Category archive: Delaware Fightin Blue Hens
BRISTOL, Conn. -- Best player on the board or best player for a system?
It's a question of draft philosophy that Corey Gaines and the Phoenix Mercury will enjoy mulling over for the next six-plus months.
In a draft class headlined by three entirely distinct talents in Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins, the team with perhaps the most distinctive style in the WNBA beat the odds Wednesday and landed the No. 1 pick in the draft.
Do the Mercury take a scorer like Delle Donne to push their tempo to something rarely seen beyond the Bonneville Salt Flats? Do they take a floor general like Diggins to conduct an orchestra that already includes the likes of Diana Taurasi and DeWanna Bonner? Or do they take the consensus best player on the board in Griner, even if some will wonder how a dominant post fits in a fast-breaking style?
Barry Gossage/Getty ImagesDiana Taurasi's reaction to Phoenix winning the No. 1 pick? "Wow, wow, wow," she texted coach Corey Gaines.
"It's something that will be interesting," Gaines said. "We're going to take our time and look at everything. The greatest thing is now we have a long time to do that; we don't need to rush anything. We're not a traditional-style team at all. We don't do things the way other teams do it. It's because I've learned from [Paul] Westhead. He does things that makes the team win. I'm sure I'll be making some phone calls and talk to all the coaches I've ever been under in the league and in college.
"It's not going to be a rushed thing. It's going to be something thought out, and something I think hopefully, will bring some big things to Phoenix."
Needless to say, the coach wasn't giving away many state secrets in the minutes after the Mercury defied the odds to land the No. 1 pick. So we're left to debate amongst ourselves the merits of three special players.
You'll hear a lot of scouting reports between now and April, but why not start with one from the man who will coach one of them?
First on Diggins.
"Point guard, hard-nosed, can score, take it to the basket, plays defense, definitely able to impact the game, very intelligent basketball IQ," Gaines said. "You've seen her in some of the games last year tough it out, push her team through something, which is important."
On Delle Donne.
"Pure unadulterated scorer," Gaines said. "I mean, she can score. I saw an interview with her today on NBA TV and she stated, 'I love to shoot the ball.' She loves to score. That's a gift. A lot of players don't have that gift. People don't understand, but someone who gets up 30 shots, it's hard to do. It's not something that everyone can do. If you go to your [YMCA] and try to get up 30 shots, it's not easy. It's a gift."
Evan Habeeb/US PresswireElena Delle Donne might be a better fit for Phoenix's up-tempo style of play, but it's hard to see the Mercury passing on Brittney Griner.
And last but never least, on Griner.
"Someone who can definitely change the game defensively and probably change it offensively, too," Gaines said. "The way our team is set up, we have scorers who can hit outside and who can slash and who play the game well -- who won championships, who won gold medals, who won European championships. And DeWanna, who is now added into the mix, has become a superstar herself. We can go really large with, if we [pick] Brittney. And Brittney can rebound, and that's something that's important for us.
"We're a fast-breaking team. There's two things you need: You need rebounding and you need stops. Defensively, she'll get us stops, offensively she'll get us rebounds to go get that break going. And the top teams in the league that play defense -- half court, if I give you a play, you can stop that play. Fast break, you can't. That's why fast breaking is so dangerous. There's nothing you can do. You can't say, 'Run back fast.' That's not going to cut it."
If you choose to read between the lines, it's interesting that Gaines spoke about Diggins and Delle Donne in general terms. He spoke about Griner in terms of how she would specifically fit with the Mercury. Although for what it's worth, if we're delving deep into the intangibles file, he also sounded and looked genuinely captivated by Delle Donne's scoring prowess, like someone talking about the way Coltrane played the saxophone.
A pure hunch is that there will be days between now and April that Delle Donne sits atop the team's draft board. You couldn't design a more perfect player for the system than a 6-foot-5 all-court scorer, who, by the way, is also a terrific rebounder and shot-blocker by any scale that doesn't include Griner.
But in the end, there is no way the Mercury pass on Griner. For good reason. Gaines is a disciple of Westhead, and however things ended in Los Angeles, the latter won an NBA championship with the Lakers in 1980 by pairing Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on a team that finished second in the league in points per game. Post players and fast breaks aren't mutually exclusive. And Griner is hardly sedentary; her agility and athleticism at her height are what make her a paradigm-shifting player.
One thing is certain, whether the Mercury take the best player, the best player for the system or someone they think fits both descriptions.
