Women's Basketball: Gonzaga Bulldogs

James Madison is new mid-major No. 1

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
Amanda HydeCourtesy of Lucascarter.comAmanda Hyde is one of four players 5 feet, 11 inches or shorter in the top 50 nationally in field goal percentage.

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.

[+] EnlargeAmanda Hyde
Graham Hays/ESPNAmanda Hyde is the country's only player averaging at least 20 points, five rebounds and four assists while shooting at least 50 percent from the field.

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

MAAC's Iona joins mid-major rankings

January, 29, 2014
Jan 29
Taylor HallAP Photo/Patrick Murphy-RaceyTaylor Hall leads Chattanooga in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.

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.

[+] EnlargeHaiden Palmer
AP Photo/Ben MargotHaiden Palmer and Gonzaga have been on top of this poll since the Nov. 27 rankings.

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.

Keke StewartAP Photo/Mark ZaleskiKeKe Stewart averages 10.2 points for Middle Tennessee (13-3).

Sensing uncertainty on the other end of the phone call as to his mental state the day after a loss against Saint Mary's that featured one of the stranger endings this season will produce, Kelly Graves just chuckled.

"It's just a game," he said.

As in, it's not life or death, and the gregarious coach who built Gonzaga into a program that isn't expected to lose conference games wasn't going to let the result alter that. But the game is also his profession, and Graves can shift from zen to flinty in the blink of an eye, or perhaps the bounce of a basketball, when it comes to it.

And so he did when he started to speak about preparations for a game against Pacific the following day.

"Today was more of a focus, if you want to know the truth, on toughness and rebounding and those kind of things," Graves said at the time of the off-day practice between games. The way he said it left little doubt it wasn't a fun practice.

Gonzaga went out the next day and beat Pacific by 15 points. It didn't finish with an advantage on the boards, but to be fair, it didn't have many opportunities for offensive rebounds when it shot 57 percent from the floor.

It was a good answer, but it wasn't the full answer.

Five days later, Gonzaga limited Portland to 15 points in the first half. Not stingy enough? It held the Pilots to nine points in the second half. It piled up 17 more rebounds than a team that would soon thereafter upset San Diego.

Next time out, Gonzaga held BYU to 42 points, 30 below the Cougars' average. It pounded BYU on the boards.

San Diego followed and fell just as meekly, 79-50 on the scoreboard and 49-40 on the boards.

Three games, two against fellow WCC title contenders, and Gonzaga allowed just 116 points.

"I'm interested to see how we respond," Graves said after the Saint Mary's loss and before the recent run. "Let’s see if we're tough. We've got talent. Let's see how tough we are. We've shown it this year at times. I'm not down on my team. We lost last year at Saint Mary's and then won [15] in a row against the others. So it's not the fact that we lost there that concerns me, it's kind of how we did it.

"We'll see what we're made of. We'll see if we’re tough enough to get back up."

This isn't the perch he was concerned about, but Gonzaga is back up to the No. 1 spot it technically never lost.

1. Gonzaga (14-3, 4-1 WCC; Charlie Creme’s projected NCAA seed: No. 8)

After a brief stay in Spokane for the games against BYU and San Diego, Gonzaga returns to the road. Its next four games are all on the road, just as four of the past six were.

2. Bowling Green (13-2, 3-0 MAC; Creme’s projected seed: No. 11)

Bowling Green keeps quietly rolling along. The Falcons eased to four wins since the last rankings, all by relatively comfortable double-digit margins. One possible concern is some carelessness with the ball early in conference play. They are seven turnovers in the red through three games, essentially the same as they were through 12 games out of conference. Why bring that up? Because Saturday’s game at fellow MAC unbeaten Central Michigan comes against a team that loves nothing more than ratcheting up the pace of play. On the plus side, always a good rebounder and opportunistic defender, post player Jill Stein has also contributed double-digit points per game of late.

3. Middle Tennessee (13-3, 2-0 Conference USA; Creme’s projected seed: No. 10)

[+] EnlargeKirby Burkholder
Rafael Suanes/USA TODAY SportsKirby Burkholder dropped 37 points to help James Madison end Delawares 44-game CAA winning streak.

As always seems to be the case, we arrive in the middle of January, look around and realize Middle Tennessee has built itself a pretty good résumé. The Blue Raiders make the big move in the rankings, but they will be pressed to live up to it right away. Wins against North Texas and Louisiana Tech opened the ledger for the first season in a new conference, but Wednesday’s home game against UTEP could be decisive (there is no return leg in El Paso, unless the teams meet there in the final of the conference tournament). KeKe Stewart’s recent shooting exploits aside, it’s about turnovers and defense. Ebony Rowe is shooting 56 percent on offense; the rest of the team is at 35 percent.

4. James Madison (11-4, 1-0 CAA; Creme’s projected seed: N/A)

The idea that there is no such thing as a good loss is completely hogwash. Maybe there’s no such thing if you’re looking from the inside out. But for the rest of us looking in from the outside, a 74-71 loss on the road against then-No. 10 North Carolina on Jan. 2 was absolutely a positive marker (as was an overtime loss at home against Vanderbilt a few weeks earlier). In both of those games, James Madison finished with decisive edges on the boards. Meanwhile, was there some pent up frustration from the Elena Delle Donne years in the CAA opener against Delaware? Kirby Burkholder went for 37 points in an 87-51 win that ended Delaware’s 44-game conference winning streak.

5. Dayton (9-4, 2-0 Atlantic 10; Creme’s projected seed: No. 10)

It’s time to bring the Flyers back from purgatory. Since a brutal loss at Vanderbilt and another at Central Michigan in back-to-back games around Thanksgiving, Dayton has started to roll. A December win against Washington State looks better by the day, the Flyers won a rematch against Central Michigan on Dec. 30 and rolled to wins in their first two A-10 games. In fact, each of an active streak of seven consecutive wins came by double-digit margins. But like Middle Tennessee, there is no time to rest. George Washington visits Thursday and suddenly looks like a serious contender in the A-10, and Fordham arrives Sunday as another upper echelon team in the league.

