Zags top preseason mid-major poll

November, 10, 2011
11/10/11
3:43
PM ET

The mid-major top 10 returns with the same ground rules. All conferences beyond the BCS six (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC) qualify for consideration.

1. Gonzaga

No, Courtney Vandersloot didn't gain additional eligibility. But just as Tennessee won a football national championship the season after Peyton Manning exited, Gonzaga isn't doomed without its All-American. Depth is the reason the Bulldogs will be fine. Few teams in any conference have size like the Bulldogs do in 6-foot-3 sophomore Stephanie Golden, 6-4 freshman Sonja Greinacher (a German youth international who coach Kelly Garves went head-to-head with Louisville to land) and 6-5 freshman Shelby Cheslek. Instant eligibility for Kansas State transfer Taelor Karr is a big backcourt plus.

Key player: Kayla Standish. Seniors Standish and Katelan Redmon give the Bulldogs two established stars, but that doesn't mean Standish, a 6-2 former prep high jump champion, is anywhere close to hitting her ceiling just yet. She's a 20-10-3 (points-rebounds-blocks) threat every time she steps on the court.

Key games: Playing at Stanford on Nov. 13 is the attention grabber, but back-to-back December games against Georgia and Dayton in Las Vegas are the real proving ground.

2. Temple

With just more than 12 minutes to play in its second-round game last season, Temple was within five points of Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish went on a run that carried them all the way to Indianapolis, and the Owls went home, but Tonya Cardoza has taken what Dawn Staley turned around and continued crafting a nationally relevant program. A full season of Hofstra transfer Joelle Connelly inside to complement 6-4 Victoria Macaulay means one more way for Temple to frustrate the heck out of opponents defensively.

Key player: Kristen McCarthy. Point guard Shey Peddy drives the Owls, but she needs a partner. McCarthy's shooting efficiency slipped last season, but she's a do-everything forward.

Key games: There is no shortage, including defending champion Texas A&M in the Bahamas and Duke at home on Dec. 30. Road games against Ohio State and Rutgers are also important tests.

3. Dayton

Preseason scrimmages are usually fool's gold. Consider Justine Raterman's 10 points in a recent Dayton scrimmage the exception to that rule. Reports early this fall were Raterman was on the leading edge of the typical timeframe for rehabbing a torn ACL, an injury she suffered in last season's NCAA tournament, and her presence on the court in the scrimmage seems to confirm as much. With Raterman, an elite player when healthy, alongisde underrated point guard Patrice Lalor, shot-blocking center Casey Nance and freshman Ally Malott, Dayton has Sweet 16 talent.

Key player: Malott. It's a lot to put on a freshman, but McDonald's All-Americans/Under-18 national team players are rare at this level, even for the semi-major A-10. The Ohio native is a 6-4 talent with an all-court game.

Key games: A trip to Connecticut over Thanksgiving break jumps off the page, but games against Boston College, Illinois and Gonzaga in about a two-week span in December might be more useful measures.

4. Green Bay

Like Gonzaga, Green Bay is eager to prove once-in-a-generation players don't mean once-in-a-generation success. Celeste Hoewisch and Kayla Tetschlag are gone, taking a lot of on-court production and even more leadership with them from a team that reached the Sweet 16 and lost just twice all season. But five of seven rotation players return for a program that, at least statistically, doesn't rely on the individual. With senior Hannah Quilling and juniors Lydia Bauer, Adrian Ritchie and Hannah Quilling around, ball possession and 3-point shooting will remain strengths.

Key player: Julie Wojta. You don't survive as a 6-foot post without being versatile, but Wojta thrives in that role by taking versatility to new levels. She led the Phoenix in assists, defensive rebounds and blocks. A quiet presence, at least in comparison to Tetschlag and Hoewisch, leadership is the next thing she'll be asked to provide.

Key games: Playing Illinois and Georgia Tech in Puerto Rico is the best test against top competition, although the Dec. 23 game at Wisconsin has meaning after the offseason coaching carousel.

5. Florida Gulf Coast

Finally eligible for the NCAA tournament after completing the transition to Division I, Florida Gulf Coast might not waste much time availing itself of the new opportunity. Five of the six main rotation players return from a team that went 28-4 a season ago, including leading scorer Sarah Hansen and 3-point wizard Kelsey Jacobson. Newly eligible Oregon State transfer Brittany Kennedy and a freshman class highlighted by top-100 signee Whitney Knight and Greek foward Anthi Chatzigiakoumi suggest depth won't be an issue.

Key player: Courtney Chihil. Any 5-8 player who leads a team in rebounding (5.8 per game) and leads a conference in assist-turnover ratio (1.89) is worth singling out for attention. The one rotation loss, Shannon Murphy, was a big one, but Chihil could soften the loss. She does everything else.

Key games: It isn't the biggest BCS opponent, but a road game at Seton Hall to open the season is a start and sets the stage for a Nov. 19 showdown at home against Michigan State.

6. Duquesne

If you're starting to sense that the Atlantic 10, even with Xavier in rebuilding mode, is on another level, you're right. The third A-10 entry in these rankings missed the NCAA tournament a season ago, but won 24 games, beat Ohio State in Columbus and advanced to the third round of the WNIT. Momentum is building for coach Suzie McConnell-Serio. Five players averaged between 8.2 and 12.6 points per game last season, and four of them return, two of them as mere sophomores. A fifth returnee, guard Jocelyn Ford, averaged 4.9 assists and 4.5 steals per 40 minutes.

