With the MAC tournament set to start play in Cleveland tonight, it is time to answer the five most pressing questions regarding the tournament. Our panel includes Marlowe Alter and Alex Hider, who will anchor Speakeasy Sports coverage of the tournament starting this Friday. Also featured on the panel are sports editor and former MAC Blogger Danny Medlock, current Ohio men’s basketball reporter Bez Saciri and MAC Blogger Chris Manning.
1. How much do you believe Alex Abreu’s absence will affect Akron and in turn, this tournament?
Marlowe Alter: It’s a crushing loss for the Zips, who were the clear favorite before Abreu’s arrest and subsequent suspension. Abreu was the floor general, playing with great patience and pace, while always looking comfortable and in control. He hurt Ohio in the teams’ two meetings this season, averaging 18.5 points, nine assists and 4.5 rebounds. Akron head coach Keith
Dambrot summed up Abreu’s impact perfectly in late February saying, “When he’s good, we’re good. And when he’s not, we’re not.” Now Akron must rely on the inexperienced freshman Carmelo Betancourt. The Zips were only able to play one game with its new starting point guard, who averaged just 10 minutes per game this season, contributing 1.9 points, 1.5 assists and 1.7 turnovers. They will have had a full week to prepare for their semifinal matchup.
Alex Hider: For the team as a whole, Abreu’s suspension is a serious problem for Akron. The Zips will lose their leading assist man and third leading scorer. In the only game since Abreu’s arrest, Akron dropped a winnable home game to archrival Kent State, a team that the Zips could see again in the semifinals. In two games against Ohio, Abreu totaled 37 points and 18 rebounds in close games. While the strength of Akron is in its frontcourt, the Zips will miss their offensive leader.
Danny Medlock: It seems hypocritical to call Abreu cerebral in light of his arrest, but he is truly one of the smartest players in the MAC, and is an extension of Dambrot when he is on the court. The Zips rely completely upon the 21-year-old guard to initiate their half-court offense and to lead this team. Abreu’s toughness, as well as vocality, are what has come to be expected from Akron. However, Akron lost to Buffalo by 14 with Abreu in the lineup. The idea that Akron was unbeatable with Abreu in the lineup is simply not true. Can Akron still be Kent State or Ohio without Abreu? Certainly, but it is going to be much easier for their opponents to dictate the tempo of the game than if he was on the court.
Bez Saciri: I believe Abreu’s absence will have a large effect on the co-conference champions. Not only does he do a nice job of finding big men Demetrius Treadwell and Zeke Marshall, but he can also shoot from distance. Anytime a team loses their floor general, it’s a tough pill to swallow. Backup point guard Carmelo Betancourt will need to play sound basketball, and players like Nick Harney and Brian Walsh need to step up.
Chris Manning: I think this loss could be crippling to the Zips. He was their floor leader and his arrest is only going to cause a distraction as it sorts itself out in the public eye. The Zips first game will be in the conference semifinal, it will be tough to be fully fully adapted without another game to feel the process out. Playing in a conference where D.J. Cooper’s the point for their chief rival doesn’t exactly help, either. Ultimately, Abreu being out will cost Akron the tournament.
2. Out of the four teams (Miami, Buffalo, Eastern Michigan and Ball State) playing Wednesday night, which do you believe has the best chance to make a run to the title game?
MA: Buffalo is dangerous, led by two-time All-MAC first teamer Javon McCrea (17.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.7 blocks). The
do-it-all junior forward has led the MAC in Player Efficiency Rating for three consecutive seasons and has shown the ability to dominant opponents, pouring in 32 points, 15 rebounds and eight blocks two weeks ago in a loss to Kent State. Throw in steady senior point guard Tony Watson II and the Bulls have the firepower to run with anyone. The Bulls already ended Akron’s nation-leading 19 game-winning back on March 2 and then nearly beat Ohio three days later, before falling in the last minute.