6. Marist (11-5, 5-1 MAAC; Creme’s projected seed: No. 9)

Marist isn’t in first place in the MAAC, which is news all on its own. A 73-71 loss at home against Iona on Monday gave the Gaels sole possession of first place and snapped that program’s 29-game losing streak against the Red Foxes. That probably leaves Iona fans wondering just why we’re still talking about Marist in this space. But for the time being, the overall résumé (wins against Oklahoma, Bowling Green and St. Bonaventure, a game given away at Ohio State and a reasonable showing shorthanded against Kentucky) still hold sway. In the most recent rankings, this was mentioned as possibly Marist’s best shooting team. Well, the 3-point shot has gone missing in MAAC play. But more important is a defense allowing opponents to shoot 40 percent on the season. That isn’t Marist basketball.

7. Chattanooga (14-3, 6-0 Southern; Creme’s projected seed: No. 12)

It is said every year in this space, so why break tradition. The Southern Conference might be more low-major than mid-major, but it’s marathon of a conference season makes it almost impossible to emerge unscathed. Chattanooga nearly stumbled Sunday, needing overtime to come away from Appalachian State with a win. In fact, three of four conference games played this month were decided by single digits (although its scoring margin in SoCon games is still nearly double that of any other team). In conference play, Taylor Hall ranks sixth in the league in points per game, fifth in rebounds per game, second in assists per game, second in steals per game and 10th in blocks per game.

8. San Diego (15-2, 4-2 WCC; Creme’s projected seed: No. 10)

The West Coast Conference always had the potential to cannibalize itself, and while Gonzaga holds down the top spot, we’re starting to see the effects of the strife as San Diego and others slip. Playing on the road for the first time in nearly a month, San Diego lost at Gonzaga by 29 points and, perhaps even more surprisingly, by 21 points at Portland two days earlier this past week. Of course, this rankings period also includes home wins against Saint Mary’s and Pacific, so it wasn’t all bad for the Toreros. The problem in both losses was getting beaten soundly on the boards, the first instances all season in which San Diego lost the rebounding battle. A home game against BYU awaits this week.

9. BYU (14-3, 4-2 WCC; Creme’s projected seed: N/A)

Like San Diego, BYU lost without putting up much of a fight at Gonzaga and likewise lost another game somewhat surprisingly, if only because it came at home against what is admittedly a good Pacific team. But, a word which seems to be the theme of the moment for the WCC, the Cougars also produced a win against Saint Mary’s in the ranking period. Turnovers have been a bugaboo. BYU has more assists than turnovers on the season, but that number is reversed in WCC play. After averaging 15.9 turnovers per game out of conference, BYU averaged 19.3 in its first six league games. That includes Jennifer Hamson and Lexi Eaton, outstanding players who are otherwise carrying the load offensively but who also have 48 turnovers between them in WCC play.

10. Saint Mary’s (14-3, 4-2 WCC; Creme’s projected seed: N/A)

There are host of teams knocking at the door -- beating on it, really -- but Saint Mary’s adds to the WCC’s continued hold on places. At least for now. By now, we’ve gotten to the losses the Gaels suffered against BYU and San Diego, but there is also that win against Gonzaga that came since the most recent rankings. This team still has Jackie Nared and Danielle Mauldin, and it still has return games at BYU and San Diego in which it can even those scores. Now here’s the problem. Opponents are shooting 46 percent against Saint Mary’s in conference play. It’s a small sample size, but that’s still a big problem. Good news comes with five of the next six games at home.

Next five: No. 11 George Washington (12-4), No. 12 Iona (13-2), No. 13 UTEP (13-2), No. 14 Fordham (14-3), No. 15 Saint Joseph’s (12-4).

Dec. 27 rankings

HamsonCourtesy of BYU Athletics Jennifer Hamson and BYU are 10-1. The Cougars play at Gonzaga on Jan. 9.

'Tis the season for end-of-year lists. And while the end of the basketball year technically comes not with a ball dropping in Times Square but confetti on a court in Nashville, starting a new calendar signals a shift of sorts in the start of conference play across much of the country. So to match the reflective spirit of the week, and before we get to the top 10, what would an all-mid-major team for the first half of the season look like?

Shereesha Richards, F, Albany: She put up 20 points and seven rebounds against Duke -- in the first half. No wonder Blue Devils coach Joanne P. McCallie said the 6-foot-1 forward was better than her league (and as a former America East coach, McCallie ought to know). Richards is averaging 22.9 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game. She is fifth in the nation in field goal percentage but has taken nearly 50 more shots than those ahead of her.

Ebony Rowe, F, Middle Tennessee: With three more points she will join Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike as the only active players with career totals of at least 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. But she's not here as a career achievement honoree; she's doing just fine on the strength of her 2013-14 numbers. Despite a typically tough schedule and losing any proven help around her, she's averaging 23.2 points (on 53.9 percent shooting) and 11.6 rebounds per game.

Amanda Hyde, G, IPFW: One coach of a more prominent Midwestern program just sighed when Hyde's name came up, still lamenting a player who went overlooked coming out of high school. A combo guard-forward who averages 21.3 points per game and leads her team in assists, she is nonetheless in amongst power forwards and centers at No. 23 nationally in field goal percentage (58.7 percent). She also shoots 52.9 percent on nearly three 3-point attempts per game and 85 percent on more than seven free throw attempts per game.

Jennifer Schlott, G, Utah State: The senior is seventh in the nation in scoring at 24.7 points per game, which includes 37 points in a win against Utah and 44 points in a win against UCSB, but she also leads the Mountain West by a wide margin at 6.2 assists per game. In fact, she is the only player in the nation ranked in the top 20 in both points and assists per game.

Jennifer Hamson, C, BYU: Forget mid-major; Hamson should be right there with Stefanie Dolson and Elizabeth Williams in the All-America conversation. She's averaging 18.5 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.0 blocks in 30.1 minutes per game, staying on the court and out of foul trouble to change games on both ends. Standing 6 feet, 7 inches is an asset, but there is a lot more to her game than merely being tall.

Now on to the rankings. (Note: Due to some holiday shuffling, the next rankings will appear on Wednesday, Jan. 15.)

