Women's Basketball: Chattanooga Lady Mocs
A word of warning to the coach who finds a place for Amanda Hyde as one of his or her assistants in the years to come. She is going to be smarter than you. Go ahead and get used to it.
On the plus side, you need not worry about carrying the four while trying to figure out the tip for a team meal.
Named a first-team Capital One Academic All-American this past week, here is how the Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne senior math major explained what she meant when she described a particular math class as abstract and theoretical.
“In layman’s terms, it’s the theory behind calculus,” Hyde explained, slowly and patiently, when asked to dumb it down for someone whose lone experience with the subject in college came in a course described as math for poets. “In a calculus class you’re doing the integrals and taking derivatives. And now we’re looking at why do we do that and the mathematicians from way back when who created those ideas. It’s pretty in-depth and so abstract.
“I don’t see numbers, really. We don’t deal with numbers anymore.”
If that sounds like a good way to induce a headache, try stopping her on a basketball court. She deals in plenty of numbers there.
A few days after she received the academic accolade, Hyde scored 36 points in a win against IUPUI, the Indianapolis school that is part of the same state system as IPFW and is its rival in the Summit League. That was a good game but hardly an outlier in her basketball canon. The reigning Summit League player of the year (she was also the conference’s scholar of the year across all women’s sports as a junior), Hyde averages 21.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists this season.
She is the only player in the country averaging at least 20 points, five rebounds and four assists per game and shooting at least 50 percent from the field. She is one of four players 5 feet, 11 inches or shorter in the top 50 nationally in field goal percentage. The other three: Baylor’s Nina Davis, Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd and Syracuse’s Brittany Sykes. That’s nice company.
Watch her play and you see a guard with good size for the mid-major level, good balance and footwork when she posts up or drives into the lane and the decisive first step shared by a lot of scorers. But those are subtle details. She doesn’t look out of place warming up amidst the kind of players who populate the Summit League -- often a little shorter or a step slower than their counterparts in major conferences. Still, something obviously sets her apart, and not just on the Summit League stage but when she does things like score 23 points in a win at Michigan State.
The analytical mind that pulled her toward math, the satisfaction she derived from the simplicity of a right answer and a wrong answer, also informs the way she deconstructs basketball -- after the fact and even in the moment. Growing up, she listened to her father tell her time and again to be a student of the game. And she only knows one way to be a student.
“I think it’s sort of made me very detail-oriented,” Hyde said. “I look at everything from kind of a unique perspective. Every move I’m about to make, is it the right one? Is it going to give me a step on the girl who is guarding me? When I get into the paint, I need to be aware. Do I have the layup? Do I need to kick it out? I think math has always kept my mind sharp and constantly going, and I think that has helped me keep up with the quick pace of the college game.”
That can go too far -- paralysis by analysis, as a lot of coaches who did not major in pure mathematics might put it. She shoots 55 percent from the field, 40 percent from the 3-point line and 86 percent from the free throw line. But there are times when the best player on the court needs to take shots that aren’t, statistically speaking, good shots.
“One of the battles Amanda and I have is that she won’t shoot the ball enough,” IPFW coach Chris Paul said. “She feels like she should make every shot, so when she misses a couple and she doesn’t understand why, then she maybe wants to defer to somebody else. Instead of just saying, ‘You know what, I missed a couple, but I know I’m going to make the next one,’ sometimes she can out think herself.”
It’s just how her mind works. And all things considered, it’s a battle in which Paul would eagerly engage for years to come, if only her eligibility allowed it.
It doesn’t require an abacus to count the days remaining in Hyde’s career, fingers will do. Even with the win against IUPUI, IPFW is tied for a distant third place behind that team and South Dakota State in the Summit League. It would likely need to beat both in the conference tournament to earn the automatic NCAA tournament bid that is its only hope of prolonging the season beyond next week.
But Hyde will be in Nashville for the Final Four, not in uniform with the Mastodons presumably but attending a seminar put on by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association for 50 current players who want to transition into coaching. Might she be the next Brad Stevens, who was a well-documented student of analytics during his time coaching Butler? Perhaps. How she sees the game and the world isn't going to change. But changing the game isn't her main objective. She just wants to give others the same opportunity she made so much of.
“I feel like I’ve learned a ton throughout my years,” Hyde said. “And I have a lot more to learn.”
Now on to the rankings.
1. James Madison (23-4, 13-0 Colonial; Charlie Creme’s projected NCAA tournament seed: No. 10)
We ended last season with a team from the Colonial atop the rankings, and we’ll do the same this season. Look at the overall résumé -- wins against Virginia, UCLA and St. John’s, and paper-thin losses against Vanderbilt and North Carolina. Look at momentum, as James Madison continues to roll through opponents in conference play by nearly 30 points per game. Look at a defense that ranks 10th nationally in scoring defense and sixth in field goal defense, with only Connecticut and South Carolina similarly in the top 10 in both categories. And look at a senior star in Kirby Burkholder who is peaking at the perfect time. James Madison has earned the top spot and has a chance to make noise in March.
2. Gonzaga (24-4, 14-2 WCC; projected seed: No. 6)
A loss at BYU on Feb. 15 opened the door at which James Madison was already knocking for No. 1, but Gonzaga is doing just fine as the postseason approaches. In bouncing back from the loss with a win against Portland (the final meeting between coach Kelly Graves and retiring Pilots coach Jim Sollars, who gave Graves his first Division I job), Gonzaga clinched a share of its 10th consecutive WCC regular-season title. It can finish the job with a win against Saint Mary’s on Thursday, one of only two WCC teams to beat the Bulldogs this season, or against Pacific on Saturday.
3. Bowling Green (23-3, 13-1 MAC; projected seed: 11)
This time Bowling Green finished the job. Leading Central Michigan by 11 points with three minutes to play when the teams met in Mount Pleasant, Mich., back in January, Bowling Green lost the lead and then lost the game in overtime. In the rematch this past week, the Falcons took the lead against the league leader with a little more than four minutes to play in the first half and never let it out of their grasp. This isn’t an assists-friendly offense, but in terms of running a team, it’s difficult to do better than Jillian Halfhill. In MAC play, she’s shooting 48 percent from the field, 50 percent from the 3-point line and 85 percent from the free throw line to form a dynamic duo with do-everything Alexis Rogers.
