UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- A few thoughts on the awards handed out to Connecticut Sun players Tina Charles (MVP), Renee Montgomery (Sixth Woman) and Kara Lawson (Kim Perrot) before Thursday's game, a ceremony clearly highlighted by Montgomery and WNBA president Laurel Richie losing their shared grip on the award while posing for photographs and watching in shock as it crashed to the floor, thankfully none the worse for wear. (Insert your own simultaneous possession joke here.)
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty ImagesTina Charles became the first Connecticut Sun player to win regular-season MVP honors.
The Sun won a playoff game for the first time since 2008 in beating the New York Liberty on Thursday night, but they also picked up a franchise first when Charles was named WNBA MVP, the second win in a row for an Eastern Conference player after more than a decade of dominance by the West. The third-year center who led the league in rebounding during the regular season said all the right things in accepting the award, thanking her mother, who was in attendance at the ceremony, and her teammates.
But the most interesting part was her praise for Sun coach Mike Thibault, if only because it's all too easy to forget that there is more than one great women's basketball coach in the state of Connecticut. There are a hundred ways in which Thibault doesn't get the credit he deserves, but expanding on the work Geno Auriemma did with Charles ranks high among them.
"Ever since I got drafted to the Connecticut Sun, he's just definitely gave me the confidence to go out there and play my best and definitely helped me in that area," Charles said of Thibault. "I think he makes it comfortable for everybody here to go out and just explore their game. He allows us to make mistakes and then to correct it. He's a great coach. He communicates with us, he's there for us, he does his best to discipline us. And he tells us what he wants from us individually. I think that that's one of the main things you can have with a coach is communication."
That Montgomery isn't entirely built for patience was clear when she hopped out of the director's chair in which she sat after the first sentence of Richie's introduction, only to have to admit her false start, sit back down and wait out the rest of the president's words. She is not a natural sixth woman, content to bide her time until called upon, but she made the most of the role this season.
"I just wanted to pretty much do whatever role was given to me," Montgomery said. "At the end of the day, this is your job. So if your boss tells you to do something, you should do it. I wasn't going to help my team or myself just sitting around sulking about not starting. Now that we're in this position -- and we still haven't won a playoff game, so at the end of the day that's the ultimate goal -- but as long as this is helping the team, I'm fine with it."
More to come tomorrow on Lawson, who won the sportsmanship award for the second time after a season in which the veteran clearly deserved some sort of major accolade.
BRISTOL, Conn. -- Best player on the board or best player for a system?
It's a question of draft philosophy that Corey Gaines and the Phoenix Mercury will enjoy mulling over for the next six-plus months.
In a draft class headlined by three entirely distinct talents in Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins, the team with perhaps the most distinctive style in the WNBA beat the odds Wednesday and landed the No. 1 pick in the draft.
Do the Mercury take a scorer like Delle Donne to push their tempo to something rarely seen beyond the Bonneville Salt Flats? Do they take a floor general like Diggins to conduct an orchestra that already includes the likes of Diana Taurasi and DeWanna Bonner? Or do they take the consensus best player on the board in Griner, even if some will wonder how a dominant post fits in a fast-breaking style?
Barry Gossage/Getty ImagesDiana Taurasi's reaction to Phoenix winning the No. 1 pick? "Wow, wow, wow," she texted coach Corey Gaines.
"It's something that will be interesting," Gaines said. "We're going to take our time and look at everything. The greatest thing is now we have a long time to do that; we don't need to rush anything. We're not a traditional-style team at all. We don't do things the way other teams do it. It's because I've learned from [Paul] Westhead. He does things that makes the team win. I'm sure I'll be making some phone calls and talk to all the coaches I've ever been under in the league and in college.
"It's not going to be a rushed thing. It's going to be something thought out, and something I think hopefully, will bring some big things to Phoenix."
Needless to say, the coach wasn't giving away many state secrets in the minutes after the Mercury defied the odds to land the No. 1 pick. So we're left to debate amongst ourselves the merits of three special players.
You'll hear a lot of scouting reports between now and April, but why not start with one from the man who will coach one of them?
First on Diggins.
"Point guard, hard-nosed, can score, take it to the basket, plays defense, definitely able to impact the game, very intelligent basketball IQ," Gaines said. "You've seen her in some of the games last year tough it out, push her team through something, which is important."
On Delle Donne.
"Pure unadulterated scorer," Gaines said. "I mean, she can score. I saw an interview with her today on NBA TV and she stated, 'I love to shoot the ball.' She loves to score. That's a gift. A lot of players don't have that gift. People don't understand, but someone who gets up 30 shots, it's hard to do. It's not something that everyone can do. If you go to your [YMCA] and try to get up 30 shots, it's not easy. It's a gift."
Evan Habeeb/US PresswireElena Delle Donne might be a better fit for Phoenix's up-tempo style of play, but it's hard to see the Mercury passing on Brittney Griner.
And last but never least, on Griner.
"Someone who can definitely change the game defensively and probably change it offensively, too," Gaines said. "The way our team is set up, we have scorers who can hit outside and who can slash and who play the game well -- who won championships, who won gold medals, who won European championships. And DeWanna, who is now added into the mix, has become a superstar herself. We can go really large with, if we [pick] Brittney. And Brittney can rebound, and that's something that's important for us.
"We're a fast-breaking team. There's two things you need: You need rebounding and you need stops. Defensively, she'll get us stops, offensively she'll get us rebounds to go get that break going. And the top teams in the league that play defense -- half court, if I give you a play, you can stop that play. Fast break, you can't. That's why fast breaking is so dangerous. There's nothing you can do. You can't say, 'Run back fast.' That's not going to cut it."
If you choose to read between the lines, it's interesting that Gaines spoke about Diggins and Delle Donne in general terms. He spoke about Griner in terms of how she would specifically fit with the Mercury. Although for what it's worth, if we're delving deep into the intangibles file, he also sounded and looked genuinely captivated by Delle Donne's scoring prowess, like someone talking about the way Coltrane played the saxophone.
A pure hunch is that there will be days between now and April that Delle Donne sits atop the team's draft board. You couldn't design a more perfect player for the system than a 6-foot-5 all-court scorer, who, by the way, is also a terrific rebounder and shot-blocker by any scale that doesn't include Griner.
But in the end, there is no way the Mercury pass on Griner. For good reason. Gaines is a disciple of Westhead, and however things ended in Los Angeles, the latter won an NBA championship with the Lakers in 1980 by pairing Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on a team that finished second in the league in points per game. Post players and fast breaks aren't mutually exclusive. And Griner is hardly sedentary; her agility and athleticism at her height are what make her a paradigm-shifting player.
One thing is certain, whether the Mercury take the best player, the best player for the system or someone they think fits both descriptions.
"Those three, you're going to get something," Gaines said.
A text message he received from Taurasi shortly after the results were revealed got to the same point.
"Wow, wow, wow."
KINGSTON, R.I. -- Like a lot of sophomores coming off sensational freshman campaigns, Penn State's Maggie Lucas did a little less this season of that which made her so sensational the first time around. Unlike so many of her peers, it had nothing to do with suffering through any kind of sophomore slump or opposing defenses catching on to her tells.
In fact, doing less of what she did so well last season is the main reason Lucas could be such a headache for Connecticut in Sunday's Sweet 16 game (ESPN2/ESPN3, 4:34 p.m. ET).