1. Gonzaga (10-2)

Gonzaga wasn't up to the task over 40 minutes at Stanford on Dec. 14 , but that's typically true for most of the country, including most of the Pac-12. Sunny Greinacher hit 9-of-16 shots against the Cardinal, while the rest of the team shot 27 percent, including misses on all 14 attempts from the 3-point line. The Bulldogs don't live by the 3-pointer, but they hit at least six in wins against Wisconsin, Ohio State and Washington State, as well as in a close loss at Oklahoma. Conference play offers few early breaks. This weekend's difficult road trip to Saint Mary's and West Coast Conference newcomer Pacific begin a stretch in which Gonzaga plays seven of its first nine WCC games on the road.

2. Saint Mary's (10-1)

The Gaels capped a nearly perfect run out of conference by beating USC and Cal State Northridge on the road before Christmas. The win against USC improved Saint Mary's to 2-0 against the Pac-12, paired with a season-opening win against Washington at home. The team's top four scorers -- Jackie Nared, Danielle Mauldin, Lauren Nicholson and Kate Gaze -- average better than 68 points per game between them, more than Saint Mary's as a whole averaged a season ago. A win against Gonzaga early in conference play a season ago didn't catapult the Gaels to a conference title, but a win Saturday would be a good start this time around.

3. Bowling Green (9-2)

There isn't any shame in losing at Purdue, but Bowling Green will likely feel it let one get away in a 58-47 loss against the Boilermakers this past weekend. As they did in wins against Michigan and Ohio State, the Falcons finished with an advantage on the boards against Purdue, but they couldn't make up for 26 percent shooting, including 2-of-19 attempts from the 3-point line. A good bit of credit should go to a Purdue defense which did the same thing to Green Bay days earlier, but if you told Bowling Green it would finish with 39 rebounds and eight turnovers on the road against a ranked them, it would expect to return home with a win.

4. Marist (7-4)

This is an admittedly big splash for Marist in its return to the top 10. Part of that is the residue of the win against then-No. 20 Oklahoma this past weekend, the program's first home win against a ranked team. But it's also about the numbers and news beyond that result. This might be the best shooting team in quite some time in Poughkeepsie. Its three leading scorers -- Madeline Blais, Leanne Ockenden and Emma O'Connor -- are all shooting at least 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from the 3-point line. That doesn't include Sydney Coffey, the scoring standout against the Sooners who also leads the team in assists. On top of that, Marist just reclaimed senior Casey Dulin from injury and might soon do the same with Tori Jarosz, a potential frontcourt cornerstone.

5. Saint Joseph's (9-2)

The ancient rules of rankings decree a team drop when it loses, but the Hawks hold at No. 5 after a 64-62 loss at then-No. 23 Syracuse. As did LSU earlier this season, Syracuse claimed a commanding advantage on the boards (fueled in large part by a 23-1 edge in bench rebounds). That might just be a fact of life for Saint Joseph's, but it shoots and takes care of the bell well enough to survive it. That said, another shooter or two from 3-point range in support of Erin Shields couldn't hurt, so it bears watching whether senior Kelsey Berger's three 3-pointers against Syracuse are the start of something. Atlantic 10 play begins next week, but a trip to Florida Gulf Coast this weekend can't be overlooked.

6. San Diego (11-0)

San Diego cruised to wins against Long Beach State and UC Irvine, both of which entered those games with winning records, to remain unbeaten entering WCC play. The Toreros piled up a 100-44 rebounding advantage in those two most recent wins. So all is good, right? Well, they also turned over the ball 54 times in those games, including 31 turnovers in the victory against Long Beach State. Of all the teams in the top 10, San Diego has played the weakest schedule. If they are big enough and athletic enough to keep dominating better competition in conference, more power to them. But all those turnovers could be warning bells.

7. BYU (10-1)

BYU had a chance to reach Christmas unbeaten, but it gave away a win against rival Utah (or had it taken away by Utes star Michelle Plouffe, depending on your point of view and rooting interest in the Beehive State). After a week to recuperate, the Cougars did at least maintain some in-state bragging rights with a victory against Utah State. Hamson is fantastic, but BYU's ceiling might ultimately depend on Lexi Eaton. She has already done remarkably well in coming back from an ACL injury last season, playing every game this season and averaging more than 28 minutes per game, but her shooting consistency in conference could be the difference between a title and a third- or fourth-place finish in an ultra-competitive WCC.

8. Middle Tennessee (9-3)

Middle Tennessee has just one player averaging double-digit points per game. But when that player is Rowe, how many more do you need? Behind typically prolific performances from their star, the Blue Raiders closed the pre-Christmas portion of their schedule with three good results in a row, winning at UCF, South Florida and at home against otherwise red-hot South Dakota State. Middle Tennessee isn't a statistical marvel, but it plays defense, forces turnovers and has Rowe. Its three losses this season came against Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee, teams with a combined 33-2 record.

9. James Madison (8-3)

Diabolical isn't necessarily the adjective you want to describe your schedule, but James Madison coach Kenny Brooks will certainly have his team ready for conference play. Coming off a win at St. John's and an overtime loss at home against Vanderbilt, the Dukes get a rare breather by hosting a tournament this weekend that includes Ohio, UMBC and Norfolk State, but it then turns around and travels to North Carolina for its final nonconference game. Toia Giggetts twice turned in would-be career nights in December, going for 23 points and six rebounds in a victory at Pitt and 25 points and 14 rebounds in the loss against Vanderbilt.

10. Chattanooga (10-3)

No team was busier in the days before Christmas. Chattanooga played four road games in eight days between Dec. 14 and Dec. 21 and won all four, opening Southern Conference play with victories at UNCG and Elon and then stepping back out of conference for wins at in-state foes Austin Peay and East Tennessee State. That is more a test of stamina than anything, but the Lady Mocs took care of the ball, took care of the boards and took care of business.

Next five: South Dakota State (9-5), Dayton (5-4), UTEP (10-1), Sacramento State (7-1), Fordham (9-2)

Dec. 11 rankings

Amy KameCourtesy of University of San Diego Amy Kame and San Diego are 9-0, which includes a win over Arizona State.
What college soccer fans have known for years looks increasingly a fact of life in basketball. Teams that treat the West Coast Conference as a little guy put themselves at risk of a big surprise.

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)

Zags new No. 1; BGSU makes biggest jump

November, 27, 2013
Jillian HalfhillCourtesy of Scott Grau Jillian Halfhill and Bowling Green went from unranked in the preseason poll to No. 2.