4. Dayton (20-5, 13-1 Atlantic 10; projected seed: No. 6)
Off the national radar after a slow start, Dayton quietly took control of a good and reasonably deep conference. The most recent strong showing was Sunday’s 26-point win against Saint Joseph’s. In five games since the last rankings, junior Ally Mallott averaged 11 rebounds per game. That stretch included back-to-back double-doubles and a game with 23 points and nine rebounds. All of this against the backdrop of a crazy schedule that saw the team play four games in the span of a week, traveling from Kingston, R.I., home to Dayton and then to St. Louis and Philadelphia.
5. Chattanooga (24-3, 16-0 Southern; projected seed: No. 12)
The unbeaten run nearly came to an end Monday, when Chattanooga needed a late rally in regulation and two overtimes to come away with a win at Samford, but Alex Black and Chelsey Shumpert came up with the necessary points in support of Taylor Hall. All Chattanooga can do is keep going about its business. It’s unfortunate but out of the Lady Mocs’ control that the Southern hasn’t produced much in the way of a serious challenger this season, Furman and Davidson tied for second place in the conference but a full six games behind Jim Foster’s team.
6. Middle Tennessee (23-4, 12-1 Conference USA; projected seed: No. 8)
It hasn’t always been easy or pretty (see: Saturday’s 48-46 win against Charlotte), but Middle Tennessee just keeps defending and winning in its first Conference USA season. It might be more quirk than trend at this point, but the Blue Raiders are even on turnovers and assists over the past six games after running a significant deficit in the preceding 21 games. Work remains. There are six Conference USA teams with winning records in the league. Middle Tennessee is one; it still plays three of the other five, including road games at East Carolina and Tulane.
7. Marist (22-6, 16-2 MAAC; projected seed: N/A)
By the end of February, a team probably is what the evidence suggests it is. In the case of Marist, that might be a group that is not on par defensively with teams of recent vintage in Poughkeepsie, certainly not consistently. But it’s also a team that at peak form can be as good offensively as anything Brian Giorgis has put on a basketball court. In three games since the last rankings, Marist averaged 87 points, shot 55 percent and totaled 70 assists against 32 turnovers. No player was warmer than Sydney Coffey, who averaged 19.3 points on, oh, 76 percent shooting.
8. Central Michigan (17-9, 13-1 MAC; projected seed: N/A)
The Chippewas only drop one spot, in part because losing a game at Bowling Green is hardly an embarrassment and in part because so many other teams in the mix stumbled. Central Michigan hit just 10-of-49 3-point attempts in two games against Bowling Green, and that has to be a concern. For one thing, the two teams might well meet again in the MAC championship game, but also because Central Michigan is a very good 3-point shooting team against bad teams that suffers a significant drop-off -- more than might be expected -- from long range against good teams.
9. BYU (23-5, 13-4 WCC; projected seed: 12)
There probably still isn’t enough of a résumé for an NCAA tournament at-large bid, but the win against Gonzaga makes it worth having the conversation. A win this Saturday would give the Cougars season splits against all of the other WCC contenders, their only other loss a double-overtime rivalry game against Utah. The case is there for center Jennifer Hamson to earn All-American honors, but she’s not a one-woman show. Lexi Eaton is always a threat to score 20-plus points, and Kim Beeston had 27 points and nine assists in the most recent win.
10. Wright State (20-7, 9-3 Horizon; projected seed: No. 14)
The Horizon League is one of the more compelling races in the country, especially given the historical dominance of Green Bay and the reality that only one team is getting into the NCAA tournament. Wright State is currently tied atop the standings with Green Bay and Youngstown State and still has games against both teams, Thursday at home against Green Bay and next Wednesday at Youngstown State. This is a team with wins against NC State and James Madison, so its good can be pretty darn good. Junior Kim Demmings (22.8 ppg) has matured into a much more efficient star than the entertaining but erratic player who entered the league.
Next five: No. 11 Iona, No. 12 Albany, No. 13 Green Bay, No. 14 Pacific, No. 15 Saint Joseph's
No need for delay this week. With most teams entering the backstretch of conference play and postseason positioning growing clearer by the day, let's get right to the rankings.
1. Gonzaga (22-3, 12-1 WCC; Charlie Creme’s projected NCAA tournament seed: No. 5)
If the WCC race was a steeplechase, Gonzaga would be approaching the last water jump -- some ground left to cover after it but the last bit of drama approaching. In the weeks since the last mid-major rankings, the Bulldogs reeled off four wins by at least 35 points and now sit three full games clear of second place BYU. Now comes a road trip to San Diego and BYU that could put Gonzaga over the top before it even gets to a rematch against Saint Mary’s. In addition to everything else she does, Haiden Palmer has been piling up assists of late. She, Jazmine Redmon and Danielle Walter have combined for a Vandersloot-ian 228 assists against 95 turnovers.
2. James Madison (19-4, 9-0 Colonial; projected seed: No. 7)
The last time a team scored more than 57 points against James Madison was Jan. 2. The last time a team other than North Carolina did it (and the Tar Heels had to work to get their 74 points) was Dec. 18. The last time an unranked team did it was Dec. 4. And, well, you get the picture. Not that this team limits its own point production. In four games since last we checked in on the Dukes, Kirby Burkholder is averaging 21.2 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.5 steals, and two of her teammates scored at least 25 points in a game in that span.
3. Chattanooga (21-3, 13-0 Southern; projected seed: No. 12)
Palmer, Burkholder and now Taylor Hall. The lesson in these rankings is it’s nice to have a senior star who can do a little bit of everything and a lot of most things. The Lady Mocs have effectively lapped the field in the SoCon with just five games to play, four full games in front of second place and six games in front of third place. Hall leads the team in almost everything (although Jasmine Joyner recently forced her to at least share the lead in blocks), but freshman Chelsey Shumpert has made good use of conference play and become more of a playmaking presence recently.