"Those three, you're going to get something," Gaines said.
A text message he received from Taurasi shortly after the results were revealed got to the same point.
"Wow, wow, wow."
1. Delaware (26-1 overall, 17-1 Colonial Athletic Association)
Delaware is the best mid-major in the nation because it has arguably the best player in the nation, mid-major or otherwise, in Elena Delle Donne. But it's also No. 1 because of the players around Delle Donne. A season ago, Delaware averaged 8.7 assists and 16.7 turnovers per game. Entering this postseason, the Blue Hens average 14.7 assists and 13.9 turnovers per game. That's not all Delle Donne. That's Lauren Carra cutting her turnovers in half and Trumae Lucas, eligible after sitting out last season as a transfer, already totaling more assists than any player did last season. The Blue Hens are shooting 44.6 percent from the floor this season, up from 39.3 percent last season. That's because Delle Donne is healthy, shooting 52.4 percent and drawing double- and triple-teams, but it's also because players like Danielle Parker (41.4 percent last season, 51.8 percent this season) are making those open looks count.
Who they need to look out for: Drexel did as good a job as any team of slowing Delle Donne and the Blue Hens. Delaware won both meetings in the regular season, 60-49 at home and 40-39 on the road, but Delle Donne shot a season-worst 4-of-19 in the second game (those who contend she doesn't always get the same calls from officials as smaller players would note she had just seven free throw attempts in those two games). The good news for the top seed is that the CAA tournament takes place on a neutral court in Upper Marlboro, Md., close enough to Newark, Del., that the Blue Hens should have the loudest group of fans in the building.
• CAA tournament bracket
2. St. Bonaventure (27-2 overall, 14-0 Atlantic 10)
Tim G. Zechar/Icon SMIJessica Jenkins, one of 30 Naismith finalists for player of the year, ranks 18th all-time in NCAA Division I with 321 3-pointers.
This is the third season in a row the Atlantic 10 produced an undefeated regular-season champion, but it's difficult to imagine a contrast more stark than that between the Xavier teams of the past two seasons and this squad. Where those Xavier teams were built around two players, Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips, with the size and skills to play anywhere, the Bonnies are built to the specifics of coach Jim Crowley's unique system. They have a star, Jessica Jenkins, who is in the top 20 in NCAA history in 3-point field goals, but balance is their calling card. Five Bonnies attempted between 74 and 88 free throws, and only one of them shot worse than 72 percent from the line. That total doesn't even include the team's leading scorer, Jenkins, who hit 59 of 61 free throws during the regular season. As an aside, with victories at West Virginia and St. John's, the Bonnies also have better road wins than those Xavier teams.
Who they need to look out for: Temple and Dayton are the big threats in the Atlantic 10 tournament, but only one can make the championship game. A more immediate stumbling block could come in the quarterfinals from tournament host and No. 5 seed Saint Joseph's, should it advance. The Bonnies won the regular-season meeting 68-61 at home, but the Hawks limited Jenkins to 2-of-8 shooting and forced the champs into an uncharacteristic 16 turnovers.
• A-10 tournament bracket
3. Green Bay (25-1 overall, 15-1 Horizon League)
In a place where the culture of team is as ingrained as the accents and the fondness for deliciously unhealthy foodstuffs, it takes someone special to make celebrating the individual acceptable. Julie Wojta, freshly backed by her own website put together by Green Bay, is someone special. The senior put up 27 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists and 6 steals in her final regular-season home game, and that wasn't even her best line of the season. In fact, it was kind of average for someone putting up 19.4 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 3.7 steals per game. As is the case with Delaware, individual brilliance overshadows a strong supporting cast of guards, Adrian Ritchie, Lydia Bauer, Sarah Eichler and Megan Lukan, who shoot well from the 3-point line, defend well in the team's trademark 2-1-2 trapping zone and don't turn over the ball.
Who they need to look out for: The Phoenix will play on their home court as the Horizon No. 1 seed. The obvious sleeper is Detroit, which was responsible for Green Bay's lone loss on Feb. 9, but Wright State is also in the mix. Tied for second entering the final weekend of the regular season, Wright State has a good post threat in Molly Fox (15.9 ppg, 9.8 rpg) and a boom-or-bust freshman guard with Big Ten athleticism in Kim Demmings (17.6 ppg, 4.4 apg).