Asked Saturday what impressed him most about Penn State's backcourt, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma went first to the versatility of the Lady Lions, who start Lucas, Alex Bentley and Zhaque Gray in a three-guard lineup. That versatility exists collectively, as the combined skills of the three cover a lot of space on a scouting report. But it's also increasingly true individually for the team's leading scorer.
The best shooter in the Big Ten, Lucas has shed such a one-dimensional label.
She was a deadeye markswoman from the moment she arrived in State College. She shot 42.6 percent from the 3-point line and hit 112 3-pointers as a freshman, figures that ranked her fourth in the nation in 3-pointers per game and 11th in 3-point accuracy. But as impressive as the long-range efforts were, they also represented the bulk of her offensive contributions. More than 60 percent of her field goal attempts as a freshman were from behind the arc, and she shot nearly four times as many 3-pointers as free throws. When the long shot wasn't working or defenses took it away, as in a second-round NCAA tournament loss against DePaul in which she hit 1 of 11 shots, she and the offense suffered together.
One of the things Lucas and the coaching staff talked about during the recruiting process was her desire to play at the next level, a goal that both agreed would require broadening her game beyond her most obvious skill. So rather than rest on her freshman accolades or fall in love with the shot that earned them, a not uncommon development for good shooters, she focused on the rest of her game. The result has been less reliance on the 3-point shot -- Lucas is shooting fewer per game and has almost as many free throw attempts (170) as 3-point attempts (189). She is also averaging 4.7 rebounds, up from 3.1 per game as a freshman, and 2.8 assists, up from 1.6 per game last season.
"The growth in Maggie's game has enhanced our offense," said assistant Kia Damon, the team's de facto offensive coordinator. "Last year she was mostly a catch-and-shoot player and was able to get shots off of Alex's penetration or just people collapsing in on our posts. And what we recognized at the conclusion of last year was in order for her to continue to grow her game and [for] our overall transition game to continue to grow, putting the ball on the floor and getting her own shot was going to become a central part of it."
None of which diminishes the reality that Lucas remains one of the most efficient and prolific shooters in the sport, a player with the range and release to get shots against any defense. There are several good 3-point shooters among the quartet of teams in Kingston, but there is nobody quite like Lucas.
"When it leaves her hand, you don't really need to go rebound or box out," teammate Mia Nickson joked of her first impressions of her teammate's range when Lucas showed up as a freshman. "If you're on defense, go take it out, and if you're on offense, go ahead and start running back. It was just like automatic."
Connecticut has faced its share of standout shooters this season, players like Oklahoma's Aaryn Ellenberg, Louisville's Becky Burke and Duke's Tricia Liston, and has come away largely unscathed. UConn guard Caroline Doty, one of the Huskies tasked with defending perimeter talent, knows Lucas better than most. The two are friends and were former high school teammates in Pennsylvania. Doty knows, too, there aren't any shortcuts in taking away a shooter. Close to 40 minutes of hard work can easily be undone by a couple of slow closeouts or picks not eluded.
"Limit their shots or even the amount of times they touch the ball, always be aware of where they are on the court, know that you can't really help out on [the] off side as much as you want to, or as much as you can," Doty said, cataloging the defensive points of emphasis. "So in the sense of just being aware and staying focused where they are on the defensive end. And then just try to tire them down when we're on offense and they're on the defensive end."
Connecticut's defense usually dictates how opponents play. Rare is the player who can dictate the reverse. Lucas still has to prove she's someone who can do that against the kind of championship-caliber, suffocating defense she will face Sunday afternoon. But she's more prepared than ever before to take her shot at doing just that.
Mostly because her shot could come from anywhere.
The master of the mid-majors, Marist coach Brian Giorgis did it again.
A day after Green Bay and Gonzaga booked appearances in the second round, No. 13 seed Marist extended its own run of postseason success with a 76-70 victory against fourth-seeded Georgia. It's Marist's second win in the past six tournaments as a No. 13 seed, meaning it's responsible for a third of all such wins since the field expanded to 64 teams. The last time it happened, in 2007, the Red Foxes didn't stop there, winning a second-round game to reach their first Sweet 16.
Doing more with less has become a way of life for Marist in March.
Melina Vastola/US PresswireBrian Giorgis and Marist now meet fifth-seeded St. Bonaventure on Tuesday.
No program beyond the borders of the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC has a longer active streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances than the Red Foxes, who are in the midst of their seventh trip in a row. They are 5-6 in those games, a remarkable record of success considering they were the lower seed on all but one occasion (a 76-57 win as the No. 7 seed against DePaul in 2008, the only season in the streak Marist wasn't a double-digit seed).
In fact, if not for an injury that knocked the team's best player, Erica Allenspach, out of action early in a second-round road game against Duke last season, that NCAA tournament record might be .500 or better. The Red Foxes lost that game by just five points, despite having the MAAC Player of the Year for just 13 minutes.
But Giorgis doesn't need what-ifs to make his case. Year by year, the evidence keeps accumulating to make the case that he's one of the best coaches in the country for a simple reason.
Players get better at Marist. It's why the players bigger schools didn't want keep beating those schools in March.
Corielle Yarde (21 points, eight rebounds) and Brandy Gang (18 points) provided two more compelling statements against Georgia.
As Giorgis would be the first to point out, the Red Foxes beat Ohio State in the first round and Middle Tennessee in the second round in 2007 because they had pieces like a veteran point guard in Alisa Kresge, a versatile forward in Meg Dahlman and a freshman just scratching the surface of her talent in Rachele Fitz. They beat DePaul the following season because Fitz had emerged as a bona fide star. They advanced to the second round last season, the first without Fitz, because Allenspach emerged as a cornerstone to lead them through the campaign.
It's always about having the right players for the moment for Giorgis; it's just that those players keep changing.
And so it is that they beat Georgia in no small part because Yarde and Gang emerged as reliable assets after a 5-6 start to the season that included losses against NCAA tournament teams Princeton, St. Bonaventure and Kansas State.
Yarde built toward her role for four seasons. A gifted athlete (just 5-foot-8, she has 31 blocks this season), she served an apprenticeship behind Fitz and Allenspach and inherited the go-to role well prepared for it. As recently as last season, Gang shot 43 percent the floor and averaged essentially eight points and four rebounds per game. To be sure, she played a valuable role behind Allenspach and Yarde, but it wasn't one that necessarily suggested she would be a key figure in a tournament win against Georgia. But after shooting 53 percent from the field and 40 percent from the 3-point line in conference play this season, supplanting Yarde as the leading scorer in MAAC play, she excelled on the biggest of stages Sunday in Tallahassee.
Were that to happen once, it might have nothing to do with coaching. For it to happen again and again, player after player finding her way in Giorgis' system, is more than chance.
If Ohio State coach Jim Foster, who complained bitterly about his team's seed and then went out and lost to a lower seed yet again, wants a real test, he ought to walk a season in Giorgis' shoes. Your opportunity in March is what you make of it, just as your players are what you make of them. Nobody does that better than Giorgis.
One moment can make a team a champion. It takes years to make a program a winner.
