The field is set for the Mid-American Conference Tournament, and a new power could emerge from the fray as teams tune up for the big NCAA tournament and March Madness later this month.
The East Division has been ruthlessly dominant in this tournament for the better part of a decade, with teams from this division winning nine years running.
Akron and Ohio took turns winning in the past five years, but neither team will be favored to win the tournament this time around.
Western Michigan, Toledo, Buffalo and Akron earned the top four seeds and will wait for the other eight teams to battle it out before playing their first games. The tournament begins on March 10 and will come to its conclusion on March 15.
Here's a look at the teams that have the best shot to win this year.
Toledo (26-5, 14-4 MAC)
Western Michigan has the top seed in the tournament, but Toledo is better equipped to win. Both teams finished the regular season with 14-4 records in the MAC, but the Rockets had a better overall record, losing just five contests all year.
The only non-conference loss Toledo suffered came against Kansas, but losing to the Jayhawks is nothing to be ashamed about.
The Rockets feature a dynamic duo at the guard positions. Julius “Juice” Brown and Justin Drummond average 29.3 points combined, with both players averaging at least 14.5 points per game. Forward Rian Pearson is a dangerous outside threat who is making 41.8 percent of his attempts this year from behind the arc.
The biggest concern for the Rockets is the team's lackluster defense. Raphielle Johnson of CollegeBasketballTalk.com elaborates: "Toledo’s a very good offensive team but if there’s a concern entering the conference tournament it’s the fact that they’re 11th in the MAC in field goal percentage defense and tenth in defensive efficiency."
So if the hot hands get cold offensively, then Toledo could certainly be ousted.
Western Michigan (21-9, 14-4 MAC)
The Broncos won their first MAC regular-season title in 10 years after taking down rival Central Michigan 78-64 last Saturday.
Head coach Steve Hawkins knows this is a special time for his players.
"It’s great for the kids, it’s great for the program and it’s a testament to everybody’s hard work, including our community," he said after securing the top seed, via David Drew of MLive.com. "It’s really truly about being able to deliver that and for these kids to enjoy that."
As the top seed, Western Michigan will not have to play until the semifinals, which are scheduled to take place on March 15 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
If momentum has anything to do with the tournament outcome, then the Broncos will likely win after closing out the season with 10 wins in their last 11 contests.
Led by senior guard David Brown and senior center Shayne Whittington, Western Michigan has the players to win inside or outside the paint. These two leaders are averaging 35.2 points per game between them, and Whittington is a strong defender inside.
Akron (20-11, 12-6 MAC)
While the Broncos and Rockets are clearly the favorites to win this tournament, it would be foolish to count out Keith Dambrot’s Zips. Akron has gotten to the finals seven years running, and Dambrot's leadership and experience coaching big games will be a big factor.
Here's what Dambrot had to say about the upcoming tournament, as noted by Sartaj Aujla of WZIP-FM Sports Power Talk:
Demetrius Treadwell is one of the most dominant players in the tournament. The senior forward has been a terror against MAC competition all year long, averaging 16.1 points and 9.4 rebounds while posting double-doubles 10 times against conference foes.
Treadwell will need to be at the top of his game for the Zips to emerge victorious, because consistent offensive production hasn't been a strong suit from the rest of Akron's starters this season. Forward Quincy Diggs is the only other player on the team who is averaging more than 8.8 points per game.
Akron's chances of winning the tournament this year are slim, but this squad's leadership is strong and anything can happen.