- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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There were 60 teams from the six major conferences that did not advance as far as Gonzaga in the 2012 NCAA tournament.
There were 62 teams from those same conferences that averaged fewer fans per game than the Bulldogs drew to the Kennel, as the 6,000-capacity McCarthey Athletic Center is affectionately (at least to home fans) known.
We might be a long way from a mid-major No. 1 in women's college basketball, but there is at least equal distance between many, maybe most, supposedly major programs and the dynasties that rule the rest of the country.
As a freshman newly arrived from Germany a season ago, Gonzaga’s Sunny Greinacher had a rather visceral reaction to one of the best atmospheres in women’s college basketball.
“I just never experienced anything even close to that,” Greinacher said of the comparison to club games in Germany that she said might, on a really good day, draw a thousand fans. “I have to admit, the first couple of games [in the Kennel], I think I almost peed my pants I was so excited -- and a little bit scared, too. It just makes it so much fun.”
The men’s basketball team at Gonzaga this week ascended to No. 1 in the AP Top 25, the first time the school in Spokane, Wash., achieved that ranking and the first time since Memphis in the 2007-08 season that a school from outside the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC landed in the top spot. Such a grab for power is even less common on the women’s side, where the last non-BCS No. 1 was Louisiana Tech in March of 1996.
Few women’s mid-major programs have been as successful in recent seasons as Gonzaga, which reached at least the Sweet 16 in each of the past three seasons and had players selected in each of the past three WNBA drafts. But to Kelly Graves, the architect of all that success, the idea of a program like his reaching No. 1 in the near future remains dubious. Stars like Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins play four seasons in women’s basketball, teams have more scholarships and the depth of talent remains a work in progress just 40 years after Title IX.
“The landscape, I think, is a lot more conducive on the men’s side to something like our men ascending to No. 1,” Graves said.
And yet the final mid-major rankings of the season reveal a ruling class every bit as familiar as Stanford in the Pac-12 or Notre Dame and Connecticut in the Big East. Marist raced through another unbeaten season in the MAAC, Green Bay did the same in the Horizon and landed back in the Top 25. Dayton, Chattanooga, Middle Tennessee, Princeton -- all of these programs have been winning regularly through a number of senior classes.
They aren't catching Baylor, but neither are programs like Alabama, Cincinnati, Clemson, Indiana, Washington State or others making up any ground on them.
After losing Katelan Redmon and Kayla Standish to the WNBA draft after last season, that a year removed from losing Courtney Vandersloot to the draft lottery, Graves told peers this was the season to get the Zags.
“I honestly had no idea what we were going to be like,” Graves said. “Outside of the three guards, Jazmine Redmon, Taelor Karr and Haiden Palmer, two of whom started for me, everybody else was new.”
Consider that outside of the three guards Graves mentioned, Greinacher was the returnee who played the most last season, and she logged just 10.4 minutes per game.
Greinacher came to Oregon as a high school exchange student when she was a sophomore, where Graves saw her lead Willamette High School to a state title. Oregon State and Louisville both made trips to Europe to recruit her once she returned home, as did Gonzaga coaches (complete with a letter they showed her from all of the players on the team expressing their hopes that she would join them). She chose what she felt offered the best fit, both in terms of a style of basketball and a school wasn't so big as to be daunting.
“I knew that the Pac-12 was considered one of the biggest conferences and the [Big East], and that the West Coast Conference was more of a smaller conference,” Greinacher said. “I mean, one always thinks about if you’re going to get playing time the years that you get there. I didn’t think of the West Coast Conference as a bad conference at all, so it was more of what program would fit best for me than what conference.”
This season, the 6-foot-4 forward with deft passing skills and a face-up game is the third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder on a team that went 15-1 in what the RPI says is the seventh-best conference in the country. Next season, Graves predicts, is when "we see her really shine."
So it goes for programs that don't rise and fall so much as hold and restock. Of course, she'll have help from a recruit like 6-foot-5 incoming freshman Emma Wolfram, arguably the best prep player in Canada.
For Gonzaga, it's BCS-level recruits who want something different. For Green Bay, it's overlooked player from the hinterlands of the Upper Midwest. For Marist, it's kids who might be a step slow but are a thought ahead.
They do what they do better than most of their peers. And by their peers, we're talking about the rest of college basketball.
“They’re as mentally tough as any team I’ve had," Graves said of his current group. "And quite frankly, we’ve improved more than any team I’ve ever coached from the first day until now. So I’m really happy. I like this team. I don’t know how far we can go, but I really like the makeup. I think this is a team that, we’re going to get better.
“I think we’ll be a tough out for somebody.”
Now on to the final rankings.
1. Delaware (26-3, 17-0 Colonial)
The Blue Hens have one more game to play in the regular season Wednesday against Georgia State, in what is the third consecutive game to sell out in advance at the Bob Carpenter Center, but they finish right where they started in these rankings. The defense is better than it was a season ago -- better by field goal percentage, better by points per game and better by turnovers forced. Kayla Miller is healthier than last season, providing another steady backcourt hand. And Elena Delle Donne still posts an assortment of ridiculous numbers (like 92 percent free throw shooting, 48 percent 3-point shooting and 22 turnovers against 565 combined field goal and free throw attempts). The draw is huge, but this is a team that should get to the Sweet 16 and could play for a place in New Orleans.
