Category archive: Xavier Musketeers
1. Xavier (21-2, 10-0 Atlantic 10)
There's still a home game against Duquesne, but it looks increasingly like a second consecutive season of A-10 perfection for the Musketeers will come down to the finale at Temple on Feb. 27. Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips get plenty of attention, and deservedly so, but Special Jennings is having an extraordinary senior season. She leads the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio for a team quietly in the back in that category. With conference perfection on the line, she came up with 19 points and eight assists in a 70-66 overtime victory at Dayton on Feb. 5.
2. Green Bay (24-1, 13-0 Horizon League)
A season ago, Green Bay endured a lost weekend in Chicago. This year, it opened the second half at Illinois-Chicago on Feb. 10 with a 19-2 run en route to an 81-50 victory. Two days later, it led Loyola 42-8 at one point in the first half. And those results came on the heels of an 84-25 victory against Youngstown State in which a first-half shutout appeared to be in play. The Phoenix are playing too well not to bump them up to second, and Xavier shouldn't get too comfortable in the top spot. Celeste Hoewisch was slighted in the Naismith midseason top 30 released recently, but the senior pulse of the team is shooting 48.8 percent from the floor, 43.8 percent from the 3-point line and 81.6 percent from the free throw line.
3. Marist (23-2, 14-0 MAAC)
It must be nice when winning by double digits constitutes a close call, but Marist has come up with some closer-than-usual victories of late, including an honest-to-goodness nail-biter in a 54-52 win at Fairfield on Feb. 6. That said, the Red Foxes are still winning by an average of 17 points per game, setting up a closing stretch in which three of their final four opponents own winning conference records. Marist's overall 3-point shooting has actually tailed off slightly in conference play, making freshman Leanne Ockenden (44.1 percent from behind the arc in MAAC play) potentially that much more useful off the bench down the stretch.
4. Gonzaga (22-4, 10-0 WCC)
Courtney Vandersloot keeps moving up the charts. The senior recorded career assist No. 1,000 against Pepperdine on Feb. 12, becoming just the fourth player in NCAA history -- and the first since 1995 -- to reach quadruple figures. The senior has either scored or assisted on 49 percent of the team's field goals this season. A home game against second-place Saint Mary's looms at the end of the month, but all that otherwise stands between the Bulldogs and a spotless conference record are games against three of the four teams with losing records in WCC play.
5. Temple (19-6, 10-0 Atlantic 10)
The Owls have knocked off Duquesne and St. Bonaventure on the road in the past two weeks, leaving an intra-city trip to Saint Joseph's as the toughest remaining test away from home. Shey Peddy is four rebounds shy of leading the team in points, assists, steals, free throw attempts and rebounds. She does have some ground to cover if she wants to catch Victoria Macaulay for the lead in blocks, so the 5-foot-7 star in her first season in Philadelphia is at least mortal. Even with a potential rematch looming a week later in the conference tournament in Lowell, Mass., the finale against Xavier shapes up as one of the season's most interesting games.
6. Houston (20-4, 11-0 Conference USA)
Houston owns a four-game lead with five to play in Conference USA, so there isn't much math to do in working out the magic number to clinch a title. As always, it's worth noting the team is 19-2 with Courtney Taylor in the lineup. Why is it worth noting? Consider Taylor's 21 points, 18 rebounds, three steals and two blocks on the road against Tulane on Feb. 6. After shooting 39.2 percent in nonconference games, Houston is up to 41.7 percent in league play.
7. Louisiana Tech (18-5, 10-0 WAC)
It has taken five overtimes, including four in two games against Fresno State, but Louisiana Tech is still unbeaten in the WAC. The Lady Techsters lead the league in scoring offense during conference play and have hit at least 85 points in each of their past four games. Points per game is the only major team category Tech leads the league in during conference play, but where other contenders have weak spots the Lady Techsters are near the top in every major category (scoring margin, field goal offense, field goal defense, assist-to-turnover ratio, 3-point offense, etc.).
8. Northern Iowa (19-5, 12-1 Missouri Valley)
The winning streak is at 11 games in conference play for the Panthers, who took a big step toward winning the regular-season title and proving themselves relevant beyond the league by beating Missouri State on the road on Feb. 6 and turning around to beat Creighton at home on Feb. 10. Lizzie Boeck had double-doubles in both victories, while Jacqui Kalin scored 44 points and got to the free throw line 23 times. Northern Iowa now faces three road games in nine days, but those games come against the three teams at the bottom of the standings.
9. James Madison (19-6, 12-1 Colonial)
After starting the season 5-5, including losses against Hampton and Monmouth and a pair of overtime victories against Montana and Central Florida, James Madison heads toward March on firmer ground. Wins at home against Old Dominion on Feb. 6 and at Virginia Commonwealth on Feb. 10 put the Dukes out in front in the conference race, although difficult road games remain at Delaware and Hofstra before a home finale against third-place UNC-Wilmington. Boston College transfer Lauren Whitehurst is averaging 8.1 rebounds per game in CAA competition, compared to 4.9 per game prior to conference play.
10. TCU (17-8, 9-2 Mountain West)
TCU trails BYU by a game in the standings, but in a top-heavy league, the Horned Frogs are 3-0 against the only other two teams with winning conference records. The defending champions put a curious two-game slide against New Mexico and Air Force behind them with recent victories against third-place Wyoming, UNLV and San Diego State. Helena Sverrisdottir played 93 minutes combined in those games and turned over the ball a grand total of once.
Next five: Middle Tennessee, Charlotte, Dayton, BYU, Toledo
1. Xavier (17-2, 6-0 Atlantic 10)
The Musketeers appear to be in cruise mode, in the best sense of the term, in the Atlantic 10. They face a challenging two-game road swing this weekend at Dayton and Richmond, but they've won all three of their conference road games to this point by 20-plus points, including an impressive 82-61 victory at Charlotte last week. As much as Xavier returned this season, starting with Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips, it lost a key piece in April Phillips. But in conference play, particularly recently, senior Megan Askew has given Xavier the same rebounding presence April Phillips provided. She's averaging seven rebounds per game over the past five contests.
AP Photo/Matt SlocumLike Xavier, Shey Peddy and the Temple Owls are 6-0 in the Atlantic 10.
2. Marist (19-2, 10-0 MAAC)
It's a sign things are going well when you beat the second-place team in your conference by double digits and face questions about what went wrong. That was the case for Marist after a sloppy second half in a 62-52 victory at home against Loyola. Including that win and a subsequent 70-41 victory at Rider, the Red Foxes have won nine games in a row by double figures and haven't allowed more than 52 points since Jan. 2. And if the game against Loyola wasn't pretty, it did reinforce just what kind of player Erica Allenspach is. With her team needing the production, she totaled 22 points on 9-of-10 shooting with 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 turnover.
3. Green Bay (20-1, 9-0 Horizon)
Green Bay put together about as complete a performance as a team can in demolishing rival Wisconsin-Milwaukee 87-39 on Jan. 22 and promptly dropped a spot in both Top 25 polls the following week. But beyond that puzzler, Green Bay passed what looks like its toughest test in the Horizon League with a 66-62 victory at previously unbeaten Butler. With 3-point shooter Adrian Ritchie still out of the lineup with a knee injury, do-everything guard Celeste Hoewisch lived up to that label by hitting 6 of 8 shots from the 3-point line in the two-game swing through Butler and Valparaiso.
