MAC Hopes To Expand Its Dance Card Print E-mail
Written by Dave Ruthenberg   
Wednesday, January 23 2008
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ImageIt's nearing that time of year again when basketball fans across the MAC nervously survey the national landscape, trying to determine if the MAC will secure that seemingly elusive second bid to the NCAA Tournament. We thought it was also a good time to chat up Rick Boyages who is Associate Commissioner/Director of Men's Basketball Operations for the MAC and discuss the possibility of multiple bids and other pressing issues surrounding MAC hoops.

Boyages, now in his third season with the MAC, brings a unique perspective as a former coach. Prior to joining the MAC, Boyages was the associate head coach at Ohio State during the Buckeyes' run to the Final Four in 1999. Boyages was later head coach at William & Mary before returning to Ohio State in 2003 where he served as the interim head coach and special assistant to the athletic director before joining the MAC in his current capacity. His 17-year collegiate coaching career also included a stop at Boston College.


 Rick Boyages

Calling his three years in the MAC, a "great experience," Boyages points to the MAC Tournament in Cleveland as one of the high points in his three years. "We have a great tournament in Cleveland at a professional venue," notes Boyages. "I have been involved in a lot of (conference) tournaments with the Big East, Atlantic 10 and Colonial and I can honestly say that the MAC Tournament is as good as any. People would rate the MAC and the Missouri Valley Conference tournaments as two that you want to see."

Last season the MAC changed the format of its tournament to include all twelve teams in Cleveland. Previously the first round of the tournament was played on campus sites, based on seeding. "It was so important to have all twelve teams in Cleveland last year. Look at Eastern Michigan, a program that had never been to Cleveland and it made a significant impact on their program to come into Cleveland and win an opening round game," said Boyages.

The relationship with the folks at Quicken Loans Arena appears to be on solid ground for the foreseeable future. "The new owners (of the arena) have been tremendous and the fact that the tournament has grown in popularity and makes money for them has really solidified our relationship." But that doesn't mean scheduling is a slam-dunk.

The recent addition of an Arena Football League team and a minor league hockey team as tenants at "the Q" means a smaller window of available times which could force the women's tournament to another site in the early rounds in the future but the men's side of the bracket seems set for Cleveland, something that Boyages would not change.

"You look at other conference tournaments and the fact that we have a true neutral site lends greater credibility to our tournament champion," notes Boyages. He points to conference tournaments held on campus as an example of where the MAC holds the upper hand.

"Conference USA has their tournament on campus of the best team in the conference (Memphis), how do you think that tournament is going to end?," Boyages asks rhetorically. He also points to last season's Horizon League tournament which was played on the campus of Wright State which received a bye into the semifinal round, upset highly-ranked Butler and secured the league's automatic bid. It was a quirk of fate that also delivered the Horizon League a second NCAA tournament bid as Butler, with its high ranking, could not be left out of the mix.

That brings us to the sticky question of whether the MAC will receive multiple bids this season.

"We are not satisfied with being a one-bid league," Boyages states emphatically when discussing prospects for this year's NCAA Tournament. "As soon as you accept that you are essentially giving up. The frustration, admittedly, has been that bids have been available for the past couple of years but we had flatlined with no standout teams or NBA prospects. This season we are close."

Boyages points to the strong play of several MAC East squads as providing the best prospects for multiple bids this season. "The best resumes right now belong to Kent State, Akron and Ohio. Miami had some nice wins but is struggling right now. The teams in the East will benefit from playing Top 100 games against each other. Kent State is sitting in good shape with a good non-conference schedule with some nice wins and Ohio has recorded some quality wins and had some close quality losses against Temple and Holy Cross."

Last season Akron, despite finishing at 26-7, was left out of postseason play completely. The Zips appear well on their way to another twenty win season but still face questions about the quality of their non-conference slate.

"Akron is having a helluva year," notes Boyages who also observes however that "they will have to battle against their strength of schedule (currently ranked at 222 out of 328). (Head coach) Keith Dambrot has done a great job bringing his team along and I know he had some concerns about scheduling with a young team coming back following the loss of Romeo Travis and Dru Joyce." 

Scheduling though can be a bit of sticky wicket at times for MAC schools. Most schools from the so-called power conferences still won't venture into MAC venues and the allure of a $65,000-70,000 payday to play on the road against a big time opponent is too much of a temptation to turn down for most MAC teams. Even in those instances, many of the larger programs are selective about which teams they will play.

Recently Kansas hosted two MAC schools but was able to offer a slightly reduced payday (around $40,000) in exchange for exposure on national TV. But some schools in the MAC face greater scheduling challenges than others.

Western Michigan has experienced some of that difficulty as well, having good teams but struggling to get teams with an RPI in the 75-200 range to visit them in Kalamazoo.

 CMU's Rose Arena

"I think Central Michigan probably has the greatest challenge in terms of getting people to come in to play at their arena," Boyages states, noting that the CMU campus is not located near a major metropolitan hub, thereby increasing travel expenses for teams visiting Rose Arena in terms of transportation costs.

"In those instances we try to help to secure scheduling agreements whenever possible such as we did with Davidson visiting Western Michigan. We try to work out agreements with other schools that are having similar scheduling difficulties."

Also presenting some difficulty with bringing in attractive non-conference opposition has been the issue of venue size. The Missouri Valley Conference, with newer and larger facilities can offer bigger paydays for visiting teams. The MAC, with older facilities in places like Akron, Central Michigan and Toledo, cannot offer the same benefits to a visiting team. However with renovations and/or new arenas being planned, that could change over the next couple of seasons.

But even when it comes to facility upgrades, the MAC's schools face different demands than those faced by teams from the Big Ten or other power conferences. Those schools, Boyages notes, have large revenue streams that allow them to focus resources on athletic facilities while the MAC schools typically have to look at the larger picture and for every upgrade to an arena must balance that against upgrades in academic facilities as the funds typically come from the same resources.