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

Dayton tops preseason mid-major poll

November, 6, 2013

The landscape of college basketball is changing in front of us, but there are still programs out there that do more with less. Maybe it's less exposure on television. Maybe it's less money for facilities and recruiting. Maybe it's less appeal to top-100 recruits. Maybe it's less teams willing to come to your place for a game. Maybe it's all of those things and a dozen more. But some programs take what they have and play some of the best basketball in the country.

That's basically what these rankings are about; “mid-major” just sounds catchier.

Perhaps the demise of the old Big East means there are now seven major conferences, that league's inhabitants spread across the new Big East and the American Athletic Conference. Or maybe there are six, or even five, with Connecticut (once Louisville and Rutgers leave the American) floating in its own world, like the UNLV men's teams of the 1990s that dominated both the country and the less-than-major Big West.

For at least this season, we're going to keep it simple. Teams from the Big East and American are ineligible for these rankings, along with those from the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC. Everyone else is fair game. Here we go.

1. Dayton (Last season: 28-3, NCAA tournament)

If you liked Dayton last season, when it climbed to the brink of the real top 10 by the end of the regular season, you should like what you see this season. The Flyers return almost the whole group responsible for that run, although the graduation of point guard Samantha MacKay (who was injured when her team bus crashed while she was playing professionally in Europe), is significant. Returnees Amber Deane, Andrea Hoover, Ally Malott and Cassie Sant averaged between 7.7 and 12.9 points per game last season. With road games at Iowa, Michigan State, Vanderbilt and home-and-home games against Central Michigan on the schedule, there will be tests in the first half of the season.

Player to watch: Andrea Hoover. There isn't one star to pick out for the Flyers, which is part of what makes them so difficult to defend. So while Hoover was the team's leading scorer a season ago, it's really everything else she does -- the defensive intensity rebounding from the guard position and passing -- that makes her the pulse of the team.

2. Gonzaga (Last season: 27-6, NCAA tournament)

Gonzaga is 235-66 since the start of the 2004-05 season, so, yes, there is always an assumption that the team is going to be good. The question is how good? There isn't a star who jumps off the page like Courtney Vandersloot, or even Heather Bowman, who remains the program's all-time leading scorer, before her. But there is a lot of whatever it is that coach Kelly Graves has. More than 80 percent of the points return from a season ago, as does the kind of usable height mid-major programs often lack: 6-foot-5 Shelby Cheslek, 6-3 Stephanie Golden and 6-4 Sunny Greinacher. And that doesn't count 6-5 freshman Emma Wolfram, one of the highest-rated recruits in Canada.

Player to watch: Haiden Palmer. The senior is Gonzaga's leading returning scorer. Her shooting efficiency dropped off last season, but she was also the one player who could reliably get her own shot (she attempted nearly 150 more shots than anyone on the team). If all that depth translates to production on the court, it will only help Palmer.

3. Pacific (Last season 27-8, WNIT)

Exhibition games are fool's gold, but there were a couple of interesting things in the box score of Pacific's exhibition game against Cal State East Bay. For one thing, Pacific's 66-62 win was not quite as emphatic, shall we say, as might be expected. And second, three members of Pacific's starting five wore the uniform for the first time. Pay more attention to the second point. Headlining the list of newcomers is Ki-Ki Moore, one of the best mid-major players in the country last season at Fresno State and eligible immediately at Pacific as a graduate student. The other two new starters are also transfers: former Fresno State guard Madison Parrish. by way of Fresno City College, and former Arizona forward Erin Butler, a proven shooter. Without double-digit scorer Gena Johnson, thankfully recovering after a summer car accident but out for at least the season because of her injuries, the new arrivals are important.

Player to watch: Kendall Kenyon. New talent isn't the only reason to like Pacific. An athletic 6-2 forward, Kenyon came within 11 rebounds of averaging a double-double a season ago as a sophomore. Her breakout season included lines of 18 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks at Florida and 14 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks at Washington.

4. Marist (Last season: 26-7, NCAA tournament)

Where Marist fits in the big picture depends on which team we're talking about. It might be a Top 25 team if it includes Casey Dulin, the leading returning scorer, Tori Jarosz, a Vanderbilt transfer who sat out one season as a transfer and all but one game last season with a wrist injury, and Delaney Hollenbeck, a 6-5 center. But all three are dealing with injuries, with little apparent reason for optimism in at least the latter two cases. The schedule is tough. Marist opens at home against Kentucky and plays Ohio State, Oklahoma and mid-major stalwarts like Albany, Bowling Green and Princeton. The arrival of Quinnipiac also makes the MAAC's automatic NCAA bid much more competitive.

Player to watch: Sydney Coffey. With or without the players mentioned above, Marist needs growth from its returnees. Coffey (whose sister Nia was a high school All-American last season and is preparing for her freshman season at Northwestern) showed range and and an ability to get to the line in regular minutes as a freshman.

5. Akron (Last season: 23-10, WNIT)

The MAC might be the most competitive mid-major conference in the country this season, and Akron gets the nod as its first representative on this list. The team suffered an unfortunate loss when Sina King, who averaged 15 points and 8.7 rebounds, was ruled out for the season because of blood clots. But the Zips still return their top two scorers in Rachel Tecca and Hanna Luburgh (one of the best 3-point shooters in the country last season), as well as point guard Kacie Cassell, who led the nation at 7.8 assists per game. The catch is that outside of a game at Dayton early in the season, there is little on the schedule to help the at-large NCAA profile. It's going to be automatic bid or bust.

Player to watch: Rachel Tecca. She had the most prolific offensive season in school history, averaging 18.5 points per game, and earned MAC player of the year honors as a result, beating out players like Crystal Bradford, Courtney Osborn and Naama Shafir. Not bad from a player who was coming off a season-ending knee injury the previous year.

6. UTEP (Last season: 22-10, no postseason)

There are seven players from Texas and five from countries that used to be behind the Iron Curtain (not to mention another from Spain), so it's another eclectic mix in El Paso. Kayla Thornton (15.3 points per game, 8.7 rebounds per game) is the leading returning scorer who played the entire season, but the Miners also return Kristine Vitola, who averaged 16 points per game before suffering a season-ending injury after three games. The schedule isn't brutal, but Kansas State, Georgia Tech and Texas A&M are challenges. The addition of Middle Tennessee State in Conference USA provides much needed heft to the league schedule (UTEP travels to Murfreesboro, Tenn. on Jan. 15).

