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MAC basketball tournament preview: Wounded Akron opens up the field

Akron is without their star point guard, allowing the rest a better chance at reaching the NCAA tournament. And can Sweet 16 participant Ohio repeat as champions?

Keith Dambrot's season with Akron turned south quick, but are they still the favorites?
Keith Dambrot's season with Akron turned south quick, but are they still the favorites?
USA TODAY Sports

This much we know: Toledo won't win the MAC. Due to a low APR score, they are banned from postseason play, which includes the Mid-American Conference tournament. And they were a good team, so that narrows it down.

One week ago, it appeared nobody could touch Akron, bearers of a 19-game winning streak and a 14-0 start in the MAC. Then came a double-digit loss at Buffalo, and the Zips looked slightly beatable, but still the favorite.

Then came one of the oddest monkey wrenches thrown into the MAC tournament in quite some time: Akron's point guard Alex Abreu was suspended indefinitely following his arrest for marijuana trafficking. Only time can reveal his guilt or innocence, but time is not a luxury Akron has. With less than a week until they make their debut into the MAC tournament semifinals, they need someone to handle the ball. They tried throwing freshman Carmelo Betancourt into the proverbial fire against Kent State on Friday. He played decently, but after 27 minutes of play had to leave the game after his leg cramped up for the third time.

Despite Abreu's absence, Akron lost by four points to Kent State at home. So they still have loads of talent in the frontcourt and on the wings, but their impregnable force fields have been disarmed. Coach Keith Dambrot needs to figure out what to do at that position on the fly, which isn't an easy thing. Game on for the rest of the MAC contenders.

For a refresher, here's the MAC tournament bracket. This is a format installed in 2012 to reward regular season success. The top two teams go straight to the semifinals and the next two are in the quarterfinals. Because of Toledo's ineligibility, for this year the fifth best team (Ball State) gets a bye to the second round.

FAVORITES

(2) Ohio — With virtually everyone coming back from the 2012 Sweet Sixteen team, save for coach John Groce, this was supposed to be their year again. As expected, DJ Cooper has reached unexplored statistical plateaus in college basketball and operates this offense with flair and function. Unheralded forward Reggie Keely and the sharpshooting tandem of Walter Offutt and Nick Kellogg gives this team great balance. Right now, nobody else may be more difficult to keep up with than the Bobcats.

(1) Akron — Despite the point guard issue, senior center Zeke Marshall has broken conference records for career and single-season blocks (3.6 per game). Junior forward Demetrius Treadwell also made a name for himself as a great forward, especially as the game ventures into the final minutes. They'll need his play more than ever. Whoever handles the ball just needs to remember who his teammates are inside and they could still pounce their way into the NCAA tournament. The good news is that the Zips don't play their next game until Friday, so they have a few days of practice to glue together a point guard solution.

CONTENDERS

(4) Kent State — Tournaments are all about playing great at the correct time, yes? Then the Golden Flashes are a prime example of that. They were nose-diving after losing at Northern Illinois, which made them 2-5 in the MAC. They finished with a 9-7 mark and are riding five straight wins. Chris Evans is a fantastic, exciting player (and magnificent dunker) while Randal Holt provides the outside threat. A win in the quarterfinals will give them 20 for the 14th time in 15 teams — as well as another game against Akron.

(3) Western Michigan — Somebody has to be third, and they were the de facto third place team. They technically won the MAC West outright (tied with ineligible Toledo at 10-6) but based on the closeness of some of their games, have kind of stumbled to the finish line. They're a balanced team with four players averaging over 10 points per game and play some nice defense, but I'm not very high on them getting through Ohio into the championship game

SLEEPERS

(5) Ball State — I can't believe I'm saying this about the Cardinals, but they're playing incredible, winning seven of their last eight contests. Jauwan Scaife is averaging almost 20 points per MAC contest and they've bounced back from a frustrating 2-7 start to earn a bye into the second round. They do hold two wins over WMU and should they face Kent State, it'll serve as a frenetic battle of two teams playing well in the correct month.

(8) Buffalo — Yes, they've lost four of their last five. But the lone win was against Akron with Abreu and nobody else in the MAC is able to say that. Javon McCrea should be the MAC Player of the Year, and his supporting cast has occasionally provided excellent performances, but the reason they are 7-9 in the conference is the inconsistency of the aforementioned support. If you're seeking a surprise from the first round, it could be the Bulls, who have never been to the NCAA tournament.

THE REST

(6) Bowling Green — They have two great seniors in A'uston Calhoun and Jordon Crawford and the rest play hard, but they just don't have enough offense beyond that tandem to get very far.

(7) Eastern Michigan — Rob Murphy's team preaches defense, and they run the Syracuse zone with great efficiency. But they can't score very well. Best case scenario, they reach the semifinals.

(9) Central Michigan — Keno Davis did a remarkable job cobbling together a competitive roster on short notice, and it's too bad they only will get one year from fourth-year transfer Kyle Randall. But they do play like a team that starts four freshmen and I don't see them keeping up with Buffalo in the first round.

(10) Northern Illinois — The famous team that scored four points in a half and 25 for the game, they've lost 10 straight games. Abdel Nader can't do everything for them, even though he's tried.

(11) Miami (OH) — The RedHawks have dropped 12 of their last 13. Worse still, leading scorer Allen Roberts was lost for the season last week to injury. They did give Ohio a scare on Saturday and may somehow win their first round game, but the depth isn't there to reach the quarterfinals.

PREDICTIONS

Smart money says that Akron still finds a way to win their semifinal match to set up their seventh straight MAC championship game, with the second consecutive one against Ohio. But I'll take a wild, probably incorrect guess and predict a repeat of 2005; Buffalo reaches the title game despite a relatively low seed, only to lose to the Ohio Bobcats.