From afar it's a jumble of compass points (Central Michigan,
Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois, Western Michigan), notches
on the Rust Belt (Akron, Buffalo, Toledo) and identity crises
(Miami and Ohio--please, not Miami of Ohio and Ohio U). There's
also a dead jurist (Marshall), a Letterman punch line (Ball
State), a venue (Bowling Green) and a tragic incident (though
Kent is comfortable again with being called Kent State). Good
thing the Mid-American Conference goes by a memorable
Mention the MAC to an NBA scout, and he'll rave about all the
players who stay for four years and grow, including recent
first-round picks Wally Szczerbiak of Miami and Antonio Daniels
of Bowling Green, who didn't blossom until their junior
years--when stars in higher-profile conferences are usually
gone. Mention the MAC to a coach, and he'll likely cite the
prevalence of motion offenses, which hasten players'
development. Mention the MAC to an athletic director in another
conference, and he'll credit its schools for making the best of
their lot, recruiting on the Big Ten's turf with relatively
But mention the MAC to the NCAA tournament committee, and you'll
get blank stares. Since 1990 the NCAA has favored the league
with only three at-large bids and never seeded a MAC club higher
than ninth. Yet a team from this conference of Davids--a guy
named Slay leads the league in scoring--reached the Sweet
Sixteen three times during that decade. There's quality ball
being played in the MAC, but not enough people know about it.
On the road is the best place to see the spirit of the MAC. It's
where the league's schools must go in November and December to
take on the well-born who refuse to visit them. Once conference
play begins, they hit the asphalt again, to cover the
too-short-to-fly distances between such points as Athens, Ohio,
and Huntington, W. Va.
Parachute into Columbus on a stormy night, then drive an hour
down to Athens to catch the Ohio team bus and experience a
typical week on the MAC macadam.
OHIO AT MARSHALL, MONDAY, FEB. 14 Just before the bus lights out
for Huntington for a game against the Thundering Herd, Ohio
athletic director Tom Boeh makes a plea: "Please don't refer to
us as a 'bus league.' Fact is, we do fly some places. And bus is
only one letter from bush."
As we roll through coal country hollows long since tapped out,
Bobcats coach Larry Hunter explains how the MAC hopes to model
itself after the Atlantic 10, which grew from mid-major shoot
into big-time flytrap during the 1990s despite being in the
shadow of the Big East. "The size of our schools is similar,"
Hunter says. "The A-10 made the jump by getting exposure. And it
had two teams--Temple and UMass--that really got it done." To do
the same thing, the MAC may have to overcome one of the things
that makes it such a good league: parity.
Flooded roads force the bus driver into a 40-minute detour.
Senior forward Shaun Stonerook gazes at a barn side urging him
to CHEW MAIL POUCH TOBACCO. Stonerook is a wiry transfer from
Ohio State who through Sunday was tied in the nation in double
doubles with 18. He'll concede to the Big Ten an inch or two at
most positions, but he grants it no advantage in quality of
play. "But this is definitely different," says Stonerook. "In
two years at Ohio State, I think we took one bus ride--to play
Cleveland State. There's so much time after a loss to think
about it. If we win, we play hearts. If we lose, we just sit,
playing the game over in our heads."
We cross the swollen Ohio into West Virginia and, after 2 1/2
hours on the road, reach Marshall's Henderson Center. Before the
teams' first meeting this season, someone told Bobcats swingman
Sanjay Adell that Thundering Herd assistant coach Jeff Boals had
made disparaging comments about him on the eve of the game. With
that in mind, Adell paused as he headed toward an Ohio huddle
during the second half to direct a few words in Boals's
direction. After the game, a 77-53 Bobcats win, Marshall coach
Greg White ripped into Adell and--referring to a recent Ohio
loss to Akron in which Adell had missed a critical late foul
shot--said he was just "an O.K. player. Great players don't miss
free throws to lose games."