4. Gonzaga (19-4, 7-0 WCC)
A 70-49 victory at San Diego on Saturday more or less qualifies as a close call for Gonzaga; the Bulldogs' past four wins came by an average margin of 30.8 points, including a 106-77 victory at Saint Mary's, purportedly Gonzaga's chief competition in the WCC. Courtney Vandersloot totaled 45 assists in four games since these rankings last appeared. And Janelle Bekkering, a key complementary piece for any postseason run, hit 14 of 23 shots in the same span. What hurdles remain don't seem likely to trip the Bulldogs (especially prep hurdler Kayla Standish); Gonzaga plays five of its final seven conference games at home, with only a road swing to last-place San Francisco and sixth-place Santa Clara interrupting the stretch.
5. Temple (15-6, 6-0 Atlantic 10)
As well as Xavier is playing, it can't claim to be the only unbeaten team in the Atlantic 10. Unbeaten Temple gets a test Saturday at Duquesne, but it added an impressive 84-56 home victory against Richmond to its profile on Saturday. Wright State transfer Shey Peddy seems to be coming into her own in conference play. Through six league games, Peddy leads the team in free throw attempts, assists and steals, owns a two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio and is averaging 14.3 points per game, up from 12.1 out of conference. Perhaps not coincidentally, Kristen McCarthy's shooting percentages are also up noticeably in A-10 play.
6. Duquesne (18-3, 5-1 Atlantic 10)
A home loss against Richmond on Jan. 19 put a slight damper on Duquesne's rise, but the team bounced back to win the games it should against La Salle, George Washington and Fordham over the past two weeks. That sets up an opportunity to follow up earlier road victories at Ohio State and Dayton with a big home meeting with Temple this weekend. The game against the Owls will be a matchup of guards on the rise, with Duquesne's Vanessa Abel squaring off against Peddy. A stat-stuffer in everything but points prior to conference play, Abel is averaging 11 points per game in A-10 competition.
7. Louisiana Tech (15-5, 7-0 WAC)
A familiar name makes its first appearance. Louisiana Tech got off to a slow start this season without Shanavia Dowdell, but the past month has been a major success. After a victory against Georgia and narrow loss against Marquette in Miami just before New Year's, Tech opened 2011 with a win against Southern Miss and seven victories in a row in WAC play, including a triple-overtime win at Fresno State on Jan. 13, a 24-point victory against Nevada on Jan. 24 and a successful swing through Idaho this past weekend. All of which sets up Saturday's rematch with Fresno State. Adrienne Johnson ranks first in scoring, fifth in rebounding and third in steals in the WAC.
8. Houston (17-4, 8-0 Conference USA)
It's almost worth noting above that Houston is also 16-2 with Courtney Taylor in the lineup. Then again, Houston was also 36 seconds from being 16-5 overall. Down six points with that much time remaining on the clock in Sunday's game against SMU, Houston scored 11 points in a row for a 72-67 victory. A two-time member of the Conference USA all-defensive team, Taylor might have to fend off a challenge from within this season. Teammate Lesslee Mason had five blocks and three steals against SMU and is averaging 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 2.2 steals per game.
9. Dayton (14-7, 5-2 Atlantic 10)
February is a short month, but it's going to offer more than enough to prove once and for all what Dayton is this season. The fun starts Wednesday with a trip to St. Bonaventure, never an easy trek and never an easy team to play. That sets up Saturday's rematch with Xavier after the Flyers pushed the Musketeers to the wire in Cincinnati on Jan. 9. And if that's not enough, trips to Charlotte and Temple loom before the month is three weeks old. The Flyers took care of business building up to this stretch, winning their past four games by double digits, including a 66-55 victory at Richmond on Jan. 22. Worth watching is that as Dayton's pace has slowed against conference foes, its torrid early 3-point shooting has also cooled.
10. Northern Iowa (15-5, 8-1 Missouri Valley)
Granted, Northern Iowa hit a favorable patch of scheduling in recent weeks, but the Missouri Valley leader is doing exactly what needs to be done with a gift like that. Against Evansville, Southern Illinois and Bradley in the team's three most recent games, Northern Iowa has three victories by 24 or more points and has not allowed an opponent to reach 40 points. Not to mention the Panthers already have wins against the two teams tied for second, Creighton and Missouri State. They shoot the 3-pointer often and accurately, value possession and turn over opponents. That's a tried-and-true formula.
Next five: Middle Tennessee, Florida Gulf Coast, TCU, Princeton, Toledo
1. Xavier (14-2, 3-0 Atlantic 10)
A tough 63-59 victory at home against Dayton might be a sign of things to come in an Atlantic 10 full of quality teams this season, but the flagship mid-major program generally keeps rolling along behind Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillps. The Musketeers aren't playing very many people this season -- only six played in the win against Dayton on Jan. 9, for instance -- but perhaps that familiarity is paying off when it comes to offensive continuity. Xavier has a positive assist-to-turnover ratio and assists on 60 percent of its field goals, both improvements on last season.
2. Marist (15-2 overall, 6-0 MAAC)
No conference foe has come within 16 points of Marist, which won three of its first six MAAC games by 30 or more points. Erica Allenspach is giving opponents fits, attempting 24 3-pointers and 30 free throws in those six games, but she's not alone in forcing the issue. Pass-first point guard Elise Caron has scored 96 points this season, 49 of them from the free-throw line. When you can't help but foul a point guard who loves to pass and shoots a modest 32.8 percent from the floor, you know the Red Foxes have you befuddled.
3. Green Bay (17-1, 6-0 Horizon)
Already down a guard in Heather Golden, forced to retire because of a knee injury, the Phoenix recently lost starter Adrian Ritchie for as much as a month with a sprained MCL. Replacement Hannah Quilling was essentially a sixth starter coming off the bench before Ritchie's injury, but it's much less clear who picks up Quilling's minutes. Lydia Bauer was starting to see more regular minutes even before Ritchie went down, but is there a seventh member of the rotation? On a happier note, junior post Julie Wojta already has two games of at least 23 points and another 19-point, 11-rebound double-double in 2011. Matt Bollant became the third Green Bay coach (out of three) with 100 victories at the school in a win against UIC on Jan. 15.
4. Gonzaga (15-4, 3-0 West Coast)
It's hardly a blip on the radar for a team that went from North Dakota to Hawaii on the same road trip, but Gonzaga wrapped up a stretch in which it played five of six games away from home, including its first three conference games, with a 65-59 win at Loyola Marymount on Jan. 16. Foul trouble against the Lions notwithstanding, Kayla Standish is averaging 18.3 points and 10.7 rebounds in WCC play. One potentially worrisome sign is Gonzaga's bench actually appears to be getting shorter in conference play, when conventional wisdom might hold there would be more opportunities to spread minutes around.
5. Duquesne (15-2 overall, 2-0 Atlantic 10)
Duquesne did just about everything right in claiming a 37-25 halftime lead at Dayton on Jan. 16, shooting 50 percent from the floor, knocking down 7-of-9 3-pointers and claiming 21 rebounds (all right, the 14 turnovers weren't perfection). But the perseverance the Dukes displayed after squandering that lead in the second half was equally telling. Down 49-48 with seven minutes to play, Duquesne got its final four field goals from four players before free throws sealed a 61-57 win, the team's ninth in a row on the road. The turnovers are problematic as you start looking toward March, but Duquesne shares the ball and plays extremely well together on both ends of the court.
