Money, and Mid-Majors: Is the MAC Slipping?

    
February 25th, 2007

OXFORD, Ohio -- Tonight it is Mid-American Conference at its best as the first place Akron Zips come to do battle with the Miami RedHawks.

Miami came in at 13-12 and 8-4 in the MAC. They took their lumps in the pre-conference schedule going 4-8 against a very tough schedule that included Wright State, Kentucky, Illinois, Xavier, Illinois State, Michigan, Dayton and Cincinnati.

Since that grueling stretch the RedHawks have gone 9-5 in the conference plus a win at Indiana State in the Bracket Busters.

The question is did the tough early season games toughen Miami up for MAC play or is the MAC not that tough this year?

Chew on that for a bit and we will come back to it in a moment.

As for Akron, they came in 20-5 and 10-2 in the MAC. They went 9-3 in their pre-conference games. The toughest team they played was 10th ranked Nevada at home and they lost 73-71. Oral Roberts was a tough road opponent that they beat 61-59. The rest of their games were against opponents that are fairly weak including Tiffin University, Gardner-Webb, Binghamton, Winston-Salem State, St. Francis and Loyola Marymount.

Since starting conference play the Zips have gone 11-2 including a home win against Austin Peay in the Bracket Busters.

So what we have learned is the team that struggled with a killer pre-conference schedule is doing well in MAC play. The team that did well in a much easier pre-conference schedule also is doing well in the MAC.

I am beginning to see a pattern? Let’s keep looking.

It is no doubt that the MAC is down a little this year. But hold on just a minute they have been somewhat down for awhile now. Hasn’t it been eight years since the MAC has gotten multiple bids to the NCAA? The last time that happened was in 1999 when Miami and Kent State went to the Big Dance. That is the year that Wally Szcerbiak led the RedHawks to the Sweet sixteen.

Well then let’s look at the conference RPI. The RPI is not perfect but at least it is an apple to apples comparison. This year the MAC is ranked 15th.

How about similar conferences?

The CAA is 13th, the Horizon League is 12th and the MVC is 7th.

And last year the RPI was MAC at 16, the Horizon League was 15, the CAA was 10 and the MVC was six.

So the two year RPI average was MAC 15.5, Horizon 13.5, CAA 12.5 and the MVC 6.5.

The two prior years the RPI average was the Horizon League 15.6, CAA 14.6, MAC 12 and MVC 10.3.

So is it just a cycle? The MAC is a little down the past several years compared to the other three similar conferences?

That is how Horizon League Commissioner Jon LeCrone explains it. He was attending tonight’s game as a member of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee taking a look at Akron.

“It is hard to tell because everything is cyclical. The MAC certainly has a great reputation as a basketball conference. They have been successful in the past and they will continue to be successful,” said LeCrone. We have had years in the Horizon League where people would say the league is down and we’ve had a breakout team get in and do very well. I think all four of the leagues you mentioned, the MAC, Horizon, CAA and even the MVC are all very similar.”

Back to the question you were chewing on.

“I think we may slipping in the eyes of those people that pick teams, but how can you say we are not good? Like two years ago we should have gotten in the tournament,” explained Miami Coach Charlie Coles. “We played the schedule, our RPI was high and then they come up with a new RPI.”

For the record--Miami was 18-10 that year with an RPI of 43.

And Coles is right the MAC had been slighted by the NCAA Selection Committee a few times in the last few years.

In 2002 the year Kent State went to the Sweet Sixteen, Bowling Green was 23-7 with an RPI of 59 and they went to the NIT.

In 2000 Ball State went to the Big Dance but Kent was 19-7 with an RPI of 36 and Bowling Green was 21-7 with an RPI of 56. Both went to the NIT.

So it is not like the MAC is in the toilet, but they seem to be a step behind the MVC and the CAA. They have never put three teams in the NCAA
like the Horizon League did in 1998 when Butler, Detroit and UIC went to the dance.

Let’s do another comparison between our four so-called Mid-Major conferences.

In attendance this year the MVC averages 7680 per game and the lowest in attendance is Indiana State at 4341 per game.

The Horizon League average 3606 per game and the lowest in attendance is Detroit at 2364.

The CAA average 3574 per game and the lowest in attendance is Georgia State at 1167 per game.

Then we have the MAC at just 2921 per game and the lowest is Eastern Michigan just 841 per game. That is not a typo! That 841 per game are what you might see at a women’s game and Eastern even has a nice new arena.

So the fan support is a little lower than those other conferences too. Does that mean the teams are slipping? Well better teams do tend to draw a little better at the gate.

Now on the other hand Akron Coach Keith Dambrot thinks the MAC has emphasized football and not funded basketball.

“You have to put resources into a business to make it grow. I think the CAA and the Missouri Valley have put a big investment into basketball. I think years of neglect have caught up to our conference. If you check the history of our league we have put many more players into the pros than those other leagues,” explained Dambrot.

“The MAC made their investment in football which is fine, but when you look at basketball they are paying the price for it. It is salaries, budgets and buildings. We played at Creighton and we played at Temple. You look at Wichita State’s and George Mason’s buildings. Our fans expect us to be as good as those teams but in realty we don’t have as good as buildings as the Horizon League.”

Plain Dealer Sportswriter Elton Alexander who has covered the MAC since 1986 agrees that the emphasis on football in the MAC has hurt basketball, but he pins in on the entrance of football power Marshall into the MAC in
1997.

When Marshall came into the league, had Marshall been as good in basketball as they were in football, I think schools in the MAC would have matched that across the board, like they tried to do in football. But basketball was doing pretty good anyway,” said Alexander.

How about coaches? This year the Horizon League hired two new coaches and they both were Division I head coaches. They were Gary Waters at Cleveland State and Brad Brownell at Wright State. Waters was the coach at Kent State and Rutgers, Brownell was the coach at UNC-Wilmington.

Brownell is making about $220,000 a year. Butler’s Todd Lickliter, UIC’s Jimmy Collins, Loyola’s JimWhitesell and USM’s Rob Jeter are making in that ballpark or a little more.

And recent hires in the MAC? Prior to this season Ball State hired Ronny Thompson and Central Michigan hired Ernie Zeigler. Both were assistant coaches.

In fact, I think the last MAC coaching hire who was a Division I head coach was Coles and that was 17 years ago.

The only coaches making in the $200,000 range per year in the MAC are Jim Christian at Kent and Tim O’Shea at Ohio University.

So what does all this add up to? I am not sure, but it looks like the MAC will need to invest a little more money in basketball in the future to keep up with the Jones of the Mid-Major World.

Oh and tonight’s game?

Miami beat Akron 64-62 in overtime. That game was worth the investment in a ticket.