We continue our preview of the 2013-2014 Mid-American Conference women's basketball season by looking at this year's ten best returning players. These ten players impacted the league in every area of the game, and a few caught the MAC by storm in just their first or second seasons.
Here's the list -- as with the list of top 25 games, this group is not listed in ranked order. Well, the first nine aren't, anyhow.
Christa Baccas, Buffalo -- Sophomore, Center/Forward
Baccas was the one of the two or three most dominant players in the paint during the 2012-2013 MAC season. She was the runaway conference leader with 88 blocks (2.8 per game) and was third in the league with an average of 8.9 rebounds per game. Her defense wasn't just limited to blocks; she can also create turnovers via the steal, and she earned 59 of those. On the offensive end, her presence wasn't quite as strong, but she did average 7.5 points per game and was sixth in the MAC in field-goal percentage (.477). When she scored more than usual, Baccas was lethal. She posted four double-doubles and nearly had a triple-double (12 points, 9 rebounds, 8 blocks) in the MAC quarterfinals against Akron. If she could turn up the scoring just a bit, she'd have Player of the Year potential.
Crystal Bradford, Central Michigan -- Junior, Guard
If there's a dispute to be had for the number one spot on this list, Bradford would clearly be at the center of it. During last year's campaign, she ranked in the top five in the MAC for scoring (4th), rebounds (2nd), steals (4th) and blocks (2nd). She was also 12th in assists and 14th in field-goal percentage. During the regular season, she was the ONLY PLAYER in NCAA Division I to lead her team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. She had 15 double-doubles and scored in double-figures 28 times. Of course, what she did in the regular season (as great as it was) paled in comparison to how she stepped it up in the post-season. In the MAC Tournament, Bradford earned MVP honors and averaged 18.7 points. She helped CMU win the championship game over Akron with a 13 point, 10 rebound double-double. Then, in the NCAA Tournament against Oklahoma, she posted an incredible 36 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists. All of this is amazing and will be hard for Bradford to top, but it will certainly be fun to watch her try.
Andola Dortch, Toledo -- Senior, Guard
Dortch has toiled through adversity to become one of the MAC's best overall players, as well as the premier defensive player in the league. Despite suffering two torn ACLs, Dortch has battled and had a career year in 2012-2013, after which she was named MAC Defensive Player of the Year and All-MAC for the second consecutive season. Last year, she led the MAC in steals with 2.7 per game. She was also eighth in the league in assists with 3.5 per game, and that helped her an assist-to-turnover ratio of +1.5, which ranked fourth in the MAC. Dortch is also a capable scorer and ranked in the top 20 in the league with 10.7 points per game. With some of the departures that Toledo suffered after last season, the Rockets will again rely on Dortch to be a leader on the floor. Provided she remains healthy, there's no reason to believe that she won't do that and again be one of the MAC's best defensive players.
Nathalie Fontaine, Ball State -- Sophomore, Guard
Fontaine, who hails from Stockholm, Sweden, ended the 2012-2013 season as one of the best freshmen the MAC has seen in many years. In fact, she became the first freshman since 2000 to garner All-MAC Second Team honors. She also earned back-to-back Player of the Week awards during the middle of the conference schedule. Fontaine ended the season with 13.2 points per game, which was sixth in the MAC. She was also in the league's top ten for rebounding (6.6/game) and field goal percentage (.471). Like Bradford, Fontaine saved some of her best performances for the post-season. She threw in 15 points during the MAC Tournament semifinals and then scored 17 points against Northern Iowa in the WNIT to help Ball State advance to the final 16 teams. Ball State has a tall order to compete with Central Michigan and Toledo in the MAC's Western Division in 2013-2014, and Fontaine will be key to that effort.
Jessica Green, Central Michigan -- Junior, Guard
One wonders just how far Central Michigan could have gone had Green not been lost for the season after 25 games due to injury. Green averaged 11.8 points per game (10th in the MAC) and 2.2 steals per game (6th). She was one of the league's top shooters (.488) and also helped create points from other players by averaging 2.6 assists per contest. If there are no lingering effects from her injury, Green's presence should make Central Michigan the prohibitive favorite to win the Western Division, if not the MAC as a whole. Her performances early in the season will be important and ought to be watched. They could be a harbinger of what's to come.