Dayton held on for dear life to claim its first Atlantic 10 championship in a 56-53 victory against St. Bonaventure. The Flyers took a 27-5 lead in the opening 13 minutes against the regular-season champions and then scored just 29 more points in the game's final 27 minutes. Not until a potential game-tying 3-pointer from Bonnies star Jessica Jenkins missed the mark in the final second was it clear that Dayton had done enough to win.
On another day, Jenkins gets that shot to fall, the Bonnies win in overtime and the story is about resiliency and a comeback for the ages. Forty minutes of basketball proved little more than Dayton scored more points.
But Patrice Lalor, Kayla Moses, Casey Nance, Justine Raterman, Elle Queen and the rest of Dayton's seniors earned their championship over more than 40 minutes.
It's one small statistical measure of what the current group of seniors mean to the Dayton women's basketball program that when they arrived as freshmen, Flyers coach Jim Jabir had a lifetime record on the wrong side of .500 after more than two decades on the sideline of rebuilding projects and small fish in big ponds.
Howard Smith/US PresswireDayton lost to St. Bonaventure by one point on Feb. 11, but won Monday to clinch the A-10's automatic NCAA tournament berth.
He now has more than a full season's worth of cushion on that count.
This class didn't start the turnaround, Dayton's first 20-win season under Jabir coming the season before they arrived, but they accomplished the equally difficult task of giving it permanence. The only piece missing came Monday.
The championship game was always going to be a battle of styles. St. Bonaventure wanted to control possession, a trait that doesn't quite quality a slow-down but is definitely deliberate. That style enabled the Bonnies to commit the fewest turnovers per game in the nation and become the third A-10 champion in a row to run the table in conference play, doing so without any of the WNBA talent Xavier had in back-to-back perfect conference seasons with Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips. The Bonnies thrive by seeing what teams can do in the final 10 seconds of the shot clock. The Flyers would just as soon never see the clock reach the teens, let alone single digits.
For much of the first half, Dayton had its way. They forced a team that averaged barely 11 turnovers per game during the regular season into seven before the game was even 10 minutes old. Jenkins couldn't get any open space and undersized post Megan VanTatenhove, St. Bonaventure's leading scorer in conference play, had to settle for 3-point looks with the paint closed off.
This was the Dayton team a lot of observers expected to see when the season began, a preseason co-favorite in the league that lost one key starter from the team that pushed Penn State in the first round of the NCAA tournament a season ago but returned the rest of its core -- including Raterman, the cornerstone who suffered a torn ACL in the A-10 tournament last season but rehabbed aggressively enough to be ready for the start of her final season. It wasn't the team that took the court in losses against Toledo and Cincinnati in the opening week. It took a Thanksgiving trip to a place visiting teams often dread to go for them to hit their stride -- mostly by being knocked completely off it.
"I think when we went to the Connecticut tournament and lost to Connecticut by 40, the kids had a bird's eye view of what real intense defense is about," Jabir said. "I don't know if my stats are exactly right, but I think we might have led the league in field goal defense. I think that was a real important time for us because I think we got better after that tournament at UConn. We were scoring, but we weren't defending like I really wanted to."
He was almost right. Only St. Bonaventure ranked ahead of Dayton in field goal defense. Monday, in a game that came down to one possession, Dayton shot 34.4 percent. St. Bonaventure shot 32.7.
But just as St. Bonaventure slowed the game and made a comeback when the teams met earlier this season in Dayton, rallying from an early 15-point deficit to win, the pace slowed and the margin dwindled Monday.
That the Flyers don't have one person to turn to in such moments is how they like it.
Jabir's system necessitates a liberal substitution pattern to keep up the pace he prefers. No player averages even 30 minutes per game, and the rotation of players who average double-digit minutes goes 10 deep. It's what leads the coach to say his team has a lot of heroes rather than one commanding presence, save perhaps Ratterman.
Early in the second half, St. Bonaventure cut the lead to six points at 27-21. A brief flurry from the Flyers, capped by a pull-up jumper from Lalor, extended it back to double digits. Jenkins hit a 3-pointer to cut it to seven; Raterman answered with a 3-pointer of her own. Jenkins pulled from somewhere almost as close to half court as the arc and again narrowed it to seven points. Queen got an offensive rebound and fed Lalor for another jumper.
The Bonnies eventually did take a lead, 51-50, but the Flyers collectively made them work too hard for it to hold it.
At first glance, the only twist in the story was that Dayton's final four points came from a freshman, a driving layup and two free throws from Andrea Hoover. Yet even that somehow seemed apt. The A-10's freshman of the year and a player Jabir said is too busy playing basketball to have any idea how good she is, Hoover came to a program that for much of her baseketball-conscious life had a winning tradition. It's how these seniors paved the way for a title.
"This program isn't about me, it's about them," Jabir said earlier this season. "It's their program. When we succeed, I'm happy for them. When we don't, I feel bad for them because it's their program. They're the ones putting in all the work."
Dayton's quarterfinal against St. Louis was the last game Saturday during a long day at the Atlantic 10 tournament. By the time the Flyers advanced with a comfortably easy win, the clock was creeping on toward midnight and there weren't many people waiting around to talk to Jabir about an entirely expected result. Rather than taking a seat behind the podium for the formality of a postgame news conference, he sat on the steps that led up to the stage and held court.
He joked about the mental and physical toll last year's at-large wait took on him, how the world seemed to slow around him when Dayton's time finally appeared on the television screen during the selection show. Turning slightly more serious, he started to say he thought the seniors deserved a championship. He paused, backtracked and said he wasn't really sure if anyone ever deserved anything, left unsaid that it should be earned.
Then he went ahead anyway, suggesting that if such a sentiment was ever appropriate in something like sports, he felt as though his seniors deserved a championship and the chance to keep playing the tournament title ensured.
They get that chance. And while they deserve it, they also earned it. Monday night and for four years leading up to it.
1. Delaware (26-1 overall, 17-1 Colonial Athletic Association)
Delaware is the best mid-major in the nation because it has arguably the best player in the nation, mid-major or otherwise, in Elena Delle Donne. But it's also No. 1 because of the players around Delle Donne. A season ago, Delaware averaged 8.7 assists and 16.7 turnovers per game. Entering this postseason, the Blue Hens average 14.7 assists and 13.9 turnovers per game. That's not all Delle Donne. That's Lauren Carra cutting her turnovers in half and Trumae Lucas, eligible after sitting out last season as a transfer, already totaling more assists than any player did last season. The Blue Hens are shooting 44.6 percent from the floor this season, up from 39.3 percent last season. That's because Delle Donne is healthy, shooting 52.4 percent and drawing double- and triple-teams, but it's also because players like Danielle Parker (41.4 percent last season, 51.8 percent this season) are making those open looks count.
Who they need to look out for: Drexel did as good a job as any team of slowing Delle Donne and the Blue Hens. Delaware won both meetings in the regular season, 60-49 at home and 40-39 on the road, but Delle Donne shot a season-worst 4-of-19 in the second game (those who contend she doesn't always get the same calls from officials as smaller players would note she had just seven free throw attempts in those two games). The good news for the top seed is that the CAA tournament takes place on a neutral court in Upper Marlboro, Md., close enough to Newark, Del., that the Blue Hens should have the loudest group of fans in the building.
• CAA tournament bracket
2. St. Bonaventure (27-2 overall, 14-0 Atlantic 10)
Tim G. Zechar/Icon SMIJessica Jenkins, one of 30 Naismith finalists for player of the year, ranks 18th all-time in NCAA Division I with 321 3-pointers.
