Category archive: Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
1. Delaware (22-1 overall, 13-0 Colonial Athletic Association)
That Delaware had at least a little something going for it even before Elena Delle Donne showed up was clear when coach Tina Martin picked up career victory No. 300, all at Delaware, in Sunday's win at Georgia State. And even while Delle Donne was busy collecting 31 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 steals in just 25 minutes in Sunday's game, there were hints of why this is a team with the right supporting cast for a once-in-a-lifetime star. Lauren Carra scored 19 points, including 3-of-6 shooting from the 3-point line, Danielle Parker totaled 11 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists and 6 steals, Trumae Lucas finished with 9 assists and 1 turnover and the whole cast limited Georgia State to 36 percent shooting and forced 25 turnovers. Georgia State isn't a good team, but with Delaware facing challenging road games this weekend against teams that do fit that label, Hofstra and Drexel, the Blue Hens used the warm-up game to offer a nice reminder of why there's more than one reason to like them.
2. St. Bonaventure (24-2 overall, 11-0 Atlantic 10)
The Bonnies remain perfect in 2012, and the math starts to look pretty simple to complete a perfect conference season and claim the No. 1 seed in the Atlantic 10 tournament. All that remains for St. Bonaventure is home games against Xavier and Fordham and a road trip to Rhode Island, teams with a combined 5-25 A-10 record at the moment. Along with an earlier win at Temple, Saturday's 56-55 win at Dayton might have been the most impressive of the conference slate (although those nonconference road wins at West Virginia and St. John's also gained some sheen after those teams went to Notre Dame and Rutgers, respectively, and won Sunday). Against Dayton, the Bonnies got just three points from Jessica Jenkins, but showed they have other go-to options (17 points, 8 rebounds by Megan Van Tatenhove) and plenty of depth (13 points off the bench from CeCe Dixon).
3. Green Bay (21-1 overall, 11-1 Horizon League)
Losing one regular-season game every 14 months ought to buy a team leeway, but Green Bay falls from the top spot after a 70-58 home loss against Detroit. Playing without injured starter Sarah Eichler, one of its best one-on-one defenders, Green Bay saw several streaks come to an end against Detroit, including a 40-game regular-season winning streak, 27-game home winning streak and 36-game conference winning streak. So how did the Phoenix respond two days later? How about what might be the line of the year in college basketball from should-be-All-American Julie Wojta: 30 points, 20 rebounds, 8 steals, 5 assists and 4 blocks in a 64-59 win against Wright State, the league's third-best team.
4. Florida Gulf Coast (23-2 overall, 15-0 Atlantic Sun)
Since a five-point loss against NC State in Hawaii on Dec. 28, Florida Gulf Coast has won 15 in a row, 12 of those games by double digits. That probably says something about both the Eagles and the Atlantic Sun, but if the past week in women's college basketball proved anything, it's that winning isn't ever a given. Florida Gulf Coast hit just two 3-pointers in Saturday's win against Belmont, missing 17 shots from the arc, but such shooting woes for the nation's most prolific 3-point shooting team don't matter much when you limit the league's third-place team to 34 points and 31 percent shooting.
5. BYU (22-4 overall, 10-2 West Coast Conference)
BYU scored 46 points in the second half of its conference showdown against Gonzaga. It could have skipped the first half. A 70-40 victory for the Cougars on Feb. 9 goes down as one of the more eyebrow-raising scores of the season, mid-major or otherwise, even if the Bulldogs still hold a half-game lead in the standings (with a game remaining against BYU on Feb. 25 in Spokane). BYU is as balanced as any team in the nation when it comes to finishing; four players have attempted between 217 and 236 field goals. But there's one hand distributing most of the makes. Haley Steed has double-digit assists in back-to-back games and is closing on the top five nationally in assists per game.
6. Princeton (17-4 overall, 7-0 Ivy League)
Expect the Tigers to keep saying all the right things about the Ivy League, and Friday-Saturday back-to-backs aren't easy regardless of the opponent, but there isn't much left to challenge this team until the postseason. Princeton rolled through the often-tricky Dartmouth-Harvard road trip without a worry over the weekend, winning by 31 and 28 points, respectively. It's not hurting them at the moment, so perhaps it isn't a problem, but it's interesting that a team that was so strong in assist-to-turnover ratio in recent seasons is currently working with a mediocre 0.80 ratio.
7. Fresno State (20-4 overall, 8-0 WAC)
Their opponents shoot a better percentage from the floor than they do. Their opponents get more rebounds than they do. So how do the Bulldogs keep rolling along? The winners of nine in a row, including five road games in the past three and a half weeks, the Bulldogs keep getting more opportunities than the teams they play and make those opportunities count for more. Not since the fifth game of the season has an opponent had fewer turnovers than Fresno State, which ranks in the top 10 nationally in turnover margin. Throw in the chance to hit 18 of 29 shots from the 3-point line, as Fresno State did against Nevada on Saturday, and it's easy to explain this ranking.
