MAC Women's Basketball Tournament preview: It's Toledo's to lose

Tricia Cullop and the Rockets are a good bet to win their first MAC tournament since 2001. - Jason Miller-USA TODAY Sports

Can Toledo finally get over the hump and win this thing? Is upstart Ball State for real? What about Akron — how close are they to their first ever conference championship? And how the heck are we relegating discussion about CMU, BGSU and Miami to the third question of this subhead?

It's been a strange season. We always say that, of course: but especially in women's basketball there usually the top teams and everybody else. Toledo, Miami, Central Michigan and Bowling Green were all considered favorites, but then Ball State and Akron just had to go and squat on two of the three top seeds in the league. For once, the MAC East was a competitive cluster of three teams, four if you want to throw Buffalo in there. And we had a coin flip to determine some seedings. We expect this kind of chicanery in football, where many teams are very similar in terms of talent levels. In women's basketball we got a whole new level of parity. (For the most part.)

We also have a bracket. Brackets are fun. And it all begins this weekend.

FIRST ROUND
Saturday, March 9 (should be on MAC Digital Network)

1 p.m. — (12) Kent State (3-26, 1-15) at (5) Bowling Green (20-9, 11-5)

Yes, they JUST played. But that's how the coin flip fell. The last time the Golden Flashes went to the Stroh Center they were felled 69-33, and more of the same can be expected.

It's been a rough first year for rookie head coach Danielle O'Banion, and I always like to look at the underdog and find a strong point to highlight why they can win, but sometimes there is simply nothing at all to say. It all depends on what BGSU decides to do; most days, at worst, they show up and play good defense, and that should be enough.

2 p.m. — (11) Ohio (6-22, 1-15) at (6) Miami (18-11, 10-6)

Well, they came moderately close to beating the RedHawks on Wednesday night, falling by five points. They were less successful the first time at Millett Hall, losing by 22. It'll be up to the Bobcats to play tough defense and force turnovers, something they're moderately capable at doing.

But Miami, with Courtney Osborn's shooting and Kirsten Olowinski's inside game, that's going to be too much right there. They're No. 1 in the MAC in shooting the ball from the floor and they should roll onto Cleveland. And I don't see Ohio coach Semeka Randall coming back — not with her fifth straight season of finishing with a sub-.500 MAC record.

2 p.m. — (10) Northern Illinois (7-22, 2-14) at (7) Buffalo (10-19, 8-8)

This has been an interesting season for Buffalo. They finished the OOC schedule with a 2-11 mark, resembled another team struggling to find its way, then Felisha Legette-Jack's team played quite outstanding for its potential. They feature perhaps the second-best MAC freshman, Mackenzie Loesing, as their leading scorer who also averages a cool two steals per game. They play a fast frenetic game and are one of the best teams at on-ball defending.

NIU is the top 3-point shooting team in the MAC and that's always a great equalizer. Amanda Corral and Satavia Taylor are their two main women who pace the Huskies, but the team's main issue is defense, and they enjoy a slower tempo affair. This game's going to be pretty close, but if there's any tiebreaker, it's that Buffalo won the regular season meeting by seven.

* - Correction: Satavia Taylor is out for the season with an ACL injury. Thanks, reader Daniel.

2 p.m. — (9) Western Michigan (10-19, 6-10) at (8) Eastern Michigan (8-21, 6-10)

Here we have yet another pair of rookie coaches: Shane Clipfell against Tory Verdi. EMU swept the season series, winning by four both times, so nothing's out of the question here. Because despite all that, I like the Broncos a little bit better here, by virtue of them winning games against BGSU and Akron. Nobody on this team averages more than nine points per game, but like many other teams who have trouble scoring, when they win it's because their defense came through. They don't foul all that much, which is impressive for a team with one senior.

The Eagles have endured a weird season to say the least, not only experiencing growing pains without Tavelyn James, the program's best ever, but they also were struck hard when their two best players were injured/released from the team. If nothing else, freshman Bianca Cage has stepped up well and put together some incredible games, and they'll need her again.

SECOND ROUND
Wednesday, March 13 at Quicken Loans Arena

12 p.m. — Bowling Green or Kent State vs. Eastern Michigan or Western Michigan

The Falcons should have little issue with whoever they face, but they did lose to Western earlier this year at Kalamazoo, so they best watch out.

