This week, Kent State, The University of Akron and 10 other college basketball teams are competing in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) tournament. The winner gets an automatic bid to March Madness. It's been 20 years since the NCAA awarded an invitation to another MAC team, called an at-large bid. But WKSU sports commentator Terry Pluto says that could change this year with Buffalo.
The last at-large bid
It was 1999 when Miami University received an at-large bid. The No. 1 ranked team in the MAC lost in the tournament final to Kent State. But, Miami had a star in Wally Szczerbiak.
"He was a sensational scorer and a projected first round draft pick. And the NCAA wanted him in the tournament," Pluto said.
Taking a toll on the MAC
Since then, the MAC has been overlooked, and it's taken its toll on the conference.
"Keith Dambrot was coaching at Akron and would have these tremendous regular seasons and then they'd lose in the finals of the MAC tournament and they wouldn't go to the NCAA Tournament," Pluto says. "Dambrot became so frustrated he took a job at Duquesne two years ago."
The rise of the Bulls
But the University at Buffalo is turning the tide; the Bulls have a 28-3 record and have been a top 25 team for all but one week of the season. They're currently No. 18 in the AP Poll. They are the clear favorite to win the MAC tournament title. But Pluto says they're also likely to get an at-large bid should they lose.
"They seemingly came out of nowhere because for a while Akron was a power and Kent was good, so was Ohio. You rarely talked about Buffalo."
Pluto says Buffalo's turnaround began in 2013 when the school hired former Duke star Bobby Hurley. Hurley led the team to a 19-10 record in his first year, and to its first NCAA berth with a 20-10 record his second season. In 2015, he was hired to coach at Arizona State. "We thought that would be the end of Buffalo," Pluto said.
But, the school promoted Hurley's assistant, Nate Oats, who has kept the momentum going. Oats was a top high school coach at Romulus, outside Detroit. He accumulated a 222–52 record over 11 years.
At the helm at Buffalo, Oats led the team to a 27-9 record last year that included an upset over Arizona in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Buffalo also has a star in senior guard CJ Massinburg. "Sometimes you get lucky," Pluto said. "The only offer he had was Prairie View A&M. So, now you have a chance to have a player drafted, you have a super program and that raises the profile of the league."
Waiting for Kent, Akron
Still, Pluto says Northeast Ohio fans are waiting for Akron and Kent State to catch up.
"Akron has stepped back since Dambrot left. Kent State made the Elite 8 in 2002, and it seemed like they could become that program. They would make the NCAA Tournament periodically, but they never took off." This season, however, Kent has a 22-9 record, which Pluto says is their best since 2010.
The MAC Tournament quarterfinals are Thursday at Quicken Loans Arena. Akron plays Buffalo at noon, while Kent State plays Central Michigan at 2:30 p.m.