Kentucky's women's college basketball coach put on a show once again Friday at the school's annual Midnight Madness event. After dancing like MC Hammer and Michael Jackson in previous years, Mitchell took to the mic this time around. He did his best impersonation of singer-songwriter Bruno Mars, complete with a brief a cappella version of "Just The Way You Are" before belting out Mars' Grammy-nominated "Locked Out of Heaven."
Check out the performance below (and hats off to Mitchell for once again giving us even more to look forward to during Midnight Madness):
For more on Mitchell's previous performances, click here.
In a game with such a wealth of riches, talent-wise, it might seem downright boring to focus on something as fundamental as rebounding.
Yet if you wanted to point to one thing that decided the heavyweight bout Thursday between the two best teams in the WNBA, you gotta go with the glass. Maya Moore and her Lynx outrebounded Diana Taurasi and her Mercury by a handy margin in front of a jazzed-up Minnesota crowd of 9,513.
Phoenix’s winning streak ended at 16, and the Lynx edged closer to the Western Conference-leading Mercury with a 75-67 victory.
Neither team shot well from the field -- 37.7 percent for the Lynx, 36.8 for the Mercury -- and neither of the teams’ respective superstars lit the scoreboard on fire the way they can and have during their careers.
But when the final buzzer sounded on this bruise-a-thon, Moore had the upper hand, and so did the Lynx. Mighty Maya finished with 20 points and nine rebounds, with Minnesota scrapping to a 48-33 domination on the boards.
How big is it for the Lynx to have Rebekkah Brunson back inside? She led the way in rebounding with 12. Seimone Augustus, who also missed time with injury, had 19 points and eight rebounds.
Phoenix beat Minnesota both times when they met in back-to-back games on June 15 and 18. In fact, the first of those games was the start of the Mercury’s just-ended winning streak. The Lynx had Augustus for that game in Minnesota, but not the subsequent game in Phoenix.
With the Mercury’s streak and the All-Star Game being in Phoenix, the Lynx got to take on the wry attitude of, “Oh, don’t mind us, we’re just the defending champs.” Thus, there was much anticipation of which WNBA alpha-dog team was going to bark loudest at Target Center on Thursday.
And it turned out there certainly was plenty of barking, most of it at the officials. Taurasi clearly felt like she’d been hacked all night, and this was one of those games where getting ticked off didn’t bring out her best. She was 5 of 21 from the field, including 0 of 7 from behind the arc, and picked up a technical when she’d finally reached volcano mode.
This night was in no way indicative of the season Taurasi is having; in fact, it was the categorical opposite of her 2014 campaign. Certainly, the primary subplot of this game was the comparison of the MVP front-runners Moore and Taurasi, the UConn uber-legends who are both making this season a personal scrapbook of highlights.
Thursday, Moore had the better of the battle, as she especially came alive in the fourth quarter, scoring 12 of her points in the period. And there was that moment when Moore ripped away the ball from Taurasi, much to DT’s irritation. That was a microcosm of how the game went, and you know Taurasi is already aching for the rematch on Aug. 9;
When the Lynx come to Phoenix in a little more than a week, the Mercury fans will give them the kind of “welcome” they typically reserve for the loathed Sparks. It will be another marquee night in the WNBA, the kind of “playoff atmosphere” regular-season game we can truly relish.
And how will that game go? Phoenix center Brittney Griner might be challenged by her coach and teammates to be stronger on the boards. She did a lot well Thursday, scoring 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting and blocking four shots, but her total of five rebounds probably needs to improve.
Candice Dupree did her job for Phoenix with a double-double (10 points, 13 rebounds), but overall, the Mercury are aware they can play better against Minnesota, even as good as the Lynx are.
Now the league’s top winning streak belongs to Minnesota, with eight consecutive victories. Perhaps you could say the chip on the shoulder switches back to the Mercury.
While there was some offensive ugliness Thursday, thanks to two strong defenses -- and players at times then reduced to forcing things offensively -- it was still a very fun game to watch. Especially because we realize how much this blockbuster matchup of teams has to offer us in 2014.
With the loss, Duke became the first No. 1 or No. 2 seed to fail to reach the Sweet 16 since the Xavier team that included Amber Harris and Ta’Shia Phillips was upset on its home court by Louisville in 2011, Shoni Schimmel’s first NCAA tournament. The last such team from a major conference that failed to reach the third round was No. 2 seed Texas A&M in 2010.
Key stat: 21 turnovers. Duke cleaned up its ball control a little as the game progressed, but the tone was set early as the Blue Devils struggled to deal with the full-court pressure and frequent traps applied by the Blue Demons. The question ever since Duke lost the services of both Chelsea Gray and Alexis Jones was how it would fare against a pressure defense in the postseason. The answer was not well enough. Duke’s three primary replacement ball handlers combined for 16 turnovers and could not get enough looks for Elizabeth Williams, who was otherwise dominant.
Turning point: Duke carried over the momentum it seized in the closing minutes of the first half and took its first lead of the game on Richa Jackson’s layup with a little more than 18 minutes remaining. Coming back the other way, DePaul’s Podkowa hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key to put the Blue Demons back in front 30-28. Getting any kind of shot to fall seemed to settle the Blue Demons, who quickly pushed that small margin back out to something between five and eight points through much of the second half.
Duke didn’t get back to within a single possession until seven minutes remained, at which point two quick baskets from Jasmine Penny and Brittany Hrynko extended the lead yet again.
Key player: Playing the role Tricia Liston might have played had she made a different decision in the recruiting process (DePaul was in the running for her until she signed with Duke), Podkowa was fearless on a big stage. She finished with 18 points and five rebounds, and even came up with a pair of blocked shots on Duke's Williams among three total.
How it was won: Both teams had potential advantages that could have been decisive in a vacuum: Duke’s superior size, and DePaul’s perimeter depth and quickness. The Blue Devils never got a chance to fully exploit the former because the latter made life miserable for anyone in a Blue Devils uniform who tried to handle the ball.
Add in just enough 3-pointers, after a rough start from behind the arc, and DePaul’s formula worked.
What’s next: DePaul advances to the Sweet 16 in Lincoln, Neb., and will play the winner of Tuesday’s second-round game between No. 3 seed Texas A&M and No. 11 seed James Madison. This is DePaul’s first trip to the tournament’s second week since 2011, when it lost to Duke in a regional in which Connecticut was the top seed.
DULUTH, Ga. -- Kentucky built an early lead against South Carolina and never let up, upsetting the tournament’s top seed 68-58.
Key stat: The No. 4 Wildcats forced the Gamecocks into 11 turnovers in the first half and then held on to advance to the finals of the SEC tournament.
What it means: The loss is a blow to South Carolina’s chances at a No. 1 overall seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament. The Gamecocks, who are 27-4 and won the SEC regular-season title, are no longer in control of their own destiny. Coach Dawn Staley and her young squad must now wait and see what happens in conference tournaments around the country, which will determine whether they receive a coveted No. 1 overall seed, or slip to a two-seed.
How it was won: Kentucky used its aggressive defense and a steady, balanced offensive attack to upend the Gamecocks. Four players finished in double figures for the Wildcats: Bria Goss (14 points), DeNesha Stallworth (12), Linnae Harper (12) and Makayla Epps (10 points). The Gamecocks could never get over the hump, trailing early 11-2, and then by about 10 points for the entirety of the second half.
What's next: Kentucky (24-7) will play the winner of the other semifinal, No. 2 seed Tennessee versus No. 3 seed Texas A&M, on Sunday (ESPN, 3:30 p.m. ET).
ESPN analyst Debbie Antonelli breaks down the games of a member from each of the teams in espnW.com's Total Access series on Duke, North Carolina and NC State.
Diamond DeShields, North Carolina
Antonelli explains why North Carolina's Diamond DeShields is the most talented freshman in the country.
Markeisha Gatling, NC State
Antonelli discusses why NC State's Markeisha Gatling is one of the hardest players to defend in the post.
Tricia Liston, Duke
Debbie Antonelli details what makes Tricia Liston so effective in Duke’s offense.
STANFORD, Calif. -- Just 18 days ago in Seattle, Stanford didn't hit shots, didn't defend, didn't win.
And for having the temerity to tarnish the Cardinal's perfect Pac-12 record, the Washington Huskies were made to atone on Thursday night at Maples Pavilion.
Having already clinched a 14th straight Pac-12 title, No. 5 Stanford (26-2, 15-1) tuned up for the postseason with an easy-peasy 83-60 win over the Huskies, a payback that probably took no one by surprise.
Least of all Washington.
Chiney Ogwumike lightly stepped around the idea of a revenge victory for the Cardinal.
"I don't like to use the term 'payback,'" said Ogwumike, whose 32 points brought her within 86 points of Candice Wiggins and the Pac-12 scoring record. “I want to approach every game the same, but we were a little more fired up."
Fifth-year senior Mikaela Ruef went a different way.