This is the third season in a row the Atlantic 10 produced an undefeated regular-season champion, but it's difficult to imagine a contrast more stark than that between the Xavier teams of the past two seasons and this squad. Where those Xavier teams were built around two players, Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips, with the size and skills to play anywhere, the Bonnies are built to the specifics of coach Jim Crowley's unique system. They have a star, Jessica Jenkins, who is in the top 20 in NCAA history in 3-point field goals, but balance is their calling card. Five Bonnies attempted between 74 and 88 free throws, and only one of them shot worse than 72 percent from the line. That total doesn't even include the team's leading scorer, Jenkins, who hit 59 of 61 free throws during the regular season. As an aside, with victories at West Virginia and St. John's, the Bonnies also have better road wins than those Xavier teams.
Who they need to look out for: Temple and Dayton are the big threats in the Atlantic 10 tournament, but only one can make the championship game. A more immediate stumbling block could come in the quarterfinals from tournament host and No. 5 seed Saint Joseph's, should it advance. The Bonnies won the regular-season meeting 68-61 at home, but the Hawks limited Jenkins to 2-of-8 shooting and forced the champs into an uncharacteristic 16 turnovers.
• A-10 tournament bracket
3. Green Bay (25-1 overall, 15-1 Horizon League)
In a place where the culture of team is as ingrained as the accents and the fondness for deliciously unhealthy foodstuffs, it takes someone special to make celebrating the individual acceptable. Julie Wojta, freshly backed by her own website put together by Green Bay, is someone special. The senior put up 27 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists and 6 steals in her final regular-season home game, and that wasn't even her best line of the season. In fact, it was kind of average for someone putting up 19.4 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 3.7 steals per game. As is the case with Delaware, individual brilliance overshadows a strong supporting cast of guards, Adrian Ritchie, Lydia Bauer, Sarah Eichler and Megan Lukan, who shoot well from the 3-point line, defend well in the team's trademark 2-1-2 trapping zone and don't turn over the ball.
Who they need to look out for: The Phoenix will play on their home court as the Horizon No. 1 seed. The obvious sleeper is Detroit, which was responsible for Green Bay's lone loss on Feb. 9, but Wright State is also in the mix. Tied for second entering the final weekend of the regular season, Wright State has a good post threat in Molly Fox (15.9 ppg, 9.8 rpg) and a boom-or-bust freshman guard with Big Ten athleticism in Kim Demmings (17.6 ppg, 4.4 apg).
• Horizon tournament bracket
4. Florida Gulf Coast (27-2 overall, 18-0 Atlantic Sun)
The Eagles do two things really well, one better than any other team in Division I. The latter relates to the 3-pointer. No team hits more of them per game than Florida Gulf Coast at almost 11 3-pointers per game, and not many teams shoot them more accurately than nearly 36.8 percent in the regular season. Six players average at least one 3-pointer per game, a list that doesn't include leading scorer Sarah Hansen. Florida Gulf Coast's other specialty is forcing turnovers, something it did 20.7 times per game in the regular season. The team's leading scorer and rebounder in the regular season, Hansen also doubles as the Atlantic Sun's Scholar Athlete of the Year.
Who they need to look out for: The Eagles got past the first postseason hurdle in Wednesday's Atlantic Sun quarterfinal against East Tennessee State, a rematch of a close game from the past weekend. Stetson and Belmont, the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds, respectively, both gave Florida Gulf Coast good games away from the latter team's home gym. The conference tournament takes place on a neutral court at Mercer, which didn't qualify for the games.
• A-Sun tournament bracket
5. Princeton (21-4 overall, 11-0 Ivy League)
Jim O'Connor/US PresswireShey Peddy leads Temple with 17.0 points per game.
Princeton plays in the same gyms as the rest of the Ivy League, but it doesn't play the same game. The Tigers mauled league opponents by an average of almost 33 points in wrapping up the conference title in 11 games. They limited conference opponents to 29.7 percent shooting and beat them on the boards by 19.4 rebounds per game in those contests. But take out that domination, and Princeton still measures up with just about any team on this list. Against a quality nonconference schedule, coach Courtney Banghart's team still outscored opponents by eight points per game and held a distinctly non-Ivy-like edge on the boards (5.8 more rebounds per game than its foes). The core players of this team -- seniors Lauren Edwards and Devona Allgood and juniors Niveen Rasheed, Lauren Polansky and Kate Miller -- are headed for their third NCAA tournament, and they play like it.
Who they need to look out for: Actually, it's more of a what than a who. With the Ivy's automatic bid already wrapped up, Princeton needs to navigate the fine line between avoiding injuries and losing momentum.
6. Gonzaga (25-4 overall, 14-2 West Coast Conference)
How has life been without Courtney Vandersloot? All things considered, pretty darn good, especially compared to Xavier, the other mid-major power that lost All-American talent after last season. Gonzaga remains a team that pushes tempo, takes care of the basketball and plays an athletic game -- it's the only mid-major program to rank in the top 20 nationally in both scoring offense and rebound margin, joining the likes of Baylor, Connecticut, Duke, Maryland, Notre Dame, Stanford and Tennessee. Transfers Haiden Palmer and Taelor Karr have saved the team on the perimeter, accounting for 80 of Gonzaga's 129 3-pointers.
Who they need to look out for: The top two seeds in the West Coast Conference tournament advance automatically to the semifinals, so the candidates are limited. The other team in these rankings, BYU, is the logical choice after the teams split blowout wins during the regular season. But San Diego, which is a potential semifinal opponent for BYU, is one to watch, too. While it lost both games, it kept Gonzaga below its scoring average in both regular-season meetings.
• WCC tournament bracket
7. Temple (20-8 overall, 13-1 Atlantic 10)
Temple paid the price for a rugged nonconference schedule, losing five games in a row and seven of 10 at one point in November and December, but it righted the ship in conference play. It's always difficult to separate actual improvement from diminished competition when mid-major numbers rise in conference play, but Shey Peddy's resurgence seems linked to the team's rise. Peddy is shooting 52.5 percent from the floor in A-10 play, including 38.4 percent from the 3-point line, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 2-to-1. That's in contrast to 43.1 percent shooting out of conference and essentially a 1-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Who they need to look out for: Temple's ability to play with opponents like Ohio State, Texas A&M and St. John's speaks well of its ability, but close losses don't guarantee at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. Charlie Creme had the Owls comfortably in the field in his latest Bracketology, but it would behoove them to get past a potentially tricky A-10 quarterfinal against Duquesne (should that team beat George Washington in its first game). Temple committed 23 turnovers and barely escaped with a 67-64 win at home against the Dukes in January.
• A-10 tournament bracket
8. Middle Tennessee (24-5 overall, 16-0 Sun Belt)The Blue Raiders are not a statistically impressive bunch, at least not by the standards of a program that produced box-score stuffers like Chrissy Givens, Amber Holt and Alyssa Clark. This team doesn't shoot particularly well from the field or the free throw line, doesn't score like many of Rick Insell's teams, doesn't dominate the glass and gives away a lot of turnovers. What this team does with unerring consistency? Win. The Blue Raiders haven't lost since dropping a 58-47 decision against Georgia Tech on Dec. 11, an 18-game winning streak that includes a victory against Kentucky. Give credit to a defense that is holding opponents to 40.2 percent shooting, best since the 2003-04 season.
