Middle Tennessee jumps five spots to No. 3

KeKe Stewart averages 10.2 points for Middle Tennessee (13-3). AP Photo/Mark Zaleski

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 [15] 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).

Dec. 27 rankings