"I'm not as politically correct as Chiney," Ruef said. "I wanted to kill 'em. Nobody likes to lose I wanted payback. I'll say it."
"She says what I'm thinking," Ogwumike said, laughing.
None of this was news to the Huskies, who knew they were going to get Stanford's best shot at Maples.
"From the opening tip, they took it right at us," Washington coach Mike Neighbors said. "They did what they do here. Our kids played just as hard, we were just as prepared."
Washington freshman Kelsey Plum said she could feel Stanford's energy on the floor before the game began.
"They wanted us," Plum said.
Earlier in the week, Neighbors said that back on that day a little less than three weeks ago, his team simply "played well on a night that Stanford didn't."
"We didn't spend five minutes preparing for Stanford [three weeks ago], we really didn't," Neighbors said. "We were focused completely on what we had to do to be good that night in case Stanford wasn't good."
But Stanford was very good on Thursday at home, the second-to-the-last game of the regular season, the second-to-last home game of Ogwumike's extraordinary career.
Ogwumike and the Cardinal did all the things they didn't do in the first matchup. They hit nine 3-pointers and they defended effectively (holding the Huskies to 37.3 percent shooting) and aggressively. And Ogwumike kept coming at them.
With big sister Nneka sitting courtside, Ogwumike had 21 of her 32 points by halftime. Bonnie Samuelson added 14 with four 3-pointers.
On the other side of the score sheet, Plum, who had 23 in the first matchup, finished with 21. Washington was 4-of-12 from the free throw line, as Stanford cut off the Huskies' ability to drive.
"They were not going to let us score 87 points on them again," Neighbors said.
The Cardinal close the regular season on Saturday night against a Washington State team that took second-place Cal to overtime in Berkeley before losing Thursday night.
And Stanford still has work to do, even with the payback factor gone.
"We did not play spectacular tonight," Tara VanDerveer said. "We can play better."
A word of warning to the coach who finds a place for Amanda Hyde as one of his or her assistants in the years to come. She is going to be smarter than you. Go ahead and get used to it.
On the plus side, you need not worry about carrying the four while trying to figure out the tip for a team meal.
Named a first-team Capital One Academic All-American this past week, here is how the Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne senior math major explained what she meant when she described a particular math class as abstract and theoretical.
“In layman’s terms, it’s the theory behind calculus,” Hyde explained, slowly and patiently, when asked to dumb it down for someone whose lone experience with the subject in college came in a course described as math for poets. “In a calculus class you’re doing the integrals and taking derivatives. And now we’re looking at why do we do that and the mathematicians from way back when who created those ideas. It’s pretty in-depth and so abstract.
“I don’t see numbers, really. We don’t deal with numbers anymore.”
If that sounds like a good way to induce a headache, try stopping her on a basketball court. She deals in plenty of numbers there.
A few days after she received the academic accolade, Hyde scored 36 points in a win against IUPUI, the Indianapolis school that is part of the same state system as IPFW and is its rival in the Summit League. That was a good game but hardly an outlier in her basketball canon. The reigning Summit League player of the year (she was also the conference’s scholar of the year across all women’s sports as a junior), Hyde averages 21.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists this season.
She is the only player in the country averaging at least 20 points, five rebounds and four assists per game and shooting at least 50 percent from the field. She is one of four players 5 feet, 11 inches or shorter in the top 50 nationally in field goal percentage. The other three: Baylor’s Nina Davis, Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd and Syracuse’s Brittany Sykes. That’s nice company.
Watch her play and you see a guard with good size for the mid-major level, good balance and footwork when she posts up or drives into the lane and the decisive first step shared by a lot of scorers. But those are subtle details. She doesn’t look out of place warming up amidst the kind of players who populate the Summit League -- often a little shorter or a step slower than their counterparts in major conferences. Still, something obviously sets her apart, and not just on the Summit League stage but when she does things like score 23 points in a win at Michigan State.
The analytical mind that pulled her toward math, the satisfaction she derived from the simplicity of a right answer and a wrong answer, also informs the way she deconstructs basketball -- after the fact and even in the moment. Growing up, she listened to her father tell her time and again to be a student of the game. And she only knows one way to be a student.
“I think it’s sort of made me very detail-oriented,” Hyde said. “I look at everything from kind of a unique perspective. Every move I’m about to make, is it the right one? Is it going to give me a step on the girl who is guarding me? When I get into the paint, I need to be aware. Do I have the layup? Do I need to kick it out? I think math has always kept my mind sharp and constantly going, and I think that has helped me keep up with the quick pace of the college game.”
That can go too far -- paralysis by analysis, as a lot of coaches who did not major in pure mathematics might put it. She shoots 55 percent from the field, 40 percent from the 3-point line and 86 percent from the free throw line. But there are times when the best player on the court needs to take shots that aren’t, statistically speaking, good shots.
“One of the battles Amanda and I have is that she won’t shoot the ball enough,” IPFW coach Chris Paul said. “She feels like she should make every shot, so when she misses a couple and she doesn’t understand why, then she maybe wants to defer to somebody else. Instead of just saying, ‘You know what, I missed a couple, but I know I’m going to make the next one,’ sometimes she can out think herself.”
It’s just how her mind works. And all things considered, it’s a battle in which Paul would eagerly engage for years to come, if only her eligibility allowed it.
It doesn’t require an abacus to count the days remaining in Hyde’s career, fingers will do. Even with the win against IUPUI, IPFW is tied for a distant third place behind that team and South Dakota State in the Summit League. It would likely need to beat both in the conference tournament to earn the automatic NCAA tournament bid that is its only hope of prolonging the season beyond next week.
But Hyde will be in Nashville for the Final Four, not in uniform with the Mastodons presumably but attending a seminar put on by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association for 50 current players who want to transition into coaching. Might she be the next Brad Stevens, who was a well-documented student of analytics during his time coaching Butler? Perhaps. How she sees the game and the world isn't going to change. But changing the game isn't her main objective. She just wants to give others the same opportunity she made so much of.
“I feel like I’ve learned a ton throughout my years,” Hyde said. “And I have a lot more to learn.”
Now on to the rankings.
1. James Madison (23-4, 13-0 Colonial; Charlie Creme’s projected NCAA tournament seed: No. 10)
We ended last season with a team from the Colonial atop the rankings, and we’ll do the same this season. Look at the overall résumé -- wins against Virginia, UCLA and St. John’s, and paper-thin losses against Vanderbilt and North Carolina. Look at momentum, as James Madison continues to roll through opponents in conference play by nearly 30 points per game. Look at a defense that ranks 10th nationally in scoring defense and sixth in field goal defense, with only Connecticut and South Carolina similarly in the top 10 in both categories. And look at a senior star in Kirby Burkholder who is peaking at the perfect time. James Madison has earned the top spot and has a chance to make noise in March.
2. Gonzaga (24-4, 14-2 WCC; projected seed: No. 6)
A loss at BYU on Feb. 15 opened the door at which James Madison was already knocking for No. 1, but Gonzaga is doing just fine as the postseason approaches. In bouncing back from the loss with a win against Portland (the final meeting between coach Kelly Graves and retiring Pilots coach Jim Sollars, who gave Graves his first Division I job), Gonzaga clinched a share of its 10th consecutive WCC regular-season title. It can finish the job with a win against Saint Mary’s on Thursday, one of only two WCC teams to beat the Bulldogs this season, or against Pacific on Saturday.
3. Bowling Green (23-3, 13-1 MAC; projected seed: 11)
This time Bowling Green finished the job. Leading Central Michigan by 11 points with three minutes to play when the teams met in Mount Pleasant, Mich., back in January, Bowling Green lost the lead and then lost the game in overtime. In the rematch this past week, the Falcons took the lead against the league leader with a little more than four minutes to play in the first half and never let it out of their grasp. This isn’t an assists-friendly offense, but in terms of running a team, it’s difficult to do better than Jillian Halfhill. In MAC play, she’s shooting 48 percent from the field, 50 percent from the 3-point line and 85 percent from the free throw line to form a dynamic duo with do-everything Alexis Rogers.
4. Dayton (20-5, 13-1 Atlantic 10; projected seed: No. 6)
Off the national radar after a slow start, Dayton quietly took control of a good and reasonably deep conference. The most recent strong showing was Sunday’s 26-point win against Saint Joseph’s. In five games since the last rankings, junior Ally Mallott averaged 11 rebounds per game. That stretch included back-to-back double-doubles and a game with 23 points and nine rebounds. All of this against the backdrop of a crazy schedule that saw the team play four games in the span of a week, traveling from Kingston, R.I., home to Dayton and then to St. Louis and Philadelphia.
5. Chattanooga (24-3, 16-0 Southern; projected seed: No. 12)
The unbeaten run nearly came to an end Monday, when Chattanooga needed a late rally in regulation and two overtimes to come away with a win at Samford, but Alex Black and Chelsey Shumpert came up with the necessary points in support of Taylor Hall. All Chattanooga can do is keep going about its business. It’s unfortunate but out of the Lady Mocs’ control that the Southern hasn’t produced much in the way of a serious challenger this season, Furman and Davidson tied for second place in the conference but a full six games behind Jim Foster’s team.
