Mid American Conference Basketball: Mid Major Returning to Relevance

Charles ClintonCorrespondent IOctober 19, 2009

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 19:  Steve McNees #4 of the Akron Zips passes the ball against the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the first half during the first round of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament at the Rose Garden on March 19, 2009 in Portland, Oregon.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

The Mid-American Conference struggled to gain visibility in the national spotlight of college basketball last season, along with the rest of the mid-major conferences.  Major conferences like the Big Ten, Big East, ACC, and Pac Ten all reasserted themselves as dominant over conferences like the MAC, the Colonial Athletic Association, and the Missouri Valley.  Each of these conferences have at some point during this decade at least produced a Sweet 16 team, but this past season were only able to get one team into the NCAA tournament and were promptly eliminated from it in the first round.

The Mid-American Conference is showing some promise this year, however, with two very good teams in Akron and Miami University.  Akron won the conference tournament last year clinching their first NCAA bid since 1986, and are returning four of their starters including leading scorer Brett McKnight.  They also have a highly touted Freshman center in Zeke Marshall who should figure in their chances by replacing their lone graduating starter from last season, Nate Linart. 

McKnight and Marshall, may be the best frontcourt tandem in the conference, if Marshall begins to pan out the way he has been hyped up to be this team might be something interesting in March.

Miami lacks the experience of the Zips, but they make up for it with initiative and possibly the best player in the conference in Kenny Hayes.  Hayes, a 6'2" point guard, missed most of last season with an injury but was effective prior to that point averaging 13 points and 3 assists a game.  It will be on him to make plays for this team as they enter a very hard schedule. 

Even though the Redhawks have lost three of their top five scorers from last season, having a playmaker like Hayes may compensate for their inexperience.  It also may allow for them to take advantage of the fact that they have four players who are over 6'8".  If he can get them the ball and make them worry more about the size up front than Hayes three point shooting ability, it may be able to keep some of their non conference opponents off balance enough to pull of an upset. 

Miami plays the toughest non conference schedule in the MAC featuring Kentucky, Xavier, and Cincinnati, all on the road, in addition to a home game against Dayton.  All four teams are expected to make the tournament this season and will sorely test the Redhawks. 

Of all the road games, the Redhawks might be best able to pull off an upset against Kentucky, who in spite of having one of the most highly touted recruiting classes in history and John Calipari now at the helm are still a young team.  If the Redhawks can adequately challenge the Wildcats it may be a true early test for a Kentucky team that has already been praised and predicted to go to the Final Four by some.  Last year they played tightly with UCLA in the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament before falling, and there's no reason why they can't do it again.

In spite of having two viable teams in Miami and Akron the MAC still has some glaring weaknesses.  The biggest one is that it is a two division conference in which one division did not feature a team that finished over .500.  While that will probably change this upcoming season with the MAC West teams playing softer non conference schedules than last year, it is still a sore spot for the conference.  If only the East is really that competitive it will never reach the status of an Atlantic 10 or even the Horizon League, there has to be better parity between the conferences to make the teams at the top better. 

While Miami and Akron may be the front-runners, Buffalo boasts a senior heavy squad that tied the MAC East regular season title last year with Bowling Green.  They cannot be underestimated, plus they face a relatively weak non conference schedule that, if they win the Conference tournament, may allow Miami or Akron, if the runner-up, an at large bid in the tournament.