4. Bowling Green (20-3, 10-1 MAC; projected seed: 11)
Bowling Green still trails Central Michigan by a game in the MAC as next week’s rematch of a phenomenal game between the two in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., approaches, but the overall résumé is strong enough for the Falcons to earn the final NCAA tournament at-large bid in Creme’s most recent projected bracket. Like recent games between the Broncos and Seahawks and Chelsea and Manchester City, next Wednesday’s game pits the MAC’s best offense (Central Michigan) against its best defense (Bowling Green). Since that loss to the Chippewas, senior point guard Jillian Halfhill has hit 14-of-21 3-point attempts to rank second in the conference in 3-point shooting.
5. Dayton (15-5, 8-1 Atlantic 10; projected seed: No. 8)
The Flyers would rather not have the opportunity to show it off, but one of the hallmarks of a program that has turned the corner is the ability to recruit depth. So it is with Dayton, which lost starting guard Kelley Austria to injury, only to see freshman Celeste Edwards rise to the occasion. A top-50 recruit, Edwards scored 17, 18 and 17 points, respectively, in Dayton’s past three games and added six rebounds and six steals in this past weekend’s crucial win at Duquesne. Jim Jabir’s team also regained the services of Amber Deane this past week after she missed time with a concussion. Only four A-10 teams have losing conference records, but Dayton plays four of its final seven games against them.
6. Middle Tennessee (19-4, 8-1 Conference USA; projected seed: No. 8)
The stumble came in Hattiesburg, Miss., where Southern Miss point guard Jamierra Faulkner’s 11 assists got the better of Ebony Rowe’s 22 points and 13 rebounds on Feb. 5. Actually, Rowe did all she could to get her team the win in that game, it was the rest of the lineup shooting 28 percent from the field and 42 percent from the free throw line that caused problems. Middle Tennessee bounced back with a win against Rice, but that remains the issue for the Conference USA leaders. They have Rowe and they have defense, but the offense is inconsistent and inefficient.
7. Central Michigan (15-8, 11-0 MAC; projected seed: No. 10)
The Chippewas do make it interesting. With the Bowling Green rematch looming, Central Michigan nearly gave away its lead in the standings by losing at Ball State this past week. Down by 19 points early in the second half, still down by 15 points with a little more than six minutes to play and eight points with less than three minutes remaining, Central Michigan rallied to win in overtime. Crystal Bradford did what she does. She finished with 26 points, 15 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals and two blocks and hit both a 3-pointer and a three-point play late in regulation. She nearly made it back-to-back triple-doubles with 18 points 13 rebounds and seven assists in Sunday’s win against Buffalo.
8. Wichita State (20-2, 11-0 Missouri Valley; projected seed: No. 11)
The Shockers haven’t cracked the top 10 before this week, which means we really haven’t talked enough about Alex Harden. The junior leads her team in points and assists, the latter accompanied by a better than two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio, and is second in rebounds, steals and blocks. She shoots 51 percent from the field, 41 percent from the 3-point line and 83 percent from the free throw line. Add those efforts to a defense forcing nearly 20 turnovers per game and limiting opponents to 37 percent shooting and you have a mid-major success story.
9. Green Bay (14-7, 7-2 Horizon; projected seed: No. 14)
Welcome back to the rankings, Green Bay. Or considering how few of the current Phoenix were a part of the program’s past success, perhaps just welcome. Green Bay started this season as a very young team and endured close losses -- six points at St. Bonaventure, five points against Wichita State, four points against Purdue, four points in overtime after squandering a lead at Wisconsin. It’s still young, but it is also now playing some of the best mid-major basketball. Redshirt freshman Mehryn Kraker has emerged as a needed 3-point outlet, true freshman Tesha Buck continues to show an all-around game beyond her years and sophomore Kaili Lukan is blossoming as a go-to scoring option for her sister, quietly excellent redshirt junior point guard Megan, to find.
10. Marist (19-6, 13-2 MAAC; projected seed: N/A)
It is strange to see Marist with two conference losses by the middle of February, the most recent a home loss against Fairfield this past weekend, but we’re not yet in unprecedented territory. Five years ago, Marist lost a pair of MAAC games at home. It won the conference regular-season and tournament titles and pushed Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament. And its stumbles aside, the current team leads the MAAC in scoring margin, field goal offense and field goal defense.
Next five: No. 11 Fordham, No. 12 BYU, No. 13 Iona, No. 14 Saint Mary’s, No. 15 St. Bonaventure.
For the better part of a decade, the MAAC had more vowels than contenders. Iona finally evened the score.
So while par for the course in leagues like the West Coast Conference and Atlantic 10 that stretch the definition of mid-major to begin with, there is more than a little significance to a pair of MAAC teams appearing on the list below.
As things stand at the moment, neither Marist nor Green Bay is in first place in its respective conference. That’s news in the mid-major ranks because over the past decade, those two schools won 17 of a possible 18 outright regular-season conference titles. In the lone exception, Green Bay shared the 2005-06 Horizon League title. But while the Phoenix finally got caught in a youth movement that opened the door for Youngstown State, Wright State, UIC and others to compete in the Horizon, Marist remains what it has long been. Just ask Oklahoma.
Even after his team made a second-half run against the Red Foxes on New Year’s Eve, longtime Canisius coach Terry Zeh wasn’t optimistic about anyone in the league catching a team that went 53-1 the past three seasons.
“Can people give them a game? I think people can,” Zeh said without a whole lot of confidence in the sentiment. “I still think it’s Marist and the rest of us. I don’t think it’s Marist and a bunch of teams. It’s Marist. And it’s the rest of us.”
Damika Martinez and Joy Adams might disagree. Behind Martinez, who is averaging 24.3 points per game, and Adams, averaging a Courtney Paris-esque 18.2 points and 14.1 rebounds per game, Iona maintains sole possession of first place in the MAAC after it became the first conference team in nearly five calendar years to beat Marist in Poughkeepsie earlier this month. The Red Foxes still have a slightly fuller body of work, but the Gaels beat a good Pacific team and an Arizona team that is floundering but still hails from a more prosperous basketball neighborhood.
