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2014 Mid-American Conference Tournament Preview

(SportsNetwork.com) - The Akron Zips have been at least present in the Mid- American Conference Tournament championship contest for seven consecutive seasons, but the Zips, who were kings of the league for the nearly a decade, have some fierce competition as the MAC postseason gets underway in 2014.

The Mid-American Conference Tournament kicks off on Monday, March 10, and runs through Saturday, March 15, where the championship contest will decide which team gets an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.

First-round games will be played at campus sites of the higher-seeded opponent, and then the field will shift to Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, the home of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Four teams will receive byes past the second round, while the MAC's bottom eight seeds will battle it out to determine which ones get to challenge a top-four seed later in the week.

Whether the Mid-American Conference gets more than the one automatic qualifier into the NCAA Tournament field is still yet to be determined, especially considering the conference's mid-major status. But some squads have put up convincing records, and the decision will be left with the tournament committee.

Teams receiving byes into the later rounds include top-seeded Western Michigan, Toledo, Buffalo and Akron.

Western Michigan won the MAC West Division regular-season crown after going 14-4 in conference play, owning a tiebreaker with Toledo. The Rockets get the second seed after finishing with an identical 14-4 record in conference play, but lost to more West Division opponents than did the Broncos. Those two squads get automatic byes into the semifinal round. Buffalo earned the three seed by winning the MAC East Division with a 13-5 conference record, and Akron, at 12-6 in the league, receives the four seed. Both Buffalo and Akron will clash in the third round with whichever two teams make it out of the first two rounds.

Western Michigan (21-9, 14-4 MAC) kicked off conference play with a win over Toledo back on Jan. 8 this season. At that point, the loss was just Toledo's second of the year - the first came just days earlier to 16th-ranked Kansas. The Broncos, who earn a triple-bye into the semifinal round of the tournament, were boosted by an eight-game winning streak during conference play, and since the start of February, WMU has only dropped one contest. The Broncos enter the tournament on a two-game win streak. Western Michigan has only won one conference championship - back in 2004 when the team defeated Kent State for the title. The Broncos enter this postseason with a 20-29 record all-time in the MAC Tournament. David Brown (19.1 ppg) leads the conference in scoring average, while his teammate and frontcourt specialist Shayne Whittington (16.1 ppg) checks in at fourth in the MAC at regular-season's end. Whittington's 8.8 rpg mark was third in the MAC and first on the Broncos. Connar Tava (11.8 ppg) was second in the conference standings in field goal percentage this year, burying 60.7 percent of his shots from the floor. In fact, the Broncos as a unit checked in at second in the MAC in total field goal percentages with a combined 46.4 percent. Western Michigan can face one of five teams in the semifinal round, but the picture will become clearer as the tournament rolls on.

Toledo (26-5, 14-4) just barely earned the second seed in the conference and in the West Division, also getting a triple-bye to the semis. The Rockets started the season by winning their first 12 games, then plowed through conference action. Toledo lost out on the tiebreaker with WMU after dropping three games to West Division opponents, while the Broncos lost to just two. It's been over 30 years since the Rockets won their last (and only) MAC crown back in 1980. Toledo owns a 26-28 all-time record in the conference tournament, and last appeared in a conference championship game in 2006. The Rockets have won three straight coming into the postseason tournament, and sport an immensely powerful offense, which leads the MAC in scoring average at 80.6 ppg. Their +7 scoring margin is the conference's best, and Toledo is the only squad in the MAC better than WMU in field goal percentages, netting 47.1 percent combined from the field. Julius Brown tops the squad with 14.8 ppg, and leads the Rockets and the conference with a 6.3 apg average. Justin Drummond comes in at 14.5 ppg, and Rian Pearson adds 14.3 ppg. J.D. Weatherspoon, the team's leading rebounder (6.7 rpg) rounds out the team's double-digit scorers at 11.3 ppg.

