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What do WKU and Middle Tennessee bring to the MAC in Basketball

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NCAA Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Milwaukee Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Disclaimer : At this point there is no official word that the Middle Tenessee or Western Kentucky are “in”. All indications seem to point that way but things move quickly as the latest rumor is Conference USA is adding four schools to try and restabilize and maybe tempt the Hilltoppers and Blue Raiders to stick around

Yesterday we talked about the motivation behind adding these two schools, and their impact on football.

My feelings are, if you’re going to add teams and can get ESPN to foot the bill, then these two teams are the natural additions to the MAC. They hug the MAC footprint, they are a built-in pair of rivals, and they have shown in the past decade that they will not diminish the quality of MAC football.

So what about hoops, specifically men's hoops (we may cover women's hoops later).

MAC as a Multi Bid Conference?

Just so we get the big question out of the way. No, neither of these teams is going to make the MAC a two-bid league. Someone pointed out to me yesterday that while this will bring the MAC’s average RPI and median RPI right in line with the American and A10 leagues, it does not add the key thing a conference needs.

Multiple top 50 RPI teams.

To get a legit crack at sending more than one team to the dance you need to have two or three teams in the top 50. Every year the A10 and Americans have managed this, the MAC has not.

The last real shot the MAC had at being at large is when Bowling Green played Buffalo tight in the MAC title game. UB was ranked and would have gotten in no matter what but Bowling Green was well outside the top 50, even beating Buffalo would not have gotten them there.

Last years MAC was very middling the top of the conference was

  • Toledo - RPI 76 / NET 79
  • Ohio* - RPI 63 / NET 88
  • Buffalo - RPI 112 / NET 86
  • Akrion - RPI 108 / NET 114
  • Kent - RPI 82 / NET 118

Ohio got quite the boost from beating #16 Virginia in the first round of the tournament, before that they were in the Buffalo/Akron/Kent tier.

As for the new guys?

  • WKU - RPI 43 / NET 82
  • MTSU - RPI 323 / NET 300

So, as you can see, last year we’re still a one-bid league.

That’s not to say that the MAC could not grow into a two-bid league with these additions, we’ll get into that below.

What do they bring

Middle Tennessee

MTSU’s numbers last year were pathetic, but last season was sort of an outlier. The Blue Raiders danced in 2013, 2016, and 2107. In the latter two seasons there they won in the first round knocking off Michigan State in 2016, and Minnesota in 2017.

They’ve also been to the NIT twice in the past decades (2012 & 2018), both times getting out of the first round, and once the second round. Their last coaching hire, Nick McDevitt, has not been great, to say the least. But structurally they are a solid hoops school that should bounce back.

Western Kentucky

The Hill toppers are historically a very solid basketball program. The past decade has not been their best, but even in a “slow decade” they’ve danced twice and been to the NIT twice.

At the dance, they got out of the first four in 2012 and at the NIT they managed the semi-finals in 2018 and the quarterfinals in 2021.

Rick Stansbury took over in 2016 and WKU has had four 20+ win seasons since then, including those two NIT trips. They had a good chance at dancing in 2020, but covid canceled Conference USA’s basketball tournament.

Where do they fit in the MAC

Both teams past decade puts them near the top of the MAC in terms of my hastly put together “Achievement index”

They both hover right around 20 wins per season with MTSU a fraction above, and WKU a fraction below. That puts them pretty much on par with Buffalo, Toledo, and Ohio. Three of the better and more consistent programs in the MAC.

In terms of winning their division, not that it mattered much recently, MTSU is up with Buffalo and Akron, while WKU is close to Ball State. (note for seasons where there was no division in Conference USA or the MAC, I gave a “division point” to any team finishing top two in the conference)

Both WKU and Middle Tennessee have won two conference titles in the past decade. Considering they were in Conference USA, and The Big South together for that time that means 40% of the time one of them won their tournament.

In NCAA tournament wins, Ohio reigns supreme. But right after them is Buffalo, WKU, and Middle Tennessee all of whom cut down two nets in the past decade.

So from the chart, you can see, that like football, neither one of these schools sets the world on fire, but they both had a decade of achievements which put them in the top half of the Mid American Conference.

Middle Tenessee’s composite score puts it on par with Akron, just behind Buffalo. Western Kentucky put’s them in a group with Ohio and Toledo.

Verdict and How to get to two bid

This move with “thicken” the top of the MAC, but probably not boost it to a multi-bid conference.

For that to happen those top four schools need to be flirting with sub 75 RPI’s every year through the non-conference portion of the schedule. This way when they beat each other up in MAC play two or three of them could move into that 50’s rage which is crucial.

Can the MAC get there? Yes, the programs are there. WKU, and to a lesser extent MTSU, add schools that see a 100 RPI as their “floor”. Add them to Buffalo, Toledo, Kent, Ohio, and Akron who all kind of see that 100 should be their “floor” and all of the sudden your ceiling raises on all six programs.

But the MAC, including the potential new guys, have to do the hard work needed if they want to start to challenge for those at large bids.