Do dynasties beat competitors down or lift up the level of play across the board? It's a familiar question in women's basketball, which by and large seems to be no closer to catching Connecticut on any sort of permanent basis than it was at the start of the century (much as it struggled to chase Tennessee before that). One season won't answer that question in the MAAC. Perhaps not even two seasons will, considering Martinez is a junior and Adams a sophomore as the cornerstones put in place by former coach Tony Bozzella and now built upon by Billi Godsey. As Zeh said almost a month ago, it needs to happen "more than once in every Halley's Comet.”
But for now, the MAAC has a new contender and the mid-major rankings have a new member.
1. Gonzaga (18-3, 8-1 West Coast; Charlie Creme’s projected NCAA tournament seed: No. 5)
Gonzaga struggled more than might have been expected in recent wins at Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount, needing overtime to escape with a win against the latter this past week. The optimist would point out that they are nonetheless two games clear of the only team with a tiebreaker edge and play just two more road games (albeit the difficult trip to BYU and San Diego). Haiden Palmer continues to excel, including a 32-point effort in the win against Loyola Marymount, but she’s taking 24.7 percent of her team’s shots in WCC play. It looked early like Lindsay Sherbert might be a No. 2 scorer, but neither she nor Sunny Greinacher nor Keani Albanez has seized that role on more than a sporadic basis.
2. Middle Tennessee (17-3, 6-0 Conference USA; projected seed: No. 8)
Make it more than a month since any team scored as many as 60 points against the Blue Raiders. Ebony Rowe just became the program’s all-time leading scorer, but defense is still this team’s bread and butter. Consider the in-state competition. Tennessee’s opponents record assists on 55 percent of their field goals. It is 54 percent for Vanderbilt’s opponents. Neither of those teams need to apologize for the way they play defense. But Middle Tennessee’s opponents record assists on just 48 percent of their field goals, in addition to committing 20 turnovers per game.
3. James Madison (15-4, 5-0 Colonial; projected seed: No. 9)
Speaking of defense, since allowing 74 points in a loss at North Carolina (10 points below what the Tar Heels average on the season), James Madison has limited its first five conference opponents to an average of 49.2 points per game. Only two other CAA teams own winning conference records. James Madison just beat one of them, Drexel, by 27 points. Now College of Charleston comes calling Friday with a 4-2 CAA mark. As for offense, James Madison’s starters have produced 13 double-digit scoring efforts in the past three games. That’s balance.
4. Chattanooga (17-3, 9-0 Southern; projected seed: No. 12)
Good luck finding another player who leads her team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. And if there are others out there, none of them play for teams that are also undefeated in their respective conference. Taylor Hall continues to do it all for the Lady Mocs. The flip side of that is a good supporting cast never hurts. Alex Black is playing more minutes since conference play began and has more than doubled her scoring average in the process. Keep an eye on the next two. Chattanooga travels to second-place Davidson and fourth-place Georgia Southern.
5. Marist (15-5, 9-1 MAAC; projected seed: No. 10)
All were expected, but Marist bounced back from its loss at home against Iona with four consecutive wins. Casey Dulin enters Wednesday’s game against Rider just one assist behind Leanne Ockenden for the team lead, which is more impressive when you consider Dulin missed the first nine games with an injury. Of just as much note, while she’s also closing in on the team lead in turnovers despite the late start, she’s 21 assists in the black. A season ago, she finished three turnovers in the red. Dulin is going to try and make plays, and her mindset is a tremendous asset for the Red Foxes. But it’s all the more an asset if she keeps that ratio firmly in positive territory.
6. Bowling Green (16-3, 6-1 MAC; projected seed; N/A)
How much does Bowling Green get penalized for the overtime loss at Central Michigan in a fantastically entertaining game? On one hand, the Falcons gave the game away with their inability to manage the ball late in regulation. Going into that game, they had 16 more turnovers than assists through 16 games, essentially breaking even. Over the past three games, they have 22 more turnovers than assists. On the other hand, they went on the road against the preseason conference favorite and controlled the tempo for about 35 minutes. This weekend brings a short trip up the interstate to play rival Toledo, which has performed better of late after a very rough start to the season.
7. San Diego (18-2, 7-2 WCC; projected seed: No. 9)
Last we checked in on the rankings, San Diego was coming off back-to-back losses at Portland and Gonzaga. It appears that was more bump than free fall. The Toreros are working on a three-game winning streak in which they have yet to allow more than 58 points. Of note, that includes a 60-45 win against BYU on Jan. 18. A trip to BYU and a home game against Gonzaga hover in the more distant future, but this weekend’s trip to Pacific and Saint Mary’s might be the most important weekend of the regular season for a team that still needs to prove its road credentials.
8. Dayton (12-5, 5-1 Atlantic 10; projected seed: No. 8)
A loss is ultimately a loss, but the way Sunday’s game against Saint Joseph’s got away had to hurt. Down by just a point with five minutes left, Dayton lost 75-63. It didn’t help that weather left the Flyers grounded on Saturday and forced them to fly to Philadelphia on Sunday morning. Of more long-term concern is the fact that the Flyers played that game without Amber Deane and Kelley Austria, players who each average double-digit points and more than 30 minutes per game. Deane’s return from a concussion could come soon, but Austria’s absence might be prolonged, pending tests on her injured knee. Losing her shooting, playmaking and defense would be a devastating blow.
9. Central Michigan (11-8, 7-0 MAC; projected seed: No. 11)
Remember what was said about Chattanooga’s Hall? Well, Crystal Bradford made it a close call. She’s nine assists shy of leading the Chippewas in all those same statistical categories despite sitting out one game and coming off the bench in nine others. Certainly within the MAC, and to some degree in any game, the only person who can slow down Bradford is Bradford. But credit, too, to Niki DiGuilio, the senior sharpshooter who has doubled her scoring average of a season ago to 14.2 points per game and complements Bradford. Just one of the five teams Central Michigan plays before its rematch against Bowling Green currently has a winning conference record.
10. Iona (17-2, 10-0 MAAC; projected seed: No. 13)
The Gaels avoided any letdown after the historic win at Marist. But there have been some close calls already in conference play. One of those came at Fairfield, which comes to New Rochelle, N.Y., this Thursday to complete the season series.
