Calvin Mattheis | Ohio Athletics

MAC Tournament Gets Underway

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The regular season is over and it is time for the 2017 Mid-American Conference Tournament. The top four teams earned a bye into the quarterfinals and go directly to Cleveland.

For the other eight teams, they play a game with the winner going to Cleveland. The game will take place at the campus of the higher seed. Here is a look at the four teams that will go directly to Cleveland.

#1 AKRON (24-7, 14-4)

The Zips have been the class of the MAC for years. This year head coach Keith Dambrot captured his fifth regular season title since 2006. Dambrot has not had a losing season in his time at Akron and has 12 straight 20-win seasons. This year’s squad is led by their bigs and devastating 3-point shooting. Isaiah “Big Dawg” Johnson leads the team in points per game (16.2), rebounds per game (7.4) and assists per game (2.9). Kwan Cheatham Jr. has had a career year, averaging more than 11 points per game and shooting 39 percent from beyond the arc.

Halfway through conference play, the Zips were flirting with perfection but an 85-70 loss to Ohio stopped those dreams. Akron ended the year on a bit of a low note, losing three of their last five games, including two at home. Those loses opened the door and has given hope to the other 11 teams. Dambrot is looking to make his fourth NCAA tournament.

Akron plays the winner of Eastern Michigan and Northern Illinois on Thursday. They are 2-0 against Eastern Michigan and 1-0 against Northern Illinois this season.

#2 OHIO (19-10, 11-7)

Coming into the year, The Bobcats were one of the favorites to win the MAC and make the NCAA tournament. Their season took a turn on Jan. 14 when MAC Player of the Year Antonio Campbell got hurt. A few days later, it was announced that Campbell would miss the rest of the year. When that happened they were written off. But that was not the case. Head coach Saul Phillips has the best defense in the MAC (70.1 points per game).

Since the injury, Jaaron Simmons, Jason Carter and Mike Laster have taken their games to  whole new levels. In the 15 games without Campbell, Carter has eight 15-point games and three double-doubles. Simmons has made a strong case for the player of the year award to stay in Athens. Simmons is the best point guard in the conference and the unquestioned leader of the team. Ohio is trying to make the “Big Dance” for the first time since 2011.

Ohio plays the winner of Bowling Green and Toledo. Ohio is 0-1 against Toledo and 2-0 against Bowling Green.

#3 BUFFALO (17-14, 11-7)

While Central Michigan guard Marcus Keene, Ohio and Akron get all the attention, it is the Bulls that have won back-to-back MAC Tournament titles. Former Duke star Bobby Hurley won the tournament in just his second year and then left for Arizona State. In his first year as a head coach, Nate Oats took the Bulls to the tournament. Now, like last year, they are the three seed.

The Bulls aren’t first in anything but they are near the top in a lot of areas. Buffalo is second in rebounding, blocks and field goal percentage defense. The Bulls are very athletic and rebound well. Blake Hamilton is their leader, averaging 17.8 points per game, 6.3 rebounds per game and 4.3 assists per contest.

Buffalo has won eight of their past 10 and will face the winner of Kent State and Central Michigan. They are 1-0 against Central Michigan and 1-1 against Kent State.

#4 BALL STATE (20-11, 11-7)

In his first year as coach, James Whitford won just five games. In year two he won seven. Now he captured a MAC West Title, for the second straight year. Ball State is one of two MAC teams to have 20 wins this year (Akron).

Ball State has the third best offense in the MAC (79.4 PPG) and is second in three-point percentage (37.9). Their 15.7 team assists per game is second best in the MAC. Guard Tayler Persons averages 16.2 PPG and 5.0 assists per game all while shooting just under 44 percent from beyond the arc.

Ball State has won five of six, including two over Northern Illinois. The Cardinals play the winner of Western Michigan and Miami. Ball State is 1-0 against Miami and 1-1 against Western Michigan.

Now for a quick look at the teams playing on Monday.

#5 WESTERN MICHIGAN (15-15, 11-7) VS MIAMI (11-20, 4-14)

Halfway through this year, it looked as though Western Michigan was headed for a miserable finish. Ten games into MAC play they were 3-7, but then something clicked. Their young players grew up and now they are on an eight-game winning streak. The Broncos went from last to fifth and was a lost tiebreaker away from a bye to Cleveland.

Junior guard Thomas Wilder is a load to guard. His 19.2 points per game is fourth best in the MAC. In his last six games, Wilder has gone for 30 twice. The Broncos don’t rank first or second in a single statistical category but they are the surprise team of the year and the hottest team in the MAC.