AH: No team not named Ohio or Akron has much of a chance. But of the four playing Wednesday, Buffalo has the best opportunity to make some noise. Despite a losing record, the Bulls have played big in big games this season. They shocked Akron with a 14-point win earlier this month, and nearly upset Ohio a few days later. While they have struggled on the road in hostile environment, a subdued, neutral site like the Q could give Buffalo a boost. If they continue to rebound the ball well, they could cause problems in the later rounds.
DM: In terms of talent, it has to be Buffalo for the reasons mentioned by Marlowe and Alex above. In terms of the way the bracket is set up, I think it’s more likely that Miami or Eastern Michigan could upset Western Michigan and earn a chance at upsetting Ohio, than Buffalo getting through their counterparts on the other side of the bracket. With all that said, I’m weary of the Bulls inconsistency and instead I am taking the team they play Wednesday night, the Ball State Cardinals. After an absymal start, the Cardinals have caught fire of late behind senior Jauwan Scaife. Scaife, a Muncie native, has averaged 24.0 points per game over the Cardinals’ final eight games; they won 7 of them. Majok Majok leads the MAC in rebounding and is capable of giving Javon McCrea fits and then continue that play against Kent State.
BS: Buffalo. Javon McCrea has been playing some of the best basketball of his life, and Will Regan recently lit up Ohio for 20 points. As a senior leader, Tony Watson knows this is the last chance he has to be a Mid-American Conference Tournament champion. Plus, they have a bad taste in their mouth after last season’s 77-74 MAC semifinal loss to Ohio.
CM: I’m going to go out on a limb and say the 11th seeded Miami RedHawks. They have already pulled off one upset in defeating Bowling Green and played the Bobcats tough in a 58-54 loss just a few days ago in Athens. When you look at their record, they did only win three games in conference play but they played Ohio and Akron tough every time they played. They’ll get a tough game if they win on Wednesday against Western Michigan, but they only lost by four in their previous meeting. Watch out for Miami.
3. Who is more vulnerable to an upset: Akron or Ohio?
MA: With no Abreu, Akron is not the same team. While the Zips still have the league’s best frontcourt with Zeke Marshall, Demetrius “Tree” Treadwell and Nick Harney, the drop-off from Abreu to Betancourt is quite significant. No one knows how the freshman guard will respond to being on the big stage. Not only are the Zips in a shaky state emotionally, they come to Cleveland having lost two of their final three regular season games. On the other hand, Ohio is playing with confidence.
AH: Ohio is more vulnerable, for the simple fact that on any given night, they could go cold. The Bobcats have shot 47 percent throughout the season and an impressive 35 percent from behind the arc. But if Ohio’s shooters go cold, they are toast. With no dominant big man to grab offensive boards, the Bobcats need to make outside shots to win games.
DM: It is Akron, but they are in a position to correct it. In Akron’s one game without Abreu, the Zips went into the half against Kent State down 15, but rallied in the second half and outscored the Golden Flashes by 11. Even though they lost, that is a positive sign, and with a week of practice time afforded by the double bye, Akron is in a position to overcome the uncertainty. After all, they only need to win two games, and are still the largest team, by far, in this tournament.
BS: Akron. Unlike the Zips, Ohio has all of their big-time players available and they are on a three-game win streak. Akron will have to adjust their playing style without Abreu. On Friday night, it will only be their second game without the junior guard. They have had a great season up to this point, but they will find it hard to achieve access into the NCAA Tournament for the third time since 2009.
CM: Akron. With Abreu out, this team is different. Zeke Marshall is still very good, as is the team, but him being out I just don’t think they are the same team. A team that can come out hot and get the lead early could put Akron in trouble early, and without their point guard, they are going to have an issue being able to get back in the flow. Just picture Ohio without Cooper (or Stevie Taylor) and I think it’s obvious that they just won’t be the same team. It’s not exactly easy to replace 30 plus minutes a game at arguably the most important position on the court and expect to be the same team.
4. Who is an under-the-radar player, that could potentially become the talk of the tournament?
MA: Western Michigan’s Shane Whittington. The 6’10” junior was named to the All-MAC second team after posting 12.9 points and 8.9 rebounds this season. He scored 20 or more in six games this season and has flown under-the-radar in the MAC West.