Next five: No. 11 Saint Mary’s, No. 12 Saint Joseph’s, No. 13 Wichita State, No. 14 BYU, No. 15 Duquesne.
Gonzaga’s win at Wisconsin on Tuesday night finished a Midwestern sweep that began with a win at Ohio State and cemented the Bulldogs as the team atop the rankings. But this isn’t just about the WCC’s flagship program, the one with three Sweet 16 appearances and a regional final since coach Kelly Graves arrived. Four teams from the conference appear in this week’s rankings, teams with a combined 33-2 overall record and 9-1 record against major conferences this season.
What used to be the six power conferences, including the old Big East, were the only leagues a season ago that ranked ahead of the WCC in RPI. Two seasons ago, the WCC ranked eighth among all conferences. That is in contrast to the previous decade, when the league finished better than 12th on just two occasions. Credit the arrival of a proven program like BYU with some of the improvement, but it’s also about growth from programs like Saint Mary’s and San Diego, which advanced to the semifinals of the WNIT two seasons ago, finished second in the league for the second season in a row last season and now finds a home in the mid-major rankings for the first time.
We’re not quite talking soccer yet, where the WCC owns three national championships since 2000 and claims names like Brandi Chastain, Megan Rapinoe and Christine Sinclair as its own. But if you want to find the best basketball beyond the big conferences -- and better basketball than quite a few teams in those conferences -- turn your gaze westward.
1. Gonzaga (8-1)There aren’t many firsts left for Gonzaga. And while this isn’t making a first Final Four, wins at Ohio State and Wisconsin in recent days did represent the first time the program won multiple road games (not including neutral-site games) in the same season against teams from the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC. Tuesday’s win against the Badgers was far from perfect, but it showed what the program is these days. It was Gonzaga that came in ranked and had both the size inside (four points, four rebounds and two blocks in 16 valuable minutes for Shelby Cheslek) and the depth on the bench (10 points in 11 minutes from Danielle Walter) to grind out a win. Now comes the biggest test, as the Bulldogs (and assistant coach Nicole Powell) head to Stanford on Saturday.
2. Bowling Green (8-1)Bowling Green is working with an NFL schedule in December. Five Sundays, five games. And that’s all. As long as they aren’t the kind of Sundays the Cleveland Browns endure, that should work out all right. At least they seem to have more depth than the Browns. Five players led the Falcons in scoring at least once in the first nine games. Junior Deborah Hoekstra made 23 fields goals in limited minutes over her first two seasons. She hit 15 shots in the past two games, shooting 78.9 percent in the process to become the first of those leading scorers to do so in back-to-back games. After UMass this Sunday, Bowling Green heads to Purdue on Dec. 22 to try and improve to 3-0 this season against the Big Ten.
3. UTEP (8-0)UTEP doesn’t do itself any favors on the perception front by stocking its early schedule with home games, but it passed its first road test of the season with a win at New Mexico State on Dec. 3, sweeping the home-and-home nonconference series with the Aggies. That sets the stage for two big tests in the coming weeks, first against Georgia Tech on a neutral court in Puerto Rico on Dec. 20 and then at Texas A&M on Jan. 2. Redshirt senior Kristine Vitola, who missed most of last season with an ACL injury, seems to be moving fine defensively. The 6-foot-4 post began the week as one of just 13 players nationally averaging at least three blocks per game.
4. BYU (9-0)A loss against Weber State, a team whose only Division I wins came against Air Force and Utah Valley, would have been difficult to explain. Instead, the Cougars get to discuss a 14-0 run in the final three minutes to pull out a 90-85 win on the road Tuesday in a game in which they trailed by as many as 24 points in the second half. Not bad for the third road game in a week, travel that spanned more than 3,000 miles. Lexi Eaton averaged 22.7 points in the three road games, and her return to form after last season’s torn ACL continues to change the face of this team. This weekend’s game against Utah and the following weekend’s games against Utah State will be challenging for obvious reasons of geography (not to mention Utah’s Michelle Plouffe and Utah State’s Jennifer Schlott).
5. Saint Joseph’s (9-1)Make it eight wins in a row for Saint Joseph’s. Maryland transfer Natasha Cloud and Erin Shields might well be the nation’s best mid-major backcourt, not to mention a duo worth including in any discussion, mid-major or otherwise. Cloud is starting to put together a season like Chelsea Hopkins did at San Diego State a season ago, where it feels as if a triple-double is in play every time she takes the court. What’s worth watching is whether sophomore Sarah Fairbanks, only two points behind Shields for the team lead, is really in the midst of a breakthrough season and provides consistent frontcourt scoring. The only game in the next two weeks is a big one, at Syracuse on Dec. 21.
6. Albany (7-0)A win against Marist remains far and away the best win on the résumé, which might suggest a rude awakening awaits when Albany visits Duke next Thursday, but at least wins are coming on the road -- at Providence, Dartmouth and NJIT in the past two weeks. One thing to watch is defense. Even before the Great Danes conceded 52 percent field goal shooting against NJIT on Tuesday, the defensive numbers weren’t living up to those that made the team such a headache for opponents a season ago. The offensive numbers are up, and Shereesha Richards has been stand-up-and-take-notice brilliant, but Albany still hasn’t found the 3-pointers to replace those lost from Lindsey Lowrie.
7. San Diego (9-0)The opening week win against Arizona State remains the centerpiece result for San Diego, but the team picked second in the WCC preseason poll, ahead of both BYU and Saint Mary’s, is rolling along. Since Thanksgiving, the Toreros beat Weber State, Cal State Fullerton and Seattle University by 20, 23 and 23 points, respectively. San Diego is dominating teams on the boards to this point, its advantage of 12.3 rebounds per game over opponents ranking just outside the top 10 nationally. One big reason on a team with good size across the floor is 6-foot-3 junior Sophia Ederaine. Already a proven shot blocker in limited minutes in her first two seasons, Ederaine is averaging 7.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in a potential breakout season.
