I have many memories of taking the short trip to downtown Cleveland every March to watch the Mid-American Conference Tournament with my father. Big-time college basketball junkies, we both enjoyed watching a league we thought was underrated.
The names come to mind with ease: Gary Trent, Bonzi Wells, Wally Szczerbiak, Antonio Gates and Chris Kaman. For years, the MAC was a talent-filled league capable of getting multiple teams into the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Tournament.
There was Miami’s Szczerbiak-led run to the Sweet 16 in 1999; and, of course, Kent State’s magical Elite 8 appearance in 2002. The conference appeared to be going somewhere.
But that’s not the case anymore. In his weekly “Forde Minutes” column for ESPN.com, Pat Forde wrote last week about the steady decline of the MAC. It has dropped out of the top 20 in conference Ratings Percentage Index this season, and Kent State (No. 97) is the league’s only top-100 RPI team.
I agree with Forde’s assessment of the MAC. Covering Ohio and watching intently the other 11 teams, it’s just not that good. Are the games competitive? Highly. And it makes for fun to watch. But, the talent as a whole just isn’t there.
Ohio’s shocking 97-83 win against Georgetown last year in the first round of the NCAA Tournament was only the MAC’s second win in the tournament in the past eight years. No MAC team has advanced past the second round of the Big Dance since 2002.
Meanwhile, conferences such as the Horizon League, Missouri Valley Conference and Colonial Athletic Association have all had teams make deep runs in the tournament and have blown by the MAC in overall quality. MAC teams have gone only 20-28 against teams from those conferences this season.
I think the problem starts with recruiting. More teams are being built around one star player or high-profile recruit, and league depth is suffering. Two of the most talented players in the conference are stuck on the worst teams in the league.
Northern Illinois’ Xavier Silas is the eighth-leading scorer in the nation, but he plays on an 8-19 team that doesn’t have another player scoring in double figures. Brandon Bowdry averages 20 points and 9.6 rebounds for Eastern Michigan, but the Eagles are also only 8-20. Individual talent exists, but the lack of team depth plagues the league.
Even Kent and Akron, two of the most respected programs in the MAC, are down. The Golden Flashes have two NCAA Tournament appearances since 2002 — Akron only has one.
Six different teams have represented the MAC in the Big Dance in the past eight years, and the MAC has been a one-bid league for 11 consecutive seasons (and that won’t change this year). The lack of a dominant team going to the tournament every year — such as Butler in the Horizon or George Mason in the CAA — has hurt the MACs national visibility and might be a reason for the drop-off in talent.
Whatever the reason might be, as long as the league’s unpredictability increases and depth drops, it will continue to fall farther and farther away from the glory years.
—Vince Nairn is a senior studying journalism and The Post’s sports editor. E-mail him your thoughts on the MAC at email@example.com or follow @ThePostSports