MAC Gets Hustled Again Print E-mail
Written by Dave Ruthenberg   
Tuesday, March 13 2007
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Let me say upfront that I am an unabashed fan of the Mid-American Conference, something that should be obvious to anyone who reads MAC Report Online on a regular basis. Also, if you have, like myself, followed this conference over the years, you expect the shaft. Let's be honest. To be a MAC fan requires a thick skin, a healthy dose of dislike for the power brokers who have corrupted collegiate sports while maintaining a passion for the game itself. It's a tricky balancing act fraught with emotional peril.

That is why I promised myself that I would not once again get angry, upset or even slightly peeved when this time of year came around again. Well, another promise broken. If it's March it must mean the MAC is getting jobbed again.

The MAC has been a one-bid league for several seasons now when it comes to getting invited to the NCAA Tournament. As this season progressed, it was pretty much agreed by most observers, coaches and officials that the one-bid trend would continue for the MAC. No team stood out or had a marquee victory during the year that grabbed national attention. Most considered this to be a down year in the cyclical world of mid-major collegiate hoops for the conference.

But, like the completely forgettable Jim Carey flick, "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," things began to unravel for the MAC and in particular, the University of Akron, following the conclusion of the MAC Tournament title game. Unfortunately for those around the Akron program, this series of unfortunate events will not be easily forgotten.

Following Miami's upset victory over Akron on Doug Penno's banked three-pointer, most assumed that the Zips, after finishing the season at 26-7 would at the very least be in the NIT while holding out slim hope of an at-large NCAA bid. But it should not have been assumed at all because the all-too-real series of events had already been set in motion after the NCAA purchased the NIT and changed the rules, as we pointed out in our coverage following the championship game.

The Rule of 32: Send in the Clowns
Shortly after the NCAA purchased the NIT, thus completing its monopolistic control over collegiate hoops, it announced two significant changes: 1) The tournament would be reduced from 40 to 32 teams and 2) if a conference champion did not win its tournament nor receive a bid to the NCAA tournament, it would have an automatic bid to the NIT.

"The reduction from 40 to 32 teams created a situation for a reduction in opportunities," explained Mid-American Conference Director of Basketball Operations, Rick Boyages. "The added rule of extending automatic bids also further reduced the chances for an at-large bid, especially for the smaller conferences." 

Eight teams, including MAC regular season champion Toledo (19-12) received automatic bids to the NIT, reducing the number of available slots to 24. But what was not foreseen by most was the subjective, head-scratching criteria that were used by the NIT Selection Committee, headed by CM Newton who revealed himself to be the clown prince of the selection charade.

Newton, long since retired after several successful coaching stints in the SEC and serving as the athletic director at Kentucky, declared on the air that after reviewing each team's record, RPI and other pesky objective criteria, that they (the committee - made up of other put-out-to-pasture coaches) then went around and asked  each other which team they would least like to coach against. What? Are you kidding? These coaching elite fossils probably have not seen 90% of the teams that were up for NIT bids play in person. Most probably didn't even know Akron had a Division 1 basketball program.

"That was the most absurd thing I have ever heard," said Akron head coach Keith Dambrot in response to Newton's comments. "I never would have expected something like from such a highly regarded person. That's a damned shame. You can't make that statement and maintain credibility."

You also can't make a team (Clemson) a number one seed after it loses fourteen of its last eighteen games if you want to have any credibility.

"There is no rationale," Dambrot continued. "You can't tell me that Akron is not one of the 97 top teams in the country. I can't accept that. We had 26 wins, (the most of any team left out of a tournament) and our RPI was higher than six other teams that were invited to the NIT. How does Providence, Fresno State and North Carolina State get invited but not Akron? It seems that the RPI is important for the big guys but is tossed aside for the little guys."

"Understand that I am extremely disappointed for our guys. It's not about me or my career, it's about them and what they have achieved and getting left out." 

"You know," Dambrot continued, "for years the NIT had a crooked reputation and it was thought that it would be cleaned up when the NCAA purchased it, but things haven't changed." While there may not be a smoking gun, it had been known for a longtime that the NIT was home to backroom deals and setting up tournament pairings on the fly to ensure maximum revenue. It was hoped, as Dambrot correctly pointed out, that at least that aspect of the NIT would change. It did to a certain degree. Its selection process went from being shrouded in secrecy to out in the open incompetence.

Newton and his over-the-hill mob (Dean Smith - retired; Gene Keady - retired; Carroll Williams - retired; Jack Powers - retired; Rudy Davalos - retired; Don DeVoe - retired and Reggie Minton - retired) should promptly step down as the NIT needs to appoint a committee that doesn't require a Metamucil fix to start its day.

Newton's statement also surprised the MAC's Boyages as well. "It was perplexing to say the least," said Boyages who added that he was "shocked" but not stunned by the NIT's slight of the Zips, pointing to the reduction of the field and the fact that once the NIT rule about automatic bids to conference champions was put in place, it gave the NIT an excuse to exclude so-called mid-majors if their conference's champ was invited, as was precisely the case with Toledo but Boyages still took issue with Newton's comments.

"I know, as a former coach, that I until I see teams in person that I could not make that kind of determination and I suspect that they (the committee members) have not seen most of these teams," added Boyages.
Dambrot also received support from Eastern Michigan head coach Charles Ramsey who said he "feels terrible" about Akron not getting an invitation to dance. "It's totally unjust. I feel terrible for a group of kids who had done so much and aren't going to get the rewards they earned. They deserved much better. It really was a shot at the conference. I thought Kent State deserved some consideration too. We had four teams that could be in tournament play, yet only two are in."