• Horizon tournament bracket
4. Florida Gulf Coast (27-2 overall, 18-0 Atlantic Sun)
The Eagles do two things really well, one better than any other team in Division I. The latter relates to the 3-pointer. No team hits more of them per game than Florida Gulf Coast at almost 11 3-pointers per game, and not many teams shoot them more accurately than nearly 36.8 percent in the regular season. Six players average at least one 3-pointer per game, a list that doesn't include leading scorer Sarah Hansen. Florida Gulf Coast's other specialty is forcing turnovers, something it did 20.7 times per game in the regular season. The team's leading scorer and rebounder in the regular season, Hansen also doubles as the Atlantic Sun's Scholar Athlete of the Year.
Who they need to look out for: The Eagles got past the first postseason hurdle in Wednesday's Atlantic Sun quarterfinal against East Tennessee State, a rematch of a close game from the past weekend. Stetson and Belmont, the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds, respectively, both gave Florida Gulf Coast good games away from the latter team's home gym. The conference tournament takes place on a neutral court at Mercer, which didn't qualify for the games.
• A-Sun tournament bracket
5. Princeton (21-4 overall, 11-0 Ivy League)
Jim O'Connor/US PresswireShey Peddy leads Temple with 17.0 points per game.
Princeton plays in the same gyms as the rest of the Ivy League, but it doesn't play the same game. The Tigers mauled league opponents by an average of almost 33 points in wrapping up the conference title in 11 games. They limited conference opponents to 29.7 percent shooting and beat them on the boards by 19.4 rebounds per game in those contests. But take out that domination, and Princeton still measures up with just about any team on this list. Against a quality nonconference schedule, coach Courtney Banghart's team still outscored opponents by eight points per game and held a distinctly non-Ivy-like edge on the boards (5.8 more rebounds per game than its foes). The core players of this team -- seniors Lauren Edwards and Devona Allgood and juniors Niveen Rasheed, Lauren Polansky and Kate Miller -- are headed for their third NCAA tournament, and they play like it.
Who they need to look out for: Actually, it's more of a what than a who. With the Ivy's automatic bid already wrapped up, Princeton needs to navigate the fine line between avoiding injuries and losing momentum.
6. Gonzaga (25-4 overall, 14-2 West Coast Conference)
How has life been without Courtney Vandersloot? All things considered, pretty darn good, especially compared to Xavier, the other mid-major power that lost All-American talent after last season. Gonzaga remains a team that pushes tempo, takes care of the basketball and plays an athletic game -- it's the only mid-major program to rank in the top 20 nationally in both scoring offense and rebound margin, joining the likes of Baylor, Connecticut, Duke, Maryland, Notre Dame, Stanford and Tennessee. Transfers Haiden Palmer and Taelor Karr have saved the team on the perimeter, accounting for 80 of Gonzaga's 129 3-pointers.
Who they need to look out for: The top two seeds in the West Coast Conference tournament advance automatically to the semifinals, so the candidates are limited. The other team in these rankings, BYU, is the logical choice after the teams split blowout wins during the regular season. But San Diego, which is a potential semifinal opponent for BYU, is one to watch, too. While it lost both games, it kept Gonzaga below its scoring average in both regular-season meetings.
• WCC tournament bracket
7. Temple (20-8 overall, 13-1 Atlantic 10)
Temple paid the price for a rugged nonconference schedule, losing five games in a row and seven of 10 at one point in November and December, but it righted the ship in conference play. It's always difficult to separate actual improvement from diminished competition when mid-major numbers rise in conference play, but Shey Peddy's resurgence seems linked to the team's rise. Peddy is shooting 52.5 percent from the floor in A-10 play, including 38.4 percent from the 3-point line, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 2-to-1. That's in contrast to 43.1 percent shooting out of conference and essentially a 1-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Who they need to look out for: Temple's ability to play with opponents like Ohio State, Texas A&M and St. John's speaks well of its ability, but close losses don't guarantee at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. Charlie Creme had the Owls comfortably in the field in his latest Bracketology, but it would behoove them to get past a potentially tricky A-10 quarterfinal against Duquesne (should that team beat George Washington in its first game). Temple committed 23 turnovers and barely escaped with a 67-64 win at home against the Dukes in January.
