- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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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.