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LOTL Sports Take: Ohio Conference Championship Preview

It’s March, and that can only mean one thing! (well, aside from the supposed start of spring that usually leaves us disappointed by late spring snows and bitter cold wind whipping off Lake Erie’s chilly waters). That’s right…it’s time for March Madness! But before the NCAA tournament tips off next week, its conference championship week, a week of teams across the nation battling for automatic spots in the Big Dance. In this week, the focus is generally twofold. First, you have the teams from the small and mid-major conferences putting everything on the line, usually for a lone berth in the NCAA tournament. And then second to that, you have the good but not great teams from the major (and sometimes mid-major) conferences that are on the proverbial bubble, trying to nab one of the last at-large bids into the dance. In this article, we’ll look at both of those groups, with our emphasis being on the teams from Ohio and the near region. First off we’ll start with an annual tradition here in the CLE, and that is the Mid-American Conference Tournament. This event has been held at Quicken Loans Arena every year since 2000, and has featured some of the MACs recent pro talent, like Chris Kaman, Antonio Daniels, and Antonio Gates, as well as some of Lebron James’s Akron SVSM teammates, like Romeo Travis and Drew Joyce. This year, the MAC features one of the best teams they’ve ever had in the Buffalo Bulls. Buffalo started their season with a win at West Virginia, and later went to the vaunted Carrier Dome and beat Syracuse. They’ve been in the top 25 virtually all season, and are 27-3 on the season with an RPI of 9. The MAC, usually a one bid conference, can count on Buffalo being in the dance as an at large team should they be defeated in Cleveland. Commissioner John Steinbrecher would be pardoned if he was rooting against the Bulls this weekend. Who might be able to take down Buffalo this weekend? The tandem from Northwest Ohio, Toledo and Bowling Green, finished 2nd and 3rd in the league this season. Toledo went 24-6 this season, and if their RPI of 35 is to be believed, could be a borderline bubble team regardless of what happens in Cleveland. The problem for Toledo might be that unlike Buffalo, they don’t have a signature win on their resume. Their only top 100 RPI wins this season came against UC Irvine (65), Penn (98), and Marshall (87). Experience suggests that isn’t enough to get into the tournament without a conference title so Toledo will have to do all they can to get the automatic bid. While Toledo was expected by many to be good this season, Bowling Green was forecast to be one of the MAC’s worst teams back in November, but the Falcons have exceeded expectations. It didn’t start well, the Falcons were 3-5 following a humiliating loss to an awful Cleveland State team (more on them later). But then BG won 9 in a row and 14 of 16 to vault toward the top of the MAC. The challenge for BG this week might be finding that form again, as they’ve dropped 4 of their last 5 heading into the tournament. No discussion of MAC basketball is ever complete without the Kent State Golden Flashes, who are seemingly in the hunt every year. The Flashes picked up two wins over power conference teams this season against Oregon State and Vanderbilt and were decent through most of conference play to earn the 4th seed and a bye into the tournament quarterfinals. However, they have not fared well against the other top teams in the league, going a collective 0-5 against Buffalo, Toledo, and Bowling Green. If they are to win the MAC tournament, they will likely have to beat two of those teams on back to back days. No doubt their local legion of fans will be very vocal in helping them try to achieve exactly that. Elsewhere, it was a down year for other Ohio MAC schools. The Ohio Bobcats were uncharacteristically bad, going just 13-17 this season and failing to even make it to Cleveland, losing in the opening round of the MAC tournament. Ticket sellers at the Q won’t like that. The Miami Redhawks were just as bad, putting up an identical record and also losing in the opening round Monday night. The Akron Zips did make it to Cleveland, finishing at 15-15 and winning their opening round game on Monday. They’ll have to face Buffalo in the opening quarterfinal matchup though, which means barring a shocker on Thursday afternoon the Zips will find their tournament run over early. Not to be outdone, the women of MAC basketball also contest their tournament this coming