Preview, predictions for the 2020 Mid-American Conference women's basketball season

Central Michigan guard Micaela Kelly passes the ball to the corner against Iona Dec. 5 at McGuirk Arena.

A new season of Mid-American Conference basketball lies on the horizon. 

On the women's side, Central Michigan sets out in search of its fifth consecutive West Division title, while Ohio looks to make it back-to-back titles in the East. 

Many other teams remain in the hunt, most notably Buffalo, which won last season's postseason tournament. The level of competition in the MAC is generally among the best at the mid-major level. 

When conference play begins Saturday, each of the conference's 12 teams will carry realistic hopes at contending for a championship within a conference that sent three teams to the NCAA Tournament a season ago. 

With conference play opening, women's basketball beat reporters Christian Booher and Andrew Loveland preview the season and offer their end of season predictions.

Q: Who is one player whose performance is pivotal for Central Michigan's chances to once again claim the MAC West crown?

Christian Booher: I believe it's junior guard Maddy Watters. Given the breakouts from Micaela Kelly and Molly Davis, Watters has taken a bit of a back seat in the scoring column while still contributing in other categories. She has a phenomenal shot from beyond the arc and if she gets into a consistent groove every night, she would make the Chippewa backcourt essentially unstoppable. 

Andrew Loveland: The short answer is junior forward Kyra Bussell. Bussell began the season against Green Bay with a career scoring night. As the season progresses, the powerful backcourt duo of Davis and Kelly will open up opportunities for other players on the court and Bussell will be ready to answer the call. 

Q: Given Micaela Kelly's red-hot start, who is one player within the MAC that can realistically challenge her for the Player of the Year honors?

CB: Buffalo has a two-headed monster in Dyaisha Fair and Theresa Onwuka that can give Kelly a run for her money in this race. Fair has put up identical scoring numbers to Kelly while Onwuka is a solid two-way player. Those two offer the closest competition to Kelly at this point in time. Kelly has been the best player in the MAC West for the entirety of the season and I don't see that changing. 

AL: Dyaisha Fair will be the player with the best odds to challenge Kelly. Unfortunately for Fair, Kelly has been one of the top players in the country, not just the MAC, and with only two months of collegiate experience, it's a question whether Fair can continue her strong pace for an entire season. The January 29 rematch of last season’s MAC tournament semifinal game figures to be a must-watch when these two take the court.

Q: How about Molly Davis? Is she a lock for Freshman of the Year? If not, who are her challengers?

CB: She's at the top of the leaderboard to this point. Filling up the stat sheet with points, rebounds and assists on a nightly basis, the freshman has proven that she can play with anybody at this point in her career. While a bit of a dip in production is certainly possible given her workload this early in her career, as long as she stays consistent she'll be considered with Fair for the top Freshman honors at the end of the season. With Fair a top-5 scorer nationally, I don't know if Davis will be able to unseat her as the top freshman if Buffalo's top scorer maintains her production throughout the course of the season. 

AL: Davis is having a solid freshman season. She came in as a scorer, but has shown the ability all over the court with multiple double-doubles through the early part of the season in most years she would be a shoo-in for Freshmen of the Year. With the way Fair is playing, it is hard to see how anyone else, including Davis, can pass her in the race.

Q: At first glance, what matchup within Central Michigan's MAC schedule stands out the most? 

CB: On Jan. 29, Central Michigan travels to Buffalo. These two schools have created a formidable rivalry over the years and the 2020 edition promises to be just as good. With stars on both sides of the floor, this matchup will be foreshadowing for a possible postseason clash that could decide a champion within the conference. 

AL: Leap day. This year is a leap year and the MAC has scheduled a matchup between Ball State and Central Michigan for Feb. 29. Ball State begins the conference slate with the best record in the MAC West. The Cardinals and Chippewas could be on a collision course for the West Division title with a game late in the season.

Q: Who wins each division and, ultimately, who takes the tournament crown in Cleveland?

CB: Central Michigan will be neck-and-neck with West Division competitors such as Toledo and Northern Illinois for the majority of the season. The Chippewas will overcome a pair of conference slip-ups to win the division for the fifth straight season. The East is loaded with competitive teams, however, it'll be Buffalo who comes out on top on that side. The championship in Cleveland, Ohio will rightfully pit the conference's two top teams against one another. With the Chippewas avenging last season's semifinal defeat and securing the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. 

AL: The Chippewas won’t have an easy road to winning the West Division. But they‘re a team with a mix of veterans who know what it takes to get the job done and fresh young talent that can bring energy at the right time helping them win the division title. Buffalo won the MAC Tournament last season and doesn’t appear to have missed a step. The Bulls should finish first in the East and could even surpass the Chippewas to take the regular-season title. However, CMU will only improve as Davis continues to learn and the cast of crafty veterans find their groove. That mix will propel the Chippewas to a MAC Tournament championship.