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Unlike years past, the MAC is still anyone’s to claim

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Big news from Bowling Green has made an already jumbled even more up for grabs.

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

About a week ago, the MAC race seemed to make a whole lot of sense until suddenly, it didn’t.

The East Division favorite — Bowling Green — had shaken off an underwhelming end to the non-conference season to rip off an eight game winning streak, and had the best record in the league (8-1) heading into its Feb. 4 game at Central Michigan. The Falcons couldn’t contain Dallas Morgan or David DiLeo, as the Chippewas scored 92 points and handed BGSU its first loss in over a month.

Losses happen, and the Falcons seemed to retain their slight frontrunner status heading into a tough five-game stretch. But just prior to hosting Toledo on Feb. 11, an already tight conference got a jolt as news broke that Falcons senior guard Dylan Frye had left the team of his own volition.

BGSU went on to beat the Rockets that day, but that didn’t change the significance of the personnel loss. Frye was the team’s second leading scorer (13.9 PPG), highest volume three-point shooter and, undoubtedly, a program icon. Frye already held the BGSU record for career three pointers made (230) and was on pace to crack the top-10 scoring list as well. Even as he went through the toughest shooting season of his career (32.6 3P%), his absence left a hole alongside junior star Justin Turner in the Falcons’ greatest strength: their offense.

That seemed to crop up in a sluggish loss to Akron on Tuesday night.

The Zips suffocated BGSU, holding the Falcons to just 35.8 percent shooting and four field goals over the final eight minutes of a 74-59 win. With the victory, Arkron — far and away the highest-rated KenPom MAC team (71) — crept within a half game of the Falcons for the East Division lead, and staked its claim as the team to beat heading into the regular season’s stretch run.

Does Frye leaving BGSU really flip the table in the MAC?

The league was already shuttling toward an intriguing March, with no dominant team a la Nate Oats’ Buffalo making the question moot this season. While BGSU still looks plenty capable of sweeping the regular season and conference tournament titles, the Falcons are clearly more vulnerable now than a week ago.

But the plenty capable moniker could be planted on any number of league teams. Seven of the MAC’s 12 programs currently sit above .500 in league play, with each having compelling points as to why it’ll snatch the conference’s auto bid this year.

Akron likely gets the most recent top billing, as the Zips are arguably the league’s most balanced team on both sides of the ball and have a veteran roster led by junior point guard Loren Jackson (18.9 PPG, 4.8 APG). The Zips, having rebounded from a two-game losing streak to win two straight, will try to keep it going against a Central Michigan team that has caused trouble at times with its up-tempo play.

As has been the case under Keno Davis, CMU always seems to have a guard that can light it up, that has been Morgan in a breakout senior campaign (14.0 PPG, 35.2 3P%). The eighth-year Chippewas’ coach talked about the freedom he’s given Morgan with Central Michigan Life.

“He’s got more confidence than any player I’ve ever coached,” Davis said. “We’ve got a pretty big green light on him until the end of the game when we want to run a little clock. He’s got confidence but our players have confidence in him.”

Morgan — who missed CMU’s last game with an illness — and fellow senior forward DiLeo (14.9 PPG, 39.9 3P%) could pose problems for any team down the stretch. But, as has been the theme, so could Ball State and its stiff defense (34th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom) or Buffalo with its athleticism and championship DNA (four of the Bulls’ five league losses have come by four points or less).

The contending circle also includes Northern Illinois, which was riding a six-game winning streak behind its bona fide star Eugene German (20.0 PPG) before running into the bulwark of Ball State’s defense on Tuesday night. Kent State has also run hot and cold, and is dangerous behind Antonio Williams and Danny Pippen, particularly if the Golden Flashes break out of a shooting slump they have dealt with the past two games. That’s also not to mention one of the currently under .500 teams such as Toledo, which can go bonkers from deep, as it did when it knocked off the Zips behind 15 three pointers on Jan. 18.

There’s a long way to go, but little seems clear in a league that yet again ranks as one of the best in the mid-major ranks (12th in conference adjusted efficiency per KenPom). That hasn’t been the case lately with Buffalo putting virtually all doubts to bed long before games tip in the league tournament.

This time in Cleveland, it looks like the nets will truly be anyone’s to cut down.