• A-10 tournament bracket
8. Middle Tennessee (24-5 overall, 16-0 Sun Belt)The Blue Raiders are not a statistically impressive bunch, at least not by the standards of a program that produced box-score stuffers like Chrissy Givens, Amber Holt and Alyssa Clark. This team doesn't shoot particularly well from the field or the free throw line, doesn't score like many of Rick Insell's teams, doesn't dominate the glass and gives away a lot of turnovers. What this team does with unerring consistency? Win. The Blue Raiders haven't lost since dropping a 58-47 decision against Georgia Tech on Dec. 11, an 18-game winning streak that includes a victory against Kentucky. Give credit to a defense that is holding opponents to 40.2 percent shooting, best since the 2003-04 season.
Who they need to look out for: Potential quarterfinal opponent Western Kentucky gave Middle Tennessee one of its toughest games during conference play, on the latter team's court, but the Blue Raiders won going away in the rematch. With the conference tournament in Hot Springs, Ark., the obvious challenger, No. 2 seed Arkansas-Little Rock, is that much more obvious.
• Sun Belt tournament bracket
9. Fresno State (23-5 overall, 11-1 WAC)
If you want 3-pointers out of your NCAA tournament sleeper but Florida Gulf Coast isn't your cup of tea, Fresno State is your team. The Bulldogs are third in the nation in 3-pointers per game and 19th in the nation in 3-point accuracy. Their four most prolific shooters from long distance all hit at least 35.9 percent of their shots from behind the arc, paced by freshman Madison Parrish at 42 percent (42 of 100). Yet it's interesting, and perhaps encouraging, that they hit just 7 of 24 shots from behind the 3-point line in a win against Oklahoma, their signature result of the season. Not unlike Florida Gulf Coast, the Bulldogs balance out their shooting by taking care of the ball and forcing oodles of turnovers.
Who they need to look out for: Fresno State dropped out of the top 60 in the RPI after a loss at San Jose State over the weekend, the team's first loss in conference play. That's a good indication that an at-large bid is an iffy proposition should the team fail to win the WAC tournament. The Bulldogs still have a regular-season game left against Louisiana Tech on Thursday, and a strong showing by the Lady Techsters will have people itching for a third meeting.
• WAC tournament bracket
10. BYU (24-6 overall, 12-4 West Coast Conference)
February wasn't kind to BYU, which went just 4-3 in the shortest month and watched Gonzaga race past it, literally, in a 77-60 win for the Bulldogs in the regular-season finale, for a conference title. But the Cougars simply do too many things too well to bump them completely out of the top 10. No other team in the running for this spot can compete with BYU's field goal differential (the Cougars shoot 43.8 percent and limit opponents to 34.4 percent) or its assist-to-turnover ratio. None of the other contenders has a point guard like Haley Steed, either, the sixth-year senior deservedly earning a spot among eight finalists for the Nancy Lieberman Award. Kristen Riley averaged 11.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per game overall but earned WCC Player of the Year honors by averaging 14.4 points and 9.3 rebounds in the league.
Who they need to look out for: The Cougars are very much a bubble team if they fail to win the WCC tournament. That likely means beating Gonzaga in a final on a neutral court in Las Vegas, but it also likely means beating San Diego a third time in a potential semifinal.
• WCC tournament bracket
Next five: Missouri State, Dayton, Marist, UTEP, South Dakota State
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
1. Green Bay (17-0 overall, 7-0 Horizon)
The Phoenix -- one of only two mid-major teams in the top 10 nationally in scoring margin, along with Florida Gulf Coast -- keep rolling. So, too, does All-American candidate Julie Wojta, but Green Bay is much more than one player. Coach Matt Bollant talked recently about wanting his players to be more aggressive going to the rim, rather than relying on the 3-pointer, but it's easy to see from whence the temptation comes. One reason the Phoenix cracked the top 10 in the coaches' poll for the first time is they are a better outside shooting team than last year's Sweet 16 edition, particularly given the new 3-point line. Led by Lydia Bauer (40.8 percent from behind the arc) and Adrian Ritchie (35.4 percent), the Phoenix are hitting 6.6 3-pointers per game at 36.6 percent, compared to 5.3 per game at 35.7 percent a season ago. Yet they also average 19.2 free throw attempts per game, exactly the same mark as a season ago because Bauer, Ritchie and Sarah Eichler have each already topped last season's attempts.
2. Delaware (16-1 overall, 7-0 Colonial Athletic Association)
After averaging 33 points per game over a three-game stretch to begin the new year, Elena Delle Donne is averaging "just" 20.3 points in her four most recent games. Trouble for the Blue Hens? Not so much. Delaware's opponents are shooting just 34.9 percent this season, and that's down to 32.9 percent in Colonial play. Delle Donne remains the only player averaging double digits for the season, but Lauren Carra is averaging 10.7 points per game in seven conference games. And tied for eighth in the conference in assists? That would be Delle Donne. She's not bad.