Boyages also believes the key to securing multiple-bids on a consistent basis is for the conference to return to the top ten in RPI. Currently the MAC sits 13th in RPI but is fourth in terms of strength of schedule.

"The difficulty (in climbing higher in the conference RPI ranks) has been the bottom half of our league," says Boyages. "But I am really encouraged by the quality of coaches that were brought in this past season in the MAC West as all three (Ricardo Patton at Northern Illinois; Louis Orr at Bowling Green and Billy Taylor at Ball State) come in with head coaching experience and experience coaching in the tournament. Those hires were a solid statement from the Athletic Directors and Presidents of those schools that they were willing to pay more as an investment in their head coaches and also sends the message we are not going to be satisfied to be a one-bid league."

Bowling Green head coach Louis Orr
Photo: Andrew Weber

"We're in a cycle right now and those cycles include coaching changes. Some are in a tough spot. Billy Taylor at Ball State has a lot of challenges as does Louis Orr where they were having to deal with wholesale program changes.  Those kinds of changes take at least 2-3 years as your first recruiting class does not even show up until your second year."

Recent changes in the postseason landscape have also hurt the MAC's chances at garnering multiple postseason bids.

Last season the NIT, which is now wholly owned by the NCAA, reduced its field from 40 to 32 teams and announced that it would offer a guaranteed bid to a regular season conference champion if that champion failed to win its conference's tournament and not receive a bid to the Big Dance. It was an equation that Boyages immediately recognized as one not favorable to the MAC or other non-power conferences.

"The changes made by the NIT hurt dramatically," observed Boyages. "I am also not sure that the NIT selection committee members have the same level of energy and desire as we see on the NCAA selection committee."  While the NCAA committee consists of active Athletic Directors and administrators, such as Kent State athletic director Laing Kennedy, the NIT committee is made up primarily of retired coaches such as Gene Keady and Dean Smith.

Boyages also points to a new postseason tournament that will compete directly with the NIT as a possibility for the MAC to secure additional postseason opportunities with the advent of the College Basketball Invitational, a 16-team event that will run opposite the NIT and draw from teams not selected to play in the NCAA Tournament. The new tournament, which is still seeking a television deal, would be run the by the Gazelle Group which manages preseason tournaments such as the O'Reilly Auto Parts College Basketball Classic and the 2K Sports Hoops Classic.

But the focus remains on getting more MAC teams into the NCAA tournament.

"We maintain constant contact with the selection committee members," said Boyages." The bids have been out there but we have to battle against other conferences like the WAC, Missouri Valley and Mountain West to get those bids."

comcast_local.jpgIt is also at times a struggle to get critical television exposure and the recent announcement by Comcast that the communications giant was going to shutdown the operations of Comcast Local dealt a blow to MAC coverage, particularly in Indiana and Michigan. Comcast Local has indicated that it will honor its commitment to carry live events through the end of February but leaves a hole in MAC coverage both in terms of reach and cost.

"Comcast Local was a good situation for us as they were looking for programming and picked up the production costs," notes Boyages. With other regional packages, such as with FSN Ohio, the MAC shares production costs. The decision by Comcast was based on the fact that they were not able to secure deals with the professional sports teams in their broadcast areas.

Boyages indicates that the MAC is in discussions with FSN Detroit to carry MAC events but with the station carrying Pistons and Red Wings games, there is a very small window of available times.

The MAC has been working to get more games on the ESPN family of channels and has several games this season on ESPNU and had one contest on ESPN Classic. Schools have worked out deals with regional networks such as Ohio has done with the Guardian Television Network and Toledo with BCSN.

"We are always looking for opportunities, particularly on ESPN but the start times aren't always the best and the schools have the option of not moving their scheduled games to accommodate TV but we have been very fortunate in that we have a group that understands what is best for the conference as a whole," notes Boyages.

As an example he cites his experience in the Big East when it came time to dividing up television coverage among the teams. "It was a bloodbath at times with every school demanding their slice of the pie. It was really cut-throat. Coaches and administrators here however understand the bigger picture. Recently, (NIU head coach) Ricardo Patton, during a meeting discussing TV options, told us 'do whatever is best for the conference,' and that kind of understanding really makes a difference."

We also touched on several other areas in our conversation with Boyages, such as:

Do the MAC schools invest too much in supporting football? Boyages states that the MAC overall benefits from being 1A in football with football generating revenues that help support the conference's operating budget and raise the profile of the MAC.

What is the possibility of Temple joining the MAC in all sports? According to Boyages, Temple is operating on a five-year plan that runs through 2010 and during the five years there are scheduled points that the relationship is reviewed. If Temple is to remain in the MAC beyond 2010 the deal calls for the Owls to join the MAC as a full member. There are also ongoing discussions of additional expansion.

Precision timing comes to the MAC. Everybody likely recalls last year's controversy at the end of the MAC Tournament with the issue of how much time was left on the clock in the closing moments of the finals between Miami and Akron. Boyages advises that the MAC has taken steps that will hopefully avoid such a scenario in the future as all MAC game officials now wear "Precision Timing Devices" on their belts. The scoreboard clock is now engaged when the first on-floor official trips a button upon play being resumed. Likewise, the clock stops automatically at the sound of the whistle which is transmitted via a microphone contained within the precision timing device.

Overall the MAC appears to be moving forward with stronger scheduling which is reflected in the fact that the MAC currently has four teams in the Top 100 in RPI and three ranked in the top 60. Will the MAC gain more bids? It remains to be seen but it is clear that the MAC and its member schools are operating in a cooperative manner to increase the league's profile and increase its postseason prospects.

Time will tell.

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