Player to watch: Chrishauna Parker. The junior guard has one of the most intriguing statistical lines in college basketball, especially among players who didn't average double-figure points per game. She led UTEP with 9.2 rebounds per game but also led the way with near four assists per game and got to the free throw line 143 times.

7. Central Michigan (Last season: 21-12, NCAA tournament)

No mid-major team plays a tougher schedule, and it isn't even close. Coach Sue Guevara wanted to put together RPI and strength of schedule credentials that could provide a path to an at-large NCAA tournament bid. That is certainly possible, but close calls like those against Notre Dame in the regular season and Oklahoma in the NCAA tournament a season ago only go so far. The need multiple wins from a home-and-home series with Dayton, road games at Kentucky, Notre Dame, Purdue and neutral-site games against Duke and Kanas. Crystal Bradford, who scored 36 points against the Sooners and played for Sherri Coale with Team USA over the summer, is a good cornerstone.

Player to watch: Niki DiGuilio. Plenty of space has been devoted to Braford and plenty more will, but don't forget about DiGuilio. Defenses certainly can't afford to. The senior needs 43 3-pointers to break the program’s career record (she hit at least 56 in each of her first three seasons) and is a career 38.4 percent shooter from deep.

8. James Madison (Last season: 25-11, WNIT)

Elena Delle Donne did a great deal of good for the Colonial Athletic Association, dramatically raising the profile of a league that has long played some pretty good basketball. What she didn't do, particularly the past two seasons, was foster much competition. But the rest of the conference is no longer playing for second place, and James Madison is poised to take advantage. Leading scorer Tarik Hislop is gone, but the Monarchs return most of their other key pieces and welcome back for a fifth year defensive standout Nikki Newman, who played just nine games a season ago.

Player to watch: Kirby Burkholder, In addition to Delle Donne, the CAA lost Hofstra's Shante Evans and Drexel's Hollie Mershon (not to mention Hislop). That power vacuum allowed Burkholder to claim preseason player of the year. A versatile forward, she ranks in the career top 10 at James Madison in both 3-pointers and double-digit rebound games.

9. Chattanooga (Last season: 29-4, NCAA tournament)

Losing a coach to a bigger program is a fact of life for mid-majors, even one that had a long run of stability in that area with Wes Moore. Replacing that coach with a Hall of Famer is rather less common. Sure, Jim Foster's Ohio State teams often came up short in March, but there's no arguing his basketball acumen. He inherits a roster still flush with talent, including Ashlen Dewart, Taylor Hall, Faith Dupree and Alex Black. There are also question marks. For all the talent, Chattanooga lost its best 3-point shooter and its best distributor with the graduation of Kayla Christopher, as well as another valuable playmaker in Kylie Lambert. Someone has to get the ball to Dewart and Dupree.

Player to watch: Taylor Hall. The big scorer is Dewart, a post player with a deft touch, but Hall is the glue who does more than a little of everything. She also turned up as the leading scorer in wins against Tennessee, the conference title game against Davidson and the NCAA tournament game against Nebraska.

10. Middle Tennessee State (Last season: 25-8, NCAA tournament)

It wouldn't be a mid-major top 10 without Middle Tennessee State (although you could say the same about Green Bay, which doesn't make an appearance as it breaks in a very young roster). The Blue Raiders had just three players who averaged better than 4.5 points per game a season ago. Two of those players were seniors. So, yes, there's some rebuilding -- or reloading, if you prefer -- to do in Murfreesboro. Key to that effort might be TiAnna Porter, a transfer who averaged double-digit minutes for Pittsburgh as a freshman two seasons ago, and a freshman class that includes Olivia Jones, a starter in each of the team's two exhibition games, and top-100 signee China Dow.

Player to watch: Ebony Rowe. If you're reading this and have an interest in the mid-major ranks, hopefully you're already well versed in Rowe lore. She averaged 19.7 points and 11.2 rebounds per game as a junior and made herself into a good enough free throw shooter (68.8 percent) that teams now pay for getting physical against her.

Next five: Bowling Green, Duquesne, Fordham, Florida Gulf Coast, UT-Martin.

GreinacherGU Athletics/Torrey Vail Sunny Greinacher and Gonzaga will be "a tough out for somebody," coach Kelly Graves says.

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.

[+] EnlargeSunny Greinacher
Torrey Vail/GU AthleticsGerman native Sunny Greinacher was so overwhelmed by Gonzaga's homecourt atmosphere that she "almost peed my pants" during her first few games.

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.

Previous poll

An updated mid-major top-10 rankings, through games as of Tuesday.

1. Delaware (23-3, 14-0 Colonial)

The Blue Hens have yet to lose since a Dec. 20 setback against Maryland, Elena Delle Donne's second game of the season and first back after a month's absence. There are plenty of remarkable numbers when it comes to Delle Donne (seriously, a lot), but one that jumps out is that she has turned over the ball just 17 times in 20 games this season. For all the attention she receives from two and even three defenders, for all the times she has the ball at the end of the shot clock, and given that she's attempted 348 field goals and 127 free throws, 17 turnovers is otherworldly. Home games against James Madison and Drexel and a trip to Hofstra are remaining hurdles.

2. Dayton (22-1, 10-0 Atlantic 10)

Things aren't getting any easier for the Flyers, but they keep winning. The most recent result, a 58-57 win at home against A-10 contender Duquesne is a good example. Dayton won each of its first five conference games by at least 26 points, including games by 39, 43 and 48 points. The five wins that followed came by an average of eight points. Andrea Hoover, who might be the most valuable player on a team whose balance is its greatest asset, came up with 20 points in the win against the Dukes, while freshman Kelley Austria is averaging 12.8 points per game over the past four games. The regular-season finale against Saint Joseph's is the obstacle in the pursuit of A-10 perfection.

3. Green Bay (21-2, 11-0 Horizon)

With five games remaining on its schedule, Green Bay is three games clear of any other Horizon League team, meaning another conference title (the Phoenix have won at least a share of one in every season since 1997-98) is all but a formality. One interesting note in Kevin Borseth's first season back at the helm is the current group is limiting opponents to 35 percent field goal shooting. None of Borseth's earlier teams, which still managed to do quite well for themselves, came anywhere close to a percentage like that (38.5 the best any of them managed). It's not the same defense they played under Matt Bollant, but the players he recruited are still winning because of defense for Borseth.

