NCAA Tournament 2014: Expect a MAC Team to Be the Cinderella Story in March

Thad NovakCorrespondent IFebruary 27, 2014

Dec 30, 2013; Lawrence, KS, USA; Toledo Rockets guard Julius Brown (20) passes against Kansas Jayhawks guard Naadir Tharpe (10) in the second half at Allen Fieldhouse. Kansas won 93-83. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports
John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

As Wichita State makes a run at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, there hasn’t been much time in the spotlight left over for other mid-majors. One conference that’s been especially ignored this season is the Mid-American, an omission nearly large enough to drive a Mack truck through.

With the conference champ headed for a No. 13 or 14 seed (as usual), the MAC representative is going to be dismissed by its big-name program tournament opponent as not having the talent to keep up. That’s an ideal position from which to start a Cinderella run, as Ohio did just two years ago, when it upended fourth-seeded Michigan.

This year’s Bobcats are a long shot to make the Big Dance, but the MAC has a few other teams that could make some noise, depending on which one secures the league’s automatic berth.

The best of the bunch, especially as far as the RPI rankings are concerned, is Toledo (No. 37 in the country by that metric). Although the Rockets couldn't come away with a win against their one big-name foe of the season, they did prompt ESPN's Joe Lunardi to note (subscription required) that "with one of [their] losses being a well-played game at Kansas, this is a team that could seemingly match up well with a 'big boy' opponent in an early-round NCAA game."

Toledo scored 83 points in that Kansas defeat, fueled (as usual for this offense) by outstanding three-point shooting. With junior point guard Julius Brown leading the charge, the Rockets have five players shooting 34 percent or better from long range (one of whom has attempted one three-pointer all season), making it awfully tough for a defense to shut all of them down.

Mar 22, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Florida Gulf Coast Eagles guard Brett Comer (0) shoots a layup during the second half against the Georgetown Hoyas during the second round of the 2013 NCAA tournament at the Wells Fargo Center. Florida Gulf Coast defea
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

That offensive versatility is just one benefit of a rotation that goes nine deep for coach Tod Kowalczyk. Toledo loves to get out and run, substituting generously to keep the team’s legs fresh. That’s a strategy that can be deadly against some of the slower-paced, defense-first teams that thrive in power conferences—just ask last year’s Georgetown squad how much it enjoyed facing speedy Florida Gulf Coast.

If the Rockets don’t emerge on top in the MAC tournament, it will probably be because Western Michigan took them down again. The Broncos handed 23-5 Toledo its first conference loss, and they have the tools to put together a very nice Cinderella run in their own right.

Their credentials start inside, where 6’11”, 245-pound center Shayne Whittington is a post presence with which to be reckoned. Indeed, with five starters 6’3” or taller, Western Michigan has nearly as much size as Michigan State this season.

Dec 7, 2013; Evanston, IL, USA; Northwestern Wildcats forward Kale Abrahamson (13) Western Michigan Broncos forward Connar Tava (2) and forward Mario Matasovic (31) go for a rebound during the first half at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The increased popularity of guard-heavy starting lineups has left plenty of high-seeded contenders vulnerable to that kind of length. Kyle O’Quinn, 6'10", provided a graphic demonstration of that principle against microscopic (but second-seeded) Missouri a couple of seasons back. 

The Broncos also have the benefit of experienced leadership, another trait sorely lacking for many Top 25 programs. Between Whittington and shooting guard David Brown, Western Michigan gets nearly half its scoring from seniors.

After their composure helped WMU come from behind to beat Akron (for the first time in nine tries), coach Steve Hawkins told reporters, "Our guys that have been leaders all year long really came through for us tonight and kept us calm."

Whether it’s the Broncos, the Rockets or some other squad that emerges from the MAC tourney, the champion will have played a tougher conference schedule than most fans realize. Five of the league’s 12 teams rank in the RPI’s top 100.

That competitiveness means that most of these programs are likely better than their records look. In that sense, you could see the MAC as a poor man’s version of last year’s Pac-12, with massively-underrated teams that produced two second-round wins from double-digit seeds.

On the other hand, those big-name West Coast programs weren’t sneaking up on anybody, regardless of their ugly seeds. That’s an advantage reserved for a conference like the MAC, where regular-season anonymity will set up March recognition in 2014.