Who they need to look out for: Potential quarterfinal opponent Western Kentucky gave Middle Tennessee one of its toughest games during conference play, on the latter team's court, but the Blue Raiders won going away in the rematch. With the conference tournament in Hot Springs, Ark., the obvious challenger, No. 2 seed Arkansas-Little Rock, is that much more obvious.
• Sun Belt tournament bracket
9. Fresno State (23-5 overall, 11-1 WAC)
If you want 3-pointers out of your NCAA tournament sleeper but Florida Gulf Coast isn't your cup of tea, Fresno State is your team. The Bulldogs are third in the nation in 3-pointers per game and 19th in the nation in 3-point accuracy. Their four most prolific shooters from long distance all hit at least 35.9 percent of their shots from behind the arc, paced by freshman Madison Parrish at 42 percent (42 of 100). Yet it's interesting, and perhaps encouraging, that they hit just 7 of 24 shots from behind the 3-point line in a win against Oklahoma, their signature result of the season. Not unlike Florida Gulf Coast, the Bulldogs balance out their shooting by taking care of the ball and forcing oodles of turnovers.
Who they need to look out for: Fresno State dropped out of the top 60 in the RPI after a loss at San Jose State over the weekend, the team's first loss in conference play. That's a good indication that an at-large bid is an iffy proposition should the team fail to win the WAC tournament. The Bulldogs still have a regular-season game left against Louisiana Tech on Thursday, and a strong showing by the Lady Techsters will have people itching for a third meeting.
• WAC tournament bracket
10. BYU (24-6 overall, 12-4 West Coast Conference)
February wasn't kind to BYU, which went just 4-3 in the shortest month and watched Gonzaga race past it, literally, in a 77-60 win for the Bulldogs in the regular-season finale, for a conference title. But the Cougars simply do too many things too well to bump them completely out of the top 10. No other team in the running for this spot can compete with BYU's field goal differential (the Cougars shoot 43.8 percent and limit opponents to 34.4 percent) or its assist-to-turnover ratio. None of the other contenders has a point guard like Haley Steed, either, the sixth-year senior deservedly earning a spot among eight finalists for the Nancy Lieberman Award. Kristen Riley averaged 11.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per game overall but earned WCC Player of the Year honors by averaging 14.4 points and 9.3 rebounds in the league.
Who they need to look out for: The Cougars are very much a bubble team if they fail to win the WCC tournament. That likely means beating Gonzaga in a final on a neutral court in Las Vegas, but it also likely means beating San Diego a third time in a potential semifinal.
• WCC tournament bracket
Next five: Missouri State, Dayton, Marist, UTEP, South Dakota State
A chance to be one of the best players in the nation.
That's how Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell described what the future might hold for A'dia Mathies not long before her sophomore season began. Almost two seasons later, her exact place on such an inexact list remains up for debate, but she is the go-to player on the first Kentucky team to win an SEC regular-season title in her lifetime. It's a pretty good label in its own right.
Mathies didn't turn in a spectacular line in Sunday's 76-40 win at Mississippi State, a victory that clinched Kentucky's first regular-season title since 1982, but the Wildcats didn't need individual brilliance to get by the Bulldogs. With what is essentially an 11-player rotation, the Wildcats rarely turn one player loose on the box score, relying on that depth and collective defensive effort to force nearly 23 turnovers per game. But from her freshman season, when she scored 32 points in her first NCAA tournament game, and added 21 more in a subsequent win against top-seeded Nebraska, Mathies hinted at a knack for knocking out soliloquies, even in a supporting role alongside Victoria Dunlap.
There have been 14 instances of a Kentucky player scoring at least 20 points in a game this season; Mathies is responsible for 10 of them. Sure, a handful of those came against the likes of Northeastern and Southern Miss, but Mathies also put up 20-plus points in victories against Arkansas, Duke, Louisville and South Carolina. She also turned in a performance that ranks near the top of any list of the best singe-game efforts of the season with 34 of her team's 61 points in a one-point victory against Tennessee. Mathies' shooting percentage remains almost unchanged from an inconsistent sophomore effort, but in more than doubling her 3-point output and dramatically improving her long-range accuracy, she has become a much more efficient scorer. She's not a perfect player, nor is a Kentucky team that recently lost three in a row a perfect champion. But only Baylor need worry about perfection right now. For everyone else, it's about being better than those in the other uniform.
It took three decades for Kentucky to get a chance to celebrate a second conference championship. It shouldn't take much more than 24 months for the Wildcats to welcome a second SEC player of the year to program lore.
Making a case for March: Duke. While we're celebrating regular-season conference titles, full credit to Duke for a March-like performance in beating Miami and North Carolina in roughly the span of 72 hours to clinch the ACC regular-season title.
The math seems to add up to Duke earning a No. 2 seed, no matter the weekend results and no matter what happens in the ACC tournament, but the Blue Devils are trying to keep the calculators working right up to the final hour. More importantly, they showed both a toughness and an offensive efficiency in the two victories that they'll need regardless of seeding. As was the case in a loss against Maryland, rebounding remains an issue without injured starter Richa Jackson -- Miami piled up 19 offensive rebounds and North Carolina totaled 15 against a team that entered the weekend allowing just 12.3 offensive rebounds per game. But the champions, bedeviled so often by offensive inconsistency in recent postseasons, shot 49 percent against the Hurricanes and 52 percent against the Tar Heels, with point guard Chelsea Gray putting an exclamation point on things by setting the single-season assists record.
Novosel hit all 12 of her free throw attempts against the Bulls. One of the best at getting into seams around the basket and either finishing or drawing a foul (rivaled by few this side of teammate Skylar Diggins in that regard), she's averaging 4.6 free throw attempts per game this season. That isn't bad by almost any standard, but it is down from 5.9 attempts per game a season ago. She's scoring at almost the same overall rate as a season ago, and her team is winning at an even greater rate than it did last season, so Novosel and the Fighting Irish are still doing just fine. But the more whistles you hear, the more likely it is she's driving opponents to distraction.
Best team weekend performance: Princeton. What did Princeton do to merit this? Did you see any other teams clinching berths in the NCAA tournament over the weekend? Or doing so for the third season in a row, for that matter? The Tigers spent the weekend doing what they have done with impressively numbing regularity in Ivy League play in recent seasons, beating Harvard by 30 points and Dartmouth 37 points to wrap up another conference title. That they did it with three games still to play in a league that doesn't hold a tournament is just Princeton's style. A strong contender for the weekend's top individual honors, Niveen Rasheed put up 24 points, 16 rebounds, five steals and four assists against Dartmouth, but she split the vote with teammate Lauren Edwards, who scored 29 points in the same game, including 7-of-10 from the 3-point line.
Lending a helping hand: Casey Garrison, Missouri State. Injuries took a toll on several potential mid-major powers this season, most notably those that took the likes of Northern Iowa's Jacqui Kalin and Toledo's Naama Shafir off the court. But the small matter of an injury to her shooting hand isn't stopping Garrison from fueling Missouri State's run in the Missouri Valley Conference. As the Springfield News Leader recounts, Garrison (who already donned a mask this season to play through a broken nose) simply started shooting with her left hand when she sprained the thumb on her more familiar shooting hand. Her first game as a southpaw? She scored 20 points. A lefty off the court, shooting with that hand was apparently nonetheless a relatively new experience. With Garrison leading the way, Missouri State owns first place in the league and 10 victories in a row, including Sunday's 80-76 win at second-place Illinois State.
