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MAC Tournament Primer: Is top-seeded Akron in trouble?

The Zips went wire-to-wire in first place. But they have been challenged every step of the way.

NCAA Basketball: Akron at Creighton Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The Akron Zips appeared to be on cruise control for much of the conference season. By mid-February they had a 12-1 record and their biggest competition, Ohio, had lost their star player Antonio Campbell for the rest of the season to injury.

But a closer look at their body of work should bring you pause. Akron lost three of their final five games to finish off the regular season. That included concerning losses to Bowling Green and Miami, who both finished with sub-.500 records in MAC play.

Even when they were winning, the Zips weren’t necessarily doing it in convincing fashion. Ten of their 14 conference wins were by a margin of seven points or less. The end result was Akron being rated the luckiest team in the MAC by KenPom.com’s measurements.

All of these factors help explain why, despite winning their conference with a three game lead over the rest of the pack, Akron may not be the favorite to win the MAC Tournament this season. In fact, KenPom has Ohio as the favorite to win the MAC Tournament, albeit by a slim margin.

However, Ohio is not the only threat to top-seeded Akron. Three other teams finished tied with the Bobcats for second in the overall MAC standings with 11-7 records: Buffalo, Western Michigan, and Ball State. All three finished conference play strong after slow starts. But, out of all of the 11-7 teams, Ohio was the only one to actually beat Akron in a head to head meeting this year. Any of the 11-7 teams would love another shot at Akron.

Tournament Format

The MAC Tournament opens on Monday, March 6th with four first round games. The 5 through 12 seeds participate in the first round with the games being played on the campus of the higher seed.

After the first round, the tournament shifts to Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. The first round winners advance to face a top four-seeded team, who all receive first round byes, in the quarterfinals on Thursday, March 9th. After that come the semifinals and finals taking place over the next two days.

How to Watch

Both the first round and the quarterfinals will be streamed live on ESPN3. The quarterfinals will also be aired on Spectrum Sports. The semifinals will air on CBS Sports Network at 5:30 and 8 P.M. ET on Friday, March 10th. The championship game will be broadcast on ESPN2 and is scheduled for 7:30 P.M. ET on Saturday, March 11th.

Tournament Bracket

3 Things to Watch

Will Akron return to its winning ways?

The Zips won nine straight games to open the conference season and have at least one win over every team on their half of the bracket. But, as mentioned earlier, Akron struggled somewhat down the stretch when the pressure was off. Can they “turn it back on” and win high pressure games? Akron’s offense was the conference’s best according to KenPom, but its defense was just average. Getting stops will be the key for Akron.

Is Ohio truly the favorite?

KenPom likes the Bobcats the most to win the tournament. Not by a significant amount, but they are listed as having the best chances. However, four of the five teams on Ohio’s side of the bracket have already beaten them once this season. Ohio got a tough draw in the bracket, but their defensive efficiency was the best in conference play. The saying goes that “defense wins championships.” Will it hold true for Ohio?

How far can Keene carry Central Michigan?

Central Michigan had a rough go of things during conference play. The Chippewas enter the tournament as the eleven seed and will have to travel to Kent State in the first round. But Central Michigan has to be taken seriously by opponents because they have the nation’s top scorer at their disposal in Marcus Keene. Keene is capable of carrying the Chippewa’s offense. On the other end, Central Michigan’s defense was by far and away the worst in the MAC during conference play according to KenPom. If Central Michigan can get a few stops here and there, they are dangerous to anyone. Getting those stops is easier said than done, though.

Prediction

Akron comes away the champion. Despite their lethargic close to the regular season, they have some potentially favorable match-ups on their side of the bracket. Ohio could give them trouble in the finals, but the Bobcats have a tougher path to the title game than the Zips.

In reality though, the MAC Tournament is a pretty wide-open field and should be fun to watch.