8. Saint Mary’s (7-1)Saint Mary’s shoots the ball well on two-point field goals, it shoots the ball well from the 3-point line and it shoots the ball well from the free throw line. It rebounds the ball well. The one factor that is the same in all of those situations is that it has the ball. The Gaels committed 29 turnovers in a 94-92 loss at Sacramento State on Dec. 5, and against a team with such a penchant for 3-pointers, the wasted possessions proved costly. Even with that game, however, Kate Gaze had 27 assists and 16 assists in three games since the last rankings, compared to 24 assists and 25 turnovers in the first five games of the season. A trip to USC on Dec. 19 looms large among remaining nonconference games.
9. James Madison (6-2)A Thanksgiving tournament in Naples, Fla., proved a mixed bag for James Madison, which opened with a good win against a fresh UCLA team but then lost the next two days to Mississippi State and Wright State, respectively. Going on the road for a win at Pittsburgh just three days after that tournament was a commendable bounce back. No team on this list has played fewer home games than James Madison, which travels to a tournament at St. John’s this weekend. Even when it finally hosts another game in Harrisonburg, it will be against Vanderbilt on Dec. 18. Of note, James Madison had 145 fewer turnovers than its opponents last season. So far this season, it has just five fewer.
10. Chattanooga (5-3)Chattanooga dropped games against Minnesota and Hawaii at a Thanksgiving tournament hosted by the latter, and had to rally from 14 down midway through the second half to avoid a loss in the tournament finale against Colorado State. A lot of teams give up points to Rachel Banham, and plenty of teams stumbled against the Rainbow Wahine on that trip, but rationalization only goes so far. Chattanooga didn’t lose back-to-back games at any point a season ago. Still, it had to be encouraging to see Ashlen Dewart, who didn’t reach double figures in points in any of the three games in Hawaii, bounce back with 25 points and 10 rebounds in Tuesday’s win against Jacksonville State.
Next five: Dayton (2-4), Marist (4-4), Florida Gulf Coast (5-3), Sacramento State (6-1), St. Bonaventure (8-3)
Might Ohio be the most competitive state in women's college basketball? Ohio State was the top program for years, but Xavier moved to the top of the queue with Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips, and it was tough to argue against Dayton as the top program a season ago. That doesn't even take into consideration Toledo's WNIT title in 2011.
Now another Ohio program, one that is no stranger to basketball success, is making a move for in-state bragging rights. It might take more time and more wins to make that a reality, but Bowling Green is the biggest mover in the mid-major rankings.
1. Gonzaga (3-1)
We'll get back to Ohio in a moment, but it's a team from the Pacific Northwest that replaces preseason No. 1 Dayton atop the rankings. A potential signature win got away at Oklahoma, a 76-72 lead turning into an 82-78 loss, but that doesn't change the overall profile. Haiden Palmer has been impressively efficient as the go-to option on the offensive end, but she's also getting help from Cal transfer Lindsay Sherbert (11.3 points, 7.3 rebounds per game). December is a big month for building an at-large profile. Gonzaga plays successive road games at Ohio State, Wisconsin and Stanford in a seven-day stretch beginning Dec. 8.
2. Bowling Green (6-1)
The Falcons beat the Buckeyes in Columbus on Sunday, their second win of the season against a quality Big Ten program (they beat Michigan on a neutral court to open the season). An Ohio native, senior Jillian Halfhill was a key figure in the win with 13 points, six assists, five rebounds and two steals against Ohio State, just as she was in a win last season against Dayton. Mid-major fans will remember the name Celeste Hoewisch, and Halfhill plays the game a lot like the guard who helped drive Green Bay to a Sweet 16. Halfhill isn't really a pure passer as a point guard, but like Hoewisch, she can shoot, defend, rebound beyond her size and, more than anything, compete. With Duke transfer Alexis Rogers and NC State transfer Erica Donovan alongside, it's a team well worth watching. A trip to Purdue looms on Dec. 22.
3. UTEP (4-0)
UTEP won its past two games by scores of 84-39 and 92-43. All right, that happens early in seasons, and it's not that much of a stretch to think the Miners are just that much better than Northern Colorado, the other team involved in the latter score. But 84-39 against Kansas State? The Kansas State that plays in the Big 12? That win marked UTEP's second-largest margin of victory against a Division I opponent and showed off what this team can do -- namely turn suffocating defense and good rebounding into tons of points. New arrivals Stacie Telles and Anete Kirsteine have greatly improved the team's 3-point shooting through the very early going.
4. Chattanooga (4-1)
You think Jim Foster's enjoying himself? Consider his thoughts after Taylor Hall had seven assists and no turnovers, and his team had just seven turnovers overall, in an 80-52 rout of Auburn. "I have been doing this for 36 years, and something I haven't coached is a great passing frontcourt player," Foster said. "If you look at great basketball teams in history, the Celtics' Larry Bird was a great half-court passer, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley were great passers as forwards. Really significant basketball teams have had that dimension, and that's what Taylor Hall is." Now the challenge: Chattanooga won't play its next home game until Jan. 4.
5. James Madison (4-0)
Since in-state dominance seems to be a theme, James Madison opened the season with a win against Virginia. But considering it has done that in four of the past six meetings, that's hardly a power shift. Kirby Burkholder has been as advertised, averaging 19.5 points and 10.5 rebounds, but notable performances have also come from Precious Hall, stepping into the role of supporting scorer behind Burkholder, and sophomore Angela Mickens, who has 24 assists in four appearances. Thanksgiving brings a tournament in Florida in which James Madison opens against UCLA and could potentially play the likes of Mississippi State and NC State or Middle Tennessee State in bracket play.
6. Dayton (2-3)
The three losses are there, but it's really only the second half of the most recent defeat at Vanderbilt that causes the Flyers to drop. Overtime losses at Iowa and Michigan State, both after strong second-half comebacks, hardly marked Dayton as irrevocably flawed, but an 82-52 loss against the Commodores in which Vanderbilt shot 57 percent from the field is more worrisome. A team shooting 28.8 percent from the 3-point line and allowing opponents to shoot 45.5 percent for the season needs work. A trip to Central Michigan on Dec. 5 is the lone game in the next two weeks.