6. Middle Tennessee (23-4, 12-1 Conference USA; projected seed: No. 8)
It hasn’t always been easy or pretty (see: Saturday’s 48-46 win against Charlotte), but Middle Tennessee just keeps defending and winning in its first Conference USA season. It might be more quirk than trend at this point, but the Blue Raiders are even on turnovers and assists over the past six games after running a significant deficit in the preceding 21 games. Work remains. There are six Conference USA teams with winning records in the league. Middle Tennessee is one; it still plays three of the other five, including road games at East Carolina and Tulane.
7. Marist (22-6, 16-2 MAAC; projected seed: N/A)
By the end of February, a team probably is what the evidence suggests it is. In the case of Marist, that might be a group that is not on par defensively with teams of recent vintage in Poughkeepsie, certainly not consistently. But it’s also a team that at peak form can be as good offensively as anything Brian Giorgis has put on a basketball court. In three games since the last rankings, Marist averaged 87 points, shot 55 percent and totaled 70 assists against 32 turnovers. No player was warmer than Sydney Coffey, who averaged 19.3 points on, oh, 76 percent shooting.
8. Central Michigan (17-9, 13-1 MAC; projected seed: N/A)
The Chippewas only drop one spot, in part because losing a game at Bowling Green is hardly an embarrassment and in part because so many other teams in the mix stumbled. Central Michigan hit just 10-of-49 3-point attempts in two games against Bowling Green, and that has to be a concern. For one thing, the two teams might well meet again in the MAC championship game, but also because Central Michigan is a very good 3-point shooting team against bad teams that suffers a significant drop-off -- more than might be expected -- from long range against good teams.
9. BYU (23-5, 13-4 WCC; projected seed: 12)
There probably still isn’t enough of a résumé for an NCAA tournament at-large bid, but the win against Gonzaga makes it worth having the conversation. A win this Saturday would give the Cougars season splits against all of the other WCC contenders, their only other loss a double-overtime rivalry game against Utah. The case is there for center Jennifer Hamson to earn All-American honors, but she’s not a one-woman show. Lexi Eaton is always a threat to score 20-plus points, and Kim Beeston had 27 points and nine assists in the most recent win.
10. Wright State (20-7, 9-3 Horizon; projected seed: No. 14)
The Horizon League is one of the more compelling races in the country, especially given the historical dominance of Green Bay and the reality that only one team is getting into the NCAA tournament. Wright State is currently tied atop the standings with Green Bay and Youngstown State and still has games against both teams, Thursday at home against Green Bay and next Wednesday at Youngstown State. This is a team with wins against NC State and James Madison, so its good can be pretty darn good. Junior Kim Demmings (22.8 ppg) has matured into a much more efficient star than the entertaining but erratic player who entered the league.
Next five: No. 11 Iona, No. 12 Albany, No. 13 Green Bay, No. 14 Pacific, No. 15 Saint Joseph's
No need for delay this week. With most teams entering the backstretch of conference play and postseason positioning growing clearer by the day, let's get right to the rankings.
1. Gonzaga (22-3, 12-1 WCC; Charlie Creme’s projected NCAA tournament seed: No. 5)
If the WCC race was a steeplechase, Gonzaga would be approaching the last water jump -- some ground left to cover after it but the last bit of drama approaching. In the weeks since the last mid-major rankings, the Bulldogs reeled off four wins by at least 35 points and now sit three full games clear of second place BYU. Now comes a road trip to San Diego and BYU that could put Gonzaga over the top before it even gets to a rematch against Saint Mary’s. In addition to everything else she does, Haiden Palmer has been piling up assists of late. She, Jazmine Redmon and Danielle Walter have combined for a Vandersloot-ian 228 assists against 95 turnovers.
2. James Madison (19-4, 9-0 Colonial; projected seed: No. 7)
The last time a team scored more than 57 points against James Madison was Jan. 2. The last time a team other than North Carolina did it (and the Tar Heels had to work to get their 74 points) was Dec. 18. The last time an unranked team did it was Dec. 4. And, well, you get the picture. Not that this team limits its own point production. In four games since last we checked in on the Dukes, Kirby Burkholder is averaging 21.2 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.5 steals, and two of her teammates scored at least 25 points in a game in that span.
3. Chattanooga (21-3, 13-0 Southern; projected seed: No. 12)
Palmer, Burkholder and now Taylor Hall. The lesson in these rankings is it’s nice to have a senior star who can do a little bit of everything and a lot of most things. The Lady Mocs have effectively lapped the field in the SoCon with just five games to play, four full games in front of second place and six games in front of third place. Hall leads the team in almost everything (although Jasmine Joyner recently forced her to at least share the lead in blocks), but freshman Chelsey Shumpert has made good use of conference play and become more of a playmaking presence recently.
4. Bowling Green (20-3, 10-1 MAC; projected seed: 11)
Bowling Green still trails Central Michigan by a game in the MAC as next week’s rematch of a phenomenal game between the two in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., approaches, but the overall résumé is strong enough for the Falcons to earn the final NCAA tournament at-large bid in Creme’s most recent projected bracket. Like recent games between the Broncos and Seahawks and Chelsea and Manchester City, next Wednesday’s game pits the MAC’s best offense (Central Michigan) against its best defense (Bowling Green). Since that loss to the Chippewas, senior point guard Jillian Halfhill has hit 14-of-21 3-point attempts to rank second in the conference in 3-point shooting.
5. Dayton (15-5, 8-1 Atlantic 10; projected seed: No. 8)
The Flyers would rather not have the opportunity to show it off, but one of the hallmarks of a program that has turned the corner is the ability to recruit depth. So it is with Dayton, which lost starting guard Kelley Austria to injury, only to see freshman Celeste Edwards rise to the occasion. A top-50 recruit, Edwards scored 17, 18 and 17 points, respectively, in Dayton’s past three games and added six rebounds and six steals in this past weekend’s crucial win at Duquesne. Jim Jabir’s team also regained the services of Amber Deane this past week after she missed time with a concussion. Only four A-10 teams have losing conference records, but Dayton plays four of its final seven games against them.
6. Middle Tennessee (19-4, 8-1 Conference USA; projected seed: No. 8)
The stumble came in Hattiesburg, Miss., where Southern Miss point guard Jamierra Faulkner’s 11 assists got the better of Ebony Rowe’s 22 points and 13 rebounds on Feb. 5. Actually, Rowe did all she could to get her team the win in that game, it was the rest of the lineup shooting 28 percent from the field and 42 percent from the free throw line that caused problems. Middle Tennessee bounced back with a win against Rice, but that remains the issue for the Conference USA leaders. They have Rowe and they have defense, but the offense is inconsistent and inefficient.
7. Central Michigan (15-8, 11-0 MAC; projected seed: No. 10)
The Chippewas do make it interesting. With the Bowling Green rematch looming, Central Michigan nearly gave away its lead in the standings by losing at Ball State this past week. Down by 19 points early in the second half, still down by 15 points with a little more than six minutes to play and eight points with less than three minutes remaining, Central Michigan rallied to win in overtime. Crystal Bradford did what she does. She finished with 26 points, 15 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals and two blocks and hit both a 3-pointer and a three-point play late in regulation. She nearly made it back-to-back triple-doubles with 18 points 13 rebounds and seven assists in Sunday’s win against Buffalo.
8. Wichita State (20-2, 11-0 Missouri Valley; projected seed: No. 11)
The Shockers haven’t cracked the top 10 before this week, which means we really haven’t talked enough about Alex Harden. The junior leads her team in points and assists, the latter accompanied by a better than two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio, and is second in rebounds, steals and blocks. She shoots 51 percent from the field, 41 percent from the 3-point line and 83 percent from the free throw line. Add those efforts to a defense forcing nearly 20 turnovers per game and limiting opponents to 37 percent shooting and you have a mid-major success story.
9. Green Bay (14-7, 7-2 Horizon; projected seed: No. 14)
Welcome back to the rankings, Green Bay. Or considering how few of the current Phoenix were a part of the program’s past success, perhaps just welcome. Green Bay started this season as a very young team and endured close losses -- six points at St. Bonaventure, five points against Wichita State, four points against Purdue, four points in overtime after squandering a lead at Wisconsin. It’s still young, but it is also now playing some of the best mid-major basketball. Redshirt freshman Mehryn Kraker has emerged as a needed 3-point outlet, true freshman Tesha Buck continues to show an all-around game beyond her years and sophomore Kaili Lukan is blossoming as a go-to scoring option for her sister, quietly excellent redshirt junior point guard Megan, to find.