Western Michigan’s opponent, Miami has had a rough year. Miami had a stretch this year were they lost 13 of 15 games. But, Michael Weathers has been a very pleasant surprise this year. Weathers is a strong candidate for freshman of the year, (16.7 PPG and 4.7 assists per game and 1.7 steals per game). Miami ranks near the bottom in almost every offensive category, but the RedHawks force turnovers. They rank third in blocks and second in steals. Miami also comes in confident after beating Akron, in Akron on Tuesday.

These two teams met once this year and the game was in Oxford. Western Michigan won 72-55.

#6 KENT STATE (18-13, 10-8) VS #11 CENTRAL MICHIGAN (16-15, 6-12)

Senior forward Jimmy Hall leads Kent State. Quietly, Hall has put up a terrific season and will likely be a First Team All-MAC selection. Hall is averaging 18.2 points per game and 10.5 rebounds per game. Hall is the leader of the best rebounding team in the MAC. The Golden Flashes are terrific on the offensive glass, averaging more than 15 offensive boards per game and rebound almost 40 percent of their makes.

Kent State “rebounded” nicely after a 1-4 start of conference play. They’ve won five of six to end the season and come in with confidence.

Love offense? Watch Central Michigan. With the Chippewas, defense is optional. Central Michigan sits atop the MAC in points per game by eight points. However, they are last in the MAC in scoring defense by more than 10 points per game. However, Central Michigan has struggled down the stretch, dropping seven straight to close out the year.

Marcus Keene took the conference by storm. A Youngstown State transfer, Keene is in his first season at CMU. Keene, the favorite for player of the year, averages just under 30 points per game and has six games of 40 points or more and went for 50 in one of those games. Keene’s running mate, Braylon Rayson, averages more than 20 points per game. Keene and Rayson rank first and second in the MAC in points per game and are the only two players who average more than 20 points per game in the conference.

These two teams met back in January, in Kent. Central Michigan won 105-98 in overtime.

#9 EASTERN MICHIGAN (15-16, 7-11) VS #8 NORTHERN ILLINOIS (15-16, 7-11)

While Western Michigan wins the award for most surprising team, Eastern Michigan takes the cake for the biggest disappointment. The Eagles were the preseason pick to win the MAC West and had votes to represent the MAC in the “Big Dance.” Sophomore forward James Thompson IV completely avoided the sophomore slump. Thompson IV averaged 14.5 points and 11.0 rebounds per game.

Ray Lee had an up and down regular season. In and out of the lineup, he had to serve a suspension and had three games where he scored just two points. But he had always had the ability go off at anytime. Lee proved that when he scored 50 against Central Michigan on Tuesday. Despite the disappointing season, the Eagles are a very dangerous nine seed and very capable of pulling off an upset or two.

The Huskies are a throwback team. They play defense and don’t shoot or make many threes. The Huskies are dead last in 3-pointers made, but they make up for it with more than seven steals per game and allow 70.6 points per game, tied for second fewest in the MAC.

Marin Maric is one of the tallest players in the conference. Maric leads the team in points (14.1) and rebounds (8.1) per game. Coach Mark Montgomery spent nine years under Tom Izzo at Michigan State, so he knows a thing or two about making runs in March. If the Huskies can get past the Eagles, they played Akron tough this year and are a Cinderella candidate.

These two teams split their two meetings this year, with both teams winning on their home floor.

#7 TOLEDO (16-15, 9-9) VS #10 BOWLING GREEN (13-18, 7-11)

The Rockets blasted up to the second best offense in the conference this year, averaging almost 80 points a game. Toledo was terrific at home this year, winning 11 of 15 games.

Jonathan Williams is third in the MAC in points per game (19.7). While Williams is the leading scorer it is forward Steve Taylor, Jr. that has given the opposition fits all year. In the second game of the year, against Youngstown State, Taylor had 22 points and 23 rebounds. On Feb. 21 he nearly did it again, scoring 17 points and grabbing 23 rebounds. Taylor, a Marquette transfer, is a strong candidate for first team all MAC.

The Falcons have had a disappointing year but have rebounded nicely after starting MAC play 2-6. Bowling Green went 5-5 to close the year, and beat Akron. Making a run after being doubted would be nothing new to Bowling Green. The Falcons made the semifinals of the tournament last year. As the 12 seed, the Falcons upset fifth-seeded Kent State and fourth-seeded Central Michigan, before falling to Akron.

These two teams played twice this year. The first meeting, in Toledo, the Rockets won 85-73. The second one, in Bowling Green was a thriller. Bowling Green won 104-100 in double overtime.

The MAC tournament gets underway on Monday and then the teams have a few days off before Cleveland starts. The quarterfinals are on Thursday, the semifinals are Friday and the championship is Saturday evening.