MAC basketball coaches hope the addition of UMass raises the bar for rest of the league

Toledo head coach Tod Kowalczyk argues a call against Kent State during the 2023 Mid-American Conference championship game last March.

Toledo head coach Tod Kowalczyk argues a call against Kent State during the 2023 Mid-American Conference championship game last March. AP FILE

By CONNOR PIGNATELLO

Staff Writer

Published: 03-08-2024 6:01 PM

AMHERST – UMass director of athletics Ryan Bamford confirmed on Thursday that UMass will increase its men’s basketball budget upon entrance to the Mid-American Conference for the 2025-26 academic year. UMass spent $4.5 million on men’s basketball last year, more than the highest MAC budget (Ohio University, $3.4 million) and more than double the lowest (Western Michigan, $1.6 million).

MAC head coaches are already feeling the pressure. The Daily Hampshire Gazette spoke with Toledo men’s basketball head coach Tod Kowalczyk and Miami (OH) men’s basketball coach Travis Steele to hear their thoughts on the first new addition to MAC basketball in over 25 years. Both coaches said they believed the addition of UMass will serve to spur MAC institutions into increasing their investment in the sport.

“Hopefully what it does is it raises the bar for all of our institutions to have the same commitment level that UMass has… if you want to be successful, that’s what it takes,” Kowalczyk said. “Obviously UMass is committed to men’s basketball at a high level and there are some programs in our league that are as well, and some others that probably need to increase funding. Hopefully with UMass’ commitment, that will set a standard that men’s basketball is really important to the Mid-American Conference.”

Before taking the job at Miami last year, Steele spent 13 years at Xavier, including four years as an assistant coach when the Musketeers competed with UMass in the Atlantic 10. 

“It’s going to push all of us, the schools that have been here, to do more, which I’m excited about,” Steele said. “When you add a program like UMass that has the brand, they have the facilities, they have the budget... it’s going to push people if we want to compete, which is good. It’ll only make our conference better.”

UMass intends to enter not only with the highest athletic department budget and men’s basketball budget, but also with the most NIL money.

“The MAC in basketball, from an NIL perspective, is doing very little,” Bamford said. “We’re going to go in and we’re going to be spending probably half a million dollars a year in NIL collective money for men’s basketball.”

Steele said he thinks UMass will come into the MAC and immediately slot in as one of the league’s best teams. 

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Toledo has won the past three MAC regular season titles and is a win on Friday night away from its fourth straight. In the past decade, Toledo, Akron, Ohio and Kent State have been the conference’s most successful teams. Buffalo won games in the NCAA Tournament in 2017-18 and 2018-19 under current Alabama coach Nate Oats, though the Bulls currently sit last in the conference. 

But while the Atlantic 10 often sends multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament, the MAC hasn’t sent more than one to the Big Dance since the 1998-99 season.

“What we need to do at the end of the day is make this thing a multi-bid league,” Steele said. “And I think adding UMass really enhances that.”

The MAC currently sits 24th in the NET rankings. In comparison, the Atlantic 10 ranks eighth. Kowalczyk, the MAC’s longest-tenured coach at 14 seasons, believes the addition of UMass can be the catalyst the league needs to return to its past levels of competitiveness.

“I’d like to see the NET rankings improve,” Kowalczyk said. “We’re on a decline right now and I think that’s because the bottom-level teams have not performed well in nonconference play. So hopefully we can get the NET ranking back up. It wasn’t too long ago that we were ninth in the NET and now we’ve slipped. I think there’s some reasons why that’s happened and I think there’s some changes that need to happen conference-wise to improve it.”

MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher agreed with that during Thursday’s press conference announcing UMass to the league.

“We would expect to get there again,” Steinbrecher said. “One of the things that’s attractive about this is bringing in a basketball brand such as the University of Massachusetts, we think that will reignite that. We have work to do, no doubt about that, but I have faith we’re going to get there.”

But though UMass will enter as the best-resourced team in the conference, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll continue to recruit at the same level in a new conference. At Thursday’s press conference, men’s basketball coach Frank Martin acknowledged that most of his recruiting ties are on the Atlantic coast, not in the Midwest – though he did coach in that region during stints with Cincinnati and Kansas State.

For prospective recruits, Kowalczyk acknowledged that recruiting in the MAC presents different challenges than the A-10.

“Will their recruiting drop off from the Atlantic 10? I would say there is a pretty good chance that it will drop off slightly,” Kowalczyk said. “The Atlantic 10 name recognition is better than the Mid-American Conference in recruiting. It just is. Anybody that states otherwise is not being realistic. We see that in our state when Dayton gets involved. The Mid-American Conference schools have a very difficult time beating them.”