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MAC tournament filled with angst and elation

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CLEVELAND — Eight teams scattered about the Midwest and western New York converged here this weekend for the Mid-American Conference men’s basketball tournament. They all shared a common goal: crash the Big Dance.

With each victory, smiling coaches and players filed into a makeshift interview room in the bowels of Quicken Loans Arena. But there are two sides to every game. There’s also a loser, a team that knows March will pass by with no appearance in the NCAA tournament.

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Toledo head coach Tod Kowalczyk speaks to his players during Friday's MAC Tournament semifinal game against Eastern Michigan.

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For three days, a roller coaster of emotions flooded the Q.

“Guys feel a lot of pressure, there’s no question,” Ball State coach James Whitford said. “It can affect your decision-making.”

This is life in a one-bid league, where two bad hours can signal the start of the offseason. The only hope is winning the conference tournament to secure your place in college basketball’s 68-team, three-week extravaganza.

It’s fair to define one-bid leagues as the ultimate example of democracy in sports — no matter how good or how poorly your regular-season results were, the reset button is punched. The preseason goal remains attainable for each team, with one hot weekend the only thing that separates them from the NCAA tournament.

“Over time, I've grown accustomed to the reality of that and tried to put our team in the best position possible to play well in those games,” Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “You have to trust the process, the preparation, allow the players the make plays, play with freedom, and stay positive. I think that’s a big part of it.”

UT’s NCAA tournament drought grew to 38 years, as the Rockets lost to Buffalo 76-66 in Saturday’s MAC championship game. The elation of advancing and agony of defeat were on full display all week — four of the seven games came down to the final seconds.

“We put ourselves in games that make your guys feel pressure,” Whitford said of his regular-season schedule. “We went to Oklahoma, went to Oregon, we went to Notre Dame. And we did that intentionally to try to create a similar environment where you have to battle the nerves. If there’s another way beyond that, I don’t know what it is.”

Ball State lost to Kent State 76-73 in a quarterfinal game after missing a shot at the buzzer.

Of the 32 conferences that sponsor Division I basketball, more than 20 will be one-bid leagues, and those conferences present a dichotomy from their multi-bid brethren. Michigan coach John Beilein is thrilled his team won the Big Ten tournament, but even if the Wolverines didn’t escape Iowa in their first game, their ticket for March Madness already was punched.

It begs the question if the regular season is rendered irrelevant in the MACs and Horizon Leagues of the world.

“There is a little bit, to be honest with you,” said Buffalo coach Nate Oats, whose team went a league-best 15-3 in the MAC regular season. “We won the regular season by two games, which is hard. Then you get here and if you lose [in the championship game], everyone’s a little disappointed. But our guys know that’s the deal.”

Fifteen conference wins and a regular-season championship mean little. Sure, you might get a bye or home-court advantage in the conference tournament. But for those in one-bid leagues, it all pales to earning a bid to the Big Dance.

“I think if you asked every Big Ten head coach before the season, you have a chance to be the regular-season champion or the tournament champion, I would venture to guess every one of them would take the regular season because it’s a test of time,” Kowalczyk said. “It’s more of a true championship. I think most coaches take more pride in that because it’s harder to do. Look at what Kansas has done over 14 consecutive years. It has to be one of the all-time greatest feats in all of athletics. Let’s face it, in three games in three days, a lot can happen — injuries, bad calls, big shots, bad luck, good luck.”

The MAC used to give the top two seeds a bye into the semifinals, but there were complaints it was unfair because their opponent already had played one or multiple games in the tournament.

When MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher was asked about devaluing the regular season, he chuckled and said, “We’re not too far removed from when we really valued the regular season.”

While the selection show won’t be until Sunday evening, this figures to be the 19th consecutive year the MAC will go without an at-large team in the NCAA tournament. In 1995, 1998, and 1999, the conference sent two representatives to the tournament, a time when the MAC was at its peak.

The league’s never experienced more tournament success than the 1990s. In six of the 10 years, the MAC won at least one tournament game and three teams advanced to the Sweet 16 — Ball State in 1990, Eastern Michigan in 1991, and Miami (Ohio) in 1999. Eastern Michigan secured one of the conference’s signature NCAA tournament wins in 1996, when it defeated Duke 75-60.

In 2002, Kent State came within one victory of the Final Four. Ohio University made a run to the Sweet 16 a decade later, the last time a MAC school won an NCAA tournament game. From 1990-2003, the MAC was a sparkling 14-17 in the tournament.

But the wins have dried up. Dating to the 2004 NCAA tournament, the MAC is a woeful 3-13, with two of those wins by Ohio in 2012. The league’s stature has diminished with the absence of victories. In the past nine years, the MAC champions consistently have been seeded near the bottom of the bracket: 13, 14, 15, 13, 12, 14, 12, 14, 14.

“We’ll get multiple teams in the tournament when individual teams step up and do the next thing. And that’s a scheduling issue and a winning big nonconference games issue,” Steinbrecher said. “We’ve collectively done the things from a systemic point of view where we’re in position to do those things and take the next step.”

Dating to 2000, the MAC has had 10 teams finish with an RPI ranking in the top 60 and not receive an at-large bid. Five of those teams were rated no worse than 46 — Kent State was 36th in 2000, Miami was 40th in 2005, Buffalo was 46th in 2005, Toledo was 36th in 2014, and Akron was 34th in 2016. None of them was considered by the committee and the same was true of Buffalo, which was ranked 30th in RPI after Friday’s games.

“The committee has been increasingly rigged against mid-majors for years,” Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel tweeted Thursday.

The main complaint from mid-major athletic directors and coaches is a Power Five school can go 8-10 in its conference and still play their way into the tournament, whereas Buffalo, which won the most conference games by a MAC team since 2006, would have been left out had it lost to UT in the MAC championship game.

“All you have to do is look at the trends of the last five years, it’s certainly more and more difficult to put together the resume,” Steinbrecher said. “Look at the number of at-large teams coming from non-autonomous conferences, it continues to decrease.”

It remains the most impactful week of the year for mid-major leagues. The eyes of a sporting nation drift to far-off places like Burlington, Vt., and Sioux Falls, S.D., to watch the America East and Summit League tournaments. The winner-take-all extremity draws everyone in.

For three days here, the MAC tournament served up a delightful act of clutch shooting, coaches biting their fingernails, and the harsh reality of seasons ending in a split second.

With the madness unfolding around him, Steinbrecher said, aptly, “The NCAA tournament for our teams begins this week.”

Contact Kyle Rowland at: krowland@theblade.com, 419-724-6110, or on Twitter @KyleRowland.

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