- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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'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)