4. Chattanooga (23-3, 16-1 Southern)

Does the SoCon season ever actually end? The Lady Mocs continue to maintain a good pace in that particular marathon. Limited by fouls in the first half, Ashlen Dewart was unstoppable in the second half of a potentially tricky road trip to College of Charleston over the weekend, putting up 20 points and eight rebounds in 18 minutes on the court. She followed that with 24 points and 13 rebounds in a win Monday at Georgia Southern. Maybe it's as simple as having Dewart rolling and fellow post Faith Dupree back, but Chattanooga is shooting noticeably fewer 3-pointers over the past nine games than it did prior to that.

5. Princeton (16-5, 7-0 Ivy)

You might think a weekend when a team wins home games by 12 points and 16 points is pretty good. And in Princeton’s case, it was a successful homestand against Dartmouth and Harvard. But those also represent two of the smaller margins of victory in home conference games in the past four seasons for the Tigers. Such is the level of their domination in the Ivy League. In four games since the last rankings, Niveen Rasheed averaged 20.3 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.0 steals per game, which helps explain why she has never lost a conference game.

6. Florida Gulf Coast (22-5, 15-0 Atlantic Sun)

This isn't quite the version of Florida Gulf Coast we saw a season ago. This group doesn't shoot the ball as well from the 3-point line or overall and doesn't rebound as well, but tell it to the rest of the Atlantic Sun. The Eagles have yet to win a conference game by anything other than double digits. The next two games are against teams in (distant) second and third places, beginning with a weekend trip to Stetson and a home game next week against Mercer.

7. Gonzaga (22-5, 12-1 West Coast)

All of a sudden, there isn't much of a race in the WCC. The Bulldogs are two games clear of BYU and Saint Mary's with only three left to play in the regular season. They evened the series against Saint Mary's, the only team in the league to beat them, with a 69-54 win at home on Valentine's Day. Gonzaga began the week ranked No. 12 in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, joining Green Bay (No. 5), Florida Gulf Coast (No. 8), Princeton (No. 10) and Dayton (No. 19) in the top 20 among the mid-major teams found here.

8. Toledo (22-2, 10-1 MAC)

The Rockets return to the rankings on the strength of 10 consecutive wins since opening MAC play with a loss against Central Michigan. Toledo began the week 15th nationally in scoring defense, behind only Delaware and Green Bay among teams in these rankings. The weekend brings a trip to Central Michigan and a chance to split that series. It's the only game remaining against a team with a winning record (although Ball State is 8-3 in conference play).

9. Marist (19-6, 14-0 MAAC)

Welcome back to the Red Foxes, who recently clinched at least a share of the MAAC title for the 10th season in a row. Marist has picked up its shooting pace a bit in conference play, but it appears unlikely it's ever going to get to 30 percent from the 3-point line. So how does Brian Giorgis' bunch keep dominating the league? Defense. Six opponents in a row have failed to reach 50 points, and Connecticut, Kentucky and Purdue are the only teams to score more than 70 points against Marist this season.

10. Creighton (18-6, 10-3 Missouri Valley)

The Bluejays tumble to No. 10 after a lost road trip two weeks ago, losses incurred at Indiana State and Illinois State, but they salvaged this spot with a win against league leader Wichita State. That result, against a team that dominated Creighton earlier this season, means just one game separates the two in the Valley. In a critical win, sophomore reserve Alexis Akin-Otiko picked a nice time for a breakout performance with 13 points, eight rebounds and big play after big play down the stretch.

Next five: Boston University, Charlotte, San Diego State, Albany, Middle Tennessee State
Sarah NelsonCourtesy of Creighton UniversitySarah Nelson is the perfect fit as an undersized post for a team built around guards.

The perfect game is not an unfamiliar concept at Creighton, where the baseball team is a regular participant in the NCAA tournament and plays its home games at TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series.

But what Sarah Nelson did Saturday against Drake is about as close as a basketball player can come to the elegant efficiency of a baseball pitcher retiring 27 consecutive batters.

Nelson finished with 19 points, seven assists, seven rebounds, three blocks and a steal in 28 minutes in her team's 98-71 victory. That's good on its own, but she put up those totals while hitting 8-of-9 shots from the field, including her only 3-point attempt, and both of her attempts from the free throw line. She also didn't commit a turnover.

There were more prolific weekend scoring lines, but that's as close to all-around perfection as one player is likely to come this season. It also came from a player used to working without much margin for error.

An Omaha product whose older sister played at Creighton, Nelson nonetheless didn't grow up dreaming of playing for the hometown school. As it turned out, the late convert was the perfect fit as an undersized post for a team built around guards. Still ranked in the RPI top 30 and receiving votes in the AP Top 25 for the first time, Creighton began the past weekend ranked No. 1 nationally in 3-pointers per game and No. 5 in 3-point accuracy. It then bettered both averages by hitting 11-of-24 3-point attempts against Drake. Coach Jim Flanery's teams traditionally rely on guards, and specifically guards who can shoot, the great equalizer for mid-major programs.

"The 6-3 kids that are really talented are recruited by everybody," Flanery said. "There are just more guards who can play, probably -- there's less margin between a mid-major guard and a [major conference] guard. We're not going to necessarily be able to defend some teams down low, but they have to guard us, too. Part of it is you're trading a little bit of offense for defense, in terms of floor spacing."

But there is still a point of diminishing returns with a diminutive lineup. Even a team that shoots like the Bluejays isn't going to win consistently by completely ceding the post. Enter Nelson, a 6-foot forward who is often the only player on the court for Creighton who stands at least that tall -- courts that have included big-time bigs like Nebraska's Jordan Hooper and Kansas' Carolyn Davis in opposing uniforms. Nelson has to play like a big without gumming up the works for guards like McKenzie Fujan, Marissa Janning and Carli Tritz who are driving through or spotting up outside. And one of the most complete all-around players in the mid-major ranks does it rather well.