6. Florida Gulf Coast (14-0 overall, 7-0 Atlantic Sun)
Who needs the BCS to finish a season with an unbeaten team that doesn't win the national championship? It's getting toward the time when it's reasonable to ponder a perfect season for the Eagles. They had a scoring margin of 17.3 points per game entering Monday's game against Mercer, while no other Atlantic Sun team was even in positive territory. Then they went out and beat Mercer by 35 points. Having already beaten East Tennessee State on the road Jan. 8, the biggest hurdle, such as it is, might come in the next two weeks, as Florida Gulf Coast plays four consecutive road games.
7. Tulane (15-2 overall, 4-0 Conference USA)
The Green Wave have used the opening weeks of Conference USA play to move up the national rankings in scoring margin, following up a four-point win against SMU with double-digit margins against UAB, East Carolina and Marshall. Tiffany Aidoo is averaging 18 points per game in conference play, shooting 51.6 percent from the 3-point line, while having Danielle Nunn (15 points per game) and Brett Benzio (9.3 rebounds and 5.3 blocks per game in conference) healthy and playing expanded minutes only makes the Green Wave deeper.
8. Bowling Green (15-2 overall, 3-1 MAC)
After back-to-back 90-point performances in victories against Akron and Miami, Bowling Green tumbled in a 44-43 loss at Kent State on Jan. 15. It was the first conference loss since Feb. 10 of last season for the Falcons, a stretch of eight regular-season league games. After piling up 50 assists on 80 fields goals in its first three MAC games, Bowling Green managed just five assists on 14 field goals against Kent State. It will be interesting to see how Curt Miller's team responds on the road Tuesday at Buffalo, the only MAC team with a better field goal defense numbers than Kent State's.
9. Middle Tennessee (14-4 overall, 5-0 Sun Belt)
How do you overcome a staggering amount of turnovers? Score more points. Middle Tennessee is averaging 21 turnovers per game, a number actually on the rise through the team's first five conference games. But the Blue Raiders are also scoring more points against Sun Belt competition, 74.8 points per game compared to 67.2 out of conference. Much of the difference has been supplied by Anne Marie Lanning and Kortni Jones (who also happen to be the two Blue Raiders with positive assist-to-turnover ratios).
10. TCU (12-6, 4-0 Mountain West)
Helena Sverrisdottir isn't shooting as well from the 3-point line, Starr Crawford isn't rebounding as much, Emily Carter isn't scoring as consistently and the Horned Frogs aren't putting up as many points. Did we mention TCU is 4-0 and in first place in the Mountain West? It hasn't always been pretty, but there's no arguing with the results, which already include good road victories at San Diego State and Wyoming. And while the long ball isn't falling for Sverrisdottir, that's a bit of a red herring (the non-red variety being a major Icelandic export). The senior is averaging five assists and five steals in MWC play. Win at home against BYU on Wednesday and TCU will stake a very early claim to control of the conference race.
Next five: Kent State, Princeton, Old Dominion, Houston, Northern Iowa
1. Xavier (10-2)
What to do with Xavier? Would any team on this list have fared better against Stanford than the Musketeers did in a 89-52 loss? Well, the game wasn't at Maples, but Gonzaga, for one, had the Cardinal tied late in the second half, so maybe. But based on Stanford's subsequent work against Connecticut, it's pretty clear the Cardinal are on top of their game at the moment. And while nothing went right for Xavier in California, it's still worth noting that Kevin McGuff's team came out of back-to-back road games at Duke and Stanford with a net rebounding margin in the black (11 rebounds). As long as Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips are in the lineup, it's going to take a conference loss to dislodge the Musketeers from this spot.
2. Marist (10-2)
Weather denied the Red Foxes a final nonconference showdown, when a game at Arizona State was canceled because of a winter storm that trapped them in the wrong time zone. As a result, an 81-65 win against Rider to open MAAC play is the team's lone result since the last rankings. Erica Allenspach scored 21 in the Rider game, meaning she has totaled 75 points, nine assists and a turnover in her past three games.
3. Bowling Green (12-1)
The Falcons have played once since the last rankings, registering a 73-64 win at Butler in a game that wasn't really as competitive as the single-digit margin might indicate. The Falcons beat the Bulldogs on the boards, the third game in a row in which the Falcons had the edge in rebounding. They aren't big time in the post and they definitely revolve around the perimeter trio of Lauren Prochaska, Tracy Pontius and Chrissy Steffen, but their ability to rebound as well as they have this season speaks to the effort by players like Maggie Hennegan and Jen Uhl and the attention to detail in the program.
4. Green Bay (13-1)
Green Bay's move back into the national rankings this season is all the more notable because preseason Horizon League player of the year Kayla Tetschlag wasn't producing quite the numbers fans at the Kress Center have grown accustomed to seeing out of her. The bad news for opponents is Tetschlag might be back. She put up back-to-back double-doubles when the Phoenix opened conference play with victories against Detroit and Wright State. She even made her 1,000th career point count, reaching the milestone on a key late basket against Detroit.
5. Gonzaga (12-4)
It was an opportunity missed in a 70-61 loss against Notre Dame in Seattle, much as it was an opportunity missed against Stanford earlier in the season. But the emergence of Kayla Standish (20 points and 8.3 rebounds per game over the past seven games) alongside Courtney Vandersloot and Katelan Redmon means the Bulldogs remain on track to make some noise in March. Conference play isn't going to present a plethora of challenges, but it's valuable time for Kelly Bowen and Janelle Bekkering (who hit 7 of 11 shots in a win against Southern Utah on Jan. 3) to find their stride. Coach Kelly Graves admits he's still not sure which buttons to push to get the two talented 6-foot wings to play to their potential.
6. Duquesne (12-2)
A big game looms against Pittsburgh on Wednesday, but the holiday season was good to the Dukes, capped by a 71-67 win at Ohio State on Dec. 28. Freshman Wumi Agunbiade fouled out late in the game against the Buckeyes but hung around long enough to put up 17 points and 10 rebounds against Jantel Lavender and OSU. Agunbiade is showing no signs of struggling to adjust from the Canadian high school ranks, averaging 12.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.3 steals and 1.6 blocks per game. Sophomore starter Jocelyn Ford might only average 2.4 points per game, but she put up one of the lines of the early season with 12 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and nine steals against Ball State on Jan. 2.
7. Florida Gulf Coast (10-0)
A 13-day holiday break between games didn't seem to leave Florida Gulf Coast showing much rust in a 79-39 win against Belmont on Jan. 3 to open conference play in the Atlantic Sun. The Eagles have one of the more pronounced turnover differentials in the nation (they have 23 more assists than turnovers; their opponents have 126 more turnovers than assists). Along those lines, Tom Brady has nothing on Kelsey Jacobson when it comes to taking care of the ball. In 325 minutes in which the sharpshooter has launched 97 shots and assisted on 24 field goals, she has turned the ball over just six times.
8. Middle Tennessee State (10-4)
It has been a season of close calls as much as of upsets for some of the best mid-major teams, and Middle Tennessee added its voice to that chorus with an 81-72 loss at Kentucky on Dec. 29, in which the Blue Raiders led by 10 points with fewer than eight minutes to play. Turnovers proved a big part of their undoing that night (27 in all), as did losing senior Anne Marie Lanning to fouls just as Kentucky turned on the afterburners against Rick Insell's otherwise young team. But spilt milk aside, Middle Tennessee bounced back to open Sun Belt play with a road win at South Alabama, getting 26 points from Lanning and 26 points and 16 rebounds from Ebony Rowe. Perhaps as important, the Blue Raiders got a season debut from Emily Queen, who started 24 games in 2008-09 but battled injuries last season and much of the first half of this season.
