Peyton Siva  D.J. Cooper

MAC tournament preview

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The MAC is a perfect example of why divisions within a conference in college basketball don’t always work.

The Eastern Division of the MAC is where all of the power resides. How unbalanced is it? The six teams in the east went 30-6 against the six teams in the west. 30-6! By comparison, the SEC East, which was considered the much weaker division in 2010-2011, went 24-12 against the SEC West.

There’s more.

Unlike the SEC last season, the MAC seeds their conference tournament by overall conference record, not by where they finish in their divisions. That’s why the top four seeds and five of the top six seeds in this year’s tournament are from the east. Those five teams went a combined 27-3 against the six teams in the west. Only one team — Kent State, the No. 4 seed — had more than one loss. Even Miami OH, the MAC’s No. 10 seed, went 3-3 against the west while winning just two of their ten intra-division games. Toledo and Eastern Michigan both went 2-4 against the east, which was the best record for a western division team.

Competitive balance. Its glorious.

The MAC also happens to have the strangest conference tournament bracket. The bottom eight teams whittle themselves down to two teams. The survivors advance to the quarterfinals where they take on the three and the four seeds, who got double-byes. The winners of those two games advance to play the one and the two seeds, who get triple-byes, in the semifinals.

The Bracket

Where: First round games are hosted by the higher seeds, before the final eight head to Cleveland, OH.

When: March 5th-March 9th

Final: March 9th, 9:00 p.m., ESPN2

Favorite: Akron

The Zips started the year off on a good note, winning their season-opener at Mississippi State, but proceeded to drop five of their next six games against (good-but-not-great) Division I competition. But once conference play started, Akron was able to turn things around. They started out the year 11-1 before hitting a hiccup in the season’s final stretch, losing three of their last five games and having to beat Kent State on the road just to hang on to the outright regular season title. The Zips don’t have a star, per se, but they are as balanced as any team in the country. Their rotation goes nine-deep, with all nine averaging at least 4.8 ppg and the top six scoring between 8.1 ppg and 10.3 ppg.

And if they lose?: Ohio

If you live and die by Kenpom’s numbers, than Ohio may actually be the favorite to win this tournament as they are the highest-rated team in the conference at 74th, four spots above Akron. The Bobcats are led by the talented back court of DJ Cooper (who, as a freshman, led OU to an upset of three-seed Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament) and Ohio State transfer Walter Offutt. The Bobcats have the best defense in the conference largely because they are so adept at forcing turnovers. They are second in the country in defensive turnover percentage and fourth in steal-rate.

Sleepers: Buffalo, who finished second in the conference, and Kent State, who was a preseason favorite that beat West Virginia in West Virginia, are less “sleepers” than they are other contenders. The problem? Its tough to find a reason that anyone else in the conference will be capable of winning five straight games — seriously, if you’re not in the top four, you need to pull a Kemba — and stealing the automatic bid.

Studs:

– DJ Cooper, Ohio: Cooper is one of the best kept secrets in the country if you aren’t a Georgetown fan. He averaged 14.1 ppg, 5.6 apg and 2.5 spg.

– Mitchell Watt, Buffalo: Javon McCrea is the player that got all of the publicity early in the season, but Watt is the guy that has been Buffalo’s star. He averaged 16.0 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 2.5 bpg and 2.3 apg. McCrea was good as well. His numbers: 15.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 1.7 bpg. That’s a good front line.

– Julian Mavunga, Miami OH: Mavunga doesn’t get much attention because the Redhawks are only so-so, but he had a great year, leading the conference in both scoring (16.6 ppg) and rebounding (9.1 rpg) while averaging 3.3 apg.

– Rian Pearson, Toledo: Pearson finished the year with averages of 16.4 ppg and 8.3 rpg while standing just 6’4″.

– Zeke Marshall, Akron: His 10.3 ppg and 5.4 rpg aren’t overly inspiring, but he anchors a good Akron defense as a seven-footer that blocks 2.9 shots per game.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell suspended

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 26:  Sindarius Thornwell #0 of the South Carolina Gamecocks drives to the basket defended by Tyler Lydon #20 of the Syracuse Orange in the second half during the Brooklyn Hoops Holiday Invitational at Barclays Center on November 26, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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South Carolina senior guard Sindarius Thornwell has been suspended indefinitely due to a violation of athletic department policy, the school announced on Sunday.

Thornwell is averaging 18.7 points, 6.7 boards and 4.1 assists for the Gamecocks, who are undefeated and sitting at No. 20 nationally. Thornwell is the reigning SEC Player of the Week.

South Carolina plays FIU in Columbia at 2:00 p.m. ET.

Melo Trimble’s heroics get him a shout-out from Wale in a song

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 26:  Melo Trimble #2 of the Maryland Terrapins celebrates after hitting the game winning shot as they defeated the Kansas State Wildcats 69-68 during the championship game of the Barclays Center Classic at Barclays Center on November 26, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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For the fourth time in the first three weeks of the college basketball season, Melo Trimble won a game for Maryland.