10. Marist (19-6, 13-2 MAAC; projected seed: N/A)
It is strange to see Marist with two conference losses by the middle of February, the most recent a home loss against Fairfield this past weekend, but we’re not yet in unprecedented territory. Five years ago, Marist lost a pair of MAAC games at home. It won the conference regular-season and tournament titles and pushed Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament. And its stumbles aside, the current team leads the MAAC in scoring margin, field goal offense and field goal defense.
Next five: No. 11 Fordham, No. 12 BYU, No. 13 Iona, No. 14 Saint Mary’s, No. 15 St. Bonaventure.
For the better part of a decade, the MAAC had more vowels than contenders. Iona finally evened the score.
So while par for the course in leagues like the West Coast Conference and Atlantic 10 that stretch the definition of mid-major to begin with, there is more than a little significance to a pair of MAAC teams appearing on the list below.
As things stand at the moment, neither Marist nor Green Bay is in first place in its respective conference. That’s news in the mid-major ranks because over the past decade, those two schools won 17 of a possible 18 outright regular-season conference titles. In the lone exception, Green Bay shared the 2005-06 Horizon League title. But while the Phoenix finally got caught in a youth movement that opened the door for Youngstown State, Wright State, UIC and others to compete in the Horizon, Marist remains what it has long been. Just ask Oklahoma.
Even after his team made a second-half run against the Red Foxes on New Year’s Eve, longtime Canisius coach Terry Zeh wasn’t optimistic about anyone in the league catching a team that went 53-1 the past three seasons.
“Can people give them a game? I think people can,” Zeh said without a whole lot of confidence in the sentiment. “I still think it’s Marist and the rest of us. I don’t think it’s Marist and a bunch of teams. It’s Marist. And it’s the rest of us.”
Damika Martinez and Joy Adams might disagree. Behind Martinez, who is averaging 24.3 points per game, and Adams, averaging a Courtney Paris-esque 18.2 points and 14.1 rebounds per game, Iona maintains sole possession of first place in the MAAC after it became the first conference team in nearly five calendar years to beat Marist in Poughkeepsie earlier this month. The Red Foxes still have a slightly fuller body of work, but the Gaels beat a good Pacific team and an Arizona team that is floundering but still hails from a more prosperous basketball neighborhood.
Do dynasties beat competitors down or lift up the level of play across the board? It's a familiar question in women's basketball, which by and large seems to be no closer to catching Connecticut on any sort of permanent basis than it was at the start of the century (much as it struggled to chase Tennessee before that). One season won't answer that question in the MAAC. Perhaps not even two seasons will, considering Martinez is a junior and Adams a sophomore as the cornerstones put in place by former coach Tony Bozzella and now built upon by Billi Godsey. As Zeh said almost a month ago, it needs to happen "more than once in every Halley's Comet.”
But for now, the MAAC has a new contender and the mid-major rankings have a new member.
1. Gonzaga (18-3, 8-1 West Coast; Charlie Creme’s projected NCAA tournament seed: No. 5)
Gonzaga struggled more than might have been expected in recent wins at Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount, needing overtime to escape with a win against the latter this past week. The optimist would point out that they are nonetheless two games clear of the only team with a tiebreaker edge and play just two more road games (albeit the difficult trip to BYU and San Diego). Haiden Palmer continues to excel, including a 32-point effort in the win against Loyola Marymount, but she’s taking 24.7 percent of her team’s shots in WCC play. It looked early like Lindsay Sherbert might be a No. 2 scorer, but neither she nor Sunny Greinacher nor Keani Albanez has seized that role on more than a sporadic basis.
2. Middle Tennessee (17-3, 6-0 Conference USA; projected seed: No. 8)
Make it more than a month since any team scored as many as 60 points against the Blue Raiders. Ebony Rowe just became the program’s all-time leading scorer, but defense is still this team’s bread and butter. Consider the in-state competition. Tennessee’s opponents record assists on 55 percent of their field goals. It is 54 percent for Vanderbilt’s opponents. Neither of those teams need to apologize for the way they play defense. But Middle Tennessee’s opponents record assists on just 48 percent of their field goals, in addition to committing 20 turnovers per game.
3. James Madison (15-4, 5-0 Colonial; projected seed: No. 9)
Speaking of defense, since allowing 74 points in a loss at North Carolina (10 points below what the Tar Heels average on the season), James Madison has limited its first five conference opponents to an average of 49.2 points per game. Only two other CAA teams own winning conference records. James Madison just beat one of them, Drexel, by 27 points. Now College of Charleston comes calling Friday with a 4-2 CAA mark. As for offense, James Madison’s starters have produced 13 double-digit scoring efforts in the past three games. That’s balance.
4. Chattanooga (17-3, 9-0 Southern; projected seed: No. 12)
Good luck finding another player who leads her team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. And if there are others out there, none of them play for teams that are also undefeated in their respective conference. Taylor Hall continues to do it all for the Lady Mocs. The flip side of that is a good supporting cast never hurts. Alex Black is playing more minutes since conference play began and has more than doubled her scoring average in the process. Keep an eye on the next two. Chattanooga travels to second-place Davidson and fourth-place Georgia Southern.
5. Marist (15-5, 9-1 MAAC; projected seed: No. 10)
All were expected, but Marist bounced back from its loss at home against Iona with four consecutive wins. Casey Dulin enters Wednesday’s game against Rider just one assist behind Leanne Ockenden for the team lead, which is more impressive when you consider Dulin missed the first nine games with an injury. Of just as much note, while she’s also closing in on the team lead in turnovers despite the late start, she’s 21 assists in the black. A season ago, she finished three turnovers in the red. Dulin is going to try and make plays, and her mindset is a tremendous asset for the Red Foxes. But it’s all the more an asset if she keeps that ratio firmly in positive territory.
6. Bowling Green (16-3, 6-1 MAC; projected seed; N/A)
How much does Bowling Green get penalized for the overtime loss at Central Michigan in a fantastically entertaining game? On one hand, the Falcons gave the game away with their inability to manage the ball late in regulation. Going into that game, they had 16 more turnovers than assists through 16 games, essentially breaking even. Over the past three games, they have 22 more turnovers than assists. On the other hand, they went on the road against the preseason conference favorite and controlled the tempo for about 35 minutes. This weekend brings a short trip up the interstate to play rival Toledo, which has performed better of late after a very rough start to the season.
7. San Diego (18-2, 7-2 WCC; projected seed: No. 9)
Last we checked in on the rankings, San Diego was coming off back-to-back losses at Portland and Gonzaga. It appears that was more bump than free fall. The Toreros are working on a three-game winning streak in which they have yet to allow more than 58 points. Of note, that includes a 60-45 win against BYU on Jan. 18. A trip to BYU and a home game against Gonzaga hover in the more distant future, but this weekend’s trip to Pacific and Saint Mary’s might be the most important weekend of the regular season for a team that still needs to prove its road credentials.
8. Dayton (12-5, 5-1 Atlantic 10; projected seed: No. 8)
A loss is ultimately a loss, but the way Sunday’s game against Saint Joseph’s got away had to hurt. Down by just a point with five minutes left, Dayton lost 75-63. It didn’t help that weather left the Flyers grounded on Saturday and forced them to fly to Philadelphia on Sunday morning. Of more long-term concern is the fact that the Flyers played that game without Amber Deane and Kelley Austria, players who each average double-digit points and more than 30 minutes per game. Deane’s return from a concussion could come soon, but Austria’s absence might be prolonged, pending tests on her injured knee. Losing her shooting, playmaking and defense would be a devastating blow.
9. Central Michigan (11-8, 7-0 MAC; projected seed: No. 11)
Remember what was said about Chattanooga’s Hall? Well, Crystal Bradford made it a close call. She’s nine assists shy of leading the Chippewas in all those same statistical categories despite sitting out one game and coming off the bench in nine others. Certainly within the MAC, and to some degree in any game, the only person who can slow down Bradford is Bradford. But credit, too, to Niki DiGuilio, the senior sharpshooter who has doubled her scoring average of a season ago to 14.2 points per game and complements Bradford. Just one of the five teams Central Michigan plays before its rematch against Bowling Green currently has a winning conference record.
10. Iona (17-2, 10-0 MAAC; projected seed: No. 13)
The Gaels avoided any letdown after the historic win at Marist. But there have been some close calls already in conference play. One of those came at Fairfield, which comes to New Rochelle, N.Y., this Thursday to complete the season series.
Next five: No. 11 Saint Mary’s, No. 12 Saint Joseph’s, No. 13 Wichita State, No. 14 BYU, No. 15 Duquesne.
Sensing uncertainty on the other end of the phone call as to his mental state the day after a loss against Saint Mary's that featured one of the stranger endings this season will produce, Kelly Graves just chuckled.
"It's just a game," he said.
As in, it's not life or death, and the gregarious coach who built Gonzaga into a program that isn't expected to lose conference games wasn't going to let the result alter that. But the game is also his profession, and Graves can shift from zen to flinty in the blink of an eye, or perhaps the bounce of a basketball, when it comes to it.