3. St. Bonaventure (18-2 overall, 5-0 Atlantic 10)
The Bonnies didn't take the easy route before conference play, winning big games on the road against the likes of St. John's and West Virginia, and they aren't taking the easy route to the top of the Atlantic 10. Charlotte, Duquesne, Richmond and Temple are a combined 0-4 against St. Bonaventure and 12-2 against the rest of the Atlantic 10. The Temple win Jan. 11 and the Charlotte win Jan. 21 are part of an 8-0 road record for the Bonnies this season. Along with road games at Duquesne and Dayton in February, Wednesday's home game against Saint Joseph's looks on paper like one of the few hurdles remaining between this team and a No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
4. Florida Gulf Coast (17-2 overall. 9-0 Atlantic Sun)
For Florida Gulf Coast, it's live by the 3-pointer or, well, win by slightly less by the 3-pointer. The nation's most prolific team from behind the arc suffered through a 7-for-31 night in its most recent game at Stetson, the team closest to the Eagles in the Atlantic Sun standings. On the road and shooting 23 percent on their bread and butter? What seemed like a sure recipe for a loss was instead a 59-55 win. Granted, Florida Gulf Coast probably isn't going to pull many March upsets if it isn't at its best from the 3-point line, but good teams find ways to win on bad nights.
5. Princeton (13-4 overall, 3-0 Ivy League)
Most of the teams on this list have little difficulty winning conference games, but Princeton is taking it to extremes in Ivy League play. The Tigers, who are in the middle of their annual midwinter schedule lull, won their first three Ivy games by an average of 41 points per game. The Tigers are crushing conference opponents on the boards, holding an advantage of better than 25 rebounds per game, but that isn't entirely new. Despite playing a tough schedule out of conference, the Tigers own a nearly double-digit rebound margin per game for the entire season. Credit that mid-major rarity to Niveen Rasheed and Devona Allgood inside, but also to a group of guards who rebound well.
6. Gonzaga (17-3 overall, 6-1 West Coast Conference)
Since beating Georgia and Dayton in Las Vegas just before Christmas, Gonzaga has run off seven wins by double-digit margins, including five on the road in conference play. Unfortunately for its cause, it also lost a game in that stretch against Saint Mary's, its only game against the other teams currently in the top three in the WCC. Oregon State transfer Haiden Palmer and Kansas State transfer Taelor Karr continue to keep the Bulldogs in business from the 3-point line. On the season, they account for 63 of the team's 95 3-pointers.
7. BYU (18-3 overall, 7-1 West Coast Conference)
The Cougars entered the AP Top 25 this week, making the WCC the only mid-major league with two ranked teams (Saint Mary's is receiving votes in the AP poll and beat both BYU and Gonzaga already, only to fall a half-game off the pace in a buzzer-beater loss at San Francisco on Monday). BYU has yet to play Gonzaga and lost at Saint Mary's on New Year's Eve, but it did earn a road win of value at San Diego on Jan. 14. Redshirt sophomore reserve Stephanie Vermunt doesn't have the necessary attempts to qualify for the national lead, but she's putting together a memorable season from the 3-point line, converting at 55.8 percent on 29-of-52 shooting from long distance.
8. Bowling Green (16-3 overall. 6-0 Mid-American)
The season started slowly for Bowling Green, at least by its standards, as the program sought to replace Lauren Prochaska and Tracy Pontius. They narrowly missed an upset against Purdue and dropped games at Dayton and Creighton, their three best nonconference opponents. But there's no secret as to why the Falcons now look like a team that might get to play postseason basketball in their new building, a first- and second-round NCAA tournament site. Duke transfer Alexis Rogers is averaging 20.3 points per game in conference play, up nearly 10 per game over nonconference action, giving Curt Miller a viable one-two punch with junior Chrissy Steffen (14.6 points per game).
9. Middle Tennessee (16-5 overall. 8-0 Sun Belt)
Another familiar name is reclaiming familiar territory in the top 10. The Blue Raiders haven't looked back since beating Kentucky just before January arrived, winning seven in a row since as part of an overall 10-game winning streak. Ebony Rowe remains a force, averaging 17.3 points and 9.6 rebounds per game overall, but she has had plenty of help in Sun Belt play. Assists leader Kortni Jones had at least a share of the scoring lead in five of the first eight conference games, including important road wins at South Alabama and Florida Atlantic.