9. Princeton (10-3)
From the correction file: Princeton wasn't supposed to fall completely out of the most recent edition of these rankings, merely down a few spots after a double-overtime loss at Saint Joseph's. So consider this reclaiming the spot they were cheated out of last time. The Tigers bounced back from the loss (and the slight) with wins at Davidson and Wake Forest. They have two more games, including the Ivy opener against Penn this weekend, before a nearly three week break from games during finals. The win at Wake Forest came without leading scorer Niveen Rasheed, who suffered a knee injury against Davidson and is to be evaluated this week.
10. Dayton (9-5)
Things are starting to come together for the Flyers, who earned their third victory in a row by beating No. 25 Boston College 89-77 on the ACC team's court on Monday. Point guard Patrice Lalor scored 22 points to lead Dayton in the win, the second time this season a player who last season averaged 5.6 points per game in 32 starts topped 20 points against a BCS opponent (Lalor scored 25 in a win against Minnesota). With a team that returned all but one rotation player from a group that advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament last season, coach Jim Jabir made a bold decision, dramatically altering his offensive approach to incorporate elements of the style Mike D'Antoni ran with the Phoenix Suns and Paul Westhead has run at various stops and continues to run at Oregon. One obvious result? Dayton has gone from an average 3-point shooting team to an elite one, led by Kristin Daugherty (27-of-45) and Justine Raterman (33-of-64) making the most of all the open looks that come from transition penetration and tired defenders too slow to close out.
Next five: Nevada, Tulane, Charlotte, Houston, TCU
Dayton at Boston College: The toughest week of the season for Dayton begins in Boston. The Flyers play the Eagles on Monday in a game that could be delayed by overheating scoreboards before traveling to Cincinnati for their Atlantic 10 opener against in-state rival Xavier. The Flyers played 15 people in a 101-80 win against Harvard on Thursday, hitting triple digits for the third time this season. Boston College has scored at least 80 points in all but one game (not coincidentally, a loss at Michigan).
Richmond at Virginia: It's another nonconference test for an Atlantic 10 team, as Richmond puts a five-game winning streak on the line in Charlottesville. It's just the 16th meeting between the I-64 neighbors and the first since 2007, but it's a good chance for Spiders senior Brittani Shells (20.8 points per game) to grab some attention.
Kentucky at Duke: Classes are still out at Duke, so Kentucky isn't likely to get the full force of the Cameron atmosphere. But the Wildcats can expect the full force of Duke's defense, which is more than enough to worry about for most visitors. Kentucky's Keyla Snowden led the Wildcats in scoring in back-to-back wins last week against Middle Tennessee and UT-Martin, hitting 9-of-16 shots from the 3-point line.
Syracuse at Georgetown: It's the first true road game of the season for Syracuse (yes, you read that right). The Orange's NCAA tournament hopes a season ago likely crashed on the rocks of conference losses at South Florida, Providence and Villanova, and this season's conference road slate is considerably more challenging.
St. John's at Louisville: Both teams are 1-0 in Big East play and both are also candidates for a top-four finish in the conference and the two days off that brings during the conference tournament. But with as many as 10 teams potentially also in that scrum, even early January games take on extra importance. St. John's leading scorer Shenneika Smith shot 20 percent (7-of-35) in her team's two losses and 46 percent in its 12 wins.
Villanova at Connecticut: There are worse teams to welcome for a team looking to regain rhythm after a first loss in 91 games, but there aren't as many as you might think looking at Villanova's record. Playing the Wildcats and their deliberate style is an exercise in maintaining patience -- or at least sanity. Maya Moore has attempted just five free throws in 109 career minutes against Villanova, something she might be pointedly looking to change in the wake of the Stanford game.
Pittsburgh at Duquesne: The Pittsburgh derby shapes up as particularly compelling this season, with the Dukes rolling after last week's win at Ohio State and subsequent victories against Austin Peay and Ball State. In one of the season's statistical quirks, both of Duquesne's leading rebounders -- freshman Wumi Agunbiade and senior Samantha Pollino -- have more offensive rebounds than defensive rebounds.
Miami at Kent State: It's an early meaningful game in the MAC, and it's also a battle of two outstanding all-around guards in Miami's Courtney Osborn (18.9 points, 4.3 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game) and Kent State's Jamilah Humes (14.5 ppg, 4.5 apg, 3.4 rpg).
Michigan at Purdue: Ohio State and Iowa are a combined 0-3 in league play, and Michigan is responsible for two of those results. After beating Ohio State for the first time in 15 tries on Dec. 30, the Wolverines turned around and won at Iowa on Sunday. Five Michigan players scored at least 15 points in one of the two games. A win at Purdue could make the weekend home game against arch rival Michigan State a showdown for first place.
Kentucky at Arkansas: Perhaps the Wildcats will have time to wave to Lexington as they head from Durham, N.C., to Fayetteville, Ark., to open SEC play. As for Arkansas, are five days enough to go from unbeaten to must-win? The Razorbacks made a statement with a victory against Oklahoma before Christmas but lost for the first time in their own conference opener at Florida on Sunday. They opened league play 0-6 last season and 0-4 two seasons ago.
Maryland at Duke:With Maryland coming off back-to-back quality wins against St. John's at home and Saint Joseph's on the road, this rivalry looks as enticing as it has in several seasons. The boards will be big. That Maryland is one of the nation's statistically dominant rebounding teams came into question after St. John's claimed an edge on the boards, but hang with the Blue Devils and any questions will be answered.
Idaho at Nevada (ESPNU, 11 p.m. ET): This isn't just about plugging company programming. Nevada is very much a team worth taking an afternoon nap to stay up and watch, with wins already against NC State, San Diego State, Illinois State and BYU. The win against the Cougars came Saturday without leading scorer Tahnee Robinson (22.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg), who the Reno Gazette-Journal reported missed the game because of a death in the family.
Temple at Charlotte: The Atlantic 10 is much more than Xavier, much as the Musketeers carry the flag for the league in the national spotlight. And even if it's for second place, the race between these two teams, Duquesne, Saint Joseph's, Dayton, Richmond and St. Bonaventure is crowded and compelling.
Sacred Heart at Fairleigh Dickinson: Sacred Heart's Callan Taylor faces FDU's Mariyah Laury in a game between two of the Northeast Conference's three top scorers this season. Picked ninth in the league in the preseason, FDU is already 2-0 in NEC play.
1. Xavier (10-1)
It wasn't enough to escape what sounded like a wild finish at Cameron, but Xavier's defense is back to its normal stifling self -- good news with a trip to Stanford still on the itinerary for next week. In wins on the road at Middle Tennessee on Dec. 9 and at home against Mississippi State on Dec. 17, neither the Blue Raiders nor the Bulldogs cracked 30 percent shooting. But that's small potatoes compared to forcing the Blue Devils (admittedly not the nation's most accurate team) to miss 52 shots on Tuesday. Xavier also beat the Blue Devils on the boards -- in fact, Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips beat the Blue Devils on the boards by themselves.
