There seem to be five teams in the “upper” echelon of the MAC, with the rest of the league teams looking to claw into that higher group. It’s worth noting that five “upper division” teams are going to be trimmed down to four teams earning byes for the MAC Tournament, so that bears watching.
Here is our look at how the 12 league teams shape up entering the start of MAC play Thursday. …
1. TOLEDO (12-1): The Rockets’ lone loss this season came by three points at Dayton, which is nationally ranked –- so there is no shame in that. Among the good wins for UT are victories at Marquette and in neutral-site games over Santa Clara and Charlotte. The Rockets continue to win with defense, allowing a MAC-low 54.0 points per game, while getting offensive contributions from senior Naama Shafir (12.8 ppg, 5.4 apg), junior Andola Dortch (10.8 ppg, 3.7 apg) and senior Yolanda Richardson (9.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg). But talk about a tough early schedule: the Rockets open at home against Central Michigan Thursday, then play at Bowling Green Sunday. I promise you won’t have to read very far to find those two teams in these standings. RPI: 27.
2. CENTRAL MICHIGAN (6-7): The Chippewas have a most misleading record, since their schedule is ranked as the seventh-toughest in the country. CMU has played eight teams with an RPI in the top 100 (out of 13 games), and only one of its contests came against a team ranked lower than 125. But Central Michigan has done more than just play tough teams: CMU has played well in general, rebounding from a tough early season loss at Wisconsin-Green Bay to beat the Phoenix in the rematch in Mt. Pleasant while serving up several other fine wins. Sophomore Crystal Bradford (13.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 2.6 apg) may be the MAC’s most talented player, while sophomore Jessica Green (12.2 ppg), senior Brandie Baker (5.6 rpg) and junior Niki DiGuilio (48.1 percent on 3-pointers) make CMU an extremely difficult team to match. RPI: 51.
3. BOWLING GREEN (9-4): The league’s defending regular-season champs limp into league play after a disappointing home loss to UCF, a game in which the Falcons struggled in the final five minutes to close out a win. That loss takes away some of the good feelings generated by a home thrashing of a nationally ranked Dayton squad and a nice home win over Wyoming. Senior Chrissy Steffen leads BG in scoring at 12.6 ppg, while junior Alexis Rogers adds 11.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Junior point guard Jillian Halfhill has stepped up her play this season, contributing points (9.5 ppg), assists (2.6 apg) and even rebounds (5.5 rpg). The good news for new coach Jennifer Roos and the Falcons is that their early season challenges (Toledo, Miami and Central Michigan) all will come in home games. RPI: 54.
4. MIAMI (8-5): The RedHawks have one of the most talented inside-outside combinations in senior guard Courtney Osborn (17.8 ppg, 5.3 apg) and senior center Kirsten Olowinski (11.3 ppg, 10.1 rpg). But there have been some hiccups early this season, most notably the season-opening loss at Eastern Kentucky and a setback at Cleveland State. But Miami enters league play on a good note after claiming a "good" win at Duquesne. The good news for the RedHawks is that they start the season with projected wins over Ball State and Western Michigan; the bad news is that both of those games may not be as easy as they seem because they will be played on the road. RPI: 110.
5. AKRON (9-4): The return of Rachel Tecca (19.4 ppg, 7.8 rpg) has been a plus for the Zips, who also are getting big production from two other juniors, Hanna Luburgh (16.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and Sina King (14.7 ppg, 8.9 rpg). Those three are fueling an Akron offense that leads the MAC in scoring at 76.6 points per game. There aren’t any glaring losses on the Zips’ resume, although the home loss to Wright State wasn’t great and UA had hoped to be more competitive in a 31-point home loss to Dayton. But Akron also gets to ease into MAC play before a buzz-saw three-game stretch against Toledo, CMU and BG Jan. 23-31. RPI: 139.