AH: Akron guard Jake Kretzer. Akron lists this 6’7” freshman as a guard-forward, but he looked more J.J. Reddick than ShaneBattier against Ohio a few weeks ago. Hailing from Waverly, Ohio, the young gun stroked five three pointers in his return to southeast Ohio. Though he hasn’t come close to matching his 6-6 performance since, the Zips will lean on his shooting even more in Alex Abreu’s absence.
DM: I like the two picks above me. I also like Juwan Scaife. To mix it up, I’ll go with Carmelo Betancourt. It is unfair to expect Carmelo Betancourt to perform at Alex Abreu’s level in this tournament, but it is not insane to say he cannot do an admirable enough job to cut down the nets. Betancourt is not a scoring guard, he is a facilitator, which should fit in well in Akron’s system that features a bevy of players that can put the ball in the hoop. If Akron is to cut down the nets, it’ll be because he stepped up. Betancourt struggles with turnovers, with 51 turnovers in 44 minutes, if he can curb that trend, Akron will continue further into March.
BS: Kent State guard Kris Brewer. He does not get as much attention as Chris Evans and Randal Holt, but he is an important player for the Golden Flashes. He leads the team in assists, and he can also score when he needs to. If they have any chance of winning the MAC Tournament, they will need Brewer to play his best.
CM: He doesn’t exactly fly under-the-radar in Athens, but I think Stevie Taylor could be huge for Ohio. If Cooper gets in foul trouble at all, the sophomore is going to be counted to play key minutes. He’s done it before and even hit a game winner against Kent State earlier this season. He’s not Cooper, but it would not shock me if he played meaningful minutes in Cleveland.
5. When all is said and done Saturday night, who will be crowned tournament champion and represent the MAC in the NCAA tournament?
MA: Ohio. The Bobcats are loaded with experience; nine of its’ 10 rotation players are juniors or seniors (Stevie Taylor is the only underclassmen). On the other hand, Akron relies heavily on four freshmen and while they have played key roles this season, Cleveland is different from the regular season. I don’t believe the Zips will be able to overcome the loss of Abreu. Ball State and Kent State are playing as well as anyone and Western Michigan isn’t going to roll over, but in the end, I think the Bobcats win their third MAC Tournament in four seasons.
AH: I don’t see Akron or Ohio losing in the semi-finals. These two teams have been in a class of their own all season, and this week should be no different. Not many teams in the NCAA history have beaten a single team three times in one season. For that reason only, I believe Ohio will cut down the nets on Sunday. Expect another finish like this.
DM: I think Kent State will beat Akron for two reasons. The Golden Flashes are the hottest team in the MAC, outside of the Bobcats, while Akron is in all sorts of turmoil. I’ll then take the ‘Cats to defeat Kent State in the MAC Championship game not only because Ohio has accountable veterans like MAC Player of the Year D.J. Cooper, and tough-minded Walter Offutt, but also because they have experienced role players that can provide a needed spark at the most opportune time. The games will be close, but I think Ohio makes the key plays down the stretch and defends their title.
BS: After Akron pulled out an overtime win at Ohio on Feb. 27, many people would have thought Akron would win the MAC Tournament. But, what a difference a bad decision can make, my pick has to be Ohio. A team that feels like they let the Elite Eight slip out of their hands last season with North Carolina, is ready to show that their magnificent run last season was not a fluke. MAC Player of the Year D.J. Cooper has a chance to become the greatest player in Ohio history with another stellar performance in March. As long as they have contributions from their main role players, they have a chance to enjoy success in March again.
CM: With Abreu out, I have to go with the Ohio Bobcats. They clearly aren’t the same team as last year when they made their Sweet 16 run, but they still should win this tournament with all the turmoil occurring in the rubber capital. Cooper, Walter Offut and company are going to get it all done and take advantage of a reeling Akron squad that has lost two of the their three games to wrap up the MAC regular season. Ohio, on the other hand, is 3-0 since losing to Akron on their home floor in overtime. All things considered, this is the ‘Cats tournament to lose.