Mackenzie Loesing, Buffalo -- Sophomore, Guard
Loesing was the other truly great freshman in the MAC during the 2012-2013 season. She closed the season with an average of 11.6 points and 2.1 steals per game. The point total led all Buffalo scorers and was good for 11th place in the MAC, while her steals total was in the top ten. Loesing earned a solid place in Buffalo's lineup when it counted most -- at the end of the season. After starting just five of the Bulls' first 12 games, she was in the lineup for each of the final 20. She began the MAC schedule with 20 point games against Northern Illinois and Bowling Green, then closed it impressively. She posted 17 points in back-to-back games at the end of the regular season versus Kent State and Akron, then helped Buffalo to a MAC Tournament win over Miami with 24 points and three steals. Buffalo has the chance to be a darkhorse candidate in the MAC's Eastern Division this season, and both Loesing and Baccas could help the Bulls surprise. Miami, Bowling Green and Akron should all beware.
Hanna Luburgh, Akron -- Senior, Guard
Akron is the pre-season favorite to win the MAC East this year, thanks in part to Luburgh. The Zanesville, Ohio native was part of the 2013 MAC All-Tournament Team and was third-team All-MAC during the regular season. She ranked third in the conference in scoring as a junior, with 16.6 points per game, and she was also seventh in rebounds (6.6/game). Luburgh was the MAC's premier free-throw shooter, as well, and led the league with an 86.5% conversion rate. As with others on this list, she stepped up in the most important games. First, at home against Bowling Green in the regular season, Luburgh had a career-high 15 rebounds as part of her first double-double. The effort helped the Zips beat BGSU for the first time in 12 years. In the MAC Tournament, she averaged 24.7 points and nine rebounds per game as Akron finished as MAC runner-up. She posted a career-best 33 points in the team's semifinal win over Ball State. And remember -- Luburgh wasn't even the leading scorer on her own team. That kind of one-two punch will be hard for anyone else in the division to overcome.
Alexis Rogers, Bowling Green -- Senior, Forward
Rogers enters her third and final season with Bowling Green as a transfer from Duke as perhaps the most important cog in Bowling Green's hopes to continue their decade-long run at the top of the MAC. Rogers spent the 2012-2013 season as one of the league's top 20 players in points, rebounds, and steals, as well as field goal and free throw percentage. She eventually earned All-MAC second team honors and is on the MAC's preseason all-conference list. When BGSU handed Dayton it's first loss of the season last year, she scored 20 points, had ten rebounds and created six steals. In the Falcons' return game versus Akron, which the Falcons won, Rogers posted 16 points and 12 rebounds. She also helped the Falcons beat Central Michigan with a 13-point effort. Rogers' ability to create points and play effective defense on the inside will again be a key for Bowling Green. BGSU has become accustomed to their place at the top of the MAC standings, and any less than competing with Akron for the MAC East title will be seen as a disappointment.
Natachia Watkins, Eastern Michigan -- Senior, Guard/Forward
There is a clear divide between the top six and the bottom six teams in the MAC, but the bottom half of the league does produce good players. Watkins is arguably the best among those. She led Eastern Michigan in scoring last year and was among the top 20 in the MAC with 10.2 points per game. Watkins was also 14th in rebounds (6.0/game) and 10th in steals (2.0/game). Her best conference game was against one of last year's best teams, Akron. In that contest, she grabbed 16 rebounds and had four steals. EMU is not likely to compete with Central Michigan or Toledo in the West, but Watkins will certainly give those teams trouble and could affect the league race by helping EMU to an upset or two.
...and our NUMBER ONE player...
Rachel Tecca, Akron -- Senior, Forward
You were expecting someone else? Tecca was only the 2012-2013 MAC Player of the Year in one of Akron's greatest seasons in program history. She was second in the league with 18.5 points per game and is the top returning scorer in the conference. She made 52.2% of her shots last year. Tecca also ranked fifth in the league by pulling down 7.4 rebounds per game. She broke Akron's record for scoring in a single season and was named MAC East Player of the Week on four occasions, including three times in conference play. She scored in double figures in all but one of Akron's games and earned 20 or more points on 16 occasions. And boy, did Tecca ever get to the free throw line -- she made more free throws than anyone else in the MAC even attemped. That's just slightly impressive. Her season high in points came in March against Miami, as she scored 33 points -- including 12 (in 14 attempts) from the free throw line. Tecca and Luburgh create a lethal one-two combination that is right up there with Central Michigan's Bradford and Green. Akron's record should be right up there with CMU's, too.