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MAC Tournament Preview: Can Bowling Green break the streak?

In an up and down year, it’s anyone’s game in Cleveland.

Akron v Buffalo Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

All season it seemed like this was the year for Bowling Green to finally break their streak and make it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1968. They were at the top of the MAC all season, that is until the last three games. The Falcons go into Cleveland on a three-game losing streak, failing to secure the one seed in the tournament.

Champing at the bit are the Akron Zips. The Zips have been near the top of the MAC all season, but since two losses in a row to Buffalo and Kent State, they’ve been the best team in the conference. An 8-1 record since those back-to-back losses to close out the season gave the Zips sole possession of the MAC regular season championship and the No. 1 seed once they get to Cleveland on Thursday.

Bracket

Schedule (All Times Eastern)

First Round (March 9th) (All Games on ESPN+)

Game 1: 9 Central Michigan @ 8 Ohio (7:00 PM)

Game 2: 12 Miami @ 5 Buffalo (7:30 PM)

Game 3: 10 Western Michigan @ 7 Toledo (7:00 PM)

Game 4: 11 Eastern Michigan @ 6 Kent State (7:00 PM)

Quarterfinals (March 12th) (All Games on ESPN+)

Game 5: Game 1 winner vs. 1 Akron (12:00 PM)

Game 6: Game 2 winner vs. 4 Northern Illinois (2:30 PM)

Game 7: Game 3 winner vs. 2 Bowling Green (6:30 PM)

Game 8: Game 4 winner vs. 3 Ball State (9:00 PM)

Semifinals (March 13th) (Both Games on CBS Sports Network)

Game 9: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner (7:00 PM)

Game 10: Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner (9:30 PM)

Final (March 14th) (ESPN2)

Game 11: Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner (7:30 PM)

The Favorites

Akron (24-7, 14-4): The Zips are the top seed in the tournament, but not widely accepted as the team to beat. They’ve played consistent basketball of late, winning eight of their last nine games. Their one loss was to Bowling Green, with whom they split the season series.

The Zips are led in scoring by Loren Christian-Jackson, averaging 19.8 points per game, the second best output in the MAC. Xeyrius Williams will be key on the boards for the Zips. At third in the conference with 9.5 rebounds per game, his ability to clean the glass is essential to bringing Akron to victory.

Bowling Green (21-20, 12-6): The Falcons looked to be the top team in the conference all season. After a loss to Kent State on Jan. 3, they rattled off eight straight wins, propelling them to first place in the MAC. It’s been downhill since then. Bowling Green went 4-5 in its final nine conference games, losing the top spot in the conference to Akron. The Falcons dropped the final three games of the regular season, losing any possibility of a regular season championship.

No Falcon has started all 31 games this season, with Daequon Plowden and Taylor Mattos being the closest at 30 starts each. Justin Turner leads the team in scoring, averaging 18.8 points per game. The Falcons need (as cliche as it sounds) a good mixture of offense and defense to be able to make a run for the big dance.

Ball State (18-3, 11-7): The Cardinals come into the tournament as a less talked about favorite. Ball State won its third MAC West championship in the last five years, beating out Northern Illinois for the three seed in the tournament by virtue of head-to-head victories.

The Cardinals are lead by Tahjai Teague. Teague has the ability to score and rebound the ball, as he leads the team in each category. He averages 14.4 points per game, the 14th best in the conference, and 9.1 rebounds a game, the fifth best in the MAC. The Cardinals will have tournament favorite Bowling Green on their side of the bracket, but should they get through that, they have a shot at their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2000.

Underdogs

Buffalo (20-11, 11-7): It has been a year of change for the Bulls, as a new coach and the loss of some of the best players in Buffalo history is tough. The Bulls had a good season in what could have easily been taken as a rebuilding year. Buffalo finished off strong, winning six of its last eight games. This is the first time in five years that the Bulls are hosting a first round game in the MAC tournament.

Northern Illinois (18-3, 11-7): The Huskies have been an up and down team this season. They lost three of their first five conference games, then won six in a row, keeping them in contention for the MAC West championship. The season ended up linear for NIU, as they lost four of their last regular season seven games. Scoring will be important for them, especially with a good chance at a matchup with Buffalo in the second round. MAC scoring leader Eugene German leads the Huskies with 20.5 points per game.

Prediction

The MAC could certainly be a conference where a dark horse wins the whole thing. The favorite for the season doesn’t have the No. 1 seed and the best team in this tournament may, understandably, just be the top-seeded Zips. If Christian-Jackson plays up to potential, and the Zips are running on all cylinders, Akron is the team to beat in Cleveland.