2:30 p.m. — Buffalo or Northern Illinois vs. Miami or Ohio

It seems likely that the RedHawks just keep going, but they did lose to Buffalo at home by eight points. If NIU somehow pulls off a win in the first round, then I definitely like Miami's chances to advance.

QUARTERFINALS
Thursday, March 14

12 p.m. — (4) Central Michigan (18-11, 12-4) vs. BGSU/EMU/WMU/KSU

Ho hum, it's just another season where Sue Guevara's Chippewas were a team to beat, and some of the great ones couldn't. Let me throw this out there for you: There are 9 Division I teams with two or fewer losses. The Chips have wins over two of them: Toledo and Green Bay. The only other teams that can say that are — you ready for this company? — Stanford and UConn.

Of course, there's a reason they have 11 losses, which is inconsistency, but they didn't have a terrible loss unless you count the 45-point thumping by BGSU. Crystal Bradford remains terrific and they are the top MAC team at scoring points and rebounding. If they draw the Falcons — a likelihood — then it'll be a fun revenge game for them.

2:30 p.m. — (3) Akron (21-8, 12-4) vs. Miami/Buffalo/NIU/Ohio

Is Akron a surprise team? Well, it's definitely jarring to see them all the heck way up to No. 3 in the seeding, but with who they played and beat, they earned it. (They also did receive one vote in the preseason poll to win the MAC East.) And they're just two games away from simply playing in the MAC Championship for the first time ever. If you are experiencing Akron Basketball Success Overload then maybe this isn't your meal ticket, but they are a refreshing bunch of new faces if you can mentally divorce them from the men's team.

Rachel Tecca is having a wonderful bounce-back year after missing most of last year to injury, becoming the leading MAC scorer with 19.4 per game. They're a terrific scoring machine but really do struggle with defense. At no point this year did they keep a MAC team under 52 points, and in their last seven wins, four times they let the opposition get to 70. If nothing else they're a joy to watch, but sometimes not for Akron coach Jodi Kest on defense.

But the good news is their opponent will be someone they didn't lose to in the regular season.

SEMIFINALS
Friday, March 15 (TV: SportsTime Ohio)

12 p.m. — (1) Toledo (27-2, 15-1) vs. CMU/BGSU/EMU/WMU/KSU

On the national scope, it took them ridiculously long to crack the Top 25 based on their paltry amount of quality wins. Things looked a little grim when they dropped the home MAC opener to Central, then just rattled off 15 straight victories like the bad selves that they are. Only two of their conference wins were by single digits (NIU and Ball State). This senior class has won a ton of games, and they continue to check off accomplishments: a WNIT championship, a Top 25 ranking ... but they have yet to win a MAC championship in the Tricia Cullop era. Their last taste of it was in 2001.

But that doesn't mean there aren't intriguing matchups, potentially, such as either Central, who it's probably going to be, or a second UT-BG showdown, which always has something for the whole family, provided you are a family in Northwest Ohio with divided allegiances.

2:30 p.m. — (2) Ball State (15-14, 12-4) vs. Akron/Miami/Buffalo/NIU/Ohio

Everybody had Ball State as the second best team in the MAC, right? YOU SACK OF LIARS. The Cardinals were picked to finish last in the MAC West, then stumbled to a subpar 3-10 nonconference record, and with such a thin rotation that first year head coach Brady Sallee was using, another rebuilding year looked to be written on the tea leaves. They have 11 players listed on the roster, which seems low, and generally rotate seven, sometimes six, players into games.

You'd think, at some point, that their stamina would catch up to them. But that's the beauty of a No. 2 seed — they get a whole week to rest up, and that's great news for a squad whose best player is also the MAC's best freshman, Nathalie Fontaine.

They also put together the finest promotional video I can remember (pay attention, Harlem Shake copycats):

FINALS
Saturday, March 16, 1 p.m., SportsTime Ohio

If I had to take a swing at a potential matchup, I'd double down on Toledo-Akron, but never count out the magical specter of improbability. Any of the top six seeds have the roster and fortitude to make it to the championship game.

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