And so he did when he started to speak about preparations for a game against Pacific the following day.
"Today was more of a focus, if you want to know the truth, on toughness and rebounding and those kind of things," Graves said at the time of the off-day practice between games. The way he said it left little doubt it wasn't a fun practice.
Gonzaga went out the next day and beat Pacific by 15 points. It didn't finish with an advantage on the boards, but to be fair, it didn't have many opportunities for offensive rebounds when it shot 57 percent from the floor.
It was a good answer, but it wasn't the full answer.
Five days later, Gonzaga limited Portland to 15 points in the first half. Not stingy enough? It held the Pilots to nine points in the second half. It piled up 17 more rebounds than a team that would soon thereafter upset San Diego.
Next time out, Gonzaga held BYU to 42 points, 30 below the Cougars' average. It pounded BYU on the boards.
San Diego followed and fell just as meekly, 79-50 on the scoreboard and 49-40 on the boards.
Three games, two against fellow WCC title contenders, and Gonzaga allowed just 116 points.
"I'm interested to see how we respond," Graves said after the Saint Mary's loss and before the recent run. "Let’s see if we're tough. We've got talent. Let's see how tough we are. We've shown it this year at times. I'm not down on my team. We lost last year at Saint Mary's and then won  in a row against the others. So it's not the fact that we lost there that concerns me, it's kind of how we did it.
"We'll see what we're made of. We'll see if we’re tough enough to get back up."
This isn't the perch he was concerned about, but Gonzaga is back up to the No. 1 spot it technically never lost.
1. Gonzaga (14-3, 4-1 WCC; Charlie Creme’s projected NCAA seed: No. 8)
After a brief stay in Spokane for the games against BYU and San Diego, Gonzaga returns to the road. Its next four games are all on the road, just as four of the past six were.
2. Bowling Green (13-2, 3-0 MAC; Creme’s projected seed: No. 11)
Bowling Green keeps quietly rolling along. The Falcons eased to four wins since the last rankings, all by relatively comfortable double-digit margins. One possible concern is some carelessness with the ball early in conference play. They are seven turnovers in the red through three games, essentially the same as they were through 12 games out of conference. Why bring that up? Because Saturday’s game at fellow MAC unbeaten Central Michigan comes against a team that loves nothing more than ratcheting up the pace of play. On the plus side, always a good rebounder and opportunistic defender, post player Jill Stein has also contributed double-digit points per game of late.
3. Middle Tennessee (13-3, 2-0 Conference USA; Creme’s projected seed: No. 10)
As always seems to be the case, we arrive in the middle of January, look around and realize Middle Tennessee has built itself a pretty good résumé. The Blue Raiders make the big move in the rankings, but they will be pressed to live up to it right away. Wins against North Texas and Louisiana Tech opened the ledger for the first season in a new conference, but Wednesday’s home game against UTEP could be decisive (there is no return leg in El Paso, unless the teams meet there in the final of the conference tournament). KeKe Stewart’s recent shooting exploits aside, it’s about turnovers and defense. Ebony Rowe is shooting 56 percent on offense; the rest of the team is at 35 percent.
4. James Madison (11-4, 1-0 CAA; Creme’s projected seed: N/A)
The idea that there is no such thing as a good loss is completely hogwash. Maybe there’s no such thing if you’re looking from the inside out. But for the rest of us looking in from the outside, a 74-71 loss on the road against then-No. 10 North Carolina on Jan. 2 was absolutely a positive marker (as was an overtime loss at home against Vanderbilt a few weeks earlier). In both of those games, James Madison finished with decisive edges on the boards. Meanwhile, was there some pent up frustration from the Elena Delle Donne years in the CAA opener against Delaware? Kirby Burkholder went for 37 points in an 87-51 win that ended Delaware’s 44-game conference winning streak.
5. Dayton (9-4, 2-0 Atlantic 10; Creme’s projected seed: No. 10)
It’s time to bring the Flyers back from purgatory. Since a brutal loss at Vanderbilt and another at Central Michigan in back-to-back games around Thanksgiving, Dayton has started to roll. A December win against Washington State looks better by the day, the Flyers won a rematch against Central Michigan on Dec. 30 and rolled to wins in their first two A-10 games. In fact, each of an active streak of seven consecutive wins came by double-digit margins. But like Middle Tennessee, there is no time to rest. George Washington visits Thursday and suddenly looks like a serious contender in the A-10, and Fordham arrives Sunday as another upper echelon team in the league.
6. Marist (11-5, 5-1 MAAC; Creme’s projected seed: No. 9)
Marist isn’t in first place in the MAAC, which is news all on its own. A 73-71 loss at home against Iona on Monday gave the Gaels sole possession of first place and snapped that program’s 29-game losing streak against the Red Foxes. That probably leaves Iona fans wondering just why we’re still talking about Marist in this space. But for the time being, the overall résumé (wins against Oklahoma, Bowling Green and St. Bonaventure, a game given away at Ohio State and a reasonable showing shorthanded against Kentucky) still hold sway. In the most recent rankings, this was mentioned as possibly Marist’s best shooting team. Well, the 3-point shot has gone missing in MAAC play. But more important is a defense allowing opponents to shoot 40 percent on the season. That isn’t Marist basketball.
7. Chattanooga (14-3, 6-0 Southern; Creme’s projected seed: No. 12)
It is said every year in this space, so why break tradition. The Southern Conference might be more low-major than mid-major, but it’s marathon of a conference season makes it almost impossible to emerge unscathed. Chattanooga nearly stumbled Sunday, needing overtime to come away from Appalachian State with a win. In fact, three of four conference games played this month were decided by single digits (although its scoring margin in SoCon games is still nearly double that of any other team). In conference play, Taylor Hall ranks sixth in the league in points per game, fifth in rebounds per game, second in assists per game, second in steals per game and 10th in blocks per game.
8. San Diego (15-2, 4-2 WCC; Creme’s projected seed: No. 10)
The West Coast Conference always had the potential to cannibalize itself, and while Gonzaga holds down the top spot, we’re starting to see the effects of the strife as San Diego and others slip. Playing on the road for the first time in nearly a month, San Diego lost at Gonzaga by 29 points and, perhaps even more surprisingly, by 21 points at Portland two days earlier this past week. Of course, this rankings period also includes home wins against Saint Mary’s and Pacific, so it wasn’t all bad for the Toreros. The problem in both losses was getting beaten soundly on the boards, the first instances all season in which San Diego lost the rebounding battle. A home game against BYU awaits this week.
9. BYU (14-3, 4-2 WCC; Creme’s projected seed: N/A)
Like San Diego, BYU lost without putting up much of a fight at Gonzaga and likewise lost another game somewhat surprisingly, if only because it came at home against what is admittedly a good Pacific team. But, a word which seems to be the theme of the moment for the WCC, the Cougars also produced a win against Saint Mary’s in the ranking period. Turnovers have been a bugaboo. BYU has more assists than turnovers on the season, but that number is reversed in WCC play. After averaging 15.9 turnovers per game out of conference, BYU averaged 19.3 in its first six league games. That includes Jennifer Hamson and Lexi Eaton, outstanding players who are otherwise carrying the load offensively but who also have 48 turnovers between them in WCC play.
10. Saint Mary’s (14-3, 4-2 WCC; Creme’s projected seed: N/A)
There are host of teams knocking at the door -- beating on it, really -- but Saint Mary’s adds to the WCC’s continued hold on places. At least for now. By now, we’ve gotten to the losses the Gaels suffered against BYU and San Diego, but there is also that win against Gonzaga that came since the most recent rankings. This team still has Jackie Nared and Danielle Mauldin, and it still has return games at BYU and San Diego in which it can even those scores. Now here’s the problem. Opponents are shooting 46 percent against Saint Mary’s in conference play. It’s a small sample size, but that’s still a big problem. Good news comes with five of the next six games at home.
Next five: No. 11 George Washington (12-4), No. 12 Iona (13-2), No. 13 UTEP (13-2), No. 14 Fordham (14-3), No. 15 Saint Joseph’s (12-4).
A whole lot was going on Thursday as conference play began for several teams and some disturbing WNBA news broke. One night is still just one night in a long basketball season, but this was an interesting one on many fronts.
We'll start in Knoxville, Tenn., where Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick no doubt was feeling agitated before No. 5 Tennessee's game with No. 16 LSU. Warlick doesn't like to go against LSU coach Nikki Caldwell, the former Tennessee player and assistant. Warlick and Caldwell have been such good friends for so long, it just doesn't feel comfortable for either one when their teams face off.
So there was a lot swirling around in the Thompson-Boling Arena atmosphere Thursday, and it didn't end up being a good mix for the hosts. Tennessee staged a furious rally late, but it wasn't enough as LSU pulled the upset, 80-77, led by Danielle Ballard's 25 points.
