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 monosyllable.
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 paltry budgets.
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� 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."