The Mid-American Conference Tournament spotlight will shine on the eight remaining teams when play shifts to Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on Thursday.
The Kent State Golden Flashes ended the regular season with a 23-8 record and a MAC championship, earned when they routed archrival Akron, 74-61, on May 5 before a sellout crowd at Akron’s Rhodes Arena.
The title earned Kent State an automatic bid to the National Invitation Tournament, if needed. But the Flashes, like the other seven teams still standing in the MAC, have their eyes on a coveted spot in the NCAA tourney.
Here are the early matchups to watch for as the tournament rolls on toward Saturday night’s championship game.
Second-seed Central Michigan opens the quarterfinal round Thursday at noon against seventh seed Western Michigan.
Seniors Jordan Bitzer (right photo) and Robbie Harman led the Chippewas in scoring with nearly identical averages, both a shade under 15 points a game.
The teams split their previous two meetings during the regular season. If Central Michigan can survive the Broncos, it may set up a key semifinal matchup against Akron.
But the MAC’s leading scorer, David Kool (left photo, 20.9 ppg), will try to lead WMU past the Chips and into the semis. Western Michigan emerged from the first round by edging Bowling Green, 75-73, and would put an exclamation point on an otherwise less-than-stellar season with an upset win over CMU.
Third-seed Akron takes on the sixth seed, Eastern Michigan, in Thursday’s 2 PM matchup.
The Zips had a strong regular season (22-9, 12-4), but couldn’t get past Kent State in two opportunities, so they have to hope for another shot in the tournament championship game.
Problem is, they have an important rematch with the Eagles, who traveled to Akron and knocked off the Zips, 62-59, in early February.
Akron will depend on senior forward Jimmy Conyers (No. 32 in the photo) and the brother combination of junior Brett and senior Chris McKnight. Conyers averaged about 10 points and seven rebounds a game, while the McKnights tossed in 10 (Brett) and nine (Chris) points a game.
Conyers will face off with the Eagles’ Brandon Bowdry (No. 33 in the photo), a junior forward who led the team in scoring (16.1) and rebounding (9.8) during the regular season. Co-scoring leader Carlos Medlock, a 6-foot senior guard, steers the offense while chipping in 16.1 points per game of his own.
Kent State is the clear favorite to win the MAC Tournament, but ninth-seed Ohio would love to play spoiler in the quarter-finals.
The Bobcats gave the Flashes everything they could handle in a Jan. 9 matchup in Athens, a game Kent State hung on to win, 62-60. The Flashes later won by seven at home last month.
But neither win came easily, so Ohio will pull out all the stops in Thursday’s third game. The Bobcats got through the first round when they defeated Ball State, 85-77, in overtime Sunday, behind 25 points from junior guard Armon Bassett (left in photo).
Bassett’s 15.5 points per game led five Bobcats who averaged in double figures during the regular season.
Kent State will counter with an equally balanced offensive attack, headed by sophomore forward Justin Greene’s 13.9 points per game. Also watch for senior forward Anthony Simpson (right in photo), a candidate for the MAC’s Sixth Man of the Year award. Simpson had 23 points in the Flashes’ win over Akron Friday night.
Buffalo had to earn their way into the quarter-finals, and did so with a 72-54 win over Toledo on Sunday.
Now the Bulls will square off against Miami. The two teams split their home-and-home matchup during the regular season.
Buffalo will rely on senior guard Rodney Pierce (right in photo), their leading scorer (18.7 ppg) and senior swingman Calvin Betts, who averaged 10.9 points a game.
Miami, meanwhile, counters with senior guard Kenny Hayes (14.6 ppg, pictured on left), and a pair of 10-point scorers on the front line in 6’7” junior Nick Winbush and 6’8” sophomore Julian Mvunga.
The reward for winning? A potential semifinal matchup with regular-season MAC champion Kent State.
Although Central Michigan drew the No. 2 seed for the tournament, a classic matchup for the championship game would be Kent State and Akron.
The Flashes denied the Zips twice already this season, and Akron would love nothing more than to get another shot at their archrivals.
It would pit Kent State’s second-year coach Geno Ford and Akron’s Keith Dambrot one more time.
Dambrot is a local legend, having coached LeBron James at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary high school before returning to the college ranks with the Zips. Before his time with LeBron, Dambrot coached at Tiffin, Ashland and Central Michigan.
Ford, meanwhile, has kept the Flashes atop the MAC and in contention for an NCAA tourney berth. He coached at Shawnee State and Muskingum before landing at KSU.
Their campuses are only 10 miles apart, so every time the two teams meet it’s a battle. With Cleveland located just 30 minutes north, a Kent State-Akron final would likewise draw intense regional interest.