Parker's second-to-last game playing for Tennessee -- the 2008 national semifinals -- was against LSU, and the Lady Vols' got the buzzer-beating victory, 47-46. Then Parker and her fellow seniors spurred Tennessee to the NCAA title against Stanford.
Next, Parker was taken first in the WNBA draft by the Los Angeles Sparks, for whom she won the league's MVP and rookie of the year award later in 2008. But Parker hasn't gotten a league title in her sometimes injury-plagued WNBA career, and the Sparks' future in Los Angeles is now up for speculation.
It was reported Thursday that the team's ownership group is relinquishing the franchise, a move that seemed to take everyone by surprise. As we wait to see the resolution of what might happen with the Sparks, you have to wonder what it might mean for the WNBA future of Parker, who was the league's MVP this past season.
As for the Lady Vols' future in 2014, this is certainly not the way they wanted to get started in SEC play. It's only one game, but the way they allowed LSU to dictate play for a lot of the second half -- and Tennessee's 20 turnovers to LSU's 14 for the game -- have to be concerns for Warlick. Next up for Tennessee is a trip to Georgia on Sunday.
• Big 12 first look: The league's two undefeated teams, No. 11 Oklahoma State and No. 14 Iowa State, stayed that way with victories over Texas and TCU, respectively. Tiffany Bias had 23 points and six assists for the Cowgirls in their 67-61 triumph over the Longhorns in Stillwater, Okla. Nicole "Kidd" Blaskowsky came off the bench for 24 points and nine rebounds for the Cyclones, who crushed the Horned Frogs 71-49 in Fort Worth, Texas.
We're a little over a week away from the Oklahoma State-Iowa State showdown, which is in Ames, Iowa, on Jan. 11. Between now and then, the Cowgirls still have to face West Virginia and Kansas State, while the Cyclones take on No. 25 Oklahoma and Texas Tech.
• Big Ten tip-off: Speaking of undefeated teams, Indiana remained so with its 86-84 upset win over No. 22 Iowa. But No. 17 Purdue lost its Big Ten opener, 89-78 at Ohio State.
And No. 18 Nebraska nearly fell victim to the upset bug, too, but held off Northwestern 66-65.
'Tis the season for end-of-year lists. And while the end of the basketball year technically comes not with a ball dropping in Times Square but confetti on a court in Nashville, starting a new calendar signals a shift of sorts in the start of conference play across much of the country. So to match the reflective spirit of the week, and before we get to the top 10, what would an all-mid-major team for the first half of the season look like?
Shereesha Richards, F, Albany: She put up 20 points and seven rebounds against Duke -- in the first half. No wonder Blue Devils coach Joanne P. McCallie said the 6-foot-1 forward was better than her league (and as a former America East coach, McCallie ought to know). Richards is averaging 22.9 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game. She is fifth in the nation in field goal percentage but has taken nearly 50 more shots than those ahead of her.
Ebony Rowe, F, Middle Tennessee: With three more points she will join Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike as the only active players with career totals of at least 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. But she's not here as a career achievement honoree; she's doing just fine on the strength of her 2013-14 numbers. Despite a typically tough schedule and losing any proven help around her, she's averaging 23.2 points (on 53.9 percent shooting) and 11.6 rebounds per game.
Amanda Hyde, G, IPFW: One coach of a more prominent Midwestern program just sighed when Hyde's name came up, still lamenting a player who went overlooked coming out of high school. A combo guard-forward who averages 21.3 points per game and leads her team in assists, she is nonetheless in amongst power forwards and centers at No. 23 nationally in field goal percentage (58.7 percent). She also shoots 52.9 percent on nearly three 3-point attempts per game and 85 percent on more than seven free throw attempts per game.
Jennifer Schlott, G, Utah State: The senior is seventh in the nation in scoring at 24.7 points per game, which includes 37 points in a win against Utah and 44 points in a win against UCSB, but she also leads the Mountain West by a wide margin at 6.2 assists per game. In fact, she is the only player in the nation ranked in the top 20 in both points and assists per game.
Jennifer Hamson, C, BYU: Forget mid-major; Hamson should be right there with Stefanie Dolson and Elizabeth Williams in the All-America conversation. She's averaging 18.5 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.0 blocks in 30.1 minutes per game, staying on the court and out of foul trouble to change games on both ends. Standing 6 feet, 7 inches is an asset, but there is a lot more to her game than merely being tall.
Now on to the rankings. (Note: Due to some holiday shuffling, the next rankings will appear on Wednesday, Jan. 15.)
1. Gonzaga (10-2)
Gonzaga wasn't up to the task over 40 minutes at Stanford on Dec. 14 , but that's typically true for most of the country, including most of the Pac-12. Sunny Greinacher hit 9-of-16 shots against the Cardinal, while the rest of the team shot 27 percent, including misses on all 14 attempts from the 3-point line. The Bulldogs don't live by the 3-pointer, but they hit at least six in wins against Wisconsin, Ohio State and Washington State, as well as in a close loss at Oklahoma. Conference play offers few early breaks. This weekend's difficult road trip to Saint Mary's and West Coast Conference newcomer Pacific begin a stretch in which Gonzaga plays seven of its first nine WCC games on the road.
2. Saint Mary's (10-1)
The Gaels capped a nearly perfect run out of conference by beating USC and Cal State Northridge on the road before Christmas. The win against USC improved Saint Mary's to 2-0 against the Pac-12, paired with a season-opening win against Washington at home. The team's top four scorers -- Jackie Nared, Danielle Mauldin, Lauren Nicholson and Kate Gaze -- average better than 68 points per game between them, more than Saint Mary's as a whole averaged a season ago. A win against Gonzaga early in conference play a season ago didn't catapult the Gaels to a conference title, but a win Saturday would be a good start this time around.
3. Bowling Green (9-2)
There isn't any shame in losing at Purdue, but Bowling Green will likely feel it let one get away in a 58-47 loss against the Boilermakers this past weekend. As they did in wins against Michigan and Ohio State, the Falcons finished with an advantage on the boards against Purdue, but they couldn't make up for 26 percent shooting, including 2-of-19 attempts from the 3-point line. A good bit of credit should go to a Purdue defense which did the same thing to Green Bay days earlier, but if you told Bowling Green it would finish with 39 rebounds and eight turnovers on the road against a ranked them, it would expect to return home with a win.
4. Marist (7-4)
This is an admittedly big splash for Marist in its return to the top 10. Part of that is the residue of the win against then-No. 20 Oklahoma this past weekend, the program's first home win against a ranked team. But it's also about the numbers and news beyond that result. This might be the best shooting team in quite some time in Poughkeepsie. Its three leading scorers -- Madeline Blais, Leanne Ockenden and Emma O'Connor -- are all shooting at least 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from the 3-point line. That doesn't include Sydney Coffey, the scoring standout against the Sooners who also leads the team in assists. On top of that, Marist just reclaimed senior Casey Dulin from injury and might soon do the same with Tori Jarosz, a potential frontcourt cornerstone.
5. Saint Joseph's (9-2)
The ancient rules of rankings decree a team drop when it loses, but the Hawks hold at No. 5 after a 64-62 loss at then-No. 23 Syracuse. As did LSU earlier this season, Syracuse claimed a commanding advantage on the boards (fueled in large part by a 23-1 edge in bench rebounds). That might just be a fact of life for Saint Joseph's, but it shoots and takes care of the bell well enough to survive it. That said, another shooter or two from 3-point range in support of Erin Shields couldn't hurt, so it bears watching whether senior Kelsey Berger's three 3-pointers against Syracuse are the start of something. Atlantic 10 play begins next week, but a trip to Florida Gulf Coast this weekend can't be overlooked.
6. San Diego (11-0)
San Diego cruised to wins against Long Beach State and UC Irvine, both of which entered those games with winning records, to remain unbeaten entering WCC play. The Toreros piled up a 100-44 rebounding advantage in those two most recent wins. So all is good, right? Well, they also turned over the ball 54 times in those games, including 31 turnovers in the victory against Long Beach State. Of all the teams in the top 10, San Diego has played the weakest schedule. If they are big enough and athletic enough to keep dominating better competition in conference, more power to them. But all those turnovers could be warning bells.
7. BYU (10-1)
BYU had a chance to reach Christmas unbeaten, but it gave away a win against rival Utah (or had it taken away by Utes star Michelle Plouffe, depending on your point of view and rooting interest in the Beehive State). After a week to recuperate, the Cougars did at least maintain some in-state bragging rights with a victory against Utah State. Hamson is fantastic, but BYU's ceiling might ultimately depend on Lexi Eaton. She has already done remarkably well in coming back from an ACL injury last season, playing every game this season and averaging more than 28 minutes per game, but her shooting consistency in conference could be the difference between a title and a third- or fourth-place finish in an ultra-competitive WCC.