10. Fresno State (15-4, 3-1 Western Athletic)
A 73-71 loss at UNLV early in January was a setback for a team that would have liked a quality road win to go with its home upset against Oklahoma earlier in the season. Still, that defeat didn't derail the Bulldogs. They close out January at home against San Jose State and Hawaii after winning their previous four games by an average of 21 points per game. Ki-Ki Moore remains the go-to option, but sophomore Taylor Thompson had a hot hand in the first three WAC games, averaging 13 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 3.0 steals per game. The team's leader in assists, Thompson has just 30 turnovers in 582 minutes this season.
Next five: Hofstra, UTEP, Marist, San Diego State, St. Mary's
Monday morning headline: Duke makes a statement.
Folks in Durham have been calling Chelsea Gray "The Closer" for some time now, and you know, it just might catch on. Gray's 3-pointer with 2 minutes, 56 seconds remaining in Sunday's game against Maryland put the visiting team's comeback on the ropes. Another jumper and two final free throws from Gray finished the job against a resilient opponent.
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeChelsea Gray had 17 points and 11 assists Sunday in a 80-72 victory over Maryland, Duke's 10th straight win.
What's more impressive is that, at least on this day, Gray's late shots were 50/50 propositions.
The Blue Devils shot 50 percent from the field for the game -- 50 percent in the first half and 50 percent in the second half. They finished with 16 assists, 11 from Gray, and just nine turnovers in the 80-72 victory. They played like a championship-caliber offense against a defense they couldn't simply overpower or overwhelm. It was just the fourth time in the past four seasons a Duke team shot even 40 percent against a top-10 opponent, just the second time one shot better than 42 percent in such a game.
In five games last season against teams ranked in the top 10 at the time the ball was tipped, the Blue Devils compiled the following field goal percentages: 30.9, 26.8, 28.4, 38.7 and 25.4. They turned over the ball 77 times against 45 assists in those games. That they won three of them -- against Texas A&M and Xavier in the regular season and DePaul in the NCAA tournament -- showed what a team can do with great defense.
The end result of the season, as when their offense deserted them late in a regional final against Baylor a season earlier, showed the limits of that.
The Blue Devils still have defense, particularly with Elizabeth Williams on the floor. Maryland shot just 36.4 percent in the second half in Cameron Indoor Stadium. And no, they aren't going to get 21 points on 10-of-12 shooting from Haley Peters every night. But with another even bigger test looming at home against Connecticut next Monday, perhaps we're seeing a Duke offense that can close games on its own.
Best team weekend performance: Oregon State. Really, Oregon State? Sure, South Carolina is a deserving candidate after improving to 4-2 in the SEC with a road win at No. 22 Vanderbilt on Sunday. Ditto for Iowa State breaking a Big 12 drought with Saturday's victory against No. 20 Texas Tech. There's definitely something to be said for No. 21 Penn State holding off Iowa on Sunday, what was a tough day for a lot of people in State College, Pa., after the passing of Joe Paterno.
But in beating USC 65-61 in overtime Saturday behind 17 points from Sage Indendi, thus earning a split of its trip to Los Angeles after a 69-60 loss at UCLA, Oregon State continued a remarkable climb toward respectability from the depths of Division I.
Say what you want about the advantages offered by the Pac-12, but there's a case to be made that Oregon State was the single worst program in Division I when Scott Rueck took over prior to the 2010-11 season. Mass defections amidst an ugly end to LaVonda Wagner's reign left the Beavers with almost no top-level experience. They went 2-16 in conference play and won just three road games all season, one in the Pac-10. The win against USC was already their third in the Pac-12, splitting every weekend save the California-Stanford trip that most of the league drops. Maybe 3-5 in a league of questionable depth doesn't look like much, but it's a long way from a deep hole.
Best individual weekend performance: Courtney Osborn, Miami (Ohio). Western Michigan's least favorite player at this moment is Osborn. Second on that list is any Bowling Green player who guarded Osborn earlier in the week. One of the most prolific mid-major scorers (18.6 points per game, 23.3 in league play), Osborn produced like someone on a mission in bouncing back from a rare off night with 34 points, eight assists and two steals in Miami's 82-67 win against Western Michigan on Sunday. That came three days after Bowling Green claimed control of the MAC by holding Osborn in check in a win against Miami (the Falcons strengthened their conference claim with a weekend win against Eastern Michigan). Osborn was as efficient as a player can be in Sunday's game, hitting 11-of-15 shots, including 6-of-7 3-pointers, and either scoring or assisting on 19 of her team's 29 field goals.