The bad news is the Musketeers couldn't muster much offense of their own against Duke, but perhaps there is even a silver lining there. Sophomore sharpshooter Katie Rutan returned from an injury absence for the Mississippi State game and upped her contributions off the bench to 20 minutes against Duke. Her range could prove crucial in the rematch of last year's Elite Eight thriller against Stanford.
2. Marist (9-2)
Even Marist coach Brian Giorgis sounded a little wary earlier this season about the schedule he put together for the Red Foxes, a slate that included a particularly tough eight-game stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year's. With one of those games still to play at Arizona State on Dec. 28, Giorgis looks crazy like a, well, Red Fox. Wins against regional foes Villanova (away), Hartford (away) and Boston University (home) were nice, but the eye-catching results came over the past three days in Las Vegas. Marist knocked off Nebraska, Louisville and Houston in a little more than 48 hours. Corielle Yarde came up big in the opening win against Louisville, totaling 25 points, 10 rebounds and four assists, but Erica Allenspach took it from there. The senior guard was the only Marist player in double figures in either of the past two wins, scoring 20 points against Nebraska and a career-best 34 points against Houston.
3. Bowling Green (11-1)
The Falcons emerged unscathed from their first back-to-back true road games, edging Western Kentucky and rolling over Austin Peay and returning from an extended break with a resounding 82-59 win against Canisius on Dec. 21. One of the team's unsung and undersized posts alongside Maggie Hennegan, Jen Uhl came up big in all three wins to complement the familiar backcourt stars. Uhl had nine points, seven rebounds, two blocks and a steal against Western Kentucky and added 16 points, four rebounds, four assists and three steals against Austin Peay. She also had 14 points in just 16 minutes as the minutes were spread around in the rout of Canisius.
And while celebrating the continuation of Connecticut's winning streak on Tuesday, it's also worth pausing to do the same for Lauren Prochaska as her NCAA-record streak of 70 consecutive made free throws came to a close against the Golden Griffins.
4. Green Bay (11-1)
There's no shame in losing at Marquette, a team that played Connecticut tough on the top-ranked team's home court and looks capable of a strong Big East run. But when you post 20-win seasons with the same annual regularity as the snow falls in Wisconsin, there's not much room for moral victories. That's especially true for this edition of the Phoenix, who came out sloppy against their in-state rival on Dec. 12 and couldn't dig out of a hole caused by 25 turnovers. If you're looking to understand Green Bay's defensive philosophy, consider that its top four scorers also all have between 23 and 33 steals through 11 games.
5. Gonzaga (9-3)
It's not quite Xavier at Duke, but Gonzaga passed its own Tuesday showdown with flying colors in a 91-64 win against BYU, one of two major tests before conference play (along with a neutral-court game in Seattle against Notre Dame on Dec. 29). The Bulldogs have been piling up points since a so-so trip to Hawaii over Thanksgiving. They've scored 80 or more in all five games since that trip and 91 or more in four of those games. Katelan Redmon topped 20 points four times during that stretch and rather quietly ranks in the top 25 nationally in scoring.
6. Houston (8-2)
The Cougars made the most of their first extended run against postseason-caliber competition, knocking off Louisville and Nebraska before falling in the finale to Marist on a neutral court in Las Vegas. Still her team's primary distributor, junior Porsche Landry is enjoying a breakout scoring campaign. The team's leading scorer before the tournament in Vegas, she put up 21 against both the Cardinals and Cornhuskers. Teamed with do-everything standout Courtney Taylor and Brittney Scott, last season's leading scorer, Landry completes a nice trio for Houston to take into Conference USA play.
7. Middle Tennessee (9-3)
One of the toughest mid-major schedules in the country rolls on. Middle Tennessee beat St. Bonaventure and Kansas State on back-to-back nights to begin the week at a tournament in San Antonio. Also since the last edition of the top 10, the Blue Raiders beat Central Florida and James Madison and lost to Xavier (its other losses came against unbeaten Arkansas and Georgia Tech). Ebony Rowe has been stellar as a freshman, but sophomores Kortni Jones and Icelyn Elie (25 points, 16 rebounds against James Madison) also continue to show signs of being part of a young foundation upon which to build through Sun Belt play.
8. Florida Gulf Coast (9-0)
Florida Gulf Coast made the most of its last chance to score a win against a team from a BCS conference, beating Indiana 73-69. Courtney Chihil came close to a triple-double against the Hoosiers, totaling 16 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds. It had been a light schedule over the past two weeks, but senior guard Shannon Murphy made the most of it, too. Murphy played 39 minutes in a win at Troy (12 points, five assists, four steals) on Dec. 12 and all 40 minutes in a win against Florida International (14 points, six assists, three steals) on Dec. 15. Then again, perhaps time management isn't an issue for a player working on three consecutive seasons of all-academic honors in the Atlantic Sun.
9. Charlotte (9-2)
The 49ers nearly fell victim to an upset against VCU, allowing a pair of 20-point scorers in the process. But they escaped that trap on Dec. 11 and put up a line that hinted at both rested (51 rebounds) and rusty (28 turnovers) in beating Arkansas State by 18 points on Dec. 19 after a week away from action. If there's an area of concern, it's probably possession value. Charlotte is averaging better than 20 turnovers a game, a dicey way to make a living in a league with teams like Xavier, Dayton and Temple. But Charlotte also shares with itself -- six players have led or shared the lead in scoring through the team's first 10 games.
10. Central Michigan (7-3)
The Chippewas still have a big game looming against Pitt on New Year's Eve, but they've quietly done nice work against a quality schedule. They turned in a strong showing on the road against a quality Northwestern team on Dec. 11, losing 92-84, and beat Ole Miss 82-66 a week later at home. The latter was the team's first game in the new McGuirk Arena in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., and senior Kaihla Szunko made sure she'll stick around the arena's record book well beyond graduation with a triple-double (21 points, 16 rebounds and 10 steals).
Next five: Drexel, Fresno State, Dayton, Tulane, Nevada
As a kid growing up in Ohio, Lauren Prochaska liked few things quite so much as staying outside and shooting a basketball, no matter how much her parents tried to convince her that it was time to come in for the night.
Left to deal with the result on college basketball courts around the country, teams such as Vanderbilt probably wish the Bowling Green senior still showed such an aversion to coming inside. And that her teammates didn't seem so willing to follow her aggressive lead.
Brad Phalin/BGSU Photo ServicesLauren Prochaska and Bowling Green (8-1) beat then-No. 23 Vanderbilt last week.
Long one of the flagship mid-major programs under coach Curt Miller, Bowling Green is again rolling toward a date with the NCAA tournament. After a surprising season-opening loss at Evansville, the Falcons have rolled off eight wins in a row heading into Thursday's road game at Western Kentucky (where Bowling Green will manage the geographically curious feat of playing on the road in Bowling Green). Highlighting the run was last week's 79-68 victory against a Vanderbilt team ranked No. 23 at the time, the fourth win in program history against a ranked opponent and the second season in a row it earned one against the Commodores.
The result was the embodiment of one of Miller's oft-repeated mantras, and one in particularly sharp focus after the Evansville loss, in which the team attempted just six free throws.
"One of the biggest things that Coach talks about a lot is our toughness," Prochaska said. "I think the tougher we get, the better team we will become. If we really learn to battle and fight on every possession, that will just makes us a better team."
