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MAC schools on outside looking in
The concept of the underdog is fundamental to March Madness, as the belief that David can defeat Goliath is the reason every tournament contest is must-see TV. It explains the perpetual frequency of Bryce Drew and George Mason images during this season, and why Hoosiers holds a consecrated place in our sporting lore. It boasts its own vernacular, with popular terms such as “busted brackets,” “buzzer beaters” and “Butler Bulldogs.” (Three entities which, as of late, have been synonymous.)
The case can be made that the success of the little guys has revolutionized the dynamic of the competition. No first-round opponent can be viewed as a pushover, evidenced by the mayhem instigated last season by No. 15 seeds Norfolk State and Lehigh, and consistent prosperity from Gonzaga and Xavier illustrates a school’s conference affiliation does not dictate hardwood fruition.
Yet, while "mid-major" no longer carries negative connotation, one nomenclature that’s continually overlooked this time of year is “Mid-American Conference.” For in three weeks, when the selection committee emerges from its Fortress of Solitude trumpeting 68 chosen clubs to its annual hoops festival, the league will likely send a lone representative to the Big Dance. Meaning one, if not two, deserving Midwestern Cinderellas will not receive invites to the ball.
Sad, too, as the MAC has maintained a flair for the dramatic come March. Wally Szczerbiak and the Miami RedHawks knocked off the reigning national runner-up Utah Utes on their way to the Sweet 16 in 1999. A forward by the name of Antonio Gates powered Kent State to an Elite Eight appearance in 2002. Georgetown, Michigan and South Florida have been causalities of the Ohio Bobcats since 2010. Subtract the feats of Arizona and UCLA and the case can be made that the MAC has been as relevant as the Pac-12 in the spring, amazing given the disparity in resources and infrastructure between the two conferences.
The team anticipated to hold this slingshot in 2013 resides in Akron. The Zips are riding a 17-game winning streak, longest in the nation, into this weekend’s matchup with North Dakota State and flaunt a 21-4 mark (including a flawless league record). Head coach Keith Dambrot’s roster took Oklahoma State into overtime earlier this season before succumbing 69-65, and their RPI ranking is better than bubble teams like Villanova, Ole Miss and St. John’s. With a formidable duo down low in Zeke Marshall and Demetrius Treadwell and the court vision of Alex Abreu, you better believe the big boys want no part of Akron come tourney time.
Also grabbing the attention of the power conferences are the aforementioned Bobcats. Inches away from upsetting top-ranked North Carolina last year, almost every principal member from 2012’s Sweet 16 squad returned for the current campaign. This includes point guard D.J. Cooper, who is on pace to become the first player in Division I history to rack up 2,000 points, 900 dimes, 500 boards and 300 steals in a career, and guard Walter Offutt, who was named to last season’s Midwest Regional team. At 20-6, with its only conference loss coming to the Zips, OU’s guard dexterity and roster experience (10 players are juniors or seniors) fits the formula for bracket triumph.
Alas, postseason conference tournaments are fickle matters, and it’s not a reach to envision a viable adversary like Western Michigan or Toledo cutting down the nets in Cleveland. If this comes to pass, an at-large invitation is dubious for Ohio or Akron, as the MAC has been a one-bid conference since 1999.
The MAC’s parity does its members no favors, as beating up on one another tends to diminish each school’s record. Operating in the shadow of Big Ten country, as well as a lack of proximity to big markets, also curtails the league’s visibility. Yet their collective tournament reputation speaks for itself, and elucidates the sentiment that MAC institutions struggle to find worthy non-conference competition from wary big-name challengers.
In their defense, the selection committee has made advancements in embracing smaller schools that failed to obtain automatic qualifiers into the tournament. However, despite the elevation of Lilliputian conferences like the Missouri Valley and West Coast, the MAC has been marooned on the outside looking in. Worse, bracket experts forecast companies like Temple, California and Virginia (whose, ahem, “impressive” resume includes losses to Delaware and a four-win Old Dominion crew) as entrants, attesting that the practice of rewarding anemic performances in supposed rugged leagues is alive and well.
These teams have received their shot at the top dogs, and their endeavors have fallen short. Schools like Akron and Ohio warrant an opportunity against basketball’s finest, and if history is any barometer, their merit is more than adequate.
After all, if March claims to be sport’s greatest theater, how can you exclude its most captivating entertainers?
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