Miami athletic director: Conference changes might send stronger teams to NCAA

Miami’s Isaiah Coleman-Lands puts up a shot during a game last season. CONTRIBUTED
Miami’s Isaiah Coleman-Lands puts up a shot during a game last season. CONTRIBUTED

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mid-American Conference regular seasons in several sports are going to mean more over the next few years.

The MAC announced on Tuesday that postseason tournaments in eight sports – field hockey, men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s tennis, women’s lacrosse, softball and baseball – will be eliminated for at least the next four academic years. Teams that finish first during the regular seasons will be recognized as champions and will represent the conference in NCAA tournaments.

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In these difficult, turbulent times, Miami Athletics Director David Sayler finds that a refreshing change.

“When I started in this business, the regular season meant something,” Sayler, who served as chairman of the committee that recommended changes to the conference athletic directors, said on Wednesday. “I think it has the potential to send stronger teams to NCAA tournaments instead of teams that just get hot at the end.”

Also, the MAC volleyball tournament will be reduced from the top eight teams to the top four, men’s and women’s basketball from all 12 teams to the top eight, men’s and women’s swimming and diving from four days to three, and men’s and women’s outdoor track and golf from three days to two.

The MAC eliminated the opening-round campus-site games for the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and will play 20-game conference schedules, rather than an 18-game conference slate, beginning with the 2020-2021 academic year. Baseball and softball will move from 24-game conference schedules to 30-game league slates.

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Sayler hoped that the MAC would be able to devise true round-robin basketball schedules with each team playing the others home and away, but too many teams had contracts to play non-conference opponents to make that feasible for the upcoming season.

“Some of our coaches preferred that,” he said, referring to playing each conference team twice.

Jack Owens, who’s preparing for his fourth season as the men’s basketball coach, was ready to deal with whatever schedule he was handed by the MAC.

“We know the format,” Owens said. “We have no idea who we’ll play. The conference is still figuring things out. When you don’t play every team twice, it’s hard. The 18-game schedule was very competitive, but to get a true champion, you have to play everyone twice. I know the conference will do everything it can to make it fair, and we have to do everything we can to be one of the eight teams.”

Most recent conference basketball schedules have had teams playing 10 games against division opponents and eight inter-division games. Miami, a MAC East Division team, played West Division-members Central Michigan and Northern Michigan twice in the 2019-2020 men’s basketball season.

The plan covers four years and will be evaluated as the economic situation evolves. MAC sports unaffected by the changes are football, men’s and women’s cross country, gymnastics and wrestling.

Miami’s men’s basketball team was in Cleveland and due to face Northern Illinois in a MAC Tournament quarterfinal game on March 12 when the event was abruptly cancelled due to the pandemic. The women’s team’s season ended with a March 9 first-round loss to Buffalo.

Miami’s field hockey team won the MAC Tournament championship in the fall. The women’s tennis team captured the tournament title last spring.

Conference teams competed in one division from its debut in the 1946-1947 academic year through the 1996-1997 year. Growing from 10 to 12 programs with the addition of Marshall and Northern Illinois prompted a split into East and West divisions.

Miami won its most recent men’s basketball tournament championship in the 1996-1997 season. The women won their most recent tournament title in the next season.