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MAC tournament: Rivals CMU, WMU meet again, with season on the line

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Larry Austin has proved to be a huge difference-maker for CMU this season.

Can the cake and candles. Keno Davis never gets to celebrate his birthday on his actual birthdate, anyway.

And the truth is, the longer he goes without getting to celebrate, the better.

Welcome to March for a college basketball coach who just happens to be a Pisces.

"You hope it's a ways away," said Davis, Central Michigan's men's basketball coach, who turned 47 on Sunday. "And not right after."

Davis spent his birthday scouting a familiar foe, the rival Western Michigan Broncos.

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The two teams will meet at 7 p.m. today at McGuirk Arena in Mount Pleasant in the first round of the Mid-American Conference tournament. The winner advances to the quarterfinals, set for later in the week in Cleveland.

The rivals met just a few days ago in the regular-season finale. On Friday in Kalamazoo, Central Michigan won, 82-75. And now, Central (21-10), the league's No. 5 seed with a veteran roster, and Western (8-23), the No. 12 seed with a young roster beset by some key injuries, will meet again.

Central won both games in the regular-season rivalry — 85-64 in Mount Pleasant early in the season — and has won three straight, dating to last season. The Chippewas are trying for four straight over the Broncos for the first time since 1977-79.

In other words, it's not just a trip to Cleveland — where the quarterfinals will commence later this week — on the line, but history and pride, too. For both sides.

"The team that has won both games, they've done what's worked, and the team that's lost both games has to do something different," Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins said, describing why the old adage — it's hard to beat a team three times in a season — seems to hold true.

"If we go in and try to do the exact same thing (Monday) that we tried in Game 1 or Game 2, it wouldn't be very smart of us."

In other MAC tournament action, Eastern Michigan men (15-16) open at 7 Monday, at home against Ball State (15-16).

In the women's bracket, Eastern Michigan (13-16) visits Akron (16-13) at 5 Monday, while Western Michigan (10-19) travels to Northern Illinois (18-12). Top-seeded Central Michigan (24-6) advances straight to the Cleveland portion of the bracket, to face the Eastern-Akron winner Wednesday.

For the Central Michigan men, Monday's game might hold a little more urgency, given the veteran status of its roster, including grad transfer Larry Austin Jr. He's averaged 17.0 points in MAC games, and has 181 assists, third in program history.

The 6-foot-2, 182-pounder played at Xavier and Vanderbilt before arriving at Central Michigan, where he's become a staple. He was heavily recruited by Kevin Gamble, a former Central Michigan assistant who now is a scout for the NBA's Toronto Raptors.

"He has really helped our team chemistry," Davis said. "I don't know if I've had the privilege to have a player play for me that plays with that kind of intensity over 40 minutes. We obviously wouldn't be where we are today without Larry."

It's a veteran tale for Central, which relies heavily on senior guard Shawn Roundtree and junior forward Rob Montgomery, to go with junior forward David DiLeo and junior guard Kevin McKay.

Roundtree had a head injury recently but has returned. Montgomery is dealing with a groin injury, and has missed the past few games. His status for Monday is TBA.

Davis isn't going to get any sympathy from Hawkins when it comes to injuries. Western hasn't gotten a minute this season from senior guard Bryce Moore, junior forward Brandon Johnson and sophomore guard Jason Whitens, a Mr. Basketball candidate when he was a prep star in the Upper Peninsula.

Moore suffered a torn ACL late last season and played through it, before doctors discovered the extent of the injury before this season. Johnson tore a meniscus late last season. And Whitens, who had won a starting spot in preseason practice, tore his meniscus before the season began.

"The good news is that we get these three kids back for next year," Hawkins said. "But we also have a game to play Monday night, and that's my job. (Seniors) Josh Davis (Detroit swingman) and Seth Dugan (Otsego 7-footer), they'd prefer to win this year.

"Our conversation is, right now, everybody is zero-and-zero."

Western is led by Dugan, who averages 16.2 points and more than a block a game, and sophomore guard Michael Flowers from Southfield, who averages 15.7 points.

Central has five players who average in double-figure scoring, led by Austin, Roundtree (16.4), DiLeo (12.0), Kevin McKay (11.4) and Montgomery (11.0), whose status could go a long way toweard determining if the Chippewas advance beyond Monday. If he's unable to play, that's a big advantage for Dugan and the Broncos. Central's center depth is limited.

Mid-American Conference tournaments


Monday's games

►No. 12 Western Michigan (8-23) at No. 5 Central Michigan (21-10), 7

►No. 11 Ball State (15-16) at No. 6 Eastern Michigan (15-16), 7

►No. 9 Miami (Ohio) (15-16) at No. 8 Akron (16-15), 8

►No. 10 Ohio (14-16) at No. 7 Northern Illinois (15-16), 9

At Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland

Thursday's quarterfinals

►No. 1 Buffalo (28-3) vs. Miami-Akron winner, noon

►No. 4 Kent State (22-9) vs. Western-Central winner, 2:30

►No. 2 Toledo (25-6) vs. Ohio-Northern Illinois winner, 6:30

►No. 3 Bowling Green (20-11) vs. Ball State-Eastern winner, 9

Friday's semifinals

►6:30 (CBS Sports Network)

►9 (Fox College Sports)

Saturday's final

►7:30 (ESPN2)


Monday's games

►No. 9 Eastern Michigan (13-16) at No. 8 Akron (16-13), 5

►No. 10 Western Michigan (10-19) at No. 7 Northern Illinois (18-12), 6:30

►No. 12 Bowling Green (9-20) at No. 5 Kent State (18-11), 7

►No. 11 Ball State (8-22) at No. 6 Toledo (19-10), 6

At Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland

Wednesday's quarterfinals

►No. 1 Central Michigan (24-6) vs. Eastern-Akron winner, noon

►No. 4 Buffalo (20-9) vs. Bowling Green-Kent State winner, 2:30

►No. 2 Ohio (25-4) vs. Western-Northern Illinois winner, 5

►No. 3 Miami (Ohio) (22-7) vs. Ball State-Toledo winner, 7:30

Friday's semifinals

►11a (ESPN+)

►1:30 (ESPN+)

Saturday's final

►11a (CBS Sports Network)

Twitter: @tonypaul1984