The Aftermath
Once the emotions settle down things can be assessed in a clearer light. As it is now, many people have gone over the emotional deep-end in calling for the head of MAC Commissioner Rick Chryst, sending nasty voice and email messages to various conference officials and, more absurdly, suggesting that it is time for Akron to leave the MAC. The solution lies elsewhere.
But to understand the emotions, particularly those of the Akron faithful, you have to go back to the MAC Tournament championship game, specifically the last 6.6 seconds. We will not rehash the whole episode as it has been written about it in great detail already, but the sting of the nature of the last-second Miami victory still pains the Zips. "In my opinion the MAC still didn't get it right," said Dambrot about the controversial ending when six-tenths of a second were added to the clock. "The official scorer, who is the regular timekeeper for the Cleveland Cavaliers, feels terrible," added Boyages, "but the officials did everything they could to get it right in a difficult situation. They were watching the replay on an eight-inch monitor and using a stopwatch which five times revealed that six seconds had elapsed." Some conferences have gone to precision timing devices that are worn by the game referees and, when activated, the device automatically starts the game clock. But it is an expensive undertaking that only the top conferences can afford at this time. "It really does come down to cost. We are
actually waiting to see if the NCAA mandates it but part of the problem is that there is only one manufacturer of the device and if the NCAA mandates it, the cost, with only one supplier, would be very high," explained Boyages. As for the complaint that MAC referees are not up to par, Boyages adds that "there is no such thing as a MAC official. All the referees are independent contractors. We use the same officials who work games for the Big East, Big Ten and other conferences. Our director of officials, Sam Lickliter, does a tremendous job and we work together to evaluate the officials after every game with the support of observers. We assess their performance in the offseason as well." So why doesn't the MAC, or other conferences, have their own dedicated officials? Boyages explains, "It really comes down to the cost of insurance. Only the largest conferences would be able to afford hiring their own officials and even they shy away because of the cost." This is a factor that many of us do not see or readily recognize. Smaller conferences operate on the edge financially and while solutions may seem obvious, finances can dictate otherwise. It's all part of the collegiate sports equation where unfortunately the rich seem to get richer.

The Mid-American Conference would like nothing more than to shed its one-bid image.
Boyages indicates that currently the MAC is in regular contact with the NCAA Tournament Selection committee. "We have a primary and secondary contact from the NCAA Selection Committee that is assigned to our conference," he explains. "We are in constant communication with them with conference calls, we update them personally and notify them of good wins or close losses to top teams and we encourage them to attend our games in person." "I wish I had a silver bullet," continued Boyages when discussing the solution to fixing the one-bid nature of the MAC. "Unfortunately we have not had a team make a run in the tournament lately nor had a team grab national headlines with marquee wins in the past couple of seasons. I thought we had some opportunities, especially with the realignment that was taking place in conferences like Conference USA, the Atlantic 10 to grab some headlines but we have had no dominant teams. If we could have had just one team advance one or two rounds in the NCAA tournament that would have helped our profile."

Scheduling and RPI also remain interesting challenges for Mid-American Conference schools according to Boyages. "There is a bias built into the RPI. It's a moving target really. The smaller conferences have to schedule tough in the non-conference because their conference schedule brings down their RPI. The bigger conferences can afford softer scheduling because their conference schedule usually boosts their strength of schedule and RPI. Knowing this, the larger conferences typically won't come in and play a MAC school on the road so we have to be a little more creative in our scheduling."
Tougher scheduling is something that Boyages and the MAC have been preaching for a couple of seasons now but it is not a simple matter. "I am not going to go out and play every game on the road, it's not fair to my players," said Akron's Dambrot. "We tried to bring in bigger schools like Pitt and even teams from the Missouri Valley Conference, but they would not play at our place. I am not backing down from anybody, but we are not going to play all of our games on the road." Despite the MAC's inability lately in the postseason to advance, the MAC's reputation as a tough home opponent causes teams to shy away. Still, Boyages believes that the MAC must continue to schedule tougher, following the Missouri Valley Conference's mode. "They have been able to set up their scheduling so that they have 4-6 teams in the top 100 of the RPI when their regular season starts so that they are ranked high enough to sustain conference losses," said Boyages. Boyages believes that early season exempt tournaments are a key piece of the scheduling equation. "If you win in those tournaments, you advance to typically play a higher-profile team the further you go in the tournament," thus increasing a team's RPI. But even that has become difficult for the MAC as Western Michigan, according to a recent story in the Kalamazoo Gazette, has found itself shut out of a couple of preseason tournaments next season as the big schools have actually indicated that they would not participate if Western Michigan were in the tournament based on the Broncos' past success and ability to deliver upset victories. Fair or not, it is just another hurdle that the mid-majors face. Scheduling "triangles" are another area that Boyages believes could help elevate the MAC's RPI.  Such an arrangement would conceivably involve conferences like the Horizon League, Missouri Valley or other similar conferences. Further, Boyages believes that neutral court games are another way to increase the conference's profile as has been the case over the past couple of seasons with teams playing neutral site games against the likes of Kentucky and Cincinnati. The MAC's scheduling has improved, notes Boyages. "Some conferences have actually gone to assessing fines against members who do not adhere to scheduling mandates. We strongly encourage our members to follow a recommended scheduling model," he explains. The MAC however does not go so far as to fine member institutions. "The MAC has many unique economic factors at work that most people do not see. In Ohio and Michigan the state economies have been hit hard by the loss of jobs and therefore the state-funded schools have lost funding. These are things we have to be aware of when we discuss what is expected from the schools' athletics departments."

Whatever the causes, the MAC once again finds itself on the outside looking in at tournament time.

Once the dust settles and the emotions level off, some clear assessments will be made and hopefully the MAC will find itself on the path of that elusive multi-bid status. 

Until then, it's another bitter pill that most of us are forced to swallow.  
Last Updated ( Monday, September 03 2007 )
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