7. Saint Mary’s (5-0)
As long as it's not something that needs to be repeated over the long run, Saint Mary's beating UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly this past weekend despite playing without injured star Jackie Nared is a positive sign. We knew Nared, who scored 37 points in a season-opening win against Washington, was the real deal. Getting support like Danielle Maudlin's 22 points and 22 rebounds against Cal Poly, or Lauren Nicholson's 26 points against UCSB, underscores how much depth there is on this roster. Alabama and Toledo at home over Thanksgiving weekend are modest tests.
8. BYU (5-0)
Xavier had one in Ta'Shia Phillips, Liberty had one in Katie Feenstra, but it's not very often you find one of the nation's best true centers playing beyond the big conferences. BYU's Jennifer Hamson is making a strong case to join that list. Solid a season ago, the 6-foot-7 senior is taking her game to new heights in the early going this season. She's averaging 19.6 points, nine rebounds and 3.8 blocks per game, and even on a night like Tuesday, when she got in turnover trouble putting the ball on the floor against double and triple teams in the first half against Washington State, she found a way to influence the game on one end or the other to finish with 20 points, eight rebounds and two blocks. Add a healthy Lexi Eaton, back from last season's ACL tear, and the Cougars bear watching.
9. Saint Joseph’s (5-1)
A win at LSU would have been nice, but that loss remains the only blemish for Saint Joseph's, which added a road win at Princeton on Tuesday to a résumé that already included a quality mid-major road win at Wichita State. While long-rage shooting has been an issue beyond Erin Shields to this point, the Hawks are shooting 51.7 percent on two-point attempts. In terms of offensive efficiency, that's in line with teams like Duke and Notre Dame. More road tests await with games at Quinnipiac, Temple and Villanova in the next two weeks.
10. Albany (5-0)
The team that could have, would have, should have beat North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA tournament a season ago is back at it. Granted, there isn't a lot of meat on the schedule -- a 10-point win at home against banged up Marist probably Albany's best win to date -- but the Great Danes are winning by more than 18 points per game. Shereesha Richards (23.2 points per game, 9.6 rebounds per game) and Sarah Royals (14.4 points, 6.0 assists) lead the way, while 6-foot-9 Megan Craig is a unique challenge in the post for opponents. If they are for real, road trips to Providence this week and Dartmouth next week won't slow them.
Next five: San Diego (4-0), St. Bonaventure (6-2), Green Bay (4-1), Utah State (4-0), Florida Gulf Coast (3-1)
Previous poll: Nov. 6 preseason poll
There were 60 teams from the six major conferences that did not advance as far as Gonzaga in the 2012 NCAA tournament.
There were 62 teams from those same conferences that averaged fewer fans per game than the Bulldogs drew to the Kennel, as the 6,000-capacity McCarthey Athletic Center is affectionately (at least to home fans) known.
We might be a long way from a mid-major No. 1 in women's college basketball, but there is at least equal distance between many, maybe most, supposedly major programs and the dynasties that rule the rest of the country.
As a freshman newly arrived from Germany a season ago, Gonzaga’s Sunny Greinacher had a rather visceral reaction to one of the best atmospheres in women’s college basketball.
“I just never experienced anything even close to that,” Greinacher said of the comparison to club games in Germany that she said might, on a really good day, draw a thousand fans. “I have to admit, the first couple of games [in the Kennel], I think I almost peed my pants I was so excited -- and a little bit scared, too. It just makes it so much fun.”
The men’s basketball team at Gonzaga this week ascended to No. 1 in the AP Top 25, the first time the school in Spokane, Wash., achieved that ranking and the first time since Memphis in the 2007-08 season that a school from outside the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC landed in the top spot. Such a grab for power is even less common on the women’s side, where the last non-BCS No. 1 was Louisiana Tech in March of 1996.
Few women’s mid-major programs have been as successful in recent seasons as Gonzaga, which reached at least the Sweet 16 in each of the past three seasons and had players selected in each of the past three WNBA drafts. But to Kelly Graves, the architect of all that success, the idea of a program like his reaching No. 1 in the near future remains dubious. Stars like Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins play four seasons in women’s basketball, teams have more scholarships and the depth of talent remains a work in progress just 40 years after Title IX.
“The landscape, I think, is a lot more conducive on the men’s side to something like our men ascending to No. 1,” Graves said.
And yet the final mid-major rankings of the season reveal a ruling class every bit as familiar as Stanford in the Pac-12 or Notre Dame and Connecticut in the Big East. Marist raced through another unbeaten season in the MAAC, Green Bay did the same in the Horizon and landed back in the Top 25. Dayton, Chattanooga, Middle Tennessee, Princeton -- all of these programs have been winning regularly through a number of senior classes.
They aren't catching Baylor, but neither are programs like Alabama, Cincinnati, Clemson, Indiana, Washington State or others making up any ground on them.
After losing Katelan Redmon and Kayla Standish to the WNBA draft after last season, that a year removed from losing Courtney Vandersloot to the draft lottery, Graves told peers this was the season to get the Zags.
“I honestly had no idea what we were going to be like,” Graves said. “Outside of the three guards, Jazmine Redmon, Taelor Karr and Haiden Palmer, two of whom started for me, everybody else was new.”
Consider that outside of the three guards Graves mentioned, Greinacher was the returnee who played the most last season, and she logged just 10.4 minutes per game.
Greinacher came to Oregon as a high school exchange student when she was a sophomore, where Graves saw her lead Willamette High School to a state title. Oregon State and Louisville both made trips to Europe to recruit her once she returned home, as did Gonzaga coaches (complete with a letter they showed her from all of the players on the team expressing their hopes that she would join them). She chose what she felt offered the best fit, both in terms of a style of basketball and a school wasn't so big as to be daunting.
“I knew that the Pac-12 was considered one of the biggest conferences and the [Big East], and that the West Coast Conference was more of a smaller conference,” Greinacher said. “I mean, one always thinks about if you’re going to get playing time the years that you get there. I didn’t think of the West Coast Conference as a bad conference at all, so it was more of what program would fit best for me than what conference.”
This season, the 6-foot-4 forward with deft passing skills and a face-up game is the third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder on a team that went 15-1 in what the RPI says is the seventh-best conference in the country. Next season, Graves predicts, is when "we see her really shine."