6. NORTHERN ILLINOIS (5-8): The Huskies started the season with a good neutral-site win over Davidson, but there have been some shaky setbacks lately (most notably at Illinois-Chicago and at Valparaiso). NIU has played a large number of road games (all but three of their 13 games have been away from home), presumably to prepare a team that features three freshmen and six sophomores for MAC play. Sophomore Amanda Corral leads the Huskies in scoring at 12.6 ppg, while senior transfer Satavia Taylor is just short of double figures at 9.9 ppg. But this team hangs its hat on defense, allowing just 57.5 points per game, and will do so again this year.. RPI: 208.
7. OHIO (5-7): The Bobcats have allowed some winnable games to slip away in the non-conference schedule, including a home loss to UMass and back-to-back road losses to Manhattan (RPI 316) and Long Island (RPI 280). A season-opening home win over Cleveland State probably is OU’s best win to date. Freshman Kiyanna Black (11.7 ppg) has injected some life into the offense, which also gets production from juniors Erin Bailes (9.8 ppg) and Shavon Robinson (9.5 ppg). One stat to watch for the Bobcats is their turnover ratio, which is at plus-2.83 at the start of MAC play and is the second-best mark in the league. If Ohio can continue those numbers, it will have success in conference play. RPI: 258.
8. EASTERN MICHIGAN (2-11): The Eagles seem poised to make a dramatic fall –- from MAC Tournament champ last season to MAC also-ran this year. Graduation losses certainly played a part in that, as did an extremely difficult schedule (RPI ranking of 31, with six Top 100 opponents). But the recent dismissal of leading scorer Miranda Tate (12.9 ppg) and the season-ending knee surgery for Olivia Fouty are two unexpected holes to be filled. Recent losses by new coach Tory Verdi’s squad to Ole Miss and Loyola-Chicago may be a sign of things to come for this team. RPI: 207.
9. WESTERN MICHIGAN (4-8): The Broncos are a program being rebuilt, so the struggles of new coach Shane Clipfell’s team while on the road -– and “bad” losses such as the one at Illinois-Chicago at the end of December -– are understandable. But WMU seems to be holding its own at home, including a nice win in the season opener against American. Junior Aurielle Anderson (9.5 ppg) and sophomore Corie Buchanan (9.4 ppg) are the top scoring options for a team that looks as if it will be a tough assignment when it plays at home but not as tough when it hits the road. RPI: 278.
10. KENT STATE (2-11): The Golden Flashes also are being rebuilt, so new coach Danielle O’Banion will be given time to work through struggles such as the season-opening seven-game losing streak. But this team has the power to surprise, especially at home, as its nine-point win over Temple in early December demonstrates. Senior Tamzin Barroilhet has provided scoring (10.4 ppg) and rebounding (6.7 rpg), while fellow seniors Trisha Krewson (9.1 ppg) and Diamon Beckford (8.8 ppg) also are scoring options. RPI: 342.
11. BUFFALO (2-11): As you may have noticed, five of the six MAC teams with new coaches have congregated here at the bottom of the standings. The Bulls of new coach Felisha Legette-Jack have posted a nice win at Oakland and a solid victory against Niagara, but there are some questionable losses as well (a 16-point loss to Canisius and a home loss to Binghamton spring to mind). Freshman Rachael Gregory has had an immediate impact, averaging a team-best 11.3 ppg while adding 6.8 rebounds per contest. But UB is going to have to shoot better (last in field-goal and free-throw percentage in the MAC) to find success. RPI: 299.
12. BALL STATE (3-10, 4-11 MAC) (LW #9): The Cardinals of coach Brady Sallee have been hard to figure, posting a nice home win over Detroit one game after suffering a bad loss at Austin Peay. BSU has had almost two weeks off since its last game, and an opening schedule that includes early games against Miami and Bowling Green provides no comfort. Call me crazy -– and trust me, you wouldn’t be the first -– but I think players such as freshman Nathalie Fontaine (12.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg), junior Brandy Woody (11.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.5 apg), senior Brittany Carter (9.6 ppg) and junior Katie Murphy (8.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg) will lift Ball State out of this position well before this season is over. RPI: 314.