Best weekend helping hand: Jericka Jenkins, Hampton. How do you keep your teammates from giving you the evil eye when you hit just 4-of-18 shots in a game? Jenkins kept everyone in a Hampton uniform happy, despite her cold shooting, by totaling a career-high 17 assists in a 92-43 win against Norfolk State. That gives Jenkins 29 assists in her past two games and moves her to second in the nation in assists per game (7.6). Throw Hampton's game at Howard on Monday night into the upcoming week's must-follow action. Howard (5-1) is just a game behind unbeaten co-leaders Hampton and Florida A&M in MEAC play.
Shocking turn of events in the Missouri Valley: Wichita State. Look around at the teams with perfect conference records after at least seven games and there are a lot of familiar faces. Duke, Notre Dame and Stanford are hardly surprises. Among mid-majors, teams like Delaware, Green Bay, Marist and Middle Tennessee aren't exactly shockers. Wichita State? Well, yeah, the Shockers are a bit of a surprise at 7-0 in the Missouri Valley. Then again, Wichita State has been trending upward ever since coach Jody Adams arrived four years ago. After a 3-5 start this season, the Shockers have won 10 in a row, including the first even in league play. Chynna Turner led the way Saturday with 24 points in a 78-68 win at Southern Illinois.
The week ahead
Tennessee at Notre Dame (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET Monday): Less than a year after knocking off Tennessee and Connecticut in back-to-back NCAA tournament games, Notre Dame will look to accomplish something almost equally rare in beating both in the same regular season (even if Baylor beat the Fighting Irish to it this season).
Rebound margin is just about the only meaningful team statistic that favors Tennessee in this game. That isn't to say the Lady Vols are deficient when it comes to the likes of turnover margin, assist-to-turnover ratio, field goal defense, field goal offense or scoring margin, but Glory Johnson and Vicki Baugh could at least theoretically give them an inside presence that Kentucky and Connecticut were never really able to establish in recent competitive losses in South Bend. Remember, Skylar Diggins' late-game heroics in the Elite Eight last season fit that description in part because, with Devereaux Peters in foul trouble, Tennessee was able to stick around with 20 second-chance points in a game that saw the Lady Vols shoot just 33 percent from the floor and 21 percent from the 3-point line.
Michigan State at Purdue (Monday): The Boilermakers are the Big Ten's lone unbeaten and have allowed just five opponents to reach 60 points this season. But with road games remaining at Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan, continuing to defend their home court is a must. Purdue's seniors have never beaten Michigan State, and Brittany Rayburn is just 12 of 55 from the field in those games. But with Michigan State coming off a loss against Minnesota, the same team Rayburn torched for an NCAA record-tying 12 3-pointers on Jan. 12, is the time right?
Chattanooga at Davidson/Charleston Southern at High Point (Monday): It's a double dose of conference showdowns in the state of North Carolina. Chattanooga (8-1) leads Davidson (7-2) by a game in the Southern Conference, with Appalachian State (7-1) wedged in the middle after handing Chattanooga that lone league loss over the weekend. In addition to averaging 14.4 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, Davidson's Sophia Aleksandravicius is one of just eight players in Division I averaging at least three blocks per game. In the Big South, High Point puts a perfect league start (6-0) on the line two days after Cheyenne Parker's 14 points, 22 rebounds and eight blocks against Coastal Carolina.
Texas Tech at Kansas (Wednesday): Texas Tech might still be ranked in at least one poll when the teams meet, but which one is the real contender? Kansas point guard Angel Goodrich had 28 points on 11-of-16 shooting to keep the final score respectable in a loss against Texas A&M over the weekend, but the nation's assists leader also had 11 turnovers. With games looming at Baylor and Texas A&M and home against Oklahoma, this might be the game that determines whether the Jayhawks go into a tailspin. The Lady Raiders are already there after four losses in a row, the weekend loss at Iowa State the first of those that came by more than eight points.
