We're down to crunch time in the Mid-American Conference women's basketball season. Two-thirds of the MAC schedule has been played, and only three weeks separate us from the 2014 MAC Tournament.
As we've noted here in recent weeks, it appears that Akron, Bowling Green and Central Michigan have separated themselves as the top three teams in the conference. Buffalo and Toledo have also drawn away from the rest of the pack, and one of those two will likely earn the MAC's final tournament bye to the quarterfinals.
The remaining seven teams are separated by just three games, and they are likely jockeying for home games in the opening round of the tournament. Right now, Ball State and Western Michigan have the edge, but neither team has been playing particularly well of late.
It should also be noted that cross-division play will be complete after the mid-week games. Each team's final five games will be divisional contests, so Miami, Ohio and Kent State will not be able to directly influence how the under-.500 teams in the West finish their seasons. To date, the West holds a 23-21 advantage over the East with four games remaining.
For this week's rankings, two moves are necessary after WMU's home loss against Kent State and Miami's second straight 40-point loss. The top five remain the same...for this week, anyway. We'll revisit the top of the rankings next week, after Wednesday night's titanic rematch between Bowling Green and Central Michigan.
On with the rankings...
1. Central Michigan Chippewas (16-8; 12-0 MAC) -- LW: 1
Last week: Miami (W, 88-47)
This week: at Bowling Green (2/19, 7:00 p.m.), at Northern Illinois (2/22, 8:00 p.m.)
The Chippewas let Miami hang around far longer than they probably wanted to on Saturday. In fact, they led only by single digits well into the second half. However, CMU woke up and went on a 27-2 run. Their 41-point win allowed them to maintain an undefeated record going into their matchup with BGSU. Niki DiGuilio has had many great days as a shooter, but Saturday might have been her best. She made eight 3-pointers against the RedHawks.
CMU is the only MAC team to play two road games this week, and neither will be easy. Bowling Green will have redemption on their minds after they had the Chippewas on the ropes in January but failed to finish them off. The Stroh Center is never an easy place to play, either. NIU has played well against against the MAC's best this season, including an almost-upset in Mount Pleasant last month.
2. Bowling Green Falcons (21-3; 11-1 MAC) -- LW: 2
Last week: at Eastern Michigan (W, 61-56)
This week: Central Michigan (2/19, 7:00 p.m.), at Buffalo (2/22, 2:00 p.m.)
Many saw the trip to Ypsilanti on Saturday as a trap for the Falcons, and that's exactly how it played out. EMU jumped out to a 21-8 lead, and although they allowed BGSU to take a halftime advantage, the Eagles kept the game close throughout. However, the Falcons did what they (almost) always seem to do in games like that -- win. It may not always be pretty; they just win.
Wednesday's game against CMU should be an intense contest with a postseason-like atmosphere. Of course, it may prove to just be the second act in a three-act play, but the Falcons need the win for several reasons. First, it would give them a chance to steal back the top overall seed for the MAC tournament. Second, it would allow them to maintain a two-game lead over Akron. Third, every game counts for BGSU's hopes for at-large consideration for the NCAA Tournament. And if you need a fourth reason, the Falcons have games remaining at Buffalo and at Akron. The game at Buffalo takes place next Saturday, and the Bulls will be hungry to avenge their earlier loss in Bowling Green.
3. Akron Zips (15-8; 9-3 MAC) -- LW: 3
Last week: at Ball State (W, 87-64)
This week: Northern Illinois (2/19, 7:00 p.m.), at Ohio (2/22, 2:00 p.m.)
The Zips keep winning and (in general) are doing so by large margins. They've now won eight in a row since their loss at Miami, and that ties a school record. Akron built up a huge first-half lead over Ball State and cruised during the second half. Tecca and Luburgh continue to be the best 1-2 punch in the MAC, but like CMU, the Zips have several other good complimentary pieces.
Neither of Akron's games this week should be considered "gimmes". As noted above, NIU has been tough against the MAC's best this season, and Ohio has played some very close games, including a four-point loss on Saturday at Toledo. However, the Zips should win both games. If they do, they could find themselves in a tie at 11-3 with BGSU, if the Falcons have a poor week.
4. Buffalo Bulls (14-9; 7-5 MAC) -- LW: 4
Last week: Northern Illinois (W, 66-57)
This week: at Kent State (2/19, 7:00 p.m.), Bowling Green (2/22, 2:00 p.m.)
The Bulls must really enjoy giving their fans a good show, because every home game they play appears to be a thriller. Don't let their nine-point victory margin over NIU fool you; the Huskies were in that game right to the bitter end. Mackenzie Loesing was held in check, but Kristen Sharkey and Alexus Malone picked up the slack. The win allowed Buffalo to maintain their hold on fourth place in the MAC's overall standings.
Buffalo doesn't want to allow Kent State to hang around on Wednesday night, as the Flashes showed last weekend that they can find a way to win. They'll have to be careful to not look ahead to their Saturday home game against Bowling Green. That tilt on Saturday will be UB's fifth chance to beat one of the MAC's top three teams. So far, they're 0-4 against those three.