Tonight handbills tell spectators WE OWE SANJAY ADELL and URGE
THEM TO LET HIM HAVE IT! Each time Adell touches the ball, the
fans comply. Unperturbed, he sinks three three-pointers, and the
Bobcats are just three back with a couple of minutes to play.
Then Marshall's star, Tamar (the Trey) Slay, takes over. A 6'9"
sophomore guard with Gervinian smoothness, Slay had struggled
during his freshman season while wearing number 13. With 1 now
gracing his jersey, Slay, the MAC's leading scorer, has a more
auspicious numeral to live up to. He bottoms out a floater in
the lane with 1:12 left to help clinch a 78-72 victory.
In the postgame press conference Hunter holds up an anti-Adell
handbill and says, "This is going too far." White appears ready
to let the matter die. "I learned a long time ago that the fish
that doesn't open its mouth never gets caught," he says.
On Valentine's Day it's a hearts-less bus ride back. With
tonight's loss Ohio is 15-12, but only 28 points stand between
the Bobcats and 23-4. An hour from campus the bus wheezes, spits
and then stops cold. "Better a bus than a plane, fellas," says
assistant coach Geno Ford, and despite the loss a hearts game
starts up as the wait for a minibus dispatched from Athens begins.
KENT AT BOWLING GREEN, WEDNESDAY, FEB. 16 Kent is the MAC's big
daddy, its elite team. Perhaps the Golden Flashes' success is a
result of their summer tour of Holland and Italy. Maybe it's a
reward for all the prayer circles held before meals, practices
and games. Perhaps the spontaneous harmonizing that breaks out
on the bus, usually at the instigation of post men Mike Perry,
Geoffrey Vaughn and John Whorton, spills over into games. Or
perhaps it's a simple matter of Kent's using 10 players to
execute its 94-foot style and starting its five best defenders
while sixth man Trevor Huffman leads the Flashes in scoring and
assists--the only Division I nonstarter to do so. Whatever the
reason, Whorton, Kent's 6'8" center, says, "I see teams on TV we
can compete with, but they just don't want to schedule us."
Traffic on the Ohio Turnpike is a coffle of tractor-trailers as
Golden Flashes coach Gary Waters argues that the RPI, that
mystical set of numbers the NCAA tournament committee consults
when it hands out at-large bids, should R.I.P. Every mid-major
coach is sympathetic to Waters's argument, because big-time
schools insist on playing nonconference games in their own
arenas, with officials of their choosing, and the RPI doesn't
penalize them for refusing to go on the road. As a result of
such nonleague victories as Ball State's over Purdue, Marshall's
over Georgia and Miami's over Notre Dame, the MAC had the
ninth-best conference RPI in the nation on Jan. 1. Yet when its
members started to beat each other up, the conference watched
its RPI slip. Oh, how they beat each other up: Since sailing
into league play 10-0, Marshall has gone .500; Ball State opened
9-1, knocking off Mid-Continent and Missouri Valley leaders
Butler and Indiana State, respectively, as well as the
Boilermakers, and now has a 9-7 record in league play. Indeed,
MAC teams are so evenly matched that in conference games they've
needed 17 overtime periods to sort matters out.
Thanks to wins over Murray State, St. Bonaventure and UTEP, the
Flashes had the nation's fifth-highest RPI going into conference
play. Now they're 24th and falling. At 20-4 entering tonight's
game, Kent sits atop the MAC East. If they win at Bowling Green,
the Flashes will probably lock up an NCAA bid. But the Falcons
are unbeaten at home this season.
Bowling Green's Anderson Arena is a gussied-up name for an
honest gym that has scarcely changed since the early 1960s, the
heyday of Nate Thurmond and Howard Komives--the same Komives
whose career school scoring record will likely fall tonight to
star forward Anthony Stacey. At Kent's shootaround Vaughn
appraises the place approvingly. "This," he says, "is a pressing
gym." But what makes the gym suited to the Flashes' style also
makes it friendly to the Falcons, whose students are close
enough to muss a visiting player's hair.