Nelson leads the team in scoring and rebounding, with nearly twice as many rebounds as any other player. She is also second in assists, with a nearly two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio, and averages better than a 3-pointer, block and steal per game. For this team, she's the perfect big.

"I don't mind being called small for a post. I'll take it," Nelson said. "It's just like everything; it has its advantages and it has its disadvantages. I really like that it gives me the opportunity to step out, and I think it has helped me improve my mid-range and even my 3. When I was a freshman, I don't think I could hit the rim on a 3. … I think it allows our guards, especially Carli and Marissa and McKenzie, the drivers, to really get in there and spread the floor. So it has its advantages.

"But obviously, when you’re guarding 6-4, it has its disadvantages."

Now on to the rankings.

1. Delaware (18-3, 9-0 Colonial)

The Blue Hens will focus more on the moment, particularly a Feb. 10 game at James Madison that should be the biggest challenge remaining on the conference schedule, but the postseason picture is intriguing. Ranked No. 20 in the most recent AP Top 25 and No. 24 in the most recent NCAA RPI, Delaware might be out of the danger zone when it comes to potential for a postseason run. Even hosting the first two rounds, Delaware doesn't want a seed between No. 7. and No. 10, particularly one of the middle two seeds in that range that would bring a second-round game against a No. 1 seed. Slide in around a No. 5 or No. 6 and a Sweet 16 trip becomes much more manageable.

[+] EnlargeKendall Kenyon
Courtesy of Gary Jones, Pacific Athletics CommunicationsSophomore Kendall Kenyon and Pacific have won six straight games to make their top-10 debut.

2. Dayton (19-1, 7-0 Atlantic 10)

The Flyers finally played a close conference game, beating Richmond by eight points on the road, but February will push them. That includes a trip to resurgent Fordham on Sunday and a home game against Duquesne on Feb. 18. This team’s balance continues to be its greatest strength (the top four scorers have scored between 205 and 238 points), but freshman Amber Deane is putting up big numbers in A-10 games.

3. Green Bay (17-2, 7-0 Horizon)

Green Bay beat UIC 99-53 this past Saturday, the program's most points in a game since the 2005-06 season. Now, let's see, who was the coach back then? Kevin Borseth's return continues to go rather well, as the senior class that he inherited is now 57-4 in Horizon League competition. Those seniors are also responsible for about 77 percent of the current team's points, but one recent bright spot is junior Breannah Ranger. She's averaging 9.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in conference play, including 14.3 points per game in the past three games.

4. Creighton (16-4, 8-1 Missouri Valley)

The next two weeks are key. After a road trip this weekend that includes a Sunday stop at Illinois State, currently tied for third in the league, Creighton gets a rematch at home against Wichita State on Feb. 16. The Shockers dominated the Bluejays in a 22-point win in Wichita in January. Freshman standout Marissa Janning is coming off back-to-back games with at least 20 points to move into a virtual tie with Nelson for the team scoring lead.

5. Chattanooga (18-3, 11-1 Southern)

There were close calls, but Chattanooga emerged unscathed from an 18-day stretch that included not just five of six games on the road but games at three other serious SoCon contenders. It helps to have depth. The Lady Mocs have 10 players averaging double-digit minutes, and those aren't mop-up minutes. All 10 played at least 12 minutes in a recent 66-60 win against Samford. Only playmaker Kayla Christopher, the team leader in assists and 3-pointers, is flirting with averaging 30 minutes per game.

6. Princeton (12-5, 3-0 Ivy)

It's that time of year for Princeton, which swept road games against Cornell and Columbia this past weekend and won all three conference games thus far by at least 30 points. This is why, as the AP's Doug Feinberg points out, senior Niveen Rasheed ranks nears the top of a small class of players who never lost conference games. Blowouts do funny things with numbers, but it's also worth mentioning Blake Dietrick. The sophomore guard and the team's most prolific 3-point shooter is averaging 12.3 points. 5.0 assists and 5.0 rebounds through three conference games.

7. Middle Tennessee State (17-5, 12-1 Sun Belt)

The Blue Raiders are in control of the Sun Belt race, two games clear of their closest competition, and probably overdue for a return to these rankings. It's no secret around whom the team revolves, with Ebony Rowe, Kortni Jones and Icelyn Elie averaging a combined 49.5 points per game for a team averaging 67.3 points per game. The 3-point line has been a missing ingredient this season, so it's interesting to see freshman guard Caroline Warden playing a few more minutes of late and post player KeKe Stewart attempting long-distance shots more often.

8. Florida Gulf Coast (18-5, 11-0 Atlantic Sun)

Monday’s 66-50 win at North Florida almost qualifies as a nail-biter by Florida Gulf Coast standards. The Eagles keep rolling in their conference, and their next four opponents all have at least five A-Sun losses already. Oregon State transfer Brittany Kennedy is quietly having a terrific all-around season, averaging 10.6 points, 5.5 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 3.1 steals while shooting 53 percent and maintaining a two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio.

9. Pacific (18-3, 8-1 Big West)

The Big West leaders crack the top 10 for the first time this season with six wins in a row since a triple-overtime loss against Cal Poly on Jan. 12 handed them their only conference loss. The balance of a senior-laden lineup that has five players averaging double-digit points per game in conference play is impressive, but so are the individual numbers being turned in by 6-foot-2 sophomore Kendall Kenyon. Coming off a 16-point, 19-rebound effort against Long Beach State over the weekend (two weeks after a line of 19 points, 22 rebounds and eight blocks), she’s averaging 13.9 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game in Big West competition.

10. Gonzaga (18-5, 8-1 West Coast)

It's business as usual for Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference, winner of six in a row to get a firm grip on first place in the conference. All six of those wins were by at least 12 points and four were by at least 20 points. The backcourt pairing of Taelor Karr and Haiden Palmer is putting up its best numbers of the season. Karr is hitting 51 percent (28-55) of her 3-point attempts to average 14.7 points per game in WCC games, compared to 7.4 points per game out of conference, while Palmer has picked up her own scoring by about a point and a half per game.

Next five: Duquesne, Boston University, Toledo, SMU, Wichita State

Previous poll

Creighton climbs up mid-major poll

December, 27, 2012

A look at an updated top-10 mid-major poll, through Sunday's games.

