We have reached the midway point of the Mid-American Conference basketball season and it's time to take a look at where things stand as the season heads into the homestretch and teams try to position themselves for the upcoming conference tournament in March. It's also a good time to hand out some mid-season awards.
Quicken Loans Arena - home of the MAC Tournament
Frequently in sports one will see unusual streaks of dominance. In Major League Baseball the American League hasn't lost an All-Star game since 1996, but it wasn't too long ago that the National League had a similar run, winning eleven straight All-Star games from 1972 to 1982. In the NFL, the NFC once held a 13-year run on Super Bowl titles, winning the sport's biggest game every year from 1985-1997.
The MAC currently has its own version of one-sided dominance as well and there doesn't appear to be any end in sight, at least in the short term. The MAC East, continuing a trend from the past couple of seasons, has made an absolute joke of crossover play in the Mid-American Conference.
In games played through February 8, 2009 between the two divisions, the MAC East has used the West as its personal whipping post, having recorded victories in 22 of 24 games thus far. And it's not like the contests have even been all that competitive. In fact, looking at just this past weekend's action (Feb 7-8), the MAC East swept all six games by an average of better than 14 points. The MAC West averaged only 51.8 points in those six games with three teams (Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois and Toledo), lucky to hit 40 points.
Is the MAC East that good or is the West that bad?
|Akron continued the East's dominance over the West with an 87-63 win over the Broncos on Sunday.
Photo: Jeff Harwell
Prior to the start of MAC play the entire conference (except for perhaps Buffalo) had a very disappointing pre-MAC slate of games. Now, thanks to what appears to be the general ineptitude of MAC West squads, the MAC East has several teams with respectable appearing records with Buffalo, Miami and Akron havng legitimate shots at 20-win seasons before entering the conference tournament.
It appears that the MAC East owes the MAC West a big thank you for helping to puff up what were some pretty sorry looking won-loss records before crossover play began.
True, the MAC will likely be a one-bid (NCAA Tournament) league again this year, but with a total of four postseason tournaments now on the schedule, expect several MAC East teams to be playing in the postseason thanks in large part to the largesse of the East's brethren to the West.
Meanwhile, here is some trivia for you: When was the last time a team from the MAC West won the MAC tournament and secured the MAC's automatic bid? Answer: 2004 when Western Michigan defeated Kent State 77-66. More trivia: three of the last four tournament titles have been decided between MAC East foes.
If the season ended today and the MAC were to seed teams for the tournament based strictly on conference-records without regard to giving a 1 or 2 seed to the West division winner, all six MAC East teams would likely be seeded ahead of the MAC West, a division that doesn't have a single team with a winning overall record above .500.
As it is, based on the actual seeding procedure, and the current standings, here is how the MAC Tournament would shape up if it were held today:
(12) Eastern Michigan vs. (5) Bowling Green
(11) Toledo vs. (6) Ohio
(10) Northern Illinois vs. (7) Kent State
(9) Central Michigan vs. (8) Western Michigan
First-round byes: (4) Akron; (3) Miami; (2) Ball State; (1) Buffalo
Based on things right now, the MAC West schools' traveling itineraries should be very easy to plan with most likely not even having to book an overnight stay in Cleveland.
A couple of MAC teams currently reside in or near the Top 25 of the weekly Mid-Major Top 25 Poll sponsored by CollegeInsider.com.
Conference leading Buffalo (16-5, 8-1 MAC) is currently ranked 17th in the February 9, 2009 poll while Miami (14-7, 7-2 MAC) is sitting just outside the Top 25 with 55 points and a ranking of 26th in the poll whose voting panel consists of 31 coaches, including Western Michigan's Steve Hawkins and Charles Ramsey of Eastern Michigan.
|Miami head coach Charlie Coles - on pace to set MAC career victory mark
Speaking of coaches
For those who may have missed it, congratulations are in order to Miami head coach Charlie Coles who this season, his 13th at his alma mater, became the RedHawks' all-time leader in coaching victories when Miami defeated Bowling Green 67-60 on January. The victory was Coles' 217th career win at Miami.
