rebounds as WMU outrebounded the Rockets 46-27.
Player of the Year: Javon McCrea, F, Sr., Buffalo
Freshman of the Year: Zavier Turner, Ball State
Sixth Man of the Year: Jake Kretzer, F, So., Akron
Defensive Player of the Year: Da’Shonte Riley, C, Sr., Eastern Michigan
Coach of the Year: Steve Hawkins, Western Michigan
Julius Brown, G, Jr., Toledo
David Brown, G, Sr., Western Michigan
Javon McCrea, F, Sr., Buffalo
Demetrius Treadwell, F, Sr., Akron
Shayne Whittington, F, Sr., Western Michigan
- Toledo jumped out to a 12-0 start and won a school-record 27 games. The Rockets’ 27-7 record represented an 11-win improvement from the previous season.
- Western Michigan finished its season in the opposite manner, winning 12 of 13 games before losing to Syracuse in its NCAA Tournament opener.
- Northern Illinois also finished with a 10-win improvement, improving from 5-25 to 15-17.
- The MAC had five 20-win teams for the first time since 1999-2000 and also finished 12th in the RPI, its best mark since ranking ninth in 2004-05.
What we expected, and it happened: Akron and Ohio remained among the MAC’s top teams. An indication of how good a program Keith Dambrot has built at Akron is that the Zips finished second in the MAC East and won 21 games, and some considered their season a slight disappointment. Ohio also was a tough out yet again, despite having few remaining contributors from its Sweet 16 team of two years ago.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Kent State did not stay near the top and in fact sagged towards the back of the MAC. The Golden Flashes got off to an 8-1 start to the season but finished just ninth of 12 teams in league play.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: A lot. Buffalo, Toledo, Eastern Michigan and Northern Illinois all were considerably improved. Also, as noted, the MAC East is no longer the dominant side that it has been for years. As a whole, the MAC took noticeable steps in becoming a deeper and better conference.
Teams on the rise: Toledo, Northern Illinois. The Rockets are a fun team and a very good team, with scoring threats galore. UT looks primed to end a 34-year NCAA Tournament drought. It took Mark Montgomery a couple years to get some footing at NIU, but the Huskies were much improved this year and return four of five starters.
Team on the decline: Kent State. The Golden Flashes slipped to the bottom half of the MAC last year, continuing a slow slide from their previous perch as one of the conference’s heavyweights. This next year is a big one for a program that has been a perennial threat in the MAC for a long time.
Next Season Conference Outlook
The MAC’s newfound balance should be reflected in next year’s championship race. Toledo will go into the season with big expectations, with four starters returning. But Akron may not be far behind the Rockets. All-conference selection Demetrius Treadwell was listed as a senior last year, but as a former Prop 48 qualifier is eligible for another year of eligibility if he graduates.
The rest of the conference looks a step behind on paper, but a number of teams have upside. Northern Illinois will be a dark horse to challenge for the crown with its experience, while Ohio, Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan all look to be down slightly, but return enough parts to remain challengers. Buffalo will be intriguing to watch to see what Hurley can do after losing McCrea plus two other starters, while Central Michigan returns almost everybody, including terrific junior guard Chris Fowler.
As noted above, Kent State is at something of a crossroads, but it also should be noted the Golden Flashes return all but two key contributors from last year’s team that got off to a good start. Miami, Ball State and Bowling Green look to bring up the rear and be in building or rebuilding mode, especially the latter two-John Cooper will be in Year Three at Miami, and after his success at Tennessee State it’s hard to imagine the Redhawks not getting better despite losing main horse Will Felder.
While notably a brutal league to win on the road in, this is a conference that should be in the mix for two NCAA bids every year. Not since 1999 has the MAC accomplished that, but given its overall improvement, that may change very soon.