There are worse ways to spend a year than watching your women's basketball team improve from 4-14 to 16-2 in conference. For Ohio Bobcats fans and second-year head coach Bob Boldon, those are the most basic numbers behind a stunning reality that has the women from Oxford poised to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years.
The Bobcats must be considered the favorite, but Ball State also claims a bye into the semifinals in the MAC's cushy bracket, while Akron and Buffalo face only three games between them and a championship of their own.
As I said above, Ohio (16-2) and Ball State (13-5), as the top two seeds, will sit and wait until Friday to start their tournament, but are just two games from the NCAA Tournament. Akron (12-6) sits in the third seed, in line to take on the Cardinals, and Buffalo (11-7), edged out Western and Eastern Michigan in a head-to-head-to-head tiebreaker to claim the final bye.
After those four, it's a truer bracket structure, except that there's no true quarterfinal. The remaining eight teams will be whittled to two only to take on rested Zips and Bulls, with Bobcats and Cardinals in wait even behind them. You can't tell just by the seeding, but in the early rounds West Division teams are likely to dominate; #10 Miami finished the MAC season a full three games behind #9 Central Michigan.
You saw it above. Ohio's turnaround and success this season has been built on the perimeter. That's usually a recipe for streaky play, but the Bobcats have been more than solid. They lead the conference by wide margins in scoring differential, turnover differential, 3FG% and FG% defense. The Bobcats look like even more of a favorite when you consider no one player sticks out on the individual conference leaderboards. Kiyanna Black (15.9 points on 3.2 threes/game), though, will stick out when you watch a game, and not just because she leads the conference in attempts from distance. They shoot a lot of threes, and they make them, while holding opponents to poor offensive showings themselves. It would be a grand surprise to not see them in the final.
It's kind of chalk-y, I know, to pick the top two seeds, but in the MAC's bracket they're overwhelming favorites, though less so than on the men's side. While the Cardinals don't have the blowout potential of Ohio, they edge into the #2 seed on the strength of a balanced team with few bad losses. Compared to their peers, they're dreadful at rebounding and not a particularly high-scoring team, but are otherwise top-half of the MAC - usually top-three - in every team stat. Look for Nathalie Fontaine (16.3 points, 7.0 rebounds/game) to fill up the stat sheet, but her supporting cast is what makes the Cardinals strong. Jill Morrison and Shelbie Justice. Shelby Merder probably won't play an integral role, but I have to mention her just to bring up the Merder-Justice tandem.
The "If Everything Goes Right"s
The Zips, led by conference leader Sina King (20.3 ppg), conference #3 Anita Brown (18.4 ppg), and three-point markswoman Hannah Plybon (13.4 ppg), have the top scoring offense in the MAC and should they get the opportunity will likely be fine trying to outgun the Bobcats. If they get the chance. Megan Barilla leads the conference in assist:turnover ratio and King in rebounds to add more individual highlights to the mix, but Akron has struggled this season with consistency, even at 12-6. They've won big and won close, won high scoring games and low scoring games, but dropped a few close games and were noncompetitive in other losses, as well. Their head-to-head against Ball State - a home loss in which they were just 3-18 from three - proved to be the difference between #2 and #3.
Speaking of a team with great individual talent but inconsistent team results, let's talk about Buffalo. UB without doubt has the strongest frontcourt in the conference. The midyear addition of Australian point guard Stephanie Reid did wonders to stabilize the offense, and the Bulls finished MAC play on a 5-2 run after a tough road loss to Akron. But it's not that simple. The Bulls have weathered a tumultuous season: Mackenzie Loesing missed a good deal of time to an old ankle injury, key G/F Rachael Gregory left the team abruptly in January, and for the first half of the year nobody could run the point.
When UB shows up to play, as they did in key games against Ball State and Akron, and in so many second halves once they find their footing, they can win it all. But they so often start slow, or take entire games off. They lead the league in steals and offensive rebounds, but are prone to foul trouble as a result of their aggressive play and have dropped multiple games this season due to an overreliance on poor three-point shooting. And yet, but for a late collapse against Toledo and a horrible game against bottomfeeder Miami, the Bulls would be sitting #2.
Two Lower Seeds Most Likely to Make a Run
WMU draws the easiest first-round game in the conference, an injury-riddled Bowling Green team that is giving significant minutes to one of the Falcons' volleyball stars, and then has a good shot of drawing a Central Michigan team who, while good, are a tad overrated now that potential WNBA draft pick Crystal Bradford has been shut down for the season. WMU is led by Miracle Woods (51.3 FG%, 1.4 blocks/game) and thrives on their defense. They're a strong team who plays at a slower pace, which could minimize their fatigue in a hypothetical game against Buffalo.
Relative to the MAC, Toledo is notable good in just one thing: making opponents pay for their fouls. Only Buffalo has made more foul shots - two - than the Rockets, but on 60 more attempts. Inma Zanoguera is top-seven in the conference in six stats, highlighted by her 5.1 assists per game, but seems to get no buzz for how good she is. The Rockets as a whole are emblematic of the meaty middle of the MAC West, not really standing out in any way, but they do have Zanoguera and an easier opening-round date with the East Division's Miami RedHawks
Six Players You Need to Know
1. Sina King, Akron
2. Kiyanna Black, Ohio
3. Nathalie Fontaine, Ball State
4. Inma Zanoguera, Toledo
5. Kristen Sharkey, Buffalo
6. Miracle Woods, WMU
Five Who Could Make a Big Play
1. Hannah Plybon, Akron - Three-point bomber
2. Christa Baccas, Buffalo - Queen of the blocks
3 and 4. Cha Sweeney and Janay Morton, EMU - 2-3 in steals
5. Zanoguera, Toledo - 87.8 FT%
Three More Who Can Spring an Upset
1. CiCi Shannon, Kent - #1 in FG%, #2 rebounding, #2 blocks
2. Ally Lehman, NIU - #2 in A:TO
3. Courtney Larson, Miami - #3 (39%) from three
The Tournament starts tonight with four first-round games before a Tuesday off day. The second round will be played Wednesday in Cleveland and the champion will be crowned on Saturday. Good luck to all teams!