Coles should also become the MAC's all-time winningest head coach this season.
Heading into Miami's game against Central Michigan February 10, Coles has 313 career wins overall which includes 190 wins in MAC play over 19 seasons. Five more conference wins and Coles will become the MAC's all-time leader in conference victories.
Every year MAC Report Online hands out post-season awards and we will do so again following the conclusion of this season. But what has separated this season's coverage from our coverage in the past has been the expanded, dedicated crew of writers and photographers that have been covering the beat for us this year.
We have been truly fortunate to have regular contributions from a talented group of professionals, so we thought we would tap into their expertise at the midway point of conference play. We polled our staff on their choices for some mid-season recognition and here is how it all shook out:
Player of the Year: Jerome Tillman, Ohio
Tillman was a near unanimous selection of our staff as the mid-season frontrunner for player of the year honors and it is hard to argue with this selection. Tillman, a senior, leads the MAC in scoring, averaging 18.7 points per game, tops the conference in both overall rebounding (8.6 per game) and defensive rebounding (5.86) and is fifth in offensive rebounding (2.73). Tillman is also seventh in field goal percentage (.489) and sixth in free throws (77.6 percent) in the MAC.
Tillman, a preseason All-MAC selection by the MAC News Media Association, was also Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook's preseason choice as MAC player of the year and was chosen as MAC player of the year by MAC Report Online as a sophomore two seasons ago-- clearly demonstrating our prescient abilities.
While the Bobcats have had a bit of an up and down season under first-year head coach John Groce, Tillman has been a steadying, dominant force. As he begins to wrap up his collegiate career, Tillman ranks in the top ten all-time at Ohio in both rebounding and scoring and is rapidly climbing the charts in both categories.
Tillman has scored 20 or more points on nine different occasions already this season and has registered double figures in scoring in every game.
Runner up: Michael Bramos, Miami.
Newcomer of the Year: Jarrod Jones, Ball State
While much of the focus on potential first year impact players focused on Akron's Humpty Hitchens, Kent State's Tyree Evans, Mike DiNunno of Northern Illinois and others, Jarrod Jones has emerged as potentially the top newcomer in the MAC and was our staff's choice for frontrunner status for newcomer of the year.
Photo: BSU Photo Services
Jones, a true freshman , has been one of the pleasant surprises on a team that had to overcome the season-ending loss of one of the top players in the MAC when the Cardinals lost the services of Anthony Newell early in the MAC season due to injury.
Jones, who got some early interest from Big Ten schools and others before an injury in high school scared away the big-time suitors, has really stepped up his play since the start of the MAC season and has been a solid perimeter performer in addition to providing a strong presence in the paint.
The 6-9 forward currently tops the MAC West leading Cardinals with an average of 10.8 points per game and is the team's top rebounder, averaging 7.2 boards per game. Jones was also recently named MAC West player of the week on Feb 2.
"He (Jones) is a very integral part of what we do on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor," noted Cardinals' head coach, Billy Taylor recently. "He has really elevated his game since MAC play began."
Jones leads all freshman in rebounding this season in the MAC.
Runners up: Anthony "Humpty" Hitchens, Akron; Steve Coleman, Ohio; Mike DiNunno, Northern Illinois.
Coach of the Year: Reggie Witherspoon, Buffalo
Let's be honest. Coming off two straight losing seasons, including a disastrous 10-20 (3-13 MAC) campaign last season, Reggie Witherspoon's tenth season as head coach at Buffalo had the makings of a classic "make or break" season. In fact some already likely had the engraving ready for Witherspoon's coaching headstone. The engraver however still may need to be employed on Witherspoon's behalf this season, but for a different reason: to mark the MAC Coach of the Year plaque with Witherspoon's name.
Witherspoon has the Bulls perched atop the MAC with an 8-1 record and the Bulls have shown little sign of slowing down, building upon a solid preseason run in Hawaii at the Rainbow Classsic where they claimed the tournament title.