8. Middle Tennessee (21-5 overall, 13-0 Sun Belt)
The wins haven't come easy, with three of Middle Tennessee's four February victories by single digits, including a 67-64 escape against Western Kentucky, but they have come. With just two reserves averaging more than seven minutes a game, the Blue Raiders need at least one of their familiar faces to step up at all times. Icelyn Elie has done so of late. The team's third-leading scorer topped 20 points in three of the past four games. The Blue Raiders can lock up the best record in the Sun Belt with a win Saturday against Florida Atlantic (ESPN3, 4 p.m. ET).
9. Gonzaga (22-4 overall, 10-2 West Coast Conference)
With a 1-2 record against BYU and Saint Mary's, including that 30-point rout at the hands of the Cougars, Gonzaga is not on firm ground here, owing its standing in large part to neutral-site victories against Georgia and Dayton in December. The good news is the remaining three regular-season games are all at home, including the Feb. 25 tilt with BYU. Also on the positive side of the ledger, Gonzaga is running a positive assist-to-turnover ratio at the moment, with 450 assists against 400 turnovers. Why is that worth noting for a team that ranked among the national leaders last season with 245 more assists than turnovers? Because take away Courtney Vandersloot, and last season's team actually finished with a negative assist-to-turnover ratio.
10. Temple (16-8 overall, 9-1 Atlantic 10)
Temple returns on the strength of nine consecutive wins in the Atlantic 10, keeping the Owls at least nominally in the race for the top seed in the Atlantic 10 tournament, despite St. Bonaventure's torrid pace. Other than a loss at Northern Illinois, there aren't any head-scratchers on the Temple résumé, with only Villanova an NCAA tournament question mark among the seven other teams to beat Tonya Cardoza's team. Conference play has been a boon to all involved, but Victoria Macaulay more than most. The 6-foot-4 junior center is averaging 10.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game in Atlantic 10 games.
Next five: South Dakota State, UTEP, Marist, San Diego State, Central Arkansas
Monday morning headline: Nebraska makes itself at home in Big Ten. Coaches love to caution after early wins that conference play is a long road, but the Big Ten's newest team isn't likely to need the reminder.
Nebraska's first three nonconference road trips of the season took it to Flagstaff, Ariz., Tallahassee, Fla., and Atlanta, all of which are roughly the same distance from Lincoln as State College, Pa., where the Cornhuskers opened their first season of Big Ten competition Friday night with a 71-63 win against No. 17 Penn State.
Welcome to the Big Ten. Don't forget to pack an extra magazine or two for those flights.
The curious geography of conference realignment aside, the win lends credence to the notion that the arrival of the Cornhuskers could further shake up a race that has more often than not come down to some combination of Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue in recent seasons. And in an entirely non-coincidental development, it's possible that the Big Ten's best player by the end of the season will turn out to have been absent from the preseason all-conference teams selected by coaches and media.
Jordan Hooper still has plenty of competition for Big Ten individual bragging rights from the likes of Ohio State's Tayler Hill and Samantha Prahalis, Penn State's Alex Bentley and Iowa's Jaime Printy, if not also from teammate Lindsey Moore. But Hooper made an opening statement that ought to resonate for some time. The Nebraska sophomore totaled 31 points and 12 rebounds against the Lady Lions. The only other player to collect at least 30 points and 10 rebounds against Penn State this season was Elena Delle Donne, good company to keep.
With an emerging star in Hooper (21.2 points, 9.2 rebounds per game on the season) and one of the nation's best point guards in Moore (16.2 points per game, 5.8 assists per game, 1.6 assist-to-turnover ratio and 41.5 percent shooting from the 3-point line, compared to 34 percent last season and 29 percent as a freshman), the Cornhuskers have the top-line talent to go to places like State College, Columbus, Iowa City and East Lansing and win.
But it doesn't stop there for a team that, as someone pointed out to me earlier this season, is getting one last push from former All-American Kelsey Griffin. One of two freshmen to start the game against the Lady Lions, Emily Cady totaled 10 rebounds and two blocks. And at various times, Cady, Hailie Sample and Brandi Jeffery have all shown the ability to contribute in big ways. The connection to Griffin? This is the class that signed after watching her lead Nebraska to a 32-2 record and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Best individual weekend performance: Sugar Rodgers, Georgetown. Granted, the stakes weren't as high as when Rodgers scored 24 points to help Georgetown rout Miami a week earlier, but she didn't show any holiday rust against Vermont and Dartmouth in the latter's Blue Sky Classic. Rodgers scored 34 points in 32 minutes in an opening victory against Vermont, and then went out the next day and made that look workmanlike by comparison, scoring a career-high 39 points in 26 minutes against host Dartmouth. That's 97 points in the final 10 days of 2011, and she didn't even play the University of Washington football team.
