Zags top first mid-major top 10 of season
A new season means a new edition of the mid-major top 10.
First, the ground rules, and we're making it easy this season. If a team isn't in one of the six power conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-10, SEC), it's eligible. But as Gonzaga, South Dakota State and others proved last season, that doesn't mean it's strictly the domain of the Atlantic 10, Conference USA and Mountain West.
1. Gonzaga: Gonzaga came within a few minutes of reaching the Sweet 16 in last season's NCAA tournament. But unlike many mid-major teams that make postseason runs, the Bulldogs didn't do it on the strength of a senior-laden roster. In fact, only one rotation player is gone, Jami Schaefer, and she's replaced by the healthy return of sharpshooter Tiffanie Shives and freshly eligible Washington transfer Katelan Redmon.
2. Xavier: The Musketeers went 25-7 a season ago but can reasonably hope for even better with Amber Harris returning from injury. Alongside Ta'Shia Phillips, Harris is part of one of the best post tandems in the nation -- mid-major or otherwise. Replacing the outside shooting of departed seniors Jerri Taylor and Tudy Reed will be the biggest question to answer early in the season against a daunting schedule.
3. Middle Tennessee State: It starts with Alysha Clark, the nation's leading scorer last season. But the Blue Raiders are intriguing because of how well the pieces fit around Clark. Brandi Brown missed the team's final exhibition game with an ankle injury. But together with Jackie Pickel and Anne Marie Lanning, she gives coach Rick Insell three of the best 3-point shooters in the Sun Belt to complement Clark's undersized back-to-the-basket skills.
4. San Diego State: If you're sensing a theme (perhaps of the beaten-over-the-head variety), it's continuity. San Diego State returned to the NCAA tournament last season for the first time in 12 years and returns almost everyone of consequence. The addition of Baylor transfer Jessika Bradley in the post should make life easier for center Paris Johnson and balance the court with three talented guards in Jene Morris and sisters Coco and Quenese Davis.
5. South Dakota State: Like the four teams ahead of it, South Dakota State didn't lose much quantity to graduation. Unlike those teams, it lost some All-American-caliber quality when Jennifer Warkenthien wrapped up her career. Nevertheless, with the bulk of last season's rotation returning, the Jackrabbits should remain relevant. File away Maria Boever's name. A 6-foot-1 forward, she brings some of Warkenthien's all-around versatility.
6. TCU: It's going to be hard for anyone to forget the 40-point nightmare loss the Horned Frogs sustained against South Dakota State in the first round of the NCAA tournament, but that shouldn't outweigh the 20 wins that preceded it. The outstanding backcourt of Helena Sverrisdottir and TK LaFleur returns intact, and if senior Eboni Mangum is able to make it all the way back from an ACL tear, TCU has a top six to run with.
7. UTEP: It feels like Jareica Hughes and Timika Williams have been leading this team for a period of time best measured on a geologic scale, but the Miners are lucky enough to have them for one more season. They also have a total of six of last season's seven leading scorers back, including some lights-out 3-point shooters.
8. Arkansas-Little Rock: The Sun Belt is not a one-team league. And with Arkansas-Little Rock's Chastity Reed around, Alysha Clark is not guaranteed player-of-the-year honors. The opener against Oklahoma State, a team UALR beat last season, should be a telling one.
9. Dayton: Dayton won't remain here if it shoots 39 percent as a team again this season, but the Flyers won 21 games a season ago and return their top seven scorers. Plus an Ohio team with two Daughertys and a Nance has to have some karma (even if only the latter is related to a former Cavalier).
10. Drexel: Led by Gabriela Marginean (23.3 ppg), the Dragons get an early chance to shine in Friday's opener against Penn State. Jasmina Rosseel will be key in both taking pressure off Marginean and helping Marisa Crane replace standout point Andrea Peterson.
Five more for the road: 11. Marist; 12. Charlotte; 13. Bowling Green; 14. Ball State; 15. Wyoming