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Lack of NCAA bids for the MAC? Don’t blame the commissioner....

The drought of multiple teams from the Mid-American Conference receiving  Men’s NCAA Tournament bids has extended to 25 seasons, with the last at-large bid coming in 1999. That tournament featured Miami (OH) (we all remember the heroics of RedHawks legend Wally Szczerbiak featured on the cover of this article, right?), which earned a now rare at-large bid, and Kent State, who secured their bid by winning the MAC tournament. The MAC tournament format of the time was not too dissimilar from the current format implemented post-COVID-19, with just the top eight teams qualifying. Notable exceptions included the top four seeds hosting on-campus sites, the semi-finals and finals held in Toledo at the Seagate Center, and the conference still having basketball divisions (a throwback!). This was also when Marshall was in the MAC. Wild times, for sure.

So, what exactly did the MAC do to earn multiple bids that year? Looking at Miami’s schedule, they scheduled tough, high-profile opponents such as Notre Dame, then-#18 Tennessee (a 1999 tournament team), Boston University, and then-#23 Xavier (a 1998 tournament team). A beefed-up non-conference schedule and quality wins (even being ranked in the Top 25 twice during the regular season) meant that Miami did enough to make the dance as a #10 seed, despite losing the MAC Tournament Championship to Kent State. They proved they earned the at-large bid, beating #7 seed Washington, followed by a win over #6 seed Utah before falling in a close game to #8 seed Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen. Kent State would ultimately fall in the first round as a #11 seed to #6 seed Temple. We all know the heroics of Kent State just three years later, advancing to the Elite Eight where they fell to Indiana. So, what changed? In 2003, CMU earned the lone bid and advanced to the Round of 32, losing to Duke. In 2004, WMU lost its first-round game, kicking off a string of five straight years where the MAC went 0-5. That was remedied in 2010 with a 1-1 record, followed by another one-and-done effort in 2011. Since then, we have seen Ohio advance to the Sweet Sixteen and several first-round wins, but not much else.

The prevailing question: Why does the MAC continue to be a one-bid conference? Some say that the commissioner is not doing enough to help the committee reward MAC teams who have exceptional regular seasons, but instead end up being relegated to events such as the NIT (or CBI and CIT, which barely register a blip on the radar of college basketball diehards). Agree or disagree with the commissioner and what he does for the conference, the MAC not getting multiple bids is not solely his fault. I am often very cautious of my criticism of those who work in the MAC front office, not because I know what goes on (I have next to zero idea what kind of work goes on in Cleveland), but because I don’t know anything about how to run a Division One athletic conference. It’s easy to criticize decisions such as Midweek #MACtion (which many fans are extremely vocal about), and it seems like there is no move to be a major player in the expansion carousel that would help elevate the conference nationally (which involves far more than just competitive athletics getting involved), but trust me, folks, the MAC getting a single bid to the dance every year isn’t solely Steinbrecher’s fault.

What does the committee tell the MAC and other conferences who earn just one bid and cry foul at the lack of representation? Have a better NET rating. As of this writing, the highest-rated MAC team (Akron) sits at 93. The next highest? Toledo at 130. In third, we have the Ohio Bobcats at 172. So, the question is: HOW do you improve your NET rating? “Schedule tougher opponents to boost your rating” is highlighted, bolded, underlined, and circled at the top of the list. Sometimes, that is entirely out of the hands of the MAC schools, let alone the hands of the commissioner. Thanks to Kyle Rowland, we know that for at least one MAC institution, the fault sometimes lies with the opponents they try to schedule. Kyle writes that “The Rockets have tried to schedule Big Ten programs for years — Michigan included — to no avail”… why is that? Toledo was supposed to play Arkansas recently in basketball, yet the Razorbacks bailed. When I spoke to Tricia Cullop on the women’s side of it all a few years back on the podcast, she mentioned that the schools with NET or RPI ratings between 25 and 50 don’t like to schedule MAC teams, especially those they might lose to. Those programs have very little to gain, and a lot to lose, and by a lot, she means an NCAA bid. The top 10 teams have no issue scheduling a MAC squad (see South Carolina or Iowa vs BGSU women this year) because they can recover from a loss like that thanks to their SOS and remaining opponents, but in all reality, they expect that they will win those games. The Falcons lost to both Iowa and South Carolina this year.

Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) drives on BGSU guard Paige Kohler (10) in Iowa City. The Falcons lost 99-65 - AP Photo

There is also the issue of an imbalance of agreed-upon contracted games. Similar to football, major programs won’t travel to smaller, hostile arenas, or they will, in exchange for the famed 2-for-1 or sometimes 3-for-1, where the MAC school plays the major program two or three times at their place in exchange for a game at the Stroh Center or James A Rhodes Arena. And even then, we hear all the time about how those schools just buy out the game. Thanks for the money, I guess? But really, thanks for hurting our NET rating. Similar to football, we see Group of Five programs agree to home and home series or two-for-one series with some Power Five schools, but you will NEVER see the likes of Ohio State play at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, or UCLA return the favor for BGSU and travel to the Doyt. The Miami Hurricanes did a home-and-home with Toledo, as did Mizzou (which many believe was due in part to the relationship then Tigers head coach Gary Pinkel had with the university having coached there in the 90s), but those days are becoming fewer and farther between. In basketball, it’s a bit different as most schedules are built in the offseason leading up to the following year, but it remains the same: schools don’t schedule games against “lower-tier opponents” if they can’t promise they can beat them, or as we know from the football world if they can’t just “buy” a win.

Okay, so we can cross that one out.

Marketing is another logical step. Securing television contracts for nationally televised games, or bending the knee to the bigger programs who will feature you for a “money beatdown” that has major national prominence. Last season, Kent State traveled to Gonzaga and played them tough at their place and had a heartbreaking loss to then #2 Houston 49-44, one of the Cougars' lowest-scoring games that season. These were big-deal games to Kent State, and while they didn’t come away with a win, it showed the country that the top teams in the MAC can hang with the “Big Boys”. Talk more about how Kent State held Houston under 50 points. While I am certainly no marketing expert, just what I see online seems to suggest that the more people talk about your team, the easier it is to get national recognition.

Lastly, win these postseason events.

Surely the MAC teams are doing enough there to say “Hey committee, look at us crushing everything in our path in these lower tournaments!”, right? Well… not so much. I would be willing to bet dollars to donuts that the committee doesn’t look at any results below that of the NIT (which is often referred to by fans as the “Not In Tournament” Tournament), and even then, they only really casually observe the results from the final four of the NIT. And, well for the MAC, results haven’t been kind. The last time a MAC team made the NIT finals? The MAC didn’t even exist and would be formed a year later. It was BGSU with a finals loss to DePaul in 1945, the year World War II was coming to a close. WOOF. Toledo has won the last three outright regular-season MAC titles, and for all regular-season MAC championships, if they aren’t invited to the dance as an at-large or win the opportunity in the MAC Tournament, they get the conference auto-bid to the NIT, and in that same stretch, Toledo is 0-3 in the NIT. The Rockets haven’t won an NIT game since 2001 and won a CIT game in 2012, but since then, nothing. Hard to say "We deserve to be there" when you don't win your first-round NIT game. Harsh? Yes, but also true.

Don Otten played for BGSU from 1942-1946. He was on the last BGSU NIT Championship Game Team in 1945. - Wikipedia photo

It is so easy for us as fans to pile on and blame the MAC office for the lack of bids, and I get it, the head of the league is often the first person to blame. But, let's start to look at ourselves first and state our case by winning more games in the NIT, beating the opponents who WILL schedule us from quad one or two, and then when they do, market it and get people talking about them, win or lose. Simple? Not always, but to show the country that the MAC is no punching bag, this is the approach… right?



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