Quarterfinals provide intriguing matchups Print E-mail
Written by J. Scott Fitzwater   
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All-out efforts are a staple of MAC tourney play, and eight teams remain alive in a quest for the MAC tournament championship. Miami and Bowling Green, shown here, see action in Thursday's afternoon matchups. File photo by Mike Smith.
For my money, quarterfinal Thursday is the best day of the season.  It's a virtual noon-to-midnight basketball party that consistently delivers at least one overtime thriller.  The eight best teams in the MAC are all in action today. Let's take a look at what's on tap:

2. Western Michigan vs 7. Bowling Green - Noon

The Western Michigan Broncos quietly gallop into Cleveland on a roll.  They won 7 of their last 8, the only defeat at home Feb. 21 in a 74-72 nail-biter to Kent State.  The Bowling Green Falcons, on the other hand, lost 8 of the last 11 after starting 6-2 in conference play.  Their previous meeting this year was a 75-61 WMU victory in Bowling Green Feb. 5.

On paper, this seems like an easy Bronco victory.  After all, WMU is arguably the MAC's best rebounding team, ranking first in offensive rebounding percentage (38.2%) and sixth in defensive (68.7%), leading BG in both categories (29.9% and 66.7%, respectively).  They run a more efficient offense (scoring 1.05 points per offensive possession, compared to 0.98 for BG) and defense (allowing 0.98 points per defensive possession, compared to 1.01 for BG).

There are caveats to consider, however.  The first is the Bronco defense, which has been caught sleeping at times.  If the WMU players don't bring sufficient focus on the opposite end of the floor, they're in for a fight.  The other is the start time.  Yesterday, the Falcon women needed nearly 30 minutes of game time to wake up from a sluggish start in the noon game.  The longer layover created by a first-round bye, the early start time, the unfamiliar surroundings with little acclimation time, and a 2-3 zone that will try to force the Broncos to make jumpers with these factors working against them can keep Bowling Green in the game.  But if Western gets off to a fast start, look for them to put the Falcons away early.

3. Miami vs 6. Akron - 2:30 p.m. or 30 minutes after the conclusion of previous game

This one is juicy.  The Zips and the RedHawks are making a habit of meeting in Cleveland in odd years.  I need not remind Akron fans of the history between these two teams, but I will point out the Zips are 7-2 against Miami since the 2007 championship game.  One of those Miami wins came this year, though, a 84-76 triumph in Oxford Jan. 19.  Akron returned the favor Feb. 23 in the JAR, winning 72-55.

For those that wait until March to pay attention, this is not a vintage Charlie Coles team.  Miami traditionally plays at a grind-it-out pace, but this year they sport a more moderate 66.3 possessions per 40 minutes.  They also win on the strength of their offense (1.035 O-PPP), not their defense (1.039 D-PPP).  Key stat: They lead the MAC in free throw percentage (75.6%).  Remember this late in the second half.  They shoot a higher percentage than Akron in every category.  The 'Hawks are also a strong rebounding team, securing 33.5% of their own misses and 70.4% of their opponents'.

This year's Akron model also differs slightly from what we've come to expect of the Keith Dambrot brand.  Normally a team that makes hay on the glass, they get back a mere 28.8% of their misses.  On the defensive boards, they are a solid 69.5%.  More in line with what we're accustomed to seeing, they are a defensively-oriented team (0.973 D-PPP, fifth in the conference) with a balanced offense (six players score at least 8 points per game).

Watch the battle in the paint between Julian Mavunga of Miami and Nikola Cvetinovic of Akron, the best player for both teams.  Mavunga is a talented offensive player who can get creative down low for easy baskets and draw fouls (he attempted 202 free throws this season) and step back for a three-ball (34.5%).  No offensive liability himself, Cvetinovic is the better player defensively, though Mavunga has gotten the upper hand this season, shooting 52% in their two games.

Neither team forces many turnovers.  But Akron is the MAC's best in holding onto the ball (17.7% turnover rate) and Miami near the bottom (20.4%).

1. Kent State vs 8. Buffalo - 7 p.m.

For a top seed, the Golden Flashes don't get much respect; Vegas opened betting with the Bulls a one-point favorite.  Then again, UB matches up better with Kent than anyone else in the conference.  However, Buffalo stumbled after a six game winning streak while Kent held firm to win the regular season crown for a second straight season.  They split the regular season series, with UB routing Kent 79-54 in Amherst Jan. 19 and the Flashes recovering from a 10-point halftime hole to win 72-69 Feb. 24.

That doesn't mean Geno Ford will take Buffalo lightly for a single moment, not after watching his team dumped in the quarterfinals last year.  This will be a battle between two of the MAC's best defenses, with Kent third in defensive efficiency (0.963 D-PPP) and UB fourth (0.968).  Offensively, it's a different story.  Buffalo can light up the scoreboard or struggle to put the ball in the basket, while KSU is steadier.  They don't produce many great offensive performances, but they don't turn out clunkers, either.

This game also features a fun forward battle, as Kent's Justin Greene will tangle with UB's Mitchell Watt.  On the perimeter, the Bulls feature versatile point guard Byron Mulkey and long-range sniper Zach Filzen.  The Flashes will counter with Rodriquez Sherman, who provide whatever the team needs, and Michael Porrini.

Kent State is the conference's best team (again), and they have to be hungry to prove it with a single tournament win the previous two seasons.  Buffalo, however, has thoroughly outplayed them in three of their four halves this year.  Something's gotta give.

4. Ball State vs 5. Ohio - 9:30 p.m. or 30 minutes after conclusion of previous game

The Bobcats won the single meeting between these two teams, a contentious 61-60 affair Jan. 29 in Muncie that included a second half fight.  Ohio comes in winners of 6 of their last 7 while the Cardinals recovered from a midseason swoon to win 4 of the last 5 MAC games to secure a first-round bye.

This will be a contrast in styles.  The 'Cats like to run and get points in transition with a halfcourt scheme designed to maximize three-point chances.  They are the conference's top shooting team (53.3% effective field goal percentage) and best offense (1.072 O-PPP), but they struggle defensively (1.027 D-PPP) and are prone to lapses in focus.  BSU is more inclined toward patience on offense and prefers shots closer to the basket.  They attempted 222 threes, just one more than last place Bowling Green.

Perhaps appropriately, the Cardinals' best player is forward Jarrod Jones, a 51% shooter and nightly double-double threat.  They also have the remarkably efficient freshman Chris Bond, a 59% shooter.  BSU will need a good night from Jauwan Scaife, their lone threat from behind the arc.  Ohio's best is guard DJ Cooper, one of the nation's top distributors.  They also have two of the country's best three-point shooters in Tommy Freeman (44.2%) and Nick Kellogg (45.3%).  The tipping point might be forward Ivo Baltic.  The sophomore has taken a leap in the second half of the season, notching 24 points or more in 3 of the last 9 MAC contests.  Senior big man Devaughn Washington is always good for a highlight dunk or two.

Both teams like to force turnovers on defense, with Ball State slightly better at it (21% to 20%).  Ohio, however, is better at holding onto it (18.3% to 20.8%).  The Cardinals would love to get revenge on the Bobcats for ending their season last year.  Their game in January was played closer to OU's preferred pace, and BSU is going to need to prevent fast breaks and the quick-strike offense Ohio prefers.  If they can't find a good look in the first 10-15 seconds, the 'Cats will often fail to find one at all.  Slow them down and keep them off the offensive glass and the Cardinals will have a very good chance of advancing.

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