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Published: Wednesday, 3/20/2013

MAC hoops still seeking relevance

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Right around this time in 2010 we examined the state of Mid-American Conference men’s basketball and found it to be in a state of disrepair.

Three years later, what has changed? Not much.

Four MAC teams are making postseason appearances, one in each of four tournaments offering 148 total berths. Akron (NCAA), Ohio (NIT), Western Michigan (CBI), and Kent State (CollegeInsider.com) all won at least 20 games and were among only five of 12 MAC teams to finish with winning records. The fifth, Toledo, is banned from postseason play because of NCAA academic sanctions.

It marks the 14th consecutive season in which the MAC has failed to merit an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. The NIT is a nice consolation prize with a rich history. The other two? Merely third-tier excuses to play another game or two.

During the MAC tournament a conference athletic director who shall remain nameless said it was “a lousy league” in an off-the-record chat.

“The conference has two legitimate programs,” he said, referring to Akron and Ohio. “Maybe Toledo is getting there. We’ll see how that plays out. But that’s it.”

That would jibe with comments Akron coach Keith Dambrot made recently to the Muncie, Ind., newspaper.

He said there were three MAC programs “fully invested” in men’s basketball. Basing his assessment on coaching staff salaries and operating budgets, Dambrot included his own school, Ohio, and Toledo.

While UT may be poised to soon collect on that commitment, Akron and Ohio have been cashing chips for awhile. The Zips have appeared in seven straight MAC tournament title games, winning three. Ohio has been in three of the last four title games, winning two.

To be fair, Kent State belongs in the discussion. The Flashes, part of the far superior MAC East Division along with Akron and Ohio, have posted 20-win seasons in 12 of the last 13 years.

Even with Kent included, that’s four of 12 schools — an unsatisfactory one-third — that are operating legitimate and competitive Division I programs.

As a result, the MAC’s Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) ranks 18th out of 32 Division I leagues and, remember this next figure, last out of 11 basketball leagues whose teams also compete in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Akron has the league’s best RPI at 42; Ohio is the only other MAC team among the top 100.

The conference’s RPI ranked 10th as recently as the 2004-05 season, and that came on the heels of Kent State’s run to the NCAA Elite 8 in 2002. In the 1990s, Ball State, Eastern Michigan, and Miami all advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA.

Three years ago, several MAC coaches blamed a shift of resources to football, which once was on the FBS endangered species list, while conference officials said its basketball teams must improve the strength of their schedules.

Still, in 2012-13, Akron’s strength of schedule — No. 131 out of 347 Division I teams — is the league’s best. Seven MAC teams register in the 200s.

There remains a scarcity of marquee players, those that might move the needle of recognition outside of the MAC’s compact regional footprint. It has been a decade since the league had a player selected in the NBA draft.

Still, all things considered, we would hesitate to call it a “lousy” league.

Not when we can get a MAC athletic director to say it for us.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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