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MAC Tournament Preview: Ohio schools battle for NCAA Tournament bid

Kent State enters the MAC Tournament on a 12-game winning streak. Will the Flash upset No. 1 seed Toledo?

NCAA Basketball: Toledo at Michigan State
Tod Kowalczyk is looking to lead to Toledo to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 42 years.
Dale Young-USA TODAY Sports

Toledo will debut in the MAC Tournament as the No. 1 seed for the second consecutive season, looking to avenge last year’s semifinal loss to NCAA Tournament Cinderella, Ohio.

The last time the Rockets punched their ticket to the Big Dance, the MAC held its first tournament in 1980. Now, 42 years later, they look to end the drought in Cleveland.

Kent State enters postseason play with the longest winning streak in college basketball at 12 games, while the Ohio Bobcats return to postseason play after their upset of Virginia in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

Akron enters Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on a five-game winning streak, hoping to spoil the party for the regular season champions.

Needless to say, MACtion will be in full effect in Cleveland as the path to the tournament is wide open. Can Toledo earn its first tournament bid since 1980 or will a fellow Ohio conference foe snatch the ticket to March Madness?

Bracket

Schedule

Thursday, March 10 (Quarterfinals)

Game 1: (1) Toledo vs. (8) Central Michigan, 11 a.m., ESPN+

Game 2: (4) Akron vs. (5) Buffalo, 1:30 p.m., ESPN+

Game 3: (2) Kent State vs. (7) Miami (OH), 4 p.m., ESPN+

Game 4: (3) Ohio vs. (6) Ball State, 6:30 p.m., ESPN+

Friday, March 11 (Semifinals)

Game 5: (1) Toledo/(8)CMU vs. (4) Akron/(5) Buffalo, 5 p.m., CBSSN

Game 6: (2) Kent St./(7) Miami (OH) vs. (3) Ohio/(6) Ball St., 7:30 p.m., CBSSN

Saturday, March 12 (Finals)

Game 7: Game 5 winners vs. Game 6 winner, 7:30 p.m., ESPN2

The Favorite

Toledo Rockets (25-6, 17-3 MAC)

As the clear favorites in Vegas to win the MAC Tournament, Toledo ranks 75th in KenPom’s advanced metrics. The next closest in the MAC is Ohio at 119.

The Rockets currently sit in the top 10 in the NCAA in three categories: sixth in points per game (81.5 PPG), third in defensive rebounding with 30 per contest, and ninth in total rebounds (40.61 per game).

The Toledo offense is fueled by All-MAC First Team selection Ryan Rollins, who leads the Rockets in scoring and rebounding with 19.2 points per game and 6.1 boards per contest.

The sophomore guard is the only player in college basketball to average 19 points per game, 6 rebounds per game, 3.5 assists per game and 1.5 steals per game.

Bolstering the offensive attack is JT Shumate, who earned All-MAC Second Team honors averaging 15.7 points per game and 6.1 rebounds per contest. Although Shumate’s 123 3-point attempts do not qualify him for NCAA.com’s leaderboard, the junior forward leads the country shooting 51% from beyond the arc.

Setric Millner Jr. (15 PPG, 5.8 RPG) was selected to the All-MAC Third Team, while Ra’Heim Moss (8.8 PPG, 5.6 RPG) earned a spot on the MAC All-Freshmen Team.

As the Rockets kick-off their postseason play against Central Michigan, Toledo will seek their first trip to the Big Dance in 42 years.

The Contenders

Kent State (21-9, 16-4 MAC)

Entering postseason play, the Flash is the hottest team in all of college basketball, with its last loss coming on Jan. 21.

MAC Coach of the Year Rob Senderoff and MAC Player of the Year Sincere Carry lead Kent State into Cleveland as the No. 2 seed.

Carry leads the Flash in both scoring and assists, tallying 18.7 points per game and dishing out 4.8 assists per contest. Malique Jacobs (12.0 PPG, 7.6 RBG) received All-MAC Honorable Mention, while both Carry and Jacobs were name to MAC All-Defensive Team.