To that end, Prochaska led the way against Vanderbilt in distinctive Prochaska fashion, hitting five 3-pointers and all 10 of her free throws on her way to a game-high 31 points. She already is the school's all-time leader in 3-pointers and is second in free throws made, having converted 69 of 70 attempts from the charity stripe in nine games this season. Her ability to mix the finesse skills of a marksman with a willingness to absorb punishment in the paint and dole out punishment of her own to overzealous defenders looking to take away her outside shot is a blueprint for how the Falcons compete against all comers.
She's not alone. The senior backcourt duo of Prochaska and Tracy Pontius was a big reason Bowling Green entered the season with the profile of mid-major power, but the lineup's two new starters are big reasons the Falcons still look so good a month into the season.
A transfer from St. Louis who was voted a team captain before playing her first game for the Falcons last season, redshirt senior Maggie Hennegan has stepped in for Tara Breske and filled the role of undersized post. She led the team with 11 rebounds against Vanderbilt and is part of the reason a team that annually operates with a rebound surplus of one or two per game finds itself beating opponents this season by nearly eight rebounds per game.
"Maggie's our warrior," Prochaska said. "She battles and fights every possession of the game. When she's outmatched in the post, she still finds ways to score and get offensive rebounds for us. I think her presence in the post has been a big deal for us since Tara left."
And filling the starting spot vacated by Tamika Nurse, sophomore Chrissy Steffen adds perimeter size, defense and shooting at 6 feet -- the same height as Hennegan inside.
"Chrissy is really long, a good athlete," Prochaska said. "She's a great defender; she gets a lot of steals with her long arms. And on the offensive end, she's a good shooter, but she also gets to the hoop really well. I think her all-around game is what's been impressive so far this year."
Bowling Green can't afford many more games like Evansville, in or out of conference. There are no more ranked teams on the schedule, and wins against Vanderbilt, Creighton and Arkansas-Little Rock might not be enough to build an at-large profile for the NCAA tournament, should the need arise. But if their reality is that of a mid-major, the Falcons still will look to make any such debates moot by playing hard, playing tough and playing like one of the best teams in the country -- whoever is on the other side of the court.
"I think it's an honor to be labeled as one of the top mid-major programs," Prochaska said. "It's a credit to the coaching staff and all the players who played here before us, so that's an honor to us. But we still want to be one of the elite teams, not just a mid-major."
Mid-major top-10 rankings
1. Xavier (8-0): There was a close call against USC, but Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips responded with 48 points and 30 rebounds in a 69-66 win. The Duke and Stanford road trips later this month loom large, but this week's game at Middle Tennessee might be no easy task with Katie Rutan still battling an ankle injury. Rutan's absence would mean another chance for freshman Ashley Wanninger to prove herself a long-range option off the bench.
2. Green Bay (8-0): A trip to Cancun offered a chance to get some quality competition on a neutral court, and the Phoenix rolled over Hartford and Utah and outlasted Penn State to improve to 3-0 against the Big Ten. It's early, but Sunday's game at Marquette looms as the biggest remaining hurdle between Green Bay and a run at a perfect regular season. For a team already loaded with proven talent, sophomore Adrian Ritchie emerging as the leading scorer through eight games is a pleasant surprise.
3. Bowling Green (8-1): See above.
4. Princeton (5-2): The reigning Ivy League champs took another near-miss with a 74-68 loss at Vanderbilt, playing the Commodores largely even after a slow start and cutting the deficit to two points with less than six minutes to play. The good news is they were in that game at Vanderbilt's tournament because of a 60-59 win against USC. Addie Micir hit six 3-pointers in that game and is 12-of-22 from behind the arc in Princeton's past three games.
5. Tulane (7-1): The challenges of success became apparent immediately after the big win against LSU just before Thanksgiving. Tulane lost its next game against Portland State and lost Brittany Lindsey to a concussion. But the Green Wave bounced back with wins against Fullerton, Saint Joseph's and Detroit, not a murderers' row but worthwhile tests of focus. Brett Benzio pulled down 28 rebounds in those wins.
6. Charlotte (6-2): The team's best wins to this point are moral victories, but a 61-55 loss against Duke is worth noting, as is a 76-70 loss at Florida, to a slightly lesser degree. The 49ers held the Blue Devils to 30 percent shooting in their game and nearly matched them in rebounds (55-50). Eligible after sitting out last season as a transfer, Epiphany Woodson leads the team in assists (and had six assists and just two turnovers against Duke).
7. Gonzaga (6-3): It wasn't quite Virginia Tech playing James Madison in football five days after playing Boise State, but playing Ole Miss in Hawaii three days after a road game at North Dakota (and five days after a battle at home against Stanford) was a recipe for trouble. The resulting loss, in which Ole Miss piled up a 48-29 rebounding edge, prevented a rematch of last season's NCAA tournament game against North Carolina. The Bulldogs instead routed North Carolina Central and survived against Washington State (which they play again Thursday).
8. Dayton (5-3): The Flyers made Jim Jabir tops all time in wins at the school in fitting fashion, putting up triple digits in a 102-69 win against Toledo over the weekend. That makes three wins -- and 263 points -- in three games since a baffling home loss against Illinois-Chicago. The next three and a half weeks will reveal a lot, with games against Louisvile, San Diego State, Boston College and either USC or Colorado. For now, Dayton's good outweighs the bad in an up-and-down start.
9. Fresno State (6-2): Emma Andrews wasted little time making her presence felt in her first game back after suffering an injury this past spring. The Australian senior hit the game-winning shot to lift Fresno State past TCU over the weekend. Sophomore Rosie Moult, another of Fresno's plentiful Aussies, has stepped up in the early schedule, improving from 7.3 points and 4.9 rebounds per game as a freshman to 11.4 points and 6.8 rebounds this season.
10. Florida Gulf Coast (6-0): In a landscape where mid-majors are struggling to pick up wins against their major peers, Florida Gulf Coast can at least call on wins against the Big East (Seton Hall) and ACC (Virginia Tech). Kelsey Jacobsen might be the nation's leader in total distance on shots, firing off 52 3-point attempts in the team's first six games. And as long as she's hitting them at a solid 36.5 percent clip, it's easy to see why.
Next five: TCU, Illinois State, Missouri State, Houston, Drexel
1. Xavier (2-0)
This week: vs. Louisville, vs. Troy, vs. Delaware State
Maybe the defense isn't quite up to the program's standards just yet; Michigan became the first team to shoot 50 percent in a game against Xavier since before Amber Harris arrived for the 2006-07 season. But Xavier won that game in Ann Arbor. Maybe the rebounding is still coming around, after the Musketeers were beaten on the boards by an undersized South Carolina. But the A-10 champions won that game in Columbia by 19 points. And more than the other numbers, road wins are the kind of statistic Xavier will happily accumulate while it looks for depth and rounds into midseason form.
2. Green Bay (3-0)
This week: vs. Hartford, Penn State, Utah in Cancun, Mexico
The Phoenix have little choice but to be sharp out of the gate, as was the case in beating George Washington, Minnesota and Wisconsin. After this week, Marquette will effectively represent the lone remaining game of note as the Phoenix look to build the kind of résumé that earned them the Horizon League's first at-large NCAA tournament bid last season (should they go to such a route again). As good as Green Bay was last season, it was not the defensive presence it had been in the past. But the maturation of sophomores Adrian Ritchie, Lydia Bauer and Sarah Eichler makes the Phoenix far more capable of getting points out of their defensive pressure.
