When Ohio fell to Bradley in the CBI Quarterfinals on Monday night, it marked the end to a pretty downtrodden year for MAC basketball.
The conference was 12th in terms of conference RPI behind other mid-major conferences like the Atlantic 10, MVC, MWC, C-USA, and the Horizon League.
Only four out of 12 MAC teams currently have an RPI above 100, and only five teams finished the season with a winning record. While this numerical analysis doesn't tell the whole story, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to go around as well, like when your 28-win conference champion gets pummeled in the first round of the NCAA tournament by another mid-major team, it doesn't speak well for the caliber of competition within that conference.
What's the cause behind this weak performance?
One could argue that the MAC administration's focus on increasing the conference's exposure in football has taken resources away from basketball. This has certainly become a constant debate across message boards and the blogosphere.
While it seems MAC football has a contract that puts a game on national TV every night of the week, MAC basketball has a "game of the week" package with regional Fox Sports Net.
Teams that want national exposure have to find it through out-of-conference scheduling. Getting the MAC tournament moved to Cleveland was a great achievement, but it's really the only noteworthy thing the MAC office has done for basketball in the past decade.
Ultimately, however, I think most of the "blame," lies with the individual schools, who are responsible for their own programs.
For whatever reason, schools have been reluctant or unable to take the next step in many aspects of running a basketball program: recruiting, scheduling, facilities. Some schools have succeeded in one aspect, but very few have hit all of them.
Akron, for example, is recruiting top talent but their scheduling leaves much to be desired. Miami has been very successful in arranging games with top schools, but their recruiting classes have been dominated at times by unathletic players with several question marks.
In my opinion, Kent State is the closest MAC school to achieving the big time, but all it got them was an early exit in the NCAA's.
What can be done about it?
I don't profess to know a whole lot about the innards of running a basketball program, but it seems to me that the first step toward becoming a big-time program is acting like one.
The minute you start saying "but we're just a mid-major" when confronted with a new idea, you're setting yourself up for failure.
Having a leader who recognizes and accepts this lofty goal, preferably someone who has been there before, is vital to the success of the rising program. They shouldn't be afraid to take risks or to do things that have little immediate payoff but will help the program in the long run.
Some MAC schools have been reluctant to schedule away games with the major conferences without an assurance of at least a home-and-home. My suggestion to those schools is to grow a pair and gas up the busses.
The best way for a mid-major team to generate momentum and recognition during the season is through marquee wins. The only way to get marquee wins is to go and play marquee teams. Nobody is going to care about your 30 point thumping of South Carolina Upstate, but an upset win over a Villanova or a WVU would get pundits talking about your program. Wins over power conference teams also boost your team's resume at the end of the season.
Hopefully, in the next few seasons the bottom of the MAC West will exhibit enough improvement to bring some parity to the conference. If the top schools can improve just a bit, we could be talking about multiple NCAA bids in 2009 or 2010.
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