Kent State proved they belong in the top tier of the MAC during the regular season, as Rob Senderoff’s squad defeated top seed Toledo twice, Ohio once in two tries, and No. 4 seed Akron twice.

If the Flash can advance past the Ohio Bobcats to the MAC Finals, they have to be confident in their chances of beating top seed Toledo.

Ohio Bobcats (23-8, 14-6)

The Bobcats were in the race for the MAC regular season title prior to losing their final three games against Akron, Bowling Green and Northern Illinois. While Akron is the No. 4 seed in Cleveland, both Bowling Green (9th in the MAC) and Northern Illinois (10th in the MAC) failed to qualify for the postseason.

Despite their falter at the finish line, Ohio remains the betting favorite to match-up again Toledo with an NCAA Tournament bid on the line.

The tandem of Mark Sears and Ben Vander Plas earned All-MAC First Team honors, while guiding the Bobcats to a third-place finish in conference play.

Sears leads Ohio in scoring and assists with 19.4 points per game and 4.3 dimes per contest, while Vander Plas ranks first on the roster with 6.7 rebounds per game.

Fifth-year senior Jason Carter (13.6 PPG, 6.3 RPG) rounds out the all-conference honors for the Bobcats, as he was named to the All-MAC Third Team in his final season in Athens.

Despite dropping both contests to Toledo, Ohio split the season series with both Kent State and Akron.

With an experienced roster who returns a pivotal piece of their NCAA Tournament in Ben Vander Plas, the Bobcats can make some noise in Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

Akron (21-9, 14-6)

The Zips earned the No. 4 seed in the MAC headed into postseason play, hoping to return to the Field of 68 for the first time since 2013.

All-MAC Second Team selections Ali Ali (14.1 PPG) and Enrique Freeman (13 PPG, 11 RBG) headlined the Zips on the hardwood. Freeman was also named to the MAC Defensive Player of the Year, while finishing tied for ninth in the country in double-doubles with 16.

Xavier Castaneda (12.9 PPG) capped off his junior season in Akron being named All-MAC Honorable Mention.

Akron opened up the regular season dropping a 67-66 contest to Ohio State, proving the Zips can hang with Power-5 opponents.

The Zips will face a difficult schedule in Cleveland, as the Toledo Rockets will likely await the winner of Akron’s opening matchup against Buffalo. If Enrique Freeman plays some of his best basketball of the season, Akron has a chance to leave Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse with a MAC Championship.

The Darkhorse: Buffalo (19-10, 13-6)

As winners of four of the last six MAC tournaments, Buffalo will debut as the No. 5 seed. The Bulls were only able to compete in 19 conference games due to a cancellation against Central Michigan. This missed contest in January prevented Buffalo from potentially finishing MAC play tied for second.

Jeenathan Williams (19.2 PPG, 5.0 RBG) was named to the All-MAC First Team, leading the Bulls on the offensive end of the floor.

Seniors Josh Mballa (13.3 PPG, 8.8 RPG) and Ronaldo Segu (15.2 PPG, 5.2 APG) joined Williams in earning all-conference honors, as they were named to the All-MAC Second Team. Mballa also earned a spot on the All-MAC Defensive Team, while Segu ranked first in the conference in assists.

Although five of the Bulls’ six conference losses were against the top four seeds in the MAC, Buffalo emerged victorious against Kent State in January.

The Bulls are not favorites to even advance to the semifinals in Cleveland, but don’t count out Buffalo if they can get past Akron in the quarterfinals.

Prediction

While Kent State is on a 12-game winning streak, the betting favorites are also my favorites in the MAC Tournament. The Toledo Rockets have not let the bitter taste of last year’s semifinal defeat leave their mouth, as they search for their first tournament appearance in over four decades. The Rockets will easily advance to the finals, while Kent State and Ohio battle it out for a championship berth. With a ticket to the Field of 68 on the line, Toledo will finally earn a victory over Kent State.