2. Dayton (26-1, 14-0 Atlantic 10)
Jim Jabir has at least one vote for national coach of the year. By now, the story has been repeated enough times, but replacing four starters and seven seniors from last season and winning the first conference regular-season title with a perfect record is remarkable. The only down side is that it felt in recent weeks like the team perhaps peaked too soon. But this is not a fluke. The talent base is every bit as good as most of the supposed major teams ranked in the teens in the national polls. The Flyers have the size, rebounding, defense and depth of a legitimate Sweet 16 team.
3. Green Bay (24-2, 14-0 Horizon)
It happened quietly, but Green Bay is basically five points away from a perfect season, an overtime loss on a neutral court and a four-point road loss the only blemishes. The Phoenix don’t have the same kind of individual offensive assets they possessed in recent seasons with Kayla Tetschlag, Celeste Hoewish and Julie Wojta (although senior Adrian Ritchie is a shooter defenses lose track of at their own peril), but whether under Kevin Borseth or Matt Bollant, this was never a program built around individual numbers. Guard Megan Lukan is on a scoring run as the end of the regular season approaches. She scored 50 points in the past three games and hit 12-of-27 3-point attempts.
4. Chattanooga (26-3, 19-1 Southern)
It doesn’t matter what conference a team is in, it’s difficult to avoid letdowns somewhere along the way, so full credit to Chattanooga for winning its final 16 games in the Southern Conference after an overtime loss at Elon on Jan. 7. It’s still remarkable to think leading scorer Ashlen Dewart played just 16 minutes in the season-opening win against Tennessee because of foul trouble, but this team has depth. That win against the Lady Vols and an RPI in the 40s are the building blocks of this team’s NCAA tournament résumé, but it will be a close call if it comes to an at-large bid.
5. Gonzaga (25-5, 15-1 West Coast)
The Bulldogs automatically advance directly to the semifinals in the WCC tournament, but a potentially tricky game awaits against BYU (which would have to win its quarterfinal). Gonzaga won both regular-season games by double digits, but the Cougars are a team with postseason experience and quality talent.
6. Florida Gulf Coast (25-5, 18-0 Atlantic Sun)
The Eagles have yet to play a game in 2013 decided by single digits, with only a January game against North Florida even competitive in the final minutes. Sure, that says something about the Atlantic Sun, but perhaps also about a team that had pieces to replace this season hitting its stride at the right time. For all her accomplishments on the floor (she’s the league’s leading scorer and averages 7.7 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game), Sarah Hansen’s most impressive feat is winning the Atlantic Sun’s scholar-athlete of the year award twice in her first three seasons.
7. Toledo (26-2, 14-1 MAC)
The Rockets broke into the AP Top 25 recently, their first appearance in more than a decade. There’s no great secret to their success. Only five conference opponents reached even 50 points against Toledo. The numbers aren’t quite as stingy against the toughest competition, but Toledo still showed the versatility to beat Marquette and Charlotte and push Dayton in higher scoring games. One more key thing: The two players who handle the ball the most take care of it. Leading scorers Naama Shafir and Andola Dortch have 86 more assists than turnovers.
8. Marist (23-6, 18-0 MAAC)
Marist completed a perfect conference season in which it won 18 games by an average of exactly 20 points per game and didn’t place anyone on the all-conference first team. Figure that one out. The shooting numbers improved dramatically for the Red Foxes in MAAC play. Presumably that’s a function of both inferior competition and individual improvement on their part, but the degree to which it’s the latter will have a lot to do with this team’s potential to spring another trademark upset in the NCAA tournament (assuming it gets through the conference tournament).
9. Creighton (21-6, 13-3 Missouri Valley)
If there was an award for mid-major freshman of the year, and let’s just say that there is and this is it, Creighton’s Marissa Janning takes top honors. At 43 percent from the 3-point line, she could miss her next 15 attempts and still rank as the most accurate 3-point shooter in the Missouri Valley. And with the Bluejays needing all of them to stay in the conference title race, she scored 29 points in a 67-66 win against Drake on March 3. Dayton, Delaware and Green Bay are the only mid-major teams with better RPI numbers than Creighton.
10. San Diego State (22-5, 13-1 Mountain West)
The perfect example of a good schedule gone awry. San Diego State was down two points with 12 minutes to play against UCLA, six points with 14 minutes to play against Colorado, four points in the final minute against Oklahoma State and led Washington by nine points with four minutes to play. All went for naught, and the team’s best wins are instead somewhat blah results against Auburn, SMU and USC. But behind Courtney Clements and Chelsea Hopkins (15.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 5.9 assists per game in conference play), the Aztecs took control of what once looked like a tight league.
Next five: Princeton, Charlotte, Middle Tennessee, Albany, Quinnipiac.