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By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
At long last, the balance of divisional power in Mid-American Conference men's basketball started to even itself out in 2014.
The West Division had not seen a representative reach the MAC Tournament championship game since 2006 until Saturday night, when it sent both combatants -- No. 1 seed Western Michigan (23-9) and No. 2 seed Toledo (27-6). The Rockets were the last West squad to make a title game appearance, falling to Kent State 71-66 in '06.
A West Division team had not captured the regular-season championship and the top seed for the MAC Tournament since Toledo went 14-2 in conference play in 2006-07. Since '07, only eight West teams finished the season with an above .500 league record.
Kent State won a record 31 consecutive games against West Division foes from January of 2008 through January 2013, but the Flashes were just 3-5 against the West this season.
Overall, the East Division still went 27-21 against the West Division in 2014, but the gap is certainly closing. In 2013, the East compiled a 24-12 record against the West, with MAC Tournament championship game foes Akron and Ohio each going unbeaten in cross-division affairs (6-0).
Looking ahead to next year, the Rockets and Eastern Michigan (21-14) will each have four starters returning. Also, watch out for Northern Illinois (15-17), which improved 10 wins from a year ago. The Huskies' top-six scorers will return next season, and they'll also add four key transfers that sat out in 2013-14.
The MAC Tournament's controversial new format accomplished its mission for the third season in as many tries this winter.
The No. 1 seed advanced to the championship game for the third consecutive year since the top two seeds in the tournament were given byes into the semifinals. The No. 2 seeds have made it to the title game in two out of three years, while the third seed snuck in once (2012). No seed below No. 3 has made it to the championship game under the new format.
Fresh teams were pared against fatigued foes on several occasions during this year's tournament, and fresh legs prevailed each time.
No. 5 seed Ohio, playing its fourth game in six days, hung tough, but ultimately fell to No. 4 seed Akron 83-77 in the third round on Thursday. The Zips had not played in six days.
Akron was then upended the following night by No. 1 seed Western Michigan, which had the previous night off, while an Eastern Michigan squad playing its fourth game in five days ran out of gas against second-seeded and well-rested No. 2 seed Toledo in the other semifinal.
The theory behind giving the top two seeds byes into the semifinals is that if the MAC has a team with the potential to receive an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament, they won't blow that opportunity by losing an early-round league tourney game. Mid-major conferences like the MAC rarely receive more than one bid, and they don't want to jeopardize a rare opportunity to send two teams to the Big Dance.
The format also gives the teams that fared the best during the regular season an advantage in the postseason, since they don't need to win as many games to capture the title.
While some people believe Toledo may have a chance at an at-large bid this season, don't count on it. The Rockets' RPI of 35 heading into Saturday's title game is solid, but they're just 6-5 against teams with an RPI in the top 100 -- with their best win over No. 82 Western Michigan during the regular season. That's not going to cut it.
However, Toledo head coach Tod Kowalczyk thinks his team should at least be in the conversation.
"For us to not be mentioned (as an at-large NCAA Tournament candidate) the past two weeks is a slap in all the MAC's face," he said.
A mid-major that may have a shot is Green Bay (24-6) from the Horizon League. The top-seeded Phoenix received a bye into the semifinals of their conference tournament, but were upset by in-state rival Milwaukee. Their RPI is just 57, but they have a huge win over No. 11 Virginia and a narrow loss to No. 5 Wisconsin on their resume.
If Green Bay receives an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament tonight, the new format will be officially declared a rousing success.
DRIBBLES: Brady Sallee led Ball State to the championship game of the MAC Women's Basketball Tournament in just his second season. The Cardinals (18-16) lost to Akron 79-68. Sallee was an assistant coach at Kent State under Bob Lindsay from 1996-2002, helping the Golden Flashes capture three MAC tourney titles. ... For the second straight season, Field High School graduate Bill Ek served as an official in the MAC men's championship game.
Facebook: Allen Moff, Record-Courier