In last year's MAC Tournament, Buffalo survived the first two rounds to earn a date with Kent State in the third round, where the team suffered a two-point loss to end the season. This year, the Bulls (19-9, 13-5) are East Division MAC champions, and get a double-bye into the third round as the conference's third overall seed. They enter the postseason having won five of their last six regular-season contests. Buffalo has never won the conference title before, and is just 11-14 all-time in the MAC Tournament. Senior forward Javon McCrea was one of the better all-around players in the league, checking in at second in the MAC (and first on the Bulls) in scoring with 18.9 ppg, second in the conference in rebounding with a 9.8 rpg clip, and third in the MAC with 2.2 blocked shots per contest. The Bulls, who were second in the league in scoring offense at 73.9 ppg, were aided by 13.1 ppg from Joshua Freelove and 10.4 ppg from Will Regan. Jarod Oldham led the team and was third in the MAC with 5.2 apg. Buffalo can play one of four teams in the third round, depending on what transpires in the first two.

At this point, it just wouldn't be a Mid-American Conference Tournament if Akron wasn't at least a contender. The Zips (20-11, 12-6) receive the second double-bye after finishing a game behind Buffalo in the MAC East Division with a 12-6 conference record. A crucial stretch late in February saw the Zips lose four of five games, which dropped them out of first place in the East Division. But Akron, which has taken part in the last seven conference title games (winning three), enters the postseason on a three-game win streak. The Zips' three titles they have won are their only three titles in MAC program history, and they enter this tournament with a 20-13 all-time record in the conference bracket. Akron sports the worst combined free-throw percentages in the league at 62.5 percent, and checks in at seventh in-conference in scoring offense with 67.7 ppg. Demetrius Treadwell, last year's MAC Tournament MVP, paces the Zips with 14.7 ppg and 8.7 rpg. Quincy Diggs comes in at second on the squad with 12.2 ppg and a team-high 2.6 apg average. Like Buffalo, Akron will face one of four potential opponents in the third round.

The first round of the MAC Tournament will start Monday with a matchup between the 12th-seeded Ball State Cardinals and the fifth-seeded Ohio Bobcats.

Ball State (5-24, 2-16) had a rough season, especially in conference action. The Cardinals suffered through a seven-game losing skid in non-conference play, then lost 10 straight spanning from Jan. 26 to Feb. 26. Ball State enters the tournament having lost its last two contests. It's been a down year for the Cards, but they still own the most MAC championship titles (seven) out of any current team in the conference, but haven't won since 2000. Chris Bond leads Ball State with 12.3 ppg this season, followed closely by Zavier Turner at 12 ppg. Turner's 103 assists tops the team, but he also has turned the ball over a Cardinals-high 117 times. Majok Majok averages a double-double on the year with 11.1 ppg and a conference-high 10.1 rpg. Ball State brings in a second-worst 73.7 ppg scoring defense into the matchup.

Ohio (21-10, 11-7), last season's runner-up in the MAC, has won its last two games coming into the tournament, and finished a game behind Akron in the league standings. The Bobcats have the second-most conference titles to their name with six, last winning just two years ago in 2012. Both the Bobcats and the Cardinals own 37-26 all-time records in the conference tourney. Ohio is led by Nick Kellogg (15.3 ppg), who is fifth in the conference in scoring. Maurice Ndour chips in 14.4 ppg and leads the Bobcats with 7 rpg and 51 blocked shots. Ohio is second in the MAC in field-goal percentage defense (40.8 percent allowed) and second in 3-point field-goal percentage (34.8 percent).

The second first-round matchup will pit the ninth-seeded Kent State Golden Flashes against the eighth-seeded Miami-Ohio RedHawks.

Kent State (16-15, 7-11) lost four of its last five games of the season that capped off an up-and-down ride for the Golden Flashes in 2013-14. Kent State, which last appeared in a MAC championship contest in 2011 and last won it in 2008, has won five all-time MAC titles. Kris Brewer topped the Golden Flashes with an 11.7 ppg average, also tallying 91 assists on the season. Derek Jackson chipped in 11 ppg, and Devareaux Manley was right off the double-digit scoring pace at 9.7 ppg. Mark Henniger's 5.1 rpg mark was a team high, and Khaliq Spicer came on strong at the end of the season, racking up a team-high 44 blocked shots.

Miami-Ohio (12-17, 8-10) finished a game ahead of Kent State in the MAC East Division this season, and split the season series with the Golden Flashes. The RedHawks have dropped two of their last three games coming into the tournament, and haven't won a conference championship title since 2007. The RedHawks own a 37-28 record all-time in the MAC postseason. Miami-Ohio owned the second-worst scoring margin in the conference at minus-4.7 ppg, but had the best percentage from the free-throw line in the MAC at 75.3 percent. Will Felder tops the team in scoring with a 14.6 ppg average (eighth in the MAC), adding a team-high 6.9 rpg mark, and Geovonie McKnight comes in with 9.7 ppg. Quinten Rollins leads the league in steals with 2.4 per outing. The RedHawks average just 65.4 ppg (10th in conference) and give up 70.1 ppg to opponents. The winner of this contest will take on the winner of Ball State and Ohio in the second round on Wednesday.

