- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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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)