5. Toledo Rockets (12-11; 7-5 MAC) -- LW: 5
Last week: Ohio (W, 62-58)
This week: at Eastern Michigan (2/19, 7:00 p.m.), Western Michigan (2/23, 1:00 p.m.)
The Rockets struggled with Ohio but managed to pull out the win with some good free throw shooting late in the contest. The win extends their winning streak and keeps them in a tie for fourth place in the MAC with Buffalo, although because of their loss to Buffalo, they still need some help to get a tournament bye. At worst, the Rockets should get to host a tournament game, as they now have a three-game lead over the ninth-place team.
Toledo plays two tough division games this week, including a trip to Ypsilanti. EMU has won two of their last three, and the only loss was by five against Bowling Green. A sweep of the two games would be huge for the Rockets and could vault them ahead of buffalo.
6. Ball State Cardinals (10-13; 5-7 MAC) -- LW: 6
Last week: Akron (L, 87-64)
This week: at Miami (2/20, 1:30 p.m.), Eastern Michigan (2/23, 2:00 p.m.)
It now seems like an eternity ago that Ball State led Central Michigan by 19 in the second half. Since then, the Cardinals have not looked very good, and they were really never in the game against Akron. The Cardinals still have an outside shot at a tournament bye and are in position for no worse than an opening-round home game, but they need to take care of business this week. BSU's two opponents are below them in the standings, and they need both wins to maintain their seeding edge.
7. Northern Illinois Huskies (8-14; 4-8 MAC) -- LW: 8
Last week: at Buffalo (L, 66-57)
This week: at Akron (2/19, 7:00 p.m.), Central Michigan (2/22, 8:00 p.m.)
The Huskies' 4-8 record belies how good they've played at times against the top teams in the MAC. However, when the tournament rolls around, wins are going to be the only things that matter. Close, as they were at CMU, Toledo and Buffalo, will not be good enough. They have two more opportunities this week with games at Akron and at home against CMU. They're going to play in the opening round of the tournament, but even a split here would be huge for their hopes of playing that opening game at home.
8. Western Michigan Broncos (9-14; 5-7 MAC) -- LW: 7
Last week: Kent State (L, 57-48)
This week: Ohio (2/19, 7:00 p.m.), at Toledo (2/23, 1:00 p.m.)
There's not much that can really be said when Kent State earns their first true road victory of the season against you. The Broncos looked pretty good early in the season, but the last few weeks have been increasingly worse. The loss to the Flashes just capped those issues. The optimistic view here is that they're still tied for 6th place in the league and have two winnable games this week. The pessimistic view is that they're sliding down the standings and could lose either (or both) of this week's contests. We'll see which view wins.
9. Eastern Michigan Eagles (14-9; 4-8 MAC) -- LW: 10
Last week: Bowling Green (L, 61-56)
This week: Toledo (2/19, 7:00 p.m.), at Ball State (2/23, 2:00 p.m.)
The Eagles saw their two-game winning streak end with a disappointing five-point loss at home to Bowling Green. The youthful Eagles ought to take pride in playing so well against one of the MAC's two best teams, but giving up a 13-point lead still stings. EMU, still led by Cha Sweeney and Janay Morton, is squarely on the bubble for a tournament home game, so games this week against Toledo and Ball State are very important.
10. Miami RedHawks (7-16; 3-9 MAC) -- LW: 9
Last week: at Central Michigan (L, 88-47)
This week: Ball State (2/20, 1:30 p.m.), at Kent State (2/23, 2:00 p.m.)
Miami has lost two straight by more than 40 points. Granted, the games were on the road against Bowling Green and Central Michigan, but those results are not a good indication about the current state of the team. After an upset of Akron in mid-January, the season has spiraled out of control, and they've only beaten one team not named Kent State since that victory against the Zips. Both games this week are winnable, and Ball State in particular is not playing well at the moment. However, Kent State will certainly view Miami as a potential win, and frankly, I'd put my money on the Flashes to win that game.
11. Ohio Bobcats (8-15; 3-9 MAC) -- LW: 11
Last week: at Toledo (L, 62-58)
This week: at Western Michigan (2/19, 7:00 p.m.), Akron (2/22, 2:00 p.m.)
The Bobcats played valiantly at Savage Arena but lost their eight straight game. Only two of those losses, both against Toledo, have been by fewer than 12 points. Ohio's likely looking at a first-round road game now, and their schedule this week doesn't appear very helpful. They start with a trip to Western Michigan, where the Broncos will seek to rid themselves of the sting from losing to Kent State. They follow that with a home game against Akron, who will likely be aiming for their 10th straight win.
12. Kent State Golden Flashes (5-18; 2-10 MAC) -- LW: 12
Last week: at Western Michigan (W, 57-48)
This week: Buffalo (2/19, 7:00 p.m.), Miami (2/23, 2:00 p.m.)
Congratulations to Kent State on finally getting a road win and their second MAC victory of the season. The Golden Flashes get to follow their first road win of the season with two straight home games. Even a split this would could push Kent State out of the virtual basement (of the MAC standings and these rankings), and with Miami as one of the two games, that achievement is very possible.