CLEVELAND - The consensus around the Mid-American Conference for the coming season in women's basketball is that Eastern Michigan is the team to beat. Unless it is Miami. Or Western Michigan. Or maybe Kent State.
When the league's coaches gathered here yesterday for their annual preseason media event, about the only thing they could agree on is that parity could put as many as 10 of the 13 teams in the MAC in contention for the overall championship.
"This league is real balanced," said Mark Ehlen, who is entering his 10th season as the head coach at the University of Toledo. "A number of teams in our conference have a lot of people back, and they certainly look like the strongest teams right now, on paper. But a lot of teams also have the potential to be stronger based on the new players they have coming in. I think this thing could be really tight as the season plays out."
The Rockets, 13-16 last season when they went 8-8 in the MAC, were picked to finish fourth in the seven-team West Division. Eastern Michigan is the West favorite, followed by Western Michigan and Bowling Green. The Falcons, entering their fourth season under head coach Curt Miller, were 21-10 last season and advanced to the championship game of the MAC Tournament.
"I see the league with as much parity and balance as there has been in the history of the program," Miller said. "There are many teams that can win this league, including some of the teams that the media chooses to put near the bottom in the poll. Last year, we were picked to finish sixth out of seven teams in the West, and we ended up having a fine season."
Ehlen, who has two starters among his five returning players from last season, said he recalled a similar circumstance a few years back when his 2000-01 Rockets were coming off a losing season and also had a number of new faces. That team got little preseason notice, but finished the year with a 25-6 mark, a MAC championship, and an NCAA Tournament bid.
"No one knew what we had, and we were picked low," he said. "Now I don't know if we're as good as that team, but we might be. Of course it is flattering to be picked first or near the top, but I've never really cared a lot about where we were picked. There is just so much you're not certain about with your own team and the rest of the league before the season starts."
Miller has three sophomores who started as freshmen back as part of his 11 returning players. He said everyone starts out chasing Eastern Michigan, but the contenders compose a formidable pack.
"I honestly think there are 10 or 11 teams that can win a championship, and then win three or four games in a row in the conference tournament," Miller said. "That's a credit to coaching, and a credit to the recruiting that goes on in this conference."
Bowling Green opens with the preseason WNIT on Nov. 12, while the Rockets open Nov. 19 at home against Cincinnati.
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