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Published: Saturday, 1/4/2014 - Updated: 3 months ago

COLLEGE BASKETBALL

MAC schedule awaits Rockets

Struggling UT, Chippewas seek improved play on defense

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

A budding rivalry in Mid-American Conference women’s basketball will pick back up today, though unlike recent meetings, talk of a championship hanging in the balance is premature.

Reigning tournament winner Central Michigan is 4-8, saddled with a slew of nonconference losses to top 25 opponents.

The University of Toledo is 5-6, struggling to cope without the winningest class in program history, one that captured the last four West division titles at the expense of CMU.

This noon tilt in Mount Pleasant, Mich., may not resemble the three sensational games staged between these teams last year but it should give some clarity to the hierarchy of a division dominated of late by Toledo.

The Rockets, picked to finish third in the West, are trying to rebound from losses in three of their last four games, including Monday’s 90-80 setback at Evansville. Defensively, they are a shell of last year’s suffocating unit, ranking 11th of 12 MAC teams in field goal percentage defense at 43 percent. Only Central Michigan, which has surrendered 100-plus points in three straight games, is lower.

“We have a lot of new people that need to learn new ways of playing defense,” forward Inma Zanoguera said. “Obviously, that takes time.”

Also expected to contend in the division are Eastern Michigan, which has feasted on mediocre teams in a 10-1 start, and last year’s runner up Ball State.

The Cardinals (5-6) will open MAC play at defending East winner Akron.

Bowling Green and Buffalo, who are picked to finish second and third, respectively, in the East, will meet at BG’s Stroh Center.

Toledo coach Tricia Cullop said she gives no added attention to opening with Central Michigan, whom her Rockets fell to at home in last year’s opener before ripping off 15 consecutive wins to close the regular season — a streak that included a 13-point win in Mount Pleasant. The rubber match, played in the semifinals of the MAC tournament, went to CMU, 66-61.

“There’s a great rivalry that’s been established between the two teams,” Cullop said. “Whether we play them now or later, I don’t mind. I think we’re just excited to start MAC play.”

As it is accustomed to doing, CMU put together a demanding nonconference schedule, one that ranks the toughest in the country, according to Jeff Sagarin. Ten of CMU’s 12 opponents appeared in last year’s postseason. They lost to Kentucky, Duke, and Notre Dame — teams ranked in the top six nationally. Another defeat came at the hands of No. 17 Purdue, which also beat Toledo at Savage Arena in arguably the Rockets’ finest performance thus far.

Leading CMU, as she’s done the past two seasons, is the dynamic junior Crystal Bradford. When engaged and motivated, Bradford is the MAC’s top player, although her perceived bad attitude has possibly undermined her track to awards for freshman of the year and player of the year. Bradford, who has been coming off the bench, is averaging 20.3 points and 10.4 rebounds. Three other Chippewas average at least nine points, a concern for a Toledo team that’s given up 45 percent shooting or more in four straight games.

“We said from the beginning, what do kids practice when they go into the gym? Offense.” Cullop said. “You rarely see a kid go in and work on a defensive rotation or stance or close outs.”

Cullop said she was encouraged by the Evansville game when she counted her team taking five charges, most this season. Continued progress at that end of the floor could put Toledo back in familiar territory, contending for a league title.

“It will be nice to be a surprise this year,” Zanoguera said. “I’m pretty sure we’re capable of being the team no one expects to win but wins.”

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.



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