Bob Hunter commentary: MAC’s best can’t be sure of getting NCAA at-large bid
ATHENS, Ohio — When Akron forward Demetrius Treadwell was asked how winning two games against Ohio University might affect the Zips’ mentality if they meet the Bobcats a third time in the Mid-American Conference tournament, the words spilled out of his mouth before he had a chance to catch them.
“When we face them in the finals, it’s going to be a new game,” the 6-foot-7 junior said. “The two games in the past will have nothing to do with the game we’re playing that day.”
When they face them in the finals. Get it?
Doing a proverbial leap over the teams that they might face before then — the MAC gives its top two seeds a bye to the semifinals — might sound like overconfidence, but he was only saying what just about everybody thinks: Akron and Ohio have been easy to spot as the league’s best two teams this season, so it doesn’t take a prophet to envision a rematch.
To take this one step further, the Zips appear to be a head above the Bobcats. Akron’s 88-81 overtime win might not seem that conclusive, but there were 11,109 in the Convocation Center, and the Zips also have an 86-72 win over the Bobcats in Akron earlier.
That seems like a long time ago, and it seemed especially so when Ohio charged back from a 9-0 deficit to build a 34-16 first-half lead. But Akron had that lead down to 11 by halftime, then charged ahead by as much as eight points in the second half. That this game made it to overtime attests to how entertaining it was.
“I thought the first half was about as well as we’ve played defensively, rebounding the basketball, getting loose balls,” Ohio coach Jim Christian said. “There was a good pace to what we ran offensively in terms of getting the ball to people. “I thought the second half we got so caught up in the emotion of the game that we came out of character. … We obviously showed great courage getting the game into overtime, but then I think they just out-toughed us.”
Truth be told, this was about as good as it gets in the MAC during the regular season, two strong teams going at it while knowing that, fair or not, only one of them will likely make it into the NCAA Tournament.The MAC hasn’t received two invitations since 1998, and although there’s a chance that Akron might be able to get an at-large bid based on a decent rating percentage index, Ohio’s loss last night seals the Bobcats’ fate that way, even at 20-8. If they want to duplicate last year’s success in the postseason, they’re going to have to win the conference tournament.
“It makes us a little more hungry,” Bobcats senior guard D.J. Cooper said. “We know we’ve got to try to (win it) and get to the NCAA Tournament.”
A stronger case can be made for the Zips if they lose in the conference tournament, especially after last night.They are 23-4 and 13-0 in the conference, the first team in MAC history to win their first 13 games. They have the nation’s longest winning streak at 19 games and cracked the top 25 in a major national poll for the first time in school history this week.That 24th spot in the USA Today poll might not seem like much, but if the Zips can hang onto or improve upon it before March 17, it’s more proof that Akron belongs in the field even if they don’t get the MAC’s automatic spot.
The Zips have their advocates — ESPN analyst Dan Dakich said he thinks Akron could be another of those mid-major teams that reach the Final Four — but they also have to keep proving themselves. Last night’s game should have helped; the Bobcats were 37-2 in their previous 39 home games.
“We’re not going to worry about (proving ourselves),” Treadwell said. “We’ve got to win our regular-season championship and our conference tournament. We have to keep winning. We still feel like we’re underdogs.”
They are. It is the birthright of MAC champions, even those who don’t want or deserve it.
Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.