O26 Game of the Week: MAC on the Line as Toledo Faces OhioPosted by Tommy Lemoine on January 29th, 2014
As conference hierarchies begin taking shape and teams gear up for the stretch run, this week offers a whole host of compelling O26 contests that are sure to impact the picture come March. Let’s take a look at the most intriguing match-ups on tap.
Game of the Week
Toledo (17-2) at Ohio (14-5) – 1:00 PM ET, ESPNU, Saturday.
Efficient offense meets stingy defense in what could very well be a preview of the MAC Championship game on March 15. After losing at home to a gritty, defensive-minded Bowling Green group last Wednesday night, Ohio again found itself in serious trouble at Eastern Michigan last Saturday, trailing by 13 points late and completely unable to generate baskets against the Eagles’ 2-3 zone. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the Bobcats ripped off 20 points in the final eight minutes — including a 12-0 run to take their first and final lead — and stunned EMU to remain a game back of Akron for the MAC East’s top spot. It was a big win for Jim Christian’s crew, but Saturday’s contest will be a different beast altogether. For all of the conference’s tough defensive teams, Toledo is the stand-alone offensive power, ranking 11th nationally in offensive efficiency and featuring five starters each within the top 500 in offensive rating. That ability to score has helped the Rockets to a 5-1 conference record and a stellar 17-2 mark overall, among the best in the entire country.
If it’s able to get past Miami (OH) on Wednesday, Toledo — currently ranked 75th in KenPom — will carry a six-game winning streak on the road to Athens for a match-up with the only other MAC program within the top 100. As it stands, the projections give 79th-ranked Ohio the slight edge at home (64% win probability), but the game should play out as an outright toss-up. Despite losing senior Ricardo Johnson for the season in early January, the Bobcats are still relatively deep, often using an eight-player rotation to remain fresh and intense on the defensive end. That intensity, helped by the long arms of forwards Maurice Ndour and Jon Smith, have enabled Ohio to hold opponents to a paltry 42.8 percent effective field goal percentage on the season. Another strong defensive showing will be crucial against a Toledo squad that boasts even better depth than the Bobcats, as nine guys play over 11 minutes a night. And with myriad weapons like veteran Rian Pearson, emerging forward J.D. Weatherspoon and point guard Juice Brown — averaging 17.8 points and 5.4 assists per game over his last five contests — the Rockets make keying on one or two players a severely flawed defensive game-plan. The scoring load is very evenly distributed; all five starters average in double figures and any one of them can hurt you.
These two MAC foes are no strangers to dramatic clashes — Toledo shocked the eventual Sweet Sixteen-bound Bobcats two seasons ago behind Pearson’s monstrous 18-point, 17-rebound effort — but Saturday will mark the first time in a long time that both schools come in as serious MAC contenders. The outcome will help dictate the conference fate of both teams and should be among the best O26 contests all week.
Four Other Key Games to Watch
- Princeton (12-3) at Harvard (15-3) – 7:00 PM ET, Friday. Although some of the air was taken out of this game when Princeton lost its conference opener and Harvard was upset by Florida Atlantic last week, this remains a hugely important Ivy tilt that could go a long way towards deciding the eventual NCAA Tournament representative. Harvard is the favorite, but things are always tight with these two.
- Richmond (14-6) at Saint Louis (18-2) – 8:00 PM ET, Wednesday. Can the Spiders — winners of four in a row — play themselves into an at-large berth? This week probably won’t provide an answer either way, but it could shift the general thought from a tenuous “maybe” to a more firm “probably.” Chris Mooney’s group has two tall tasks though, and the bruising Billikens are first up.
- Richmond (14-6) at VCU (16-4) – 11:00 AM ET, ESPN2, Saturday. The second leg of Richmond’s brutal two-game road trip will send the team across town to battle VCU and its HAVOC defense. Again, a win here, at Saint Louis, or both will considerably boost the Spiders’ NCAA Tournament hopes. But it won’t be easy.
- Saint Mary’s (16-5) at BYU (13-9) – 11:00 AM ET, ESPN2, Saturday. Both teams are desperately searching for quality wins and time is running out, so this game — which features two top-30 offenses — should be a joy to watch. The Cougars look more and more like an NIT bunch after suffering a pair of losses last week, while the Gaels have taken care of business recently against inferior opponents but step up in competition considerably (they also gets San Diego this Thursday). Oh, and don’t forget how this game ended last year. Definitely a contest worth checking out.
Five More Good Ones
- Louisiana Tech (17-4) at UTEP (14-6) – 9:05 PM ET, Thursday.
- George Washington (16-3) at Dayton (13-7) – 12:30 PM ET, NBCSN, Saturday.
- Boise State (14-6) at UNLV (13-7) – 8:05 PM ET, CBS Sports Network, Saturday.
- UC Irvine (13-8) at UC Santa Barbara (12-6) – 11:00 PM ET, Thursday.
- Manhattan (14-5) at Iona (11-8) – 9:00 PM ET, ESPNU, Friday.