| ||Thursday, February 17|
|Ball State was in the top 10 in the Ratings Percentage Index and the thought was the Cardinals wouldn't drop over the weekend. After all, they were playing Eastern Michigan. Twenty-four hours and a
triple-overtime loss to the Eagles later, and the Cardinals had tumbled to No. 18 in the RPI.
The consensus nationally? Ball State had suffered a bad loss.
On the surface, that assessment was accurate: Eastern Michigan won five games a year ago, and Ball State had already beaten Purdue by 20 earlier this season.
Given a closer look, the reasoning was faulty. The Eagles' win over the Cardinals wasn't a fluke. Eastern Michigan (9-4, 3-1) already has eclipsed its victory total from a year ago. The Eagles are a legitimate contender for the MAC title.
The MAC, rated as the 11th toughest conference in the latest RPI, has six teams with impressive records and two teams in the RPI's top 40: Kent (11-2 overall, 3-1 in the MAC, No. 6 RPI) and Ball State (10-3, 2-2, No. 38).
Marshall (12-2, 4-2, No. 63), Akron (12-3, 6-0, No. 82), Eastern Michigan (9-4, 3-1, No. 83) and Bowling Green (11-3, 3-1, No. 96) are all worthy of postseason bids. Miami (6-6, 2-2, No. 73) and Ohio (9-7, 2-3, No. 95) are also in the top 100 in the RPI.
The league has its share of solid non-conference wins. In addition to Ball State's win over Purdue, Bowling Green has been the only team to beat Hawaii on the islands. Kent won quality games at St. Bonaventure and UTEP, as well as winning at Eastern Michigan. But Marshall beat Kent. Ball State lost to Eastern Michigan and Miami (Ohio). Eastern Michigan lost to Kent. See how it goes?
But that game of "who beat who" shouldn't matter."There are no bad losses, save Buffalo, and even that's not easy up there," Bowling Green coach Dan Dakich said. "The problem is we're trying to upgrade our non-conference schedule but no one will play us. We wanted to get into Michigan State's tournament but they wouldn't let us. Seven of our 10 non-conference games were on the road." Dan Hipsher has coached Akron to the top of the standings, but the Zips aren't getting much publicity over their run. It doesn't help that Akron's best non-conference win was over Rhode Island. "We deserve three teams," Hipsher said. "If Bowling Green beats Akron or Akron beats Marshall, it shouldn't be a bad loss." But it is, at least in the national perspective. MAC teams don't get on national television regularly during the season. This year, no team has a star player like Wally Szczerbiak at Miami (Ohio) a year ago. But what they do have is competitive balance and one of the best cycles of talent in the nation.
Eastern Michigan was down, but now they're one of the top teams. Miami has taken a bit of a slide after a Sweet 16 run (and losing Szczerbiak to graduation). Toledo (7-9, 2-4, No. 132), which was in the NIT last season, has been hit by the injury bug, losing Greg Stempin to a hyperextended elbow for a month."That hurts us at this level," Toledo coach Stan Joplin said. "When we lose a star player, it kills you. Michigan State loses Mateen Cleaves and they're in the top 10." The MAC has had two teams in the NCAA Tournament in 1999, '98, '95, '86 and '85. It has never had three. Barring a major collapse, two will get in this season. Until the bids are announced, no one will know how good this league really is. People will just look at win-loss records, and each MAC team is assuredly going to have a few conference losses because of the league's depth.
"Teams in the ACC and SEC wouldn't want to play at Bowling Green or Akron for league games," Ohio coach Larry Hunter said. "No one would."
Only one Ainge for BYU
Cleveland has the Cougars off to a strong start, including an upset at UNLV. Three years ago, the Cougars were one of the worst teams in the nation, winning just one game.
Andy Katz's Weekly Word on college basketball runs every Thursday during the season.
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