The week ahead (Monday-Friday)
Notre Dame at Connecticut (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET Monday): Are we headed for a season in which neither Connecticut nor Tennessee win regular-season conference titles? Kentucky already locked up the SEC, and Notre Dame, which already clinched a share of the Big East title, can go for its first outright title with a win in Hartford. Of course, it might also be just the first of two games between the team in Hartford in the next eight days, if the conference tournament leaves them opposite each other in the final. Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel combined for 19 free throws when the Fighting Irish won an overtime thriller in South Bend earlier this season. In 15 games since, only one Connecticut opponent -- the entire team -- attempted as many as 19 free throws (Louisville's 21 attempts on Feb. 7).
Baylor at Texas A&M (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET Monday): Forget the 12th man; Texas A&M could use a sixth player. In five meetings between these two since the beginning of last season, Texas A&M's bench scored a total of 21 points (17 from Karla Gilbert). That worked out on the fourth try a season ago, and it's not like the Aggies roll bench points against everyone else. But without Danielle Adams and Sydney Colson around, it's a tough way to go about stopping the nation's No. 1 team.
St. John's at Georgetown (Monday): There are still matters of Big East tournament seeding at stake, in addition to a chance for St. John's to post the program's best league record, but this one is big for momentum alone. St. John's didn't win a true road game until Jan. 11 at Syracuse, but wins at Rutgers and, as you might have heard, Connecticut beefed up that road profile. With Da'Shena Stevens coming off a 21-point effort over the weekend, it's worth noting no St. John's player has hit more than five field goals in a game against Georgetown since the 2007-08 season.
Appalachian State at Chattanooga (ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET Monday): It's a chance for Appalachian State to clinch the outright Southern Conference regular-season title, but only if it can beat third-place Chattanooga on the road. Appalachian State's Anna Freeman is one of those quintessential do-everything mid-major players, averaging 15.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.7 steals, 2.7 assists and 2.1 blocks per game.
Florida Gulf Coast versus East Tennessee State (ESPN3, 12 p.m. ET Wednesday): Get Championship Week started by watching a team that has the potential to do something in the main draw -- if it can take care of business in the Atlantic Sun tournament. Florida Gulf Coast faces East Tennessee State in a quarterfinal. This game comes just four days after the same teams met to end the regular season, a 71-64 win for the Eagles that was one of just four wins by single-digit margins in an unbeaten conference season.
Kansas State at Iowa State (Wednesday): There isn't much doubt Kansas State will be in the NCAA tournament, but an overtime loss at Missouri raised more eyebrows when it comes to a team that already seemed to have an inflated RPI. For a team that has shown an ability to go on the road and win, notably at Marist, South Dakota State, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas Tech, adding a win in Ames, Iowa, would be a boost. On the other side, Iowa State needs a win badly, if not desperately, to shore up its own at-large r´esumé.
Oklahoma State at Kansas (Wednesday): Both teams need victories in the struggle for NCAA tournament at-large consideration. Kansas got a badly needed result with a win at Texas Tech last week, fueled by 20 points and eight assists from Angel Goodrich. But the Jayhawks are just 3-8 in their last 11 and playing without Carolyn Davis, do they need to sweep Oklahoma State and Oklahoma?
Louisiana Tech at Fresno State (Thursday): Such is life for a mid-major like Fresno State, that all of the work of a 12-game winning streak and clinching at least a share of the WAC regular-season title can be partly negated by one tough loss. But a 62-61 loss at mid-table San Jose State does damage Fresno State's NCAA tournament at-large potential. Before they can worry about that, or even the conference tournament, the Bulldogs face the best women's basketball rivalry in the WAC. Ki-Ki Moore scored 20 when Fresno State won 61-59 in Louisiana.
Monday headline: St. John's puts the exclamation point on a wild week
Doubt is a dangerous thing for an athlete. It's a great thing for fans of a sport.
And doubt is suddenly easier to find than discounted Valentine's chocolate.
The truth is we can't know if St. John's 57-56 victory at No. 2 Connecticut on Saturday, which ended the latter's 99-game home winning streak, will leave lingering doubts in the minds of any Huskies. They will say otherwise, regardless of what happens when they next take the court Tuesday at Pittsburgh or a week from now against Notre Dame.
We can't be sure if No. 4 Notre Dame questions its own fallibility after last week's loss at home against West Virginia. After a relatively easy win against Providence on Valentine's Day, the only game the Fighting Irish have played since the loss, Skylar Diggins talked about the importance of her team regaining its "swag and confidence."
Nobody outside of No. 1 Baylor's huddle knows if even a dominant defensive effort in the second half of Saturday's 56-51 win against Texas Tech carries more weight in the Lady Bears' minds than 35 percent shooting or a halftime deficit.
And on and on it goes for what for so long seemed like a race with four favorites, a handful of contenders and a whole mess of pretenders. Is No. 5 Duke damaged goods after losing in the closing seconds at Maryland, the Blue Devils' 16-game ACC winning streak ending in their first game since losing starter Richa Jackson to a season-ending injury? Can No. 8 Kentucky recover after losing its grip on first place in the SEC with a loss at cellar-dwelling Alabama?
What we do know after a nine-day span in which three top-five teams lost, two of them at home against unranked opponents, is that a lot of us don't know quite as much as we thought we did when the month began. If teams like Connecticut can lose at home against unranked St. John's, surely Maryland or Miami can't be counted out on a neutral court in March? There might even be room for a Tennessee surge or a Delaware run on the way to Denver.
For that matter, a St. John's team not deemed one of the best 25 in the nation on Valentine's Day has reason to believe it can get the last laugh by playing games beyond April Fool's Day.
If only because just about every team this side of Stanford was complicit (and the Cardinal had their own eyebrow-raising close calls), there's little reason to think anything other than the favorites are still the favorites. Baylor is still unbeaten and still has Brittney Griner. Connecticut is still limiting opponents to shooter percentages that would rate as barely passable batting averages. Notre Dame's Sklyar Diggins is an increasingly unsolvable puzzle for opponents. Stanford just clinched a conference title. And everyone else still has a question mark for every answer.
But long before St. John's guard Shenneika Smith hit a 3-pointer to silence Gampel Pavilion and give a perpetually plucky Big East overachiever something far sweeter than a moral victory, Geno Auriemma warned of what this season might bring. He was one of the few who never had a doubt that a stretch of days like we just witnessed was possible this season.
"I think history has proven over the past five, six, 10 years, maybe, that the unexpected has been happening," Auriemma said on the eve of the season. "Not necessarily the unexpected in that the unexpected team wins the national championship, but unexpected in terms of who is there at the end. And I think that is going to continue; I really do. I think there are probably teams out there that are going to all of a sudden kind of put it all together in February and make a run. They're being viewed as kind of fringe players in this play [in the preseason], but I think that time has proven there are more of them making an impact at the end than there ever has been before."