Wednesday through Saturday. While the men will likely have 1 or 2 bids into the NCAA tournament come selection Sunday, the women could have as many as 3 or 4 depending on happenings in Cleveland and elsewhere this weekend. The Ohio Bobcats have had a fantastic year, going 25-4 and ranking 18th in RPI. You know it’s a great year when a team like that is only seeded 2nd, and they are in that spot due to the equally fabulous play of Central Michigan. The Chippewas went 15-3 in MAC play to garner the #1 seed in the MAC tournament, finishing 24-6 overall and with an RPI of 20. Even for a women’s NCAA committee that has been notoriously tough on mid-major teams, you have to more or less count Ohio and Central Michigan as locks regardless of what happens in Cleveland. After that, you’ve got two teams that are probably on the bubble, but on the outside looking in. The Miami Redhawks went 21-7 this season, finishing with the 48th ranked RPI. They have wins against Ohio and Central Michigan this season, and also beat a good Cincinnati Bearcats team as well. The issue for Miami might be that they have dropped 3 of their final 4 games of the regular season. They definitely have work to do in Cleveland to make the tournament. The Buffalo Bulls went 20-9 this season and finished 47th in RPI, which was due to their strong strength of schedule that was 69th in the country. Buffalo beat Ohio once this season and beat Miami twice, which might give them a leg up on the Redhawks. They also have a quality win out of conference against South Dakota State. If Buffalo beats another of the top MAC teams in Cleveland but fails to win the tournament, they will be a very intriguing at-large resume for the committee to consider. Going back to the men’s game, we take a look at the other division I teams within the state of Ohio. We’ll start right here in the CLE, where it was a miserable season for Cleveland State. The Vikings went just 8-21 this season, and have no chance of postseason play in 2019. We move on to Columbus, where the Ohio State Buckeyes started the season on fire, winning 12 of their first 13 games. The Buckeyes even collected quality wins against Cincinnati and Creighton out of conference. But then Big Ten play started and the Buckeyes couldn’t keep up. Their only quality win in the 2nd half came against Iowa. They’ve gone 6-12 in their last 18 games to finish 18-13, and their RPI is 71st in the nation. That is pretty much an NIT resume barring a miraculous run to the Big Ten tournament title this week. The Cincinnati area usually features nationally prominent programs. The Cincinnati Bearcats have impressed in 2018-2019, going a very solid 25-6 and 12-4 in American Conference play. Their RPI is 20th in the nation. Cincinnati collected quality out of conference wins against Mississippi and against rival Xavier as well. They are firmly in the dance. Their rival Xavier cannot say the same though. The Musketeers are just 17-14 overall, and didn’t look good at all for much of the season before closing on a 6-1 tear that saw them knock off St John’s twice as well as defending national champion Villanova. Their RPI is 83 though, which coupled with their 9-9 record in the Big East screams NIT. However, given their recent form, maybe a Cinderella run in the Big East tournament is possible. We head into the Dayton area now. Much like Xavier, the Dayton Flyers find themselves on the wrong side of the bubble heading into championship week. Dayton went 21-10 this season, and are 69th in RPI. They finished 13-5 in Atlantic 10 play this season, which would normally be impressive but the league this year outside of Virginia Commonwealth seems to be down. Dayton did beat Davidson and added an out of conference win over Butler, but that doesn’t seem to be enough barring a run to the Atlantic 10 tournament title. Their cross town neighbors Wright State had by all rights a respectable season, going 19-12 and finishing 12-5 in Horizon League play. They also picked up an impressive out of conference win at Toledo. The problem for Wright State is that their league is weak, and bad losses to Illinois-Chicago and Wisconsin-Green Bay sting particularly hard. They will need to win the Horizon League tournament if they want to dance. We here at Living off the Land will be following all of our local and regional teams through championship week and into the NCAA tournament, and as the storylines unfold, we’ll be here to provide commentary as we embark through the tension, drama, and heartache that can only be known as March Madness!

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