The first-round matchups continue on Monday with a clash between the 11th- seeded Central Michigan Chippewas and the sixth-seeded Eastern Michigan Eagles.

Central Michigan (10-20, 3-15) had a rough year in MAC play, suffering through eight- and four-game losing streaks to start and end league action. The Chippewas haven't had much success in recent years in the conference tourney, having last earned the league's auto bid to the NCAA Tournament back in 2003 and bringing a 14-19 all-time MAC Tournament record to this postseason. Even though the Chippewas had such a sub-par season record-wise, they still managed to finish third in the conference in scoring offense with 72.9 ppg. The problem was the team's scoring defense, which gave up a league-worst 73.9 ppg and allowed opponents to hit 49.1 percent of their field goal tries on the season - also the worst in the conference. Chris Fowler was one of the few bright spots on the team, netting 17.7 ppg (third in the MAC) and dishing out 5.3 apg (second in the MAC). Freshman Braylon Rayson had a strong second half to the year, finishing the regular season averaging 10.8 ppg. John Simons completed the three-headed CMU attack with 10.7 ppg.

Eastern Michigan (18-13, 10-8) typically took two steps forward and one step back during the course of the regular season. The Eagles started the year 5-0, and finished it by winning three of their last four overall. Like CMU, Eastern Michigan hasn't had much success in recent tournament years. EMU hasn't won a Mid-American title since 1998, and is 24-28 in the tournament all-time. Karrington Ward (12.5 ppg), Mike Talley (10.5 ppg) and Raven Lee (10.5 ppg) make up the heart of EMU's offensive attack, which averaged an eighth-in- conference 66.8 ppg. The Eagles prided themselves on defense, giving up a league-best 61.8 ppg to opponents and allowing just 36.4 percent of the opposition's shots to fall, which was best in the league. Da'Shonte Riley is tied for the MAC lead in blocked shots, averaging 2.8 per game.

The final first-round matchup features the 10th-seeded Bowling Green Falcons traveling to face the seventh-seeded Northern Illinois Huskies.

Bowling Green (12-19, 6-12) went on four losing streaks this season that were at least three games long. The Falcons showed plenty of inconsistency, and enter the conference tournament having lost three in a row and eight of their last 10 overall. Bowling Green finished with the last-place spot in the MAC East Division, seven games behind leader Buffalo. The Falcons have never won a MAC title, and own a dismal 18-31 all-time conference tournament record headed into this postseason. Bowling Green had a second-worst 63.1 ppg scoring average in the MAC, but did allow a third-best 64.5 ppg to opponents on the year. As a team, the Falcons were second in the league in blocked shots per game (5.6 per outing), led by Richaun Holmes, who tied for the conference lead at 2.8 bpg. He was the team's leading scorer at 13.4 ppg, and his 7.5 rpg mark was second to Cameron Black's 7.6 rpg. Spencer Parker (12.7 ppg), Jehvon Clarke (12.4 ppg) and Anthony Henderson (10.7 ppg) rounded out the Falcons' double-digit scoring. Clarke's 4.7 apg was a team high and fourth in the conference.

Northern Illinois (14-16, 8-10) has dropped two of its last three games coming into the conference postseason, and will need to step up its scoring if it wants to make it past the first few rounds to get to a higher seed. The Huskies bring a league-worst 63 ppg average into the postseason, but at least survived on the MAC's second-best scoring defense, allowing 63.6 ppg to opponents. NIU hasn't been victorious in the MAC Tournament since the 1982 season, and will need to forget its 10-18 tournament record to have success this year. Since leading scorer Dontel Highsmith suffered a knee injury that required surgery back in January, the team is devoid of a double-digit scorer. Darrell Bowie tops the squad with 9.9 ppg, while center Jordan Threloff has been adequate this year with 9.1 ppg, bringing down a team-high 6.8 rpg. The victor in this contest will move on to the second round to take on the winner of Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan Wednesday.