His two free throws in the final ten seconds gave the Terps a come-from-behind, 71-70 win over Oklahoma State in College Park, and the win not only was the sixth time this season that the Terps have won a game decided by six points or less, it improved Trimble’s record in those games to 26-5.

26-5!

That’s an insane statistic, one that should allow Maryland fans to truly appreciate just how valuable their junior point guard is.

At least one Maryland fan does. Rapper Wale, who hails from Maryland, just outside DC, made sure to name-drop his favorite Terp in a verse in a song he released on Saturday night:

And you better believe that Trimble is aware of it:

"My therapist terrible , I'm uh Terp Melo Trimbling" @wale

A photo posted by Melo Trimble (@olem__) on

Rick Pitino on Grand Canyon: ‘The toughest crowd I’ve ever faced’

Rick Pitino
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Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said after his No. 14 Cardinals struggled to put away a tough Grand Canyon team on the road had some kind – and hyperbolic – words to say about the atmosphere.

“This, in college basketball in my 40 plus year, was the toughest crowd I’ve ever faced,” he said.

Umm, but Rick, you’ve coached in the Big East and the ACC! This was tougher than any of those crowds?

“Whether we go to Duke, Kentucky, nothing was as tough as that crowd tonight,” he said.

Well, now.

That seems like a bit much, but to be fair, the atmosphere there was, shall we say, lit:

POSTERIZED: Charlotte’s Najee Garvin nearly jumpers over defender

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This is what you don’t try to take charges.

Providence beats No. 21 Rhode Island 63-60

RALEIGH, NC - MARCH 19:  Head coach Ed Cooley of the Providence Friars  reacts in the first half against the North Carolina Tar Heels during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at PNC Arena on March 19, 2016 in Raleigh, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley knew the Rams were in for a tough one against Providence, which had won the matchup of cross-state rivals six straight times.

He didn’t see this coming, though.

Kyron Cartwright, who had made four 3-pointers all season, hit four of five from beyond the arc in the first half. The Providence point guard finished with 19 points and eight assists to lead the Friars to a 63-60 victory over No. 21 Rhode Island on Saturday.

“That’s sports, and that’s the type of thing that makes coaches go gray and lose their hair,” Hurley said after his team lost for the third time in four games. “Four 3-pointers in seven games and he made four today – all in the first half.”

Rodney Bullock scored 17 points for the Friars (6-2). Cartwright had 15 in the first half and Jalen Lindsey scored nine of his 13 points in the second, five during a 7-0 run that erased a seven-point deficit.

“My teammates were telling me, `You need to take those shots to open up the defense,”‘ Cartwright said. “(And) we don’t shoot the ball to not make it.”

Hassan Martin had 14 points and 17 rebounds for Rhode Island (5-3), which lost at unranked Valparaiso and Providence a week after falling to No. 1 Duke. E.C. Matthews scored nine points and went 1 for 8 from 3-point range, airballing a 3 with 2 seconds left with a chance for the Rams to tie it.

“Games like this might help us down the stretch,” Martin said. `’So you just tell everybody to keep their head up.”

The Rams led 47-40 with 12:15 left when Cartwright’s arm appeared to catch Christion Thompson in the left eye. Thompson went to the court, flailing his arms in the air looking for a call, but the teams played on until Lindsey hit a 3-pointer to make it a four-point game at 11:00.

Lindsey’s free throws brought the Friars within two points, and Ryan Fazekas scored on a fast-break goaltending call to tie it. From there, there were three more ties and kept the game within one possession until Lindsey hit a fallaway jumper with 43 seconds left to give Providence a 59-55 lead.

“We beat a tournament team today,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said.

POLL IMPLICATONS

It will be difficult for Rhode Island to stay in The Associated Press Top 25 after its stumbles.

Hurley said he isn’t concerned.

The goal at the beginning of the season was to win the Atlantic 10 and play in the NCAA Tournament.

That’s all still in play.

“We expect to have a long and great season. Nothing’s changed for us,” he said. “We lost two tough road games in a long season.”

BULLOCK’S BOUNCE-BACK

Bullock scored a career-high 36 points against New Hampshire on Wednesday, but he missed all three shots from the field in the first half and had only three points on six free throws at the break.

Cooley told him not to worry about the shooting and to try to make something happen with rebounding or defense.

“Somebody coming of a great scoring game like he did there’s going to be a lot of attention on him,” Cooley said. “I thought he showed some definite grit in the second half.”

TIP-INS

Rhode Island: Martin hit all three of his 3-point attempts in the first half. … Martin surpassed the 1,000-point milestone against Valparaiso on Tuesday. … The Rams have lost nine straight to Big East teams.

Providence: The Friars lead the all-time series 73-56, including a buzzer-beating victory last year in Kingston. … They are 1-1 against ranked teams this season, having lost to then-No. 7 Virginia on Nov. 26.

UP NEXT

Rhode Island: Hosts Old Dominion on Tuesday.

Providence: Hosts Brown on Tuesday.

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25.