8. Middle Tennessee (9-3)
Middle Tennessee has just one player averaging double-digit points per game. But when that player is Rowe, how many more do you need? Behind typically prolific performances from their star, the Blue Raiders closed the pre-Christmas portion of their schedule with three good results in a row, winning at UCF, South Florida and at home against otherwise red-hot South Dakota State. Middle Tennessee isn't a statistical marvel, but it plays defense, forces turnovers and has Rowe. Its three losses this season came against Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee, teams with a combined 33-2 record.
9. James Madison (8-3)
Diabolical isn't necessarily the adjective you want to describe your schedule, but James Madison coach Kenny Brooks will certainly have his team ready for conference play. Coming off a win at St. John's and an overtime loss at home against Vanderbilt, the Dukes get a rare breather by hosting a tournament this weekend that includes Ohio, UMBC and Norfolk State, but it then turns around and travels to North Carolina for its final nonconference game. Toia Giggetts twice turned in would-be career nights in December, going for 23 points and six rebounds in a victory at Pitt and 25 points and 14 rebounds in the loss against Vanderbilt.
10. Chattanooga (10-3)
No team was busier in the days before Christmas. Chattanooga played four road games in eight days between Dec. 14 and Dec. 21 and won all four, opening Southern Conference play with victories at UNCG and Elon and then stepping back out of conference for wins at in-state foes Austin Peay and East Tennessee State. That is more a test of stamina than anything, but the Lady Mocs took care of the ball, took care of the boards and took care of business.
Next five: South Dakota State (9-5), Dayton (5-4), UTEP (10-1), Sacramento State (7-1), Fordham (9-2)
Gonzaga’s win at Wisconsin on Tuesday night finished a Midwestern sweep that began with a win at Ohio State and cemented the Bulldogs as the team atop the rankings. But this isn’t just about the WCC’s flagship program, the one with three Sweet 16 appearances and a regional final since coach Kelly Graves arrived. Four teams from the conference appear in this week’s rankings, teams with a combined 33-2 overall record and 9-1 record against major conferences this season.
What used to be the six power conferences, including the old Big East, were the only leagues a season ago that ranked ahead of the WCC in RPI. Two seasons ago, the WCC ranked eighth among all conferences. That is in contrast to the previous decade, when the league finished better than 12th on just two occasions. Credit the arrival of a proven program like BYU with some of the improvement, but it’s also about growth from programs like Saint Mary’s and San Diego, which advanced to the semifinals of the WNIT two seasons ago, finished second in the league for the second season in a row last season and now finds a home in the mid-major rankings for the first time.
We’re not quite talking soccer yet, where the WCC owns three national championships since 2000 and claims names like Brandi Chastain, Megan Rapinoe and Christine Sinclair as its own. But if you want to find the best basketball beyond the big conferences -- and better basketball than quite a few teams in those conferences -- turn your gaze westward.
1. Gonzaga (8-1)There aren’t many firsts left for Gonzaga. And while this isn’t making a first Final Four, wins at Ohio State and Wisconsin in recent days did represent the first time the program won multiple road games (not including neutral-site games) in the same season against teams from the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC. Tuesday’s win against the Badgers was far from perfect, but it showed what the program is these days. It was Gonzaga that came in ranked and had both the size inside (four points, four rebounds and two blocks in 16 valuable minutes for Shelby Cheslek) and the depth on the bench (10 points in 11 minutes from Danielle Walter) to grind out a win. Now comes the biggest test, as the Bulldogs (and assistant coach Nicole Powell) head to Stanford on Saturday.
2. Bowling Green (8-1)Bowling Green is working with an NFL schedule in December. Five Sundays, five games. And that’s all. As long as they aren’t the kind of Sundays the Cleveland Browns endure, that should work out all right. At least they seem to have more depth than the Browns. Five players led the Falcons in scoring at least once in the first nine games. Junior Deborah Hoekstra made 23 fields goals in limited minutes over her first two seasons. She hit 15 shots in the past two games, shooting 78.9 percent in the process to become the first of those leading scorers to do so in back-to-back games. After UMass this Sunday, Bowling Green heads to Purdue on Dec. 22 to try and improve to 3-0 this season against the Big Ten.
3. UTEP (8-0)UTEP doesn’t do itself any favors on the perception front by stocking its early schedule with home games, but it passed its first road test of the season with a win at New Mexico State on Dec. 3, sweeping the home-and-home nonconference series with the Aggies. That sets the stage for two big tests in the coming weeks, first against Georgia Tech on a neutral court in Puerto Rico on Dec. 20 and then at Texas A&M on Jan. 2. Redshirt senior Kristine Vitola, who missed most of last season with an ACL injury, seems to be moving fine defensively. The 6-foot-4 post began the week as one of just 13 players nationally averaging at least three blocks per game.
4. BYU (9-0)A loss against Weber State, a team whose only Division I wins came against Air Force and Utah Valley, would have been difficult to explain. Instead, the Cougars get to discuss a 14-0 run in the final three minutes to pull out a 90-85 win on the road Tuesday in a game in which they trailed by as many as 24 points in the second half. Not bad for the third road game in a week, travel that spanned more than 3,000 miles. Lexi Eaton averaged 22.7 points in the three road games, and her return to form after last season’s torn ACL continues to change the face of this team. This weekend’s game against Utah and the following weekend’s games against Utah State will be challenging for obvious reasons of geography (not to mention Utah’s Michelle Plouffe and Utah State’s Jennifer Schlott).
5. Saint Joseph’s (9-1)Make it eight wins in a row for Saint Joseph’s. Maryland transfer Natasha Cloud and Erin Shields might well be the nation’s best mid-major backcourt, not to mention a duo worth including in any discussion, mid-major or otherwise. Cloud is starting to put together a season like Chelsea Hopkins did at San Diego State a season ago, where it feels as if a triple-double is in play every time she takes the court. What’s worth watching is whether sophomore Sarah Fairbanks, only two points behind Shields for the team lead, is really in the midst of a breakthrough season and provides consistent frontcourt scoring. The only game in the next two weeks is a big one, at Syracuse on Dec. 21.
6. Albany (7-0)A win against Marist remains far and away the best win on the résumé, which might suggest a rude awakening awaits when Albany visits Duke next Thursday, but at least wins are coming on the road -- at Providence, Dartmouth and NJIT in the past two weeks. One thing to watch is defense. Even before the Great Danes conceded 52 percent field goal shooting against NJIT on Tuesday, the defensive numbers weren’t living up to those that made the team such a headache for opponents a season ago. The offensive numbers are up, and Shereesha Richards has been stand-up-and-take-notice brilliant, but Albany still hasn’t found the 3-pointers to replace those lost from Lindsey Lowrie.
7. San Diego (9-0)The opening week win against Arizona State remains the centerpiece result for San Diego, but the team picked second in the WCC preseason poll, ahead of both BYU and Saint Mary’s, is rolling along. Since Thanksgiving, the Toreros beat Weber State, Cal State Fullerton and Seattle University by 20, 23 and 23 points, respectively. San Diego is dominating teams on the boards to this point, its advantage of 12.3 rebounds per game over opponents ranking just outside the top 10 nationally. One big reason on a team with good size across the floor is 6-foot-3 junior Sophia Ederaine. Already a proven shot blocker in limited minutes in her first two seasons, Ederaine is averaging 7.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in a potential breakout season.
8. Saint Mary’s (7-1)Saint Mary’s shoots the ball well on two-point field goals, it shoots the ball well from the 3-point line and it shoots the ball well from the free throw line. It rebounds the ball well. The one factor that is the same in all of those situations is that it has the ball. The Gaels committed 29 turnovers in a 94-92 loss at Sacramento State on Dec. 5, and against a team with such a penchant for 3-pointers, the wasted possessions proved costly. Even with that game, however, Kate Gaze had 27 assists and 16 assists in three games since the last rankings, compared to 24 assists and 25 turnovers in the first five games of the season. A trip to USC on Dec. 19 looms large among remaining nonconference games.
9. James Madison (6-2)A Thanksgiving tournament in Naples, Fla., proved a mixed bag for James Madison, which opened with a good win against a fresh UCLA team but then lost the next two days to Mississippi State and Wright State, respectively. Going on the road for a win at Pittsburgh just three days after that tournament was a commendable bounce back. No team on this list has played fewer home games than James Madison, which travels to a tournament at St. John’s this weekend. Even when it finally hosts another game in Harrisonburg, it will be against Vanderbilt on Dec. 18. Of note, James Madison had 145 fewer turnovers than its opponents last season. So far this season, it has just five fewer.
10. Chattanooga (5-3)Chattanooga dropped games against Minnesota and Hawaii at a Thanksgiving tournament hosted by the latter, and had to rally from 14 down midway through the second half to avoid a loss in the tournament finale against Colorado State. A lot of teams give up points to Rachel Banham, and plenty of teams stumbled against the Rainbow Wahine on that trip, but rationalization only goes so far. Chattanooga didn’t lose back-to-back games at any point a season ago. Still, it had to be encouraging to see Ashlen Dewart, who didn’t reach double figures in points in any of the three games in Hawaii, bounce back with 25 points and 10 rebounds in Tuesday’s win against Jacksonville State.