3. TCU (3-0)
This week: vs. West Virginia, Iowa State, Virginia in U.S. Virgin Islands
Emily Carter's scoring binge notwithstanding, wins against Houston Baptist, SMU (in overtime) and Texas-San Antonio don't tell us much about the Horned Frogs -- certainly not in comparison to the games on tap this week. TCU was pretty good at taking care of the ball last season, finishing with just 13 more turnovers than assists, so it was noteworthy that they turned it over 22 times in the lone close game against SMU. On the flip side, after leading the team with 77 fouls last season, Starr Crawford picked up just four in the first three games this season.
4. Gonzaga (1-2)
This week: at North Dakota, vs. Ole Miss, TBD in Honolulu
Raise your eyebrows at the record if you so choose, but how many teams looking up at this ranking would come away from games at USC and home against Stanford with just a 12-point cumulative deficit? (Or have a player that could put up 24 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and three steals against Stanford, as Courtney Vandersloot did.) There's little reason to penalize the Bulldogs for playing good opposition in the season's first week. Even partly as a function of their own cold shooting, matching Stanford on the boards with 49 rebounds is a good sign inside for a team so far struggling to replace Tiffanie Shives' shooting outside.
5. Illinois State (3-0)
This week: at South Dakota State
The Redbirds avoided any letdown after a season-opening win at Illinois, blowing out Eastern Illinois by 31 points and beating SIU-Edwardsville by 11 points to set up big road tests at South Dakota State this week and DePaul next week. Just how balanced is the offensive in the early going? Through three games, a player has taken double-digit shots just four times. Redshirt senior Kenyatta Shelton is responsible for two of those performances, but it's her rebounding and defense that could help the Redbirds stick around all season if she stays healthy.
6. Princeton (2-1)
This week: vs. USC, Vanderbilt/Quinnipiac in Nashville, Tenn.
It was an opportunity missed in Piscataway as Princeton rallied from 13 points down at the half against Rutgers to take a one-point lead with a little more than a minute to play, only to lose 54-53 on a shot with four seconds remaining. Nevertheless, the Tigers hardly fell on their faces in a big road game and bounced back three days later to win at Lehigh, not an easy assignment in the region. Niveen Rasheed earned Ivy League player of the week honors after finishing with 27 points, 17 rebounds and seven steals in the two games.
7. Tulane (3-0)
This week: at LSU, vs. Portland State, Cal/Cal State Fullerton in Berkeley, Calif.
We'll know a lot more about Tulane by the end of the week, but the groundwork seems to be in place for a special season. Mississippi State isn't anything close to the team that made the Sweet 16 last season, but a 20-point win against an SEC team is a 20-point win against an SEC team. The Green Wave won 26 games last season despite losing starter Brittany Lindsey to injury after just six games. She's back this season and rounds out a lineup with five double-digit scorers through the early going.
8. Marist (3-1)
This week: at Villanova
The fun is just beginning for Marist, which bounced back from a season-opening loss against St. John's in Kansas with blowout wins against Vermont and Dartmouth. Between now and New Year's Day, the Red Foxes play Villanova, St. Bonaventure, Hartford, Boston University, Louisville, Nebraska, Houston and Arizona State -- with just two of those games at home. Coach Brian Giorgis is playing 12 players with some regularity as he tries to narrow things down to a more manageable rotation, but even with the moving pieces, the Red Foxes have committed just 35 turnovers in four games (against 75 assists, despite modest 40.8 percent shooting).
9. Bowling Green (3-1)
This week: vs. Detroit, vs. Arkansas-Little Rock, Montana State/Seattle in Seattle
The opening loss at Evansville was inexplicable -- Bowling Green doesn't have the luxury of those games -- but credit the Falcons for righting the ship in a hurry. The MAC champions beat Creighton by 26 points, Youngstown State by 46 points and Oakland by 34 points in advance of a big showdown with UALR in Seattle over Thanksgiving. Lauren Prochaska is doing what Lauren Prochaska does, although with more rebounds, but Tracy Pontius is the ace up the sleeve so far. She has always been good, but 45 percent shooting from the 3-point line is a throwback to her first-team all-MAC sophomore season.
10. Arkansas-Little Rock (3-1)
This week: vs. Bowling Green, vs. Montana State/Seattle in Seattle
Do you go with the good: a 59-55 win against fellow mid-major contender Louisiana Tech? Or do you go with the bad: an 87-41 blitzing at the hands of Texas A&M in College Station? A little of both is probably the best answer. The less said about the latter, the better. The Trojans had more turnovers (24) than rebounds (23) and couldn't provide any cover for themselves from the 3-point line. But bouncing back three days later against a good Louisiana Tech team buys them some grace.
Next five: Dayton, Old Dominion, Utah, Fresno State, Portland
CINCINNATI -- Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb has fielded her fair share of questions about coming back to Xavier for the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament, the same school she led to a regional final in 2001 and at which she won 135 games in seven seasons.
But she had a question of her own about her surroundings as she paused in the middle of a hallway in the Cintas Center after her not-so-new team's first-round win against DePaul on Sunday -- a question indicative of how times passes and just how much both programs involved have moved on.
Namely, Balcomb wanted to know, where the heck was the bathroom in this place?
Figuring out an answer for the quandary posed by twin towers Ta'Shia Phillips and Amber Harris won't be nearly as easy when sixth-seeded Vanderbilt faces the No. 3-seeded Xavier on Tuesday (ESPN2/ESPN360.com, 7:06 p.m. ET).
Balcomb has faced a lot of great one-two combinations over the course of her 16 seasons, including the last eight seasons in the SEC and five trips to the Sweet 16. Yet she hasn't faced many like 6-foot-6 Ta'Shia Phillips, a true back-to-the-basket post, and 6-5 Amber Harris, a unique mix of post size and wing skills. With Xavier in trouble thanks to a rain of 3-pointers from upset-minded East Tennessee State in the opening round, Phillips and Harris combined for 54 points and 29 rebounds and the Musketeers pulled away in the final minutes for a 94-82 victory.
"Our advantage was clearly around the basket today," Xavier coach Kevin McGuff said after the first-round win, "and I thought we did a good job getting them the ball, and they also got it themselves, especially Ta'Shia. She had 13 offensive rebounds, so that's what's supposed to happen this time of year. You got players like that, they should carry you."
The closest thing Vanderbilt has faced to Phillips and Harris, not to mention April Phillips, in terms of sheer physical presence is Tennessee, with Kelley Cain, Alyssia Brewer and Glory Johnson (the Lady Vols are also slightly bigger across the rest of the court). The Commodores actually held their own on the boards in the first of the three meetings between the two in-state rivals and lost by just seven points. But they were subsequently outrebounded by 11 and 15 in the next two games, respectively, not coincidentally losing by nine and then 19 points.
In other words, the Commodores are equipped to deal with being at a size disadvantage in most games, but even they have their limits.
Not that Balcomb won't use all of that to any advantage she can. This won't be "win one for coach" as she returns home; it will be "win one because nobody thinks you can" -- just like when the Commodores went to Knoxville and lost the close one.
"This is perfect for me as a coach," Balcomb told reporters during Monday's news conference. "I'm not like a lot of coaches; I like to be an underdog, on somebody else's floor and with a big crowd. As you start recruiting kids and coaching kids, they do reflect their coach, and for us this is a fun situation and all the pressure's off.