Best team weekend performance: Middle Tennessee. This is playing fast and loose with the notion of the weekend, since Middle Tennessee's victory Saturday against South Alabama wasn't the stuff of legend, but stretching it to an extended holiday timeline hauls in a big upset win against Kentucky last Wednesday. Despite playing heavy minutes against a Wildcats defense with no shortage of fresh bodies, Icelyn Elie and Ebony Rowe combined to hit 16-of-21 shots from the floor and 12-of-14 shots from the free-throw line. Kortni Jones finished with 10 turnovers but committed just three in 20 minutes in the second half, as the Blue Raiders withstood Kentucky's inevitable charge. When you play the kind of schedule Rick Insell does, you're going to take some lumps (a 6-5 record to start the season) if you don't have an Alysha Clark or Chrissy Givens, former MTSU superstars. You're also going to be prepared for games like the one against Kentucky.
Mid-major watch: West Coast Conference surprise. So perhaps BYU, sixth in last week's mid-major rankings, isn't the team No. 24 Gonzaga needs to worry about in the West Coast Conference. Or at the very least, perhaps it isn't the only team to worry about. BYU's WCC debut ended with a thud in a 54-48 loss at Saint Mary's. The Gaels shot 29 percent and turned over the ball 20 times, but they bludgeoned the Cougars 43-31 on the glass, including 17 offensive rebounds, and got to the free-throw line 28 times. Saint Mary's used 30 points and 12 rebounds from Maryland transfer Jackie Nared and Jasmine Smith, the key components of a résumé that includes victories against Virginia Tech, Oregon and Oregon State (Smith scored 35 at Oregon on Dec. 21, two days after Nared scored 26 at Oregon State).
The week ahead (Monday-Friday)
Miami at North Carolina (Monday): If both teams enter with something to prove, does it negate the possibility of either proving anything? Final Four teams don't lose the way Miami lost at Georgetown before Christmas, failing to break 50 points in a 71-46 drubbing, leaving a team with two road wins, one of which was against Alaska-Anchorage, with questions to answer as it hits the road in ACC play. The Hurricanes scored their biggest road victory last season in Chapel Hill, but they might not want to duplicate a formula that saw Riquna Williams take 31 shots while Shenise Johnson took just nine (admittedly in 27 foul-plagued minutes).
DePaul at Georgetown (Tuesday): It's a matchup of two of the Big East's top three scorers, and Keisha Hampton isn't even in that mix (at least she's back on the court). As mentioned above, Rodgers enters the second conference game for both teams on a tear, but she isn't the only one. DePaul's Anna Martin scored 30 points against Northern Illinois on Dec. 31 to ensure Doug Bruno earned career win No. 500 before the calendar turned to 2012. Martin has scored at least 20 points in three consecutive games and is third in the conference at 19 points per game.
West Virginia at Connecticut (Wednesday): Connecticut doesn't fall for trap games, but there isn't anything appealing about facing West Virginia three days before a big game against Notre Dame in South Bend. The Huskies are 23-1 in the all-time series against the Mountaineers, but Mike Carey's teams have given them some fights in recent seasons, including last season's 57-51 Connecticut win in Morgantown. West Virginia turns over the ball too much for its own good in this kind of game, but the Mountaineers also play Carey's typically suffocating, physical defense.
Michigan at Michigan State (Wednesday): Speaking of series domination, Michigan State has treated its supposed in-state rival like one of the state's MAC directional schools in recent seasons. And by recent, I mean since the turn of the century. The Wolverines haven't won in East Lansing since 2001 and are 1-17 overall in the past 18 meetings. But Kevin Borseth's team enters this game with a 12-2 record after crushing Illinois 70-50 in its Big Ten opener. Michigan's Jenny Ryan has 18 assists and one turnover in her last 107 minutes on the court.
Iowa State at Oklahoma (Wednesday): Another midweek game that is far more intriguing than the lack of rankings might suggest. The Sooners have won five in a row since falling to .500 with three consecutive losses against Vanderbilt, Ohio State and Fresno State, with a different leading scorer in each of the past four victories. Iowa State's opponents in the Cyclone Challenge last week, Buffalo and New Hampshire, aren't Big 12 quality, but it's still worth noting that Chelsea Poppens piled up 33 points and 29 rebounds in the team's two easy wins.
Georgia at Tennessee (Thursday): Without being dismissive of a 12-2 team, there isn't anything Georgia does demonstrably better than Tennessee. The Bulldogs force more turnovers, but they also did much of that damage against the kind of teams they should turn over 25-plus times per game. The Lady Vols have the rebounding and shooting (although they are 3-of-21 on 3-pointers in the past three halves of basketball) to win even if they get a little sloppy with the ball. But if the Bulldogs can't force those miscues, it's tough to envision any path to victory.