Key player: Alex Gensler. Sophomores Wumi Agunbiade and Orsi Szecsi are the potential stars with unlimited ceilings, but Gensler is the senior who grabbed a starting spot as a freshman and carved out a heck of a career. A proficient shooter, she's also the kind of player who will be interesting to track as she adjusts to the new 3-point line.

Key games: Duquesne is setting itself up to miss out on NCAA at-large consideration with a weak nonconference schedule, but the final two weeks of December will include West Virginia and Pittsburgh and could include Florida.

7. Marist

They lost consummate point guard Alisa Kresge and went back to the NCAA tournament. They lost all-time leading scorer Rachele Fitz and went back to the NCAA tournament. Now they lose MAAC Player of the Year Erica Allenspach. And yes, they should go back to the NCAA tournament. Coach Brian Giorgis still has Corielle Yarde, the team's leading rebounder at 5-8 and on Allenspach's heels in just about every other category, and a lot of rotation players who gained experience as freshmen and sophomores last season.

Key player: Kristina Danella. The Massachusetts transfer is eligible after sitting out last season and should play a big role. A 6-1 forward, Danella averaged 11.6 points and 5.6 rebounds as a sophomore at UMass and has 3-point range.

Key games: An early road trip to Princeton makes for an interesting mid-major clash, but the high-profile tests come around Christmas against Auburn (on a neutral court) and when Kansas State comes to Poughkeepsie on Dec. 29.

8. Oakland

South Dakota State proved it's possible for Summit League teams to wedge their way into the national conversation. Oral Roberts is the obvious choice to follow suit this season, but Oakland's defense and ball control could win the day. Led by junior forward Bethany Watterworth (17.9 points per game), the top five scorers return from an Oakland team that won 20 games, led the Summit in field goal defense and finished with a positive assist-turnover ratio last season. Center Brittany Carnago gives the Grizzlies a 6-4 shot-blocking presence few mid-major teams have.

Key player: Watterworth. Mid-major teams can't afford a lot of one-dimensional players, and Watterworth is the kind of all-around star that shines in leagues like the Summit. She averaged nearly a block and steal per game last season, led her team in assists and 3-pointers and finished second in rebounding.

Key games: They won't be long road trips, but bus rides to play Michigan State on Nov. 27 and Purdue on Dec. 20 will give the Grizzlies a chance to compete with the best in the region.

9. Oral Roberts

If nothing else, Oral Roberts is going to be fun to watch. But with five starters and the Summit League's top reserve returning from a team that won a pair of WNIT games, there should be plenty else besides entertainment. The Golden Eagles run, averaging 84.4 points and forcing 23 turnovers per game last season. National scoring and steals leader Kevi Luper (23.7 points per game, 3.7 steals per game) is the embodiment of the team's philosophy.

Key player: Jaci Bigham. Luper is clearly the star of the show, but her backcourt partner since both arrived as freshmen is the X factor. Bigham shot 42.5 percent on 233 3-point attempts as a freshman. That dipped to 31.5 percent on 143 attempts last season, as Jordan Pyle became a bigger part of the offense. Bigham also played through an ACL tear at the end of the season, proving her toughness but delaying the start of her rehabilitation.

Key games: It's a schedule built for a veteran team. The first weekend includes a trip to Wisconsin, and road trips to Houston, Arkansas and Kansas follow, along with home games against Missouri State and Louisiana Tech.

10. Princeton

A season can hardly be considered a missed opportunity when it ends with an Ivy League championship and another trip to the NCAA tournament, but Princeton's chance to be a real March sleeper undeniably went by the wayside when leading scorer Niveen Rasheed suffered a season-ending knee injury after 12 games. If she's back to 100 percent alongside three other returning full-time starters and the player who took her place in the starting lineup, the Tigers once again have the look of a team that could exceed the typical Ivy profile.

Key player: Lauren Edwards. Rasheed is obviously a key player, but she's not alone. Princeton won't have Addie Micir, the team's leader in assists and 3-pointers last season. That makes Edwards, a 6-foot guard coming off back-to-back All-Ivy selections, all the more important in both distribution and long-distance shooting.

Key games: In addition to the game against Marist, Princeton welcomes Delaware and DePaul to Jadwin Gym, in addition to a monumental road game at Stanford and more manageable ones at Drexel and Hofstra.

Next five

11. Saint Joseph's: The Hawks return all five starters and 95 percent of the scoring from a team that went 20-12 and reached the second round of the WNIT. Five regulars had more assists than turnovers for a ball-control team.

12. Missouri State: It hurts losing Tia Mays, who left the program after averaging six rebounds and three blocks per game in her lone season, but Missouri State returns four starters. Senior Casey Garrison is going for a second MVC player of the year award.

13. Chattanooga: The Mocs should be back after missing the postseason (NCAA or WNIT) for the first time since 1999. Leading scorer Whitney Hood (18.8 ppg), shooter Kayla Christopher (41.2 percent on 3-pointers) and playmaker Tenisha Townsend (3.7 assists, 1.71 assist-turnover ratio) return.

14. Delaware: They have one of the 10 or 15 most talented players in the country, and a returning cast that held its own when that player, Elena Delle Donne, was injured for part of last season. But a team that totaled 297 assists against 568 turnovers still needs to prove it's at least the sum of its parts.

15. TCU: A talented freshman class and Iowa State transfer Whitney Williams will help replace Helena Sverrisdottir and Emily Carter, but losing Starr Crawford for the season with concussion-related issues is a big blow.

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