When you play at home, you're supposed to win, and we do that a lot at Vanderbilt. We're supposed to win all of our home games, and we win most of them, but that's a lot of pressure. Senior night, we had our worst game of the year; it was a lot of pressure for four seniors on their last home game because we've never lost that before. So to be able to go on someone else's court -- I mean, the best game we played all year was at Tennessee, and that to me is one of the neatest things about sports."
1. Xavier (24-3, 14-0 Atlantic 10)
Notable wins: USC, Arizona State, Kansas, Minnesota, Middle Tennessee St., Temple, Dayton (twice)
Losses: Michigan State, Michigan, LSU
The frontcourt lived up to all expectations, especially as Amber Harris continued to make her way back from the knee injury that kept her out last season. She fell just six rebounds shy of giving Xavier two players who averaged double-doubles in league play (Ta'Shia Phillips managed that feat for the third season in a row). But the outside shooting provided by Katie Rutan, Tyeasha Moss and Special Jennings was also noteworthy. The Musketeers shot 37.7 percent from the 3-point line overall this season, up from 32.5 and 31.5 percent the previous two seasons, respectively.
2. Gonzaga (25-4, 14-0 West Coast Conference)
Notable wins: USC
Losses: South Dakota State, Stanford, Baylor, Texas A&M
Did Gonzaga do enough to merit an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament should it fail to win the WCC's automatic bid? It missed out two seasons ago after going 23-7 during the regular season, including 13-1 in the WCC, but that team didn't beat league opponents by more than 30 points per game, as this edition did in sweeping the slate. In addition to leading the nation in assists, Courtney Vandersloot overcame an early-season shooting funk to hit 57.5 percent of her total shots and 44.2 percent of her 3-point attempts in conference games. And for all the attention Vandersloot and Heather Bowman get and deserve, Vivian Frierson gives the team a third spotlight player.
3. Hartford (25-3, 16-0 America East)
Notable wins: Temple, Bowling Green, Vermont (twice)
Losses: Providence, Connecticut, Marist
The state of Connecticut nearly had two teams allow fewer than 50 points per game during the regular season, the Hawks nearly matching the undefeated team from Storrs in that regard. Erica Beverly and Diana Delva don't have the size of Xavier's Harris and Phillips, but they're perfect complements for each other. Delva is a terrific offensive rebounder with a good touch around the basket and Beverly is a phenomenal defensive player. If they hit some outside shots -- and Jackie Smith came on strong from the 3-point line in America East play -- the Hawks can make some noise the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
4. Princeton (23-2, 11-0 Ivy League)
Notable wins: Delaware, Lehigh, Drexel
Losses: UCLA, Rutgers
Without a conference tournament in the Ivy League, Princeton still has some regular-season work to do, but the league hasn't proved much of a challenge for the Tigers thus far. Led by a freshman with nearly unlimited potential in Niveen Rasheed but also possessing good balance, a strong post presence in Devona Allgood and a steady, pass-first point guard in Lauren Polansky, there are some similarities between this Princeton team and the Marist team in Rachele Fitz's freshman season -- the one that advanced to the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual national champion Tennessee.
5. Fresno State (25-5, 16-0 WAC)
Notable wins: Louisiana Tech (twice)
Losses: USC, TCU, Stanford, West Virginia, Boston College
The Bulldogs have a distinct style and one they execute well, averaging nearly 25 3-point attempts and forcing 20 turnovers per game. They aren't necessarily equipped to win games in March in the paint -- they were outrebounded in four of their five high-profile losses, often by significant margins -- but they still finished with a positive rebounding margin for the season. That accomplishment, combined with the perfect conference record, seems suggestive of a team that isn't going to lose focus or beat itself. Junior star Jaleesa Ross fits that bill, doing pretty much everything well.
6. Dayton (23-6, 11-3 Atlantic 10)
Notable wins: Michigan State, Georgetown, Purdue, Temple
Losses: Louisville, Toledo, Vermont, Saint Joseph's, Xavier (twice)
How does a team respond to adversity? Dayton dropped a tough game at home against Louisville early in the season and bounced back to beat Georgetown and Purdue on consecutive days. It lost a surprising decision at Saint Joseph's in league play and obliterated a pretty good Richmond team 83-31 three days later. It lost twice to Xavier, once in a rout and once in an overtime heartbreaker, and came back with wins against Charlotte and Temple, respectively. This is a tough, deep, adept defensive team that can play with a lot of postseason-caliber teams when it gets some shots to go down.
7. TCU (22-6, 12-3 Mountain West)
Notable wins: Texas A&M, Fresno State, Kansas, BYU, San Diego State, Utah (twice)
Losses: Oklahoma, NC State, Minnesota, Wyoming, New Mexico, San Diego State
The Mountain West was not an easy league this season, and the Horned Frogs still finished two games clear of the closest competition. Helena Sverrisdottir is a stud in any setting. One of the few worrying signs for the Horned Frogs was a 6-5 record on the road (7-6 including neutral-court games). Perhaps that's not fair for a team that nearly beat Oklahoma in Norman and survived four overtimes at Utah, but it can't be ignored after last season's postseason flame out in the conference and NCAA tournaments.
8. Arkansas-Little Rock (24-5, 17-1 Sun Belt)
Notable wins: Middle Tennessee
Losses: Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Drake, Mississippi, South Alabama
Nebraska and Connecticut are the only perfect teams over the entire season at the moment, but they aren't the only team perfect in 2010. Arkansas-Little Rock has been rolling since a loss at South Alabama on Dec. 16. Like league rival Middle Tennessee, it's a team constructed perfectly around a star. Chastity Reed averages 24.8 points and 7.9 rebounds, but she's complemented by three guards in Kim Sitzmann, Asriel Rolfe and Shanika Butler. Sitzmann and Rolfe provide 3-point cover and the trio has combined to total 333 assists and just 139 turnovers, astounding ball control.
9. Green Bay (25-3, 14-3 Horizon League)
Notable wins: DePaul, Wisconsin, Marquette
Losses: Loyola, Illinois-Chicago, Detroit
The heady times when Green Bay appeared headed toward the top 10 nationally (and the slightly less heady feat of topping these rankings) are long gone, but the Phoenix have quietly gone about righting the ship after a midseason slump. They still need to win the Horizon's automatic bid to make the NCAA tournament, but they've won five of their last seven games by 19 or more points, the lone single-digit victory a 61-54 win at Butler with first place on the line. All but two of their opponents in those seven games shot worse than 40 percent from the floor, and one of the two that fared better turned over the ball 30 times, noticeable improvement for Green Bay's defense.
10. Middle Tennessee (22-5, 17-1 Sun Belt)
Notable wins: Kentucky
Losses: LSU, Tennessee, Xavier, South Dakota State, Arkansas-Little Rock
It was a long climb back from what was a bit of a disappointing start for a team with tremendous potential. It wasn't the losses so much as the scale of defeat that surprised. But with the constant of All-America candidate Alysha Clark to rally around, the Blue Raiders started doing what they can do so well -- bury teams who pay too much attention to Clark from the perimeter. Middle Tennessee shot just 29.2 percent from the 3-point line out of conference, including just 29-for-108 in four nonconference losses. In Sun Belt play, it hit 41.9 percent of its 3-point attempts.
Next five: Illinois State (22-5), James Madison (23-6), Vermont (23-6), Old Dominion (16-12), Marist (23-7)