1. Dayton (12-0): So much for any potential lapse in concentration on the road. The Flyers remained perfect since last we checked in, thanks to a 31-point victory at previously two-loss Akron and a 38-point win at Siena. Point guard Samantha MacKay had 13 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and one turnover in 34 minutes against Akron. The senior has 67 assists in 12 games this season, 10 assists shy of her career high, and entered last week as one of only 12 players nationally with at least 50 assists and a two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio. That list also includes names like Duke’s Chelsea Gray, Nebraska’s Lindsey Moore, Stanford’s Amber Orrange and BYU’s Haley Steed. The Flyers have rest coming. They play at Bowling Green on Dec 30, their only remaining game before opening conference play at Butler on Jan. 12.

[+] EnlargeHaiden Palmer, Ameryst Alston
James Snook/USA TODAY SportsHaiden Palmer and Gonzaga are fifth this week.

2. Delaware (6-3): I’ve already added several chapters on Elena Delle Donne’s return, but her presence alone was enough to make a game of it against Maryland and is enough to land the Blue Hens back in this spot. The challenge now, albeit one they might not be thinking about in as many words, is making up for lost time. Delaware hosts the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, but it would be nice to do so as at least a No. 4 or 5 seed to avoid playing a potential second-round game as a decided underdog. There is potential for three games in the next week that could provide opportunities for RPI polishing. First comes Saturday’s game against Villanova in Hanover, N.H., which could set up a rematch with surging Duquesne in the winner’s bracket of the tournament hosted by Dartmouth. A trip to St. John’s follows, still a quality opponent, if not last season’s power.

3. Creighton (8-2): A win against previously one-loss South Florida at a holiday tournament in Mexico gave the Bluejays another valuable RPI top-100 win (added to wins against Nebraska and South Dakota State, with BYU also a borderline top-100 team) before entering Missouri Valley Conference play. Another opportunity for a quality win comes Dec. 30 at Minnesota. Win that and Creighton’s NCAA tournament at-large résumé looks pretty good, not that it will want to risk needing to rely on that. Frontcourt players who can pass always make me happy, and Creighton’s Sarah Nelson not only leads her team in rebounding at 7.9 boards per game but is tied for the lead in assists (4.0 per game) and has a better than two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio. For good measure, she’s shooting 42 percent from the 3-point line.

4. Duquesne (10-1): The Dukes did it again, and you can hear West Virginia coach Mike Carey’s frustration from here. Duquesne beat West Virginia for the second year in a row, this time on the road in Morgantown, to give the Atlantic 10 team its most impressive win this season (Delaware was also ranked when Duquesne beat it in the preseason WNIT, but the Blue Hens were without Delle Donne). The Dukes didn’t shoot or rebound particularly well against the Mountaineers, but unlike last season’s furious second-half rally, they led this game from start to finish. A rematch against a healthy Delaware at Dartmouth’s tournament might be the best remaining mid-major game of the season.

5. Gonzaga (9-3): The final chance for a signature win slipped away with a 65-60 loss against Ohio State on Dec. 17, leaving the Bulldogs winless in marquee games against Louisville, Stanford and the Buckeyes. But a competitive loss against a team that was ranked until the day of the game, even a loss in Spokane, isn’t the end of the world. A win against Washington State on Dec. 29 would give Gonzaga three wins against BCS conference schools (added to November wins against Wisconsin and USC). And on the silver lining side, the Bulldogs shot better than 50 percent from the floor in the second half against Ohio State and both halves of their subsequent game against Idaho. That’s the first time all season they hit at least half their shots in three consecutive halves.

6. UTEP (10-1): It’s not quite time to call them road warriors, but after noting in this space last time that the Miners were lacking in accomplishments on non-neutral courts away from home, it’s incumbent to recognize them for a victory at Kansas State. That result on Dec. 20 was UTEP’s first true road win and came against a team unbeaten at the time. It also came in part thanks to a 47-38 edge on the boards for the visitors, not the normal formula for mid-major teams in such games. But UTEP, which also got the best of Arizona on the boards in a win and were almost level with Arizona State in another win, ranks among the top 50 nationally in rebound margin. The Miners added a win against New Mexico and face Sam Houston State and Texas-Pan American before opening Conference USA play.

7. Chattanooga (8-2): The Lady Mocs played just once since the last rankings and came out the worse for a trip to Auburn with a 53-40 setback. As the score suggests, it wasn’t a strong offensive showing for the visitors. Chattanooga hit just 27 percent of its shots, and if you take out Kayla Christopher’s 3-for-9 shooting from the 3-point line, missed 21 of 22 attempts from long range. Credit some, maybe most, of that shooting performance and 22 turnovers to Auburn’s pressure defense, but Chattanooga handled and shot the ball well against an aggressive Tennessee defense.

8. Green Bay (8-2): The Phoenix staked their claim to in-state supremacy since the last rankings, beating Marquette on the road and Wisconsin at home, and that’s enough for them to reclaim their place here. In the last college basketball game before Christmas, Green Bay beat Wisconsin for the third year in a row (all three games featured different coaching matchups) and did so in dominant defensive fashion. How dominant? Include the Packers and three Wisconsin teams played in Green Bay on Sunday. Only one of them failed to score 40 points, and it wasn’t the Packers or the Phoenix. Former coach Matt Bollant and "Buzz" defense architect Mike Divilbiss are gone, but elements of the pressure defense remain under Kevin Borseth, which helps explain why the Phoenix remain in the top 20 nationally in turnover margin.

9. Boston University (8-3): The Terriers played no games since the last rankings. They come out of their break at a tournament hosted by Lehigh this weekend, but the big game on the horizon is Jan. 5 at Hartford, the first of two meetings between two of three teams, along with Albany, that appear likely championship contenders in America East.

10. Arkansas-Little Rock (10-1): Since a 78-68 loss against Missouri State in the second game of the season, Arkansas-Little Rock has not allowed an opponent to score more than 54 points. In all games, teams are shooting just 29.7 percent against UALR, fourth-best in the nation behind Connecticut, Iowa State and Michigan State. Offense centers on a more individual effort; leading scorer Taylor Gault has more shots than any two teammates combined. The first big conference game comes Jan. 3 against Western Kentucky, currently 3-0 in the league’s other division.

Next five: San Diego State, Middle Tennessee State, Toledo, Hartford, Quinnipiac