So it goes for programs that don't rise and fall so much as hold and restock. Of course, she'll have help from a recruit like 6-foot-5 incoming freshman Emma Wolfram, arguably the best prep player in Canada.
For Gonzaga, it's BCS-level recruits who want something different. For Green Bay, it's overlooked player from the hinterlands of the Upper Midwest. For Marist, it's kids who might be a step slow but are a thought ahead.
They do what they do better than most of their peers. And by their peers, we're talking about the rest of college basketball.
“They’re as mentally tough as any team I’ve had," Graves said of his current group. "And quite frankly, we’ve improved more than any team I’ve ever coached from the first day until now. So I’m really happy. I like this team. I don’t know how far we can go, but I really like the makeup. I think this is a team that, we’re going to get better.
“I think we’ll be a tough out for somebody.”
Now on to the final rankings.
1. Delaware (26-3, 17-0 Colonial)
The Blue Hens have one more game to play in the regular season Wednesday against Georgia State, in what is the third consecutive game to sell out in advance at the Bob Carpenter Center, but they finish right where they started in these rankings. The defense is better than it was a season ago -- better by field goal percentage, better by points per game and better by turnovers forced. Kayla Miller is healthier than last season, providing another steady backcourt hand. And Elena Delle Donne still posts an assortment of ridiculous numbers (like 92 percent free throw shooting, 48 percent 3-point shooting and 22 turnovers against 565 combined field goal and free throw attempts). The draw is huge, but this is a team that should get to the Sweet 16 and could play for a place in New Orleans.
2. Dayton (26-1, 14-0 Atlantic 10)
Jim Jabir has at least one vote for national coach of the year. By now, the story has been repeated enough times, but replacing four starters and seven seniors from last season and winning the first conference regular-season title with a perfect record is remarkable. The only down side is that it felt in recent weeks like the team perhaps peaked too soon. But this is not a fluke. The talent base is every bit as good as most of the supposed major teams ranked in the teens in the national polls. The Flyers have the size, rebounding, defense and depth of a legitimate Sweet 16 team.
3. Green Bay (24-2, 14-0 Horizon)
It happened quietly, but Green Bay is basically five points away from a perfect season, an overtime loss on a neutral court and a four-point road loss the only blemishes. The Phoenix don’t have the same kind of individual offensive assets they possessed in recent seasons with Kayla Tetschlag, Celeste Hoewish and Julie Wojta (although senior Adrian Ritchie is a shooter defenses lose track of at their own peril), but whether under Kevin Borseth or Matt Bollant, this was never a program built around individual numbers. Guard Megan Lukan is on a scoring run as the end of the regular season approaches. She scored 50 points in the past three games and hit 12-of-27 3-point attempts.
4. Chattanooga (26-3, 19-1 Southern)
It doesn’t matter what conference a team is in, it’s difficult to avoid letdowns somewhere along the way, so full credit to Chattanooga for winning its final 16 games in the Southern Conference after an overtime loss at Elon on Jan. 7. It’s still remarkable to think leading scorer Ashlen Dewart played just 16 minutes in the season-opening win against Tennessee because of foul trouble, but this team has depth. That win against the Lady Vols and an RPI in the 40s are the building blocks of this team’s NCAA tournament résumé, but it will be a close call if it comes to an at-large bid.
5. Gonzaga (25-5, 15-1 West Coast)
The Bulldogs automatically advance directly to the semifinals in the WCC tournament, but a potentially tricky game awaits against BYU (which would have to win its quarterfinal). Gonzaga won both regular-season games by double digits, but the Cougars are a team with postseason experience and quality talent.
6. Florida Gulf Coast (25-5, 18-0 Atlantic Sun)
The Eagles have yet to play a game in 2013 decided by single digits, with only a January game against North Florida even competitive in the final minutes. Sure, that says something about the Atlantic Sun, but perhaps also about a team that had pieces to replace this season hitting its stride at the right time. For all her accomplishments on the floor (she’s the league’s leading scorer and averages 7.7 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game), Sarah Hansen’s most impressive feat is winning the Atlantic Sun’s scholar-athlete of the year award twice in her first three seasons.
7. Toledo (26-2, 14-1 MAC)
The Rockets broke into the AP Top 25 recently, their first appearance in more than a decade. There’s no great secret to their success. Only five conference opponents reached even 50 points against Toledo. The numbers aren’t quite as stingy against the toughest competition, but Toledo still showed the versatility to beat Marquette and Charlotte and push Dayton in higher scoring games. One more key thing: The two players who handle the ball the most take care of it. Leading scorers Naama Shafir and Andola Dortch have 86 more assists than turnovers.
8. Marist (23-6, 18-0 MAAC)
Marist completed a perfect conference season in which it won 18 games by an average of exactly 20 points per game and didn’t place anyone on the all-conference first team. Figure that one out. The shooting numbers improved dramatically for the Red Foxes in MAAC play. Presumably that’s a function of both inferior competition and individual improvement on their part, but the degree to which it’s the latter will have a lot to do with this team’s potential to spring another trademark upset in the NCAA tournament (assuming it gets through the conference tournament).
9. Creighton (21-6, 13-3 Missouri Valley)
If there was an award for mid-major freshman of the year, and let’s just say that there is and this is it, Creighton’s Marissa Janning takes top honors. At 43 percent from the 3-point line, she could miss her next 15 attempts and still rank as the most accurate 3-point shooter in the Missouri Valley. And with the Bluejays needing all of them to stay in the conference title race, she scored 29 points in a 67-66 win against Drake on March 3. Dayton, Delaware and Green Bay are the only mid-major teams with better RPI numbers than Creighton.
10. San Diego State (22-5, 13-1 Mountain West)
The perfect example of a good schedule gone awry. San Diego State was down two points with 12 minutes to play against UCLA, six points with 14 minutes to play against Colorado, four points in the final minute against Oklahoma State and led Washington by nine points with four minutes to play. All went for naught, and the team’s best wins are instead somewhat blah results against Auburn, SMU and USC. But behind Courtney Clements and Chelsea Hopkins (15.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 5.9 assists per game in conference play), the Aztecs took control of what once looked like a tight league.
Next five: Princeton, Charlotte, Middle Tennessee, Albany, Quinnipiac.