Stacey is just the kind of oddly shaped, maddeningly effective
talent you'll find in the MAC, a 6'4" senior swingman with a
Barkley-esque body and a buff outside shot. When he breaks the
record early in the second half, Kent is still nursing a narrow
lead. But after a pause to allow Stacey to accept Komives's
congratulations, the Falcons take flight on a back draft of
crowd noise. Stacey--the MAC player of the year if Stonerook
isn't--scores 24 points, shooting 11 for 16, in a 71-61 victory.
Afterward, Whorton waits glumly for the bus. "When I came to
Kent, I set a goal of winning at least once in every MAC gym,"
he says. "This was my third trip here, and I'm 0 for 3. It's one
of the shortest road trips we take. But it's always the longest
The bus Whorton boards has this emblazoned on its side: KENT
STATE UNIVERSITY. SINCE 1910. INQUIRE. LEARN. REFLECT.
Especially reflect. For most of the 145-mile ride back the game
tape plays on overhead video monitors. (MAC teams are
well-coached in two senses of the word.) Every now and then
Waters's voice floats back through the bus, carrying
stage-whispered commentary on what he's seeing. His remarks are
as much prods to his players as they are musings to himself.
"And you know," he says to no one--and to everyone--"there's
only one team we've got to beat. We've got to beat Akron."
AKRON AT KENT, SATURDAY, FEB. 19 Duke and North Carolina may be
geographically closer, but no two neighbors are any more
well-matched than this pair, whose series stands at 53-53.
(Waters and Zips coach Dan Hipsher have split their eight
meetings.) It figures that the ultimate rubber game would involve
the Rubber City. Only three years ago Akron was 8-18, Kent 9-18.
Now, with the Flashes a game up on the Zips in the MAC East,
Hipsher says, "What was a toilet bowl has become a championship
It's a 20-minute bus ride from Akron's James A. Rhodes Arena
(the JAR) to Kent's Memorial Athletic and Convocation Center
(the MAC, felicitously enough). This is Whorton's final home
game, and he has a special guest to play for: his mother, Evon,
a diabetic who suffers from such bad feet that she has never
before been able to come see him play in a Flashes uniform.
Today she and John's six siblings have made the drive up from
Columbus. Whorton makes seven of eight shots down low in Kent's
easy 83-54 victory. "For my mother to be here the last time I
play in this place is a wonderful feeling," he says, "better
even than winning the MAC tournament last year."
The Flashes' success is just one of many signs that the state of
Ohio has never been so flush with hoops talent. Cincinnati is a
certain No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and Ohio State at
least a No. 2. Dayton and Xavier are still in the running to get
bids, while Youngstown State and Cleveland State could easily
represent the Mid-Continent and Midwestern Collegiate,
respectively. The NCAA subregional in Cleveland may turn into an
Ohio hoedown (though Cleveland State must play elsewhere because
it is hosting the first and second rounds).
Alas, it's unlikely that more than one MAC team will be doing the
MAC-arena at the Big Cotillion. Kent is the conference's only
team with a gaudy RPI; come Selection Sunday, it probably won't
matter that seven MAC teams can claim at least one victory over a
major-conference team with a winning record. As Waters says,
"Unless we get to the finals of our conference tournament and
lose, you're probably looking at one bid for the league." It's
enough to cause a mid-major case of road rage.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Big Mac Attack Looking for hungry players, hot competition and low-budget, NCAA-tournament-worthy teams? Did somebody say the Mid-American conference? [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Moving target Fans at Marshall hounded Ohio's Adell as Thundering Herd guard Travis Young tried to stampede past him.
THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Roadies Kent players lobbied for rest at Bowling Green; Ohio huddled at Marshall, then played hearts when the bus conked out.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS All over him At Bowling Green's throwback gym, fans could reach out and touch Kent guard Nate Meers.
"Please don't refer to us as a 'bus league,'" says Boeh. "We do
fly some places, and bus is only one letter from bush."
"I see teams on TV that we can compete with," says the Flashes'
6'8" center Whorton, "but they just don't want to schedule us."