Among the key moves that have paid off for the Bulls this season has been Witherspoon's decision to move Greg Gamble to the point and Rodney Pierce to the off-guard spot. Gamble has responded by leading the team with 3.81 assists per game (3rd MAC) while Pierce is the team's leading scorer (8th MAC), averaging 14.5 points per game.
Witherspoon has also wisely used forward Max Bourdreau off the bench in key situations while big man Vadim Fedotov has rebounded nicely from injury and has been another one of Witherspoon's interchangeable parts that have meshed together to form one of the MAC's better rounded teams.
Before the season started, Witherspoon told us he felt he had the pieces to make this the season that the Bulls program would pull out of its three-year tailspin. He was right. Now the rest of the MAC is trying to catch the Bulls, who are clearly moving upward and have corrected out of their tailspin with the moxie of a fighter pilot at the helm.
Runners up: Billy Taylor, Ball State; Keith Dambrot, Akron.
Surprise team: Buffalo
The Bulls were picked by just about every pre-season publication, and the MAC News Media Association, to finish last this season. And on the surface that sure seemed like an obvious choice. After all the Bulls were returning most of a team that not only finished at the bottom of the MAC heap last season in the standings but statistically as well. There didn't appear to be much reason for optimism.
But things changed early on this season even if many in the MAC failed to notice the change that was happening. Probably because most of it happened several time zones away at the Rainbow Classic.
Completely unexpectedly, the Bulls ran the table at the Rainbow Classic, defeating Pepperdine, Colorado and Colorado State in succession and have not stopped rolling, especially in MAC play where their only loss was on the road at Bowling Green by four points.
While many discounted the impact of the Bulls' returning nucleus, Witherspoon sees the returning experience as being a major component of the Bulls' turnaround.
"Maturity has been the key to our success," noted Witherspoon when asked about the Bulls' resurgence. "Experiences that we went through each of the last two seasons helped toughen our guys for the challenges of this year."
Halfway through the MAC slate, the Bulls appear to be the ones laying down the gauntlet and issuing the challenge to the rest of the MAC. Quite a turnaround.
Runners up: Ball State, Akron.
Most disappointing team: Eastern Michigan
Then there's the other end of the spectrum. Eastern Michigan was picked to finish second in the MAC West by most preseason publications and in the official MAC preseason poll. Some even saw the Eagles contending for a MAC West crown.
But the season fell apart before it ever got started.
|Carlos Medlock - lost for the season before the season began
For the second straight season, the Eagles had to deal with the loss of one of its starters as preseason All-MAC guard Carlos Medlock was felled by a recurring foot injury that required surgery. It was eerily similar to last season when forward Brandon Bowdry went down in the preseason with a foot injury.
With Medlock lost, redshirt freshman L.J. Frazier was forced to step into the role of point guard and, Frazier, and the Eagles, sagged under the pressure of the loss of Medlock. The backcourt took an additional hit when it was announced that starting guard Solomon Farris was suspended for the season. With no backcourt experience, and little perimeter range, the Eagles have struggled badly to put points on the board.
The Eagles have been held to 57 or fewer points in their last seven games and have been held under fifty points in four of their last five games while losing by an average margin of 15 points during their current seven-game losing streak.
EMU, which has defeated only one Division I team this year (an 84-77 2OT win over Central Michigan on January 13 - their last win), has also had to deal with not having head coach Charles Ramsey on the bench for four games this season.
Earlier this season, after a 62-47 setback against Detroit, Ramsey was alleged to have been involved in an altercation with the roommate of forward Zane Gay in the hallway at Detroit's Calihan Hall. That resulted in a one-game suspension for the coach which he served against Wayne State (a 67-47 win). More recently, Ramsey missed three games due to a nasty case of vertigo before returning to the bench in the Eagles' most recent home contest against Akron.
It's been a dizzying descent down the MAC West standings this season indeed for EMU after three years of moderate progress under Ramsey.
Runners up: Toledo, Western Michigan and Kent State.