The Mid-American Conference season is only two weeks old but the East Division waters couldn't be any murkier. Kent State, Bowling Green and Miami are 2-1. Buffalo, Ohio and Akron are 1-2. Kent State lost to Akron, which on Sunday was beaten by Buffalo.
A divisional favorite? Perhaps Kent State, which visits UB on Wednesday, warrants the slightest edge. The Golden Flashes' lone MAC loss came with guard Carlton Guyton suspended because of a legal matter. But, unlike in recent years, there's no clear-cut "team to beat," more like a division with six legitimate contenders.
"Ball State I think is clear cut on the West and we're just going to beat the crap out of each other over here [in the East]," Akron coach Keith Dambrot said Sunday. "I think [in previous years] there were some teams that were a little bit better but it still was close. Obviously we've been a little bit better, Kent's been a little bit better for the most part and then when Buffalo's been good they've been a little bit better. But this year you could throw them all in a hat and it all looks the same to me. Like we'd probably play 10 times with Buffalo and it would be like that every time. Or one of us may have a bad game but [basically] they're all going to be like that."
There's a good chance that Ball State and Western Michigan will finish 1-2 in the West while meeting little resistance from their divisional foes. Both are likely to earn two of the four byes straight into the Cleveland portion of the MAC Tournament (the division winners and the next two teams with the best conference records avoid first-round games).
Given the parity in the East, one has to question whether it's prudent to fight hard for a first-round bye, especially if it means shortening the bench in key games and running the risk of wearing down key players. It might be more beneficial to shoot for a top-eight finish, which guarantees a first-round home game leading into Cleveland.
"I think being fresh is certainly a big part of it," UB coach Reggie Witherspoon said. "Now how do you arrive at that? You can be fresh by getting the bye, fresh by being deep and you're playing a lot of guys. You can be fresh by just getting hot at the right time [Ohio last year]. After they got on a roll they looked fresh. They didn't look like it in the last week of the season."
Granted, there's no formula that guarantees a team will peak once the tournament arrives. In UB's case building depth, particularly at the guard positions, might be the way to go, even if it costs the Bulls a regular-season game or two. Witherspoon gave seven players double-digit minutes against Akron on Sunday and at one point had four -- count 'em four! -- freshmen on the floor.
*This Week: Teams in the East will have to take care of business at home to finish top eight. UB, which already has one MAC loss at Alumni Arena, has Kent State on Wednesday before traveling to Ohio on Saturday. Two of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference favorites hit town this week. Iona (6-1) and statistical sensation Mike Glover (see below) play at Niagara on Friday and Canisius on Sunday. Fairfield visits Canisius on Friday and Niagara on Sunday. Glover hung 39 points on Canisius and 30 on Niagara in earlier meetings. Xavier, one of three 3-0 teams in the Atlantic 10, meets St. Bonaventure in the Reilly Center at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Muskateers guard Tu Holloway averages 20.2 points and 5.4 assists. The Bonnies finish out the week at George Washington, which is off to a 3-0 A-10 start thanks to wins over the bottom three teams in the conference.
*Stat Watch: Senior point guards Byron Mulkey of UB and Anthony Nelson of Niagara went into Monday tied for the national lead in steals at 3.3 per game. Nelson surged with eight steals in last week's victory over Siena and six in Saturday's loss at Saint Peter's. Iona brings two high-ranking players to town this week. Glover is 19th in scoring (20.7), 12th in rebounding (10.5) and fifth in field-goal percentage (65.9). Point guard Scott Machado is second nationally in assists (8.4). UB freshman Javon McCrea dropped from second to fourth in field-goal percentage (66.0) after hitting on just 1 of 7 in Sunday's win over Akron. Bona's Andrew Nicholson has slipped to 19th in scoring (20.9). He was held to a combined 21 points in losses at Temple and Rhode Island. There are 346 teams in the national Division I rankings. Niagara visited Manhattan on Monday ranked 345th in three-point field-goal percentage (.260). Only Alabama State (25.8) misfires with greater frequency than the Purple Eagles.
*Nationwide: Kansas carried a 17-0 record into Baylor on Monday night and gets 14th-ranked Texas on Saturday. The Jayhawks are 10th in the nation in scoring (83.1) and first in field-goal percentage (51.8). They're shooting 58.8 percent inside the arc. The Longhorns won't be looking ahead. No. 11 Texas A&M comes into Austin on Wednesday. Will Illinois regroup at home? The Illini dropped road games at Penn State and Wisconsin and have Michigan St. tonight and Ohio St. on Saturday.