Best weekend team performance: St. John's. You were expecting something else? Saturday's win stands alone as a signature moment in program history, but it hardly came out of nowhere. St. John's led Baylor at halftime when the teams met in December in Madison Square Garden, playing without an injured Da'Shena Stevens and losing Nadirah McKenith to injury during that game, and more recently won at home against Louisville and on the road against Rutgers. Healthy again, Stevens was a big part of both last week's victory against the Scarlet Knights and this week's win against the Huskies, while Smith hit the shot heard around Queens with the 3-pointer to put her team ahead for good in Storrs.
But McKenith's performance can't be overlooked, both on the day and the season. The junior fueled a team effort that produced 65 field goal attempts, the third-most against Connecticut this season, and just nine turnovers, the fewest against Connecticut this season. With seven assists and two turnovers, McKenith became the first player this season to have at least five more assists than turnovers against the Huskies. Before Saturday, St. John's seemed like a veteran team capable of overcoming its own liabilities and beating any opponent on a given night, save one of the members of the very top tier. It's tough to keep that caveat in place now.
Department of turning over a new leaf: Connecticut. The end of any streak on the verge of triple digits is a big deal, but the sky is not falling in Connecticut. Heck, Saturday's loss arguably wasn't the most momentous streak snapped in the state over the weekend, given Trinity College falling short of a squash championship for the first time in 14 years. What the basketball loss did reinforce is just how much Connecticut depends on its defense for offense -- and just how good the defense has been for much of this season. After the game, Auriemma lamented the sizable edge St. John's had in field goal attempts. Some of that had to do with 17 offensive rebounds from the Red Storm, who still have fewer rebounds on the season than their opponents, but it also goes back to ball possession. In addition to limiting opponents to 30.8 field goal shooting, the Huskies are forcing 20.6 turnovers per game this season, more than at any time during the Maya Moore era. Without the scoring opportunities those turnovers provide, Connecticut is left to depend on a half-court offense that, for all the potential of its individual parts, is not as great a collective asset as the team's defense.
Best weekend individual performance: Brittany Hrynko, DePaul. It isn't easy to get attention in the Big East these days without beating Note Dame or Connecticut, but No. 20 DePaul continued its impressive run by ending West Virginia's run of three consecutive wins against ranked teams behind 21 points from Hrynko. The Blue Demons could have crumbled after losing All-American Keisha Hampton to a season-ending injury early in the Big East season. That they remain in the Top 25 and the thick of the Big East race has a lot do with Anna Martin (17.5 points per game in Big East games) and Katherine Harry (10 points and 10.5 rebounds in Big East games). But those two needed help on the road against a Mountaineers team that held Louisville, Notre Dame and Rutgers to 50, 63 and 50 points, respectively, in their three most recent games. Enter Hrynko, a freshman guard, who hit 7-of-14 shots, including 4 of 8 from the 3-point line, and added six assists and four steals in a 77-63 win.
Best weekend individual play: Alyssa Thomas, Maryland. With 4.1 seconds left and Maryland leading Duke by two points in Sunday's ACC showdown, the Terrapins star had Blue Devils star Elizabeth Williams' left arm in her face as the two fought for position on the right block. That stalemate down low forced Duke's Chelsea Gray, after a drive to the baseline on that side of the court, to throw the ball back out to Shay Selby at the top of the key. When Selby released a pass to Haley Peters in the left corner with 2.9 seconds left, no Maryland player was even on the same side of the court as Peters. But by the time Peters released a jumper with 1.3 seconds left, an airborne Thomas was close enough to deflect the shot out of bounds for a block as time expired. Two stops on opposite sides of the court in the span of three seconds at the end of the game. That's how a star who suffered through a 2-for-11 shooting day with five turnovers still plays like an All-American.
Auditioning for a new role: Allison Vernerey, Duke. The bad news for Duke in its first game without Jackson, its fourth-leading rebounder and second-leading offensive rebounder, was Maryland winning the battle of the boards by a 45-36 margin. That included nine offensive rebounds from Tianna Hawkins, who scored the winner on a second-chance opportunity, and 30 total rebounds combined from Hawkins, Thomas and Lynetta Kizer. The good is, well, the Blue Devils are done with the Terrapins for the regular season.
But the rebounding numbers aside, and coach Joanne P. McCallie unsurprisingly singled that out as the difference in the game, Duke got good effort from Vernerey in an expanded role. Playing a season-high 32 minutes, she finished with four offensive rebounds and three defensive rebounds and did her part for a defense that was stingy on Maryland's first looks. There's no getting around how big a blow Jackson's injury is to Duke's chances, but Sunday's game might not be quite as much of an indication of impending calamity as the numbers suggest.
Beyond the big six conferences: Shey Peddy, Temple. There might not be a team suffering through a longer season than Rhode Island, which fell to 1-26 after Sunday's 84-41 loss against Temple, but even the Rams don't give up many lines like that put forth by Temple guard Peddy. Keeping her team a game behind unbeaten St. Bonaventure in the Atlantic 10 race, Peddy took the difficult route to a double-double with 22 points and 10 steals in 29 minutes. After a modest start to the season, Peddy is averaging 18.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 3.1 steals per game in conference play.
The week ahead (Monday-Friday)
Notre Dame at Louisville (ESPN/ESPN3, 2 p.m. ET Monday): Facing games this week against Notre Dame and DePaul, Louisville almost put itself in a world of hurt before rallying for an overtime win at Pittsburgh on Valentine's Day. No team held Notre Dame to fewer points in the postseason last season than Louisville, which dropped a 63-53 decision in the Big East tournament. Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel combined to shoot 5 of 15 from the floor with 11 turnovers that day.
Ohio State at Penn State (ESPN2/ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET Monday): The first of two games this week in BCS conferences with first place on the line. For all their history, the Lady Lions are looking to clinch a share of their first Big Ten title since 2004, a drought the Buckeyes have done their fair share to prolong. Already accurate from long range, Maggie Lucas is shooting 56 percent (14 of 25) from the 3-point line in her past five games.
Vanderbilt at Kentucky (ESPN2/ESPN3, 9 p.m. ET Monday): The Wildcats look to snap a three-game losing streak, while the Commodores look to prolong a stretch in which they've won six of seven. Vanderbilt does have two road wins in that run, at Auburn and at Mississippi State, but a win at Tennessee-Martin is its lone road win against a team with a winning conference record. The good news, or bad news, is it gets another shot if Monday doesn't work out, visiting LSU on Thursday.
Texas A&M at Oklahoma (Tuesday): A share of second place is on the line in Norman. The Sooners committed at least 20 turnovers in seven of their first 13 games, a stretch that concluded with 23 turnovers in a 75-58 loss at Texas A&M. They've turned it over 20 times just twice in 13 games since as they look to end a six-game losing streak against the defending national champions.
Nebraska at Michigan State (Thursday): Throw in Purdue visiting Michigan the same night and there will be a lot of jockeying for position as the four teams that begin the week tied for third in the Big Ten look to shore up one of the top four spots and a bye in the first round of the conference tournament. The Cornhuskers close at home against Ohio State and could use another road win here to erase the sting of a three-game losing streak that ended Sunday.
Wichita State at Illinois State (Thursday): The Shockers are tied for first (with Missouri State) in the Missouri Valley and lead the conference in field goal offense and defense, but they face a tough test at third-place Illinois State here. The Redbirds won when these teams met in Wichita, shooting 48 percent against that otherwise-stingy defense.
