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.

BUBBLE BANTER: All of tonight’s bubbly action in one place

Connecticut head coach Kevin Ollie calls to his team during an NCAA college basketball game against Central Florida, Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016 at the CFE Arena in Orlando, Fla. (Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel via AP)
(Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel via AP)
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Tonight’s schedule. This post will be updated as the games are completed.

UConn (KenPom: 19, RPI: 46) at Temple (KenPom: 95, RPI: 69), 7:00 p.m.
Florida State (KenPom: 37, RPI: 38) at Syracuse (KenPom: 39, RPI: 44), 7:00 p.m.
VCU (KenPom: 32, RPI: 40) at UMass, 7:00 p.m.
Arkansas-Little Rock (KenPom: 41, RPI: 63) at Louisiana Monroe, 8:00 p.m.
Northern Kentucky at Valparaiso (KenPom: 22, RPI: 48), 8:00 p.m.
No. 4 Iowa at Indiana (KenPom: 24, RPI: 51), 9:00 p.m.
No. 11 Oregon at Cal (KenPom: 44, RPI: 32), 9:00 p.m.
Washington State at Colorado (KenPom: 56, RPI: 29), 11:00 p.m.
Gonzaga (KenPom: 33, RPI: 66) at Portland, 11:00 p.m.
Pepperdine at Saint Mary’s (KenPom: 26, RPI: 52), 11:00 p.m.
Oregon State (KenPom: 81, RPI: 31) at Stanford (KenPom: 104, RPI: 71), 11:00 p.m.

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: Big Ten showdown and key bubble battles

Iowa's Jarrod Uthoff (20), Christian Williams, center, and Adam Woodbury, second from left, and Michigan State's Deyonta Davis (23) and Eron Harris (14) reach for a rebound during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
AP Photo/Al Goldis
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 4 Iowa at Indiana, 9:00 p.m.

As a result of their surprising loss at Penn State Saturday night, Tom Crean’s Hoosiers enter this pivotal contest a game back of the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten standings. And with their backloaded conference schedule, this is a game Indiana has to get if they’re to entertain thoughts of winning the Big Ten title. Two of the Big Ten’s best players will be on display in Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff and Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell, but both have plenty of help behind them offensively.

Iowa’s Peter Jok has been one of the conference’s most improved players, and the Hoosiers can counter not only with forward Troy Williams but with freshman center Thomas Bryant as well. The key in this one: turnovers, as Indiana has lost the ball on more than 20 percent of their possessions in conference play. That can’t happen tonight if they’re to win.

THIS ONE’S GOOD TOO: No. 11 Oregon at California, 9:00 p.m.

The Ducks have been the class of the Pac-12 to this point, but a win in Berkeley won’t come easy. The Golden Bears may not be enjoying the success many expected before the season began, but Cuonzo Martin’s team has won all 14 of its home games this season, most recently whipping rival Stanford last weekend.

The problem for Cal: Tyrone Wallace is still out due to injury, and given Oregon’s many versatile scoring options that’s a problem. Pac-12 POY candidate Dillon Brooks leads the way, but Chris Boucher has emerged as one of the conference’s best big men in recent weeks. Jaylen Brown, Ivan Rabb and Jordan Mathews will need to come up big, as this is a huge contest for Cal’s NCAA tournament hopes.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR

  • The top two teams in the Big West get together in Honolulu, as Hawai’i hosts UC Irvine (1:00 a.m.) in the first of their two meetings this season. This will be a matchup of strengths when the Bows have the ball, as they lead the Big West in two-point field goal percentage (54.7) while UC Irvine leads the conference in two-point percentage defense (38.9) thanks in large part to 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye. Hawai’i forward Stefan Jankovic (15.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg) has been a much-improved player under first-year head coach Eran Ganot, leading the team in both scoring and rebounding.
  • Two ACC teams with matching 6-5 league records meet at the Carrier Dome, as Syracuse hosts Florida State (7:00 p.m.) in a game both teams need for their respective NCAA tournament résumés. Jim Boeheim’s team should be well-rested, as they haven’t played in nine days, and they’ll need that energy to slow down FSU guards Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Malik Beasley and Dwayne Bacon. The Seminole backcourt is young but talented, and they’ll face two fifth-year seniors in Syracuse’s Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney.
  • Picking up a home sweep of Utah and Colorado may have given Oregon State’s NCAA tournament hopes some life, but they really need to go on a run here. Tonight’s game at Stanford (11:00 p.m.) represents a good opportunity for Gary Payton II and company to win their third straight, but the Cardinal did win the first meeting in Corvallis back on January 6. In that game rebounding was the deciding factor (Rosco Allen finished with 21 and eight boards, too), as Stanford grabbed half of their available missed shots. OSU can’t let that happen again.
  • With SMU ineligible for postseason play, the other American Athletic Conference teams are jockeying for position in next month’s conference tournament. Tonight UConn looks to avenge its home loss to Temple January 5 with a win in Philadelphia (7:00 p.m.). Since Amida Brimah’s return the Huskies have played much better basketball, as they have their rim protector and a finisher for Daniel Hamilton’s alley-oop passes back on the court. The Owls have won their last three games, and tonight is their second-best remaining opportunity for a quality win (they play No. 1 Villanova next Wednesday).
  • At this point, no one’s catching Wichita State for the Missouri Valley regular season title without the Shockers collapsing in epic fashion. But when it comes to who can earn the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, both Illinois State and Evansville have a shot. The two teams meet in Evansville tonight (8:00 p.m.), with three of the Valley’s best players on display in ISU’s DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell and Evansville’s D.J. Balentine and Edigijus Mockevicius. Evansville won the first meeting by 11 in mid-January, as the Redbirds shot 6-for-31 from three on the night.

OTHER NOTABLE GAMES

  • Mercer at Wofford, 7:00 p.m.
  • Hofstra at William & Mary, 7:00 p.m.
  • High Point at Coastal Carolina, 7:00 p.m.
  • James Madison at College of Charleston, 7:00 p.m.
  • Milwaukee at Oakland, 7:00 p.m.
  • Pepperdine at Saint Mary’s, 11:00 p.m.