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MAC Tournament preview: Buffalo is the best team, but the league is full of potential bid stealers

Bubble teams should watch the MAC.

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NCAA Basketball: Bowling Green at Buffalo Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

At this time a year ago, memories of Mid-American Conference teams winning games in March Madness seemed impossibly long ago. In fact, it had most recently happened in 2012. Stories of the league receiving multiple bids to the Big Dance seemed like old wives’ tales you tell children to help them sleep at night.

Then along came Buffalo. The Bulls took the college basketball world by storm by pounding Arizona in the opening round of last year’s NCAA Tournament, and followed it up by spending the majority of this season in the AP Top 25.

Regardless of the outcome in Cleveland this weekend, Buffalo is going to be dancing. But dreams of a #2BidMAC depend on the ability of someone else in the league to knock off the defending champs.

Can it happen?

Well, they don’t call it #MACtion for nothing.

Bracket

Schedule

First Round (Mon., March 11)

ESPN+ ($) will stream all four games.

Game 1: No. 9 Miami OH at No. 8 Akron, 8 p.m.
Game 2: No. 12 Western Michigan at No. 5 Central Michigan, 7 p.m.
Game 3: No. 10 Ohio at No. 7 Northern Illinois, 9 p.m.
Game 4: No. 11 Ball State at No. 6 Eastern Michigan, 7 p.m.

Quarterfinals (Thu., March 14)

ESPN+ ($) will stream all four games.

Game 5: Game 1 Winner vs. No. 1 Buffalo, 12 p.m
Game 6: Game 2 Winner vs. No. 4 Kent State, approx. 2:30 p.m.
Game 7: Game 3 Winner vs. No. 2 Toledo, 6:30 p.m.
Game 8: Game 4 Winner vs. No. 3 Bowling Green, approx. 9 p.m.

Semifinals (Fri., March 15)

Game 9: Game 5 Winner vs. Game 6 Winner, 6:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
Game 10: Game 7 Winner vs. Game 8 Winner, approx. 9 p.m. (Fox College Sports Atlantic/FS Go)

Championship (Sat., March 16)

Game 11: Game 9 Winner vs. Game 10 Winner, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

The Favorite

Buffalo: After winning a competitive league like the MAC by a whopping three games, the Bulls would be the overwhelming favorites in this tournament, even if they weren’t the 18th-ranked team in the country. Alas, they are, and there’s only one other team in the league inside KenPom’s top 100 (Toledo), so it’s pretty clear who should be hoisting the trophy on Saturday night.

You don’t need me to remind you that Buffalo’s roster is loaded top to bottom with high major talent, that CJ Massinburg is one of the best lead guards in the country, or that perhaps the best player in the entire tournament, Nick Perkins, comes off their bench. You know all that. You know the team plays at blazing speeds (8th in the country adjusted tempo), uses an aggressive deny defense (4th in opponent assist percentage) and tries to intimidate opponents with their blue-collar mentality.

But the dirty little secret about Buffalo is its offensive strategy. Nate Oats instructs his players to take the first available shot, no matter who it is or where it’s coming from. The Bulls rank third in the country in average time of possession at 14.4 seconds.

In my humble opinion, this might be the next major trend in college basketball, particularly at the mid-major level where theoretically there are fewer sophisticated offensive sets and less one-on-one talent. This strategy has two major advantages. First, that they are getting a shot on goal every single time down the floor, allowing the law of averages to work in their favor. Second and more importantly, it forces their players to play with a lack of regret and conscience. This short memory allows the team to play with reckless abandon, and with total trust in its abilities. Oats emphasizes player development in practices, and then unleashes his ultra-confident players on opponents with no check on their confidence. The results are pretty impressive.

The Contenders

Toledo: The Rockets have a totally different style. They steered away from the traditional ball screen motion offense that has taken over the rest of college basketball and operate with a lot of off-ball screens, cuts, and ball movement. The roster is loaded with shooters, who often set up with five-out around the perimeter, creating tons of spacing on the court. The product is as aesthetically pleasing as it is effective. Well, at least most of the time. When they face teams with a lot of athletes, like oh, I don’t know…Buffalo, it becomes difficult to shake free for good looks and the team relies heavily on star guard Jaelan Sanford to create.

Bowling Green: The Falcons are the last team to beat Buffalo, back on Feb. 1, when they went unconscious from the field in the second half. They may have created something of a gameplan to do it again — even if it’s a difficult one to repeat — by hounding Massinburg and forcing 18 turnovers. Unfortunately they enter this tournament having lost four of their last five games, and look more than a little leaky on the defensive end.

Kent State: Stops come at a premium when you play the Golden Flashes. They can score at a really high level, and play a slower pace than the rest of the league, but more often than not they struggle mightily to slow teams down on the other side of the floor. Luckily they have one thing no other team has: Jaylin Walker. The league’s leading scorer is a walking bucket, and could easily catch fire in Cleveland en route to three 30-point performances and a conference title. Look no further than 2017, when Walker and 6-seed Kent State did exactly that.

Other Players to Watch

Tayler Persons: Ball State’s do-everything guard will need to produce several big performances to boost a lackluster Cardinal offense.

James Thompson IV: Eastern Michigan’s 6-10 big fella is one of the best rebounders in the country at 11 per game. To say he plays with a chip on his shoulder might be the understatement of the year.

Eugene German: Northern Illinois knows where its bread is buttered, to the tune of 19.6 points and 2.9 assists per game. The Huskies go as far as he takes them.

Prediction

Something crazy might happen, but you’d be a fool to predict anyone but Buffalo to win this tournament. They’re the best team by leaps and bounds. I truly believe the Bulls are going to do real damage in the Big Dance, despite continuing to be reminded that I can’t call them a Cinderella because they’ve been in the Top 25 all year. Call them what you want. I’ll be so bold as to call them a Final Four contender.