Miami at Duke (Friday): This is other game for first place this week, and it'll likely be for the regular-season title (although while Miami closes at home against Boston College, Duke still has to visit North Carolina in its final game). Miami got the road win it needed at Maryland last week, but adding a victory in Durham would seem likely to lock up a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. After a huge game earlier in the week against NC State, Pepper Wilson had four fouls in 15 minutes for Miami against Florida State on Sunday. The Hurricanes could use her size against the Blue Devils. Riquna Williams is just 15 of 61 from the floor in three career games against Duke.
1. Delaware (22-1 overall, 13-0 Colonial Athletic Association)
That Delaware had at least a little something going for it even before Elena Delle Donne showed up was clear when coach Tina Martin picked up career victory No. 300, all at Delaware, in Sunday's win at Georgia State. And even while Delle Donne was busy collecting 31 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 steals in just 25 minutes in Sunday's game, there were hints of why this is a team with the right supporting cast for a once-in-a-lifetime star. Lauren Carra scored 19 points, including 3-of-6 shooting from the 3-point line, Danielle Parker totaled 11 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists and 6 steals, Trumae Lucas finished with 9 assists and 1 turnover and the whole cast limited Georgia State to 36 percent shooting and forced 25 turnovers. Georgia State isn't a good team, but with Delaware facing challenging road games this weekend against teams that do fit that label, Hofstra and Drexel, the Blue Hens used the warm-up game to offer a nice reminder of why there's more than one reason to like them.
2. St. Bonaventure (24-2 overall, 11-0 Atlantic 10)
The Bonnies remain perfect in 2012, and the math starts to look pretty simple to complete a perfect conference season and claim the No. 1 seed in the Atlantic 10 tournament. All that remains for St. Bonaventure is home games against Xavier and Fordham and a road trip to Rhode Island, teams with a combined 5-25 A-10 record at the moment. Along with an earlier win at Temple, Saturday's 56-55 win at Dayton might have been the most impressive of the conference slate (although those nonconference road wins at West Virginia and St. John's also gained some sheen after those teams went to Notre Dame and Rutgers, respectively, and won Sunday). Against Dayton, the Bonnies got just three points from Jessica Jenkins, but showed they have other go-to options (17 points, 8 rebounds by Megan Van Tatenhove) and plenty of depth (13 points off the bench from CeCe Dixon).
3. Green Bay (21-1 overall, 11-1 Horizon League)
Losing one regular-season game every 14 months ought to buy a team leeway, but Green Bay falls from the top spot after a 70-58 home loss against Detroit. Playing without injured starter Sarah Eichler, one of its best one-on-one defenders, Green Bay saw several streaks come to an end against Detroit, including a 40-game regular-season winning streak, 27-game home winning streak and 36-game conference winning streak. So how did the Phoenix respond two days later? How about what might be the line of the year in college basketball from should-be-All-American Julie Wojta: 30 points, 20 rebounds, 8 steals, 5 assists and 4 blocks in a 64-59 win against Wright State, the league's third-best team.
4. Florida Gulf Coast (23-2 overall, 15-0 Atlantic Sun)
Since a five-point loss against NC State in Hawaii on Dec. 28, Florida Gulf Coast has won 15 in a row, 12 of those games by double digits. That probably says something about both the Eagles and the Atlantic Sun, but if the past week in women's college basketball proved anything, it's that winning isn't ever a given. Florida Gulf Coast hit just two 3-pointers in Saturday's win against Belmont, missing 17 shots from the arc, but such shooting woes for the nation's most prolific 3-point shooting team don't matter much when you limit the league's third-place team to 34 points and 31 percent shooting.
5. BYU (22-4 overall, 10-2 West Coast Conference)
BYU scored 46 points in the second half of its conference showdown against Gonzaga. It could have skipped the first half. A 70-40 victory for the Cougars on Feb. 9 goes down as one of the more eyebrow-raising scores of the season, mid-major or otherwise, even if the Bulldogs still hold a half-game lead in the standings (with a game remaining against BYU on Feb. 25 in Spokane). BYU is as balanced as any team in the nation when it comes to finishing; four players have attempted between 217 and 236 field goals. But there's one hand distributing most of the makes. Haley Steed has double-digit assists in back-to-back games and is closing on the top five nationally in assists per game.
6. Princeton (17-4 overall, 7-0 Ivy League)
Expect the Tigers to keep saying all the right things about the Ivy League, and Friday-Saturday back-to-backs aren't easy regardless of the opponent, but there isn't much left to challenge this team until the postseason. Princeton rolled through the often-tricky Dartmouth-Harvard road trip without a worry over the weekend, winning by 31 and 28 points, respectively. It's not hurting them at the moment, so perhaps it isn't a problem, but it's interesting that a team that was so strong in assist-to-turnover ratio in recent seasons is currently working with a mediocre 0.80 ratio.
7. Fresno State (20-4 overall, 8-0 WAC)
Their opponents shoot a better percentage from the floor than they do. Their opponents get more rebounds than they do. So how do the Bulldogs keep rolling along? The winners of nine in a row, including five road games in the past three and a half weeks, the Bulldogs keep getting more opportunities than the teams they play and make those opportunities count for more. Not since the fifth game of the season has an opponent had fewer turnovers than Fresno State, which ranks in the top 10 nationally in turnover margin. Throw in the chance to hit 18 of 29 shots from the 3-point line, as Fresno State did against Nevada on Saturday, and it's easy to explain this ranking.
8. Middle Tennessee (21-5 overall, 13-0 Sun Belt)
The wins haven't come easy, with three of Middle Tennessee's four February victories by single digits, including a 67-64 escape against Western Kentucky, but they have come. With just two reserves averaging more than seven minutes a game, the Blue Raiders need at least one of their familiar faces to step up at all times. Icelyn Elie has done so of late. The team's third-leading scorer topped 20 points in three of the past four games. The Blue Raiders can lock up the best record in the Sun Belt with a win Saturday against Florida Atlantic (ESPN3, 4 p.m. ET).
9. Gonzaga (22-4 overall, 10-2 West Coast Conference)
With a 1-2 record against BYU and Saint Mary's, including that 30-point rout at the hands of the Cougars, Gonzaga is not on firm ground here, owing its standing in large part to neutral-site victories against Georgia and Dayton in December. The good news is the remaining three regular-season games are all at home, including the Feb. 25 tilt with BYU. Also on the positive side of the ledger, Gonzaga is running a positive assist-to-turnover ratio at the moment, with 450 assists against 400 turnovers. Why is that worth noting for a team that ranked among the national leaders last season with 245 more assists than turnovers? Because take away Courtney Vandersloot, and last season's team actually finished with a negative assist-to-turnover ratio.
10. Temple (16-8 overall, 9-1 Atlantic 10)
Temple returns on the strength of nine consecutive wins in the Atlantic 10, keeping the Owls at least nominally in the race for the top seed in the Atlantic 10 tournament, despite St. Bonaventure's torrid pace. Other than a loss at Northern Illinois, there aren't any head-scratchers on the Temple résumé, with only Villanova an NCAA tournament question mark among the seven other teams to beat Tonya Cardoza's team. Conference play has been a boon to all involved, but Victoria Macaulay more than most. The 6-foot-4 junior center is averaging 10.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game in Atlantic 10 games.
Next five: South Dakota State, UTEP, Marist, San Diego State, Central Arkansas