Next five: Dayton (2-4), Marist (4-4), Florida Gulf Coast (5-3), Sacramento State (6-1), St. Bonaventure (8-3)
Might Ohio be the most competitive state in women's college basketball? Ohio State was the top program for years, but Xavier moved to the top of the queue with Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips, and it was tough to argue against Dayton as the top program a season ago. That doesn't even take into consideration Toledo's WNIT title in 2011.
Now another Ohio program, one that is no stranger to basketball success, is making a move for in-state bragging rights. It might take more time and more wins to make that a reality, but Bowling Green is the biggest mover in the mid-major rankings.
1. Gonzaga (3-1)
We'll get back to Ohio in a moment, but it's a team from the Pacific Northwest that replaces preseason No. 1 Dayton atop the rankings. A potential signature win got away at Oklahoma, a 76-72 lead turning into an 82-78 loss, but that doesn't change the overall profile. Haiden Palmer has been impressively efficient as the go-to option on the offensive end, but she's also getting help from Cal transfer Lindsay Sherbert (11.3 points, 7.3 rebounds per game). December is a big month for building an at-large profile. Gonzaga plays successive road games at Ohio State, Wisconsin and Stanford in a seven-day stretch beginning Dec. 8.
2. Bowling Green (6-1)
The Falcons beat the Buckeyes in Columbus on Sunday, their second win of the season against a quality Big Ten program (they beat Michigan on a neutral court to open the season). An Ohio native, senior Jillian Halfhill was a key figure in the win with 13 points, six assists, five rebounds and two steals against Ohio State, just as she was in a win last season against Dayton. Mid-major fans will remember the name Celeste Hoewisch, and Halfhill plays the game a lot like the guard who helped drive Green Bay to a Sweet 16. Halfhill isn't really a pure passer as a point guard, but like Hoewisch, she can shoot, defend, rebound beyond her size and, more than anything, compete. With Duke transfer Alexis Rogers and NC State transfer Erica Donovan alongside, it's a team well worth watching. A trip to Purdue looms on Dec. 22.
3. UTEP (4-0)
UTEP won its past two games by scores of 84-39 and 92-43. All right, that happens early in seasons, and it's not that much of a stretch to think the Miners are just that much better than Northern Colorado, the other team involved in the latter score. But 84-39 against Kansas State? The Kansas State that plays in the Big 12? That win marked UTEP's second-largest margin of victory against a Division I opponent and showed off what this team can do -- namely turn suffocating defense and good rebounding into tons of points. New arrivals Stacie Telles and Anete Kirsteine have greatly improved the team's 3-point shooting through the very early going.
4. Chattanooga (4-1)
You think Jim Foster's enjoying himself? Consider his thoughts after Taylor Hall had seven assists and no turnovers, and his team had just seven turnovers overall, in an 80-52 rout of Auburn. "I have been doing this for 36 years, and something I haven't coached is a great passing frontcourt player," Foster said. "If you look at great basketball teams in history, the Celtics' Larry Bird was a great half-court passer, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley were great passers as forwards. Really significant basketball teams have had that dimension, and that's what Taylor Hall is." Now the challenge: Chattanooga won't play its next home game until Jan. 4.
5. James Madison (4-0)
Since in-state dominance seems to be a theme, James Madison opened the season with a win against Virginia. But considering it has done that in four of the past six meetings, that's hardly a power shift. Kirby Burkholder has been as advertised, averaging 19.5 points and 10.5 rebounds, but notable performances have also come from Precious Hall, stepping into the role of supporting scorer behind Burkholder, and sophomore Angela Mickens, who has 24 assists in four appearances. Thanksgiving brings a tournament in Florida in which James Madison opens against UCLA and could potentially play the likes of Mississippi State and NC State or Middle Tennessee State in bracket play.
6. Dayton (2-3)
The three losses are there, but it's really only the second half of the most recent defeat at Vanderbilt that causes the Flyers to drop. Overtime losses at Iowa and Michigan State, both after strong second-half comebacks, hardly marked Dayton as irrevocably flawed, but an 82-52 loss against the Commodores in which Vanderbilt shot 57 percent from the field is more worrisome. A team shooting 28.8 percent from the 3-point line and allowing opponents to shoot 45.5 percent for the season needs work. A trip to Central Michigan on Dec. 5 is the lone game in the next two weeks.
7. Saint Mary’s (5-0)
As long as it's not something that needs to be repeated over the long run, Saint Mary's beating UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly this past weekend despite playing without injured star Jackie Nared is a positive sign. We knew Nared, who scored 37 points in a season-opening win against Washington, was the real deal. Getting support like Danielle Maudlin's 22 points and 22 rebounds against Cal Poly, or Lauren Nicholson's 26 points against UCSB, underscores how much depth there is on this roster. Alabama and Toledo at home over Thanksgiving weekend are modest tests.
8. BYU (5-0)
Xavier had one in Ta'Shia Phillips, Liberty had one in Katie Feenstra, but it's not very often you find one of the nation's best true centers playing beyond the big conferences. BYU's Jennifer Hamson is making a strong case to join that list. Solid a season ago, the 6-foot-7 senior is taking her game to new heights in the early going this season. She's averaging 19.6 points, nine rebounds and 3.8 blocks per game, and even on a night like Tuesday, when she got in turnover trouble putting the ball on the floor against double and triple teams in the first half against Washington State, she found a way to influence the game on one end or the other to finish with 20 points, eight rebounds and two blocks. Add a healthy Lexi Eaton, back from last season's ACL tear, and the Cougars bear watching.
9. Saint Joseph’s (5-1)
A win at LSU would have been nice, but that loss remains the only blemish for Saint Joseph's, which added a road win at Princeton on Tuesday to a résumé that already included a quality mid-major road win at Wichita State. While long-rage shooting has been an issue beyond Erin Shields to this point, the Hawks are shooting 51.7 percent on two-point attempts. In terms of offensive efficiency, that's in line with teams like Duke and Notre Dame. More road tests await with games at Quinnipiac, Temple and Villanova in the next two weeks.
10. Albany (5-0)
The team that could have, would have, should have beat North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA tournament a season ago is back at it. Granted, there isn't a lot of meat on the schedule -- a 10-point win at home against banged up Marist probably Albany's best win to date -- but the Great Danes are winning by more than 18 points per game. Shereesha Richards (23.2 points per game, 9.6 rebounds per game) and Sarah Royals (14.4 points, 6.0 assists) lead the way, while 6-foot-9 Megan Craig is a unique challenge in the post for opponents. If they are for real, road trips to Providence this week and Dartmouth next week won't slow them.
Next five: San Diego (4-0), St. Bonaventure (6-2), Green Bay (4-1), Utah State (4-0), Florida Gulf Coast (3-1)
Previous poll: Nov. 6 preseason poll
If you are a women's basketball fan, there are some names you've likely heard a lot, but you might not have seen the players yet. Monday, you'll have the chance.
North Carolina hosts Tennessee (ESPN2 and WatchESPN, 9 p.m. ET; Stanford plays UConn at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2 and WatchESPN) in a game that will be an early showcase for some of the top freshmen this season.
The Tar Heels’ Diamond DeShields, Stephanie Mavunga, Allisha Gray and Jessica Washington comprised what was generally ranked the No. 1 recruiting class this year. North Carolina also has two redshirt freshmen, Hillary Fuller (foot) and Hillary Summers (knee), who sat out last season with injury issues.
Meanwhile, Tennessee’s much-heralded Mercedes Russell and Jordan Reynolds will be in action for the Lady Vols. Redshirt freshman Andraya Carter, who played in seven games last season before being sidelined by shoulder surgery, will be facing North Carolina for the second time in her college career. Tennessee’s 102-57 victory over the Tar Heels on Dec. 2, 2012, was Carter’s last game before redshirting.
Both sets of rookies already have been in action this season. Tennessee opened on the road Friday, beating Middle Tennessee 67-57. Russell, a 6-foot-6 center, had 11 points and seven rebounds in her debut. Carter had 10 points and four rebounds; Reynolds didn't score but had two rebounds. All three of them came off the bench, as Tennessee has a more experienced lineup than does North Carolina.
For the Tar Heels, the freshmen are going to have to immediately step into some key roles. In UNC's 87-26 shellacking of Air Force on Friday, Mavunga started her Tar Heel career with a double-double: 16 points and 13 rebounds. DeShields had 16 points; she and Mavunga were in the starting lineup, along with sophomore Xylina McDaniel, and juniors Brittany Rountree and Latifah Coleman.
Gray (13 points), Washington (seven), Summers (five), and Fuller (three) all came off the bench.
While Tennessee was tested in its opener at Middle Tennessee, North Carolina will face its first formidable competition in the Lady Vols. It should be an interesting look at both the present and the future for both squads.