Hofstra at Delaware (Thursday): There's never a bad opportunity to watch Elena Delle Donne in action (be it on the court or in a flash mob), but pitting her against Hofstra's Shante Evans makes for a particularly compelling duel. Evans had 21 points and 13 rebounds in a weekend win against Northeastern that gave coach Krista Kilburn-Steveskey her 100th career win and is averaging 18 points and 10.4 rebounds. At 6-1 in the Colonial, Hofstra is just a game behind Delaware.
Baylor at Oklahoma (Thursday): If there is a loss coming for Baylor, where could it be? It seems unlikely to come in Waco -- well, it seems unlikely to come anywhere, but even more unlikely at home. And other than a Feb. 27 trip to Texas A&M, this trip to Norman could be the biggest stumbling block. The Lady Bears squeaked out an 82-81 win in this game a season ago when Danielle Robinson's potential winner rimmed out, that despite Baylor hitting 13-of-27 shots from the 3-point line. It would be easier to think this one could be close if the Sooners still had Robinson, but they are the Big 12's most accurate and prolific 3-point shooting team.
Georgia at Vanderbilt (Thursday): Vandy presumably won't be ranked by the time the teams meet in Nashville, but with wins against Oklahoma and Florida State about all the Commodores have on the "for" side of the ledger at the moment, it's time to worry more about at-large credentials than poll credentials. Vanderbilt is averaging 10.7 assists and 21.5 turnovers per game in SEC play, compared to 19.2 assists and 15.1 turnover per game beforehand.
1. Green Bay (10-0)
The Phoenix remained unbeaten on the season with a win at Wisconsin on Dec. 23 and improved to 32-1 in the 2011 calendar year. When the only team that beats you in a 12-month period has Brittney Griner in the middle, you're doing something right. Julie Wojta (20.7 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.4 steals per game) remains a marvel and tormented new Wisconsin coach Bobbie Kelsey as much as she did old Wisconsin coach Lisa Stone, scoring 29 points in a 65-49 victory against the Badgers. And while this team isn't quite as reliant on takeaways for defensive success as that other team that plays in Green Bay, the Phoenix remain among the best in the nation at making you give up the ball.
2. Delaware (9-0)
The road to an unbeaten regular season still runs through road trips to James Madison and Hofstra, among other challenging Colonial Athletic Association stops. But the game that could define Delaware's season will be against Maryland on Dec. 29 -- if, and only if, those teams beat East Carolina and Lafayette, respectively to reach the final of the Terrapin Classic. As if she didn't have enough amazing numbers, Elena Delle Donne has played 293 minutes and taken 165 field goal attempts and 66 free throws -- and turned over the ball just 12 times.
3. Gonzaga (10-2)
Las Vegas was kind to Gonzaga, with wins against Georgia and Dayton in the Holiday Hoops Classic providing much-needed quality results for a team with two games remaining against BYU and little else of RPI consequence. Katelan Redmon topped 20 points in both victories in Vegas, while Kansas State transfer Taelor Karr totaled 11 assists and just three turnovers in 62 minutes. Karr and Haiden Palmer are shooting a combined 39.5 percent from the 3-point line (34-for-86). The rest of the team is shooting 18.9 percent (17 of 90).
4. St. Bonaventure (11-1)
The only loss came in November at the hands of Delle Donne and Delaware (and she was at least forced to take 26 shots to get her 26 points in that game), and a win against Marist adds another prize to a list that includes victories at St. John's and West Virginia. It's time to take the Bonnies seriously in the crowded Atlantic 10 race. This week's game against Villanova will likely have a lower score than most bowl games -- and potentially some hockey games -- but like some of Harry Perretta's best teams, Jim Crowley's Bonnies are masters of their own style.
5. Florida Gulf Coast (8-1)
Florida Gulf Coast opens the post-Christmas portion of its schedule against NC State in Hawaii, but it had little trouble dispatching another ACC foe to wrap things up before the brief holiday break. The Eagles hit 17 3-pointers in a 69-41 victory against Virginia Tech on Dec. 21 and have reached double digits in that category in every game since an opening loss at Seton Hall. Kelsey Jacobson went for 17 points against the Hokies, including five 3-pointers. She has taken 87 shots this season; 79 of them have come from beyond the 3-point line.
6. BYU (11-2)
The Cougars enter their first West Coast Conference season with a 10-game winning streak, including neutral-site wins against Arizona and Syracuse and a home victory against Utah. Guard Haley Steed had a noteworthy line in an 82-53 win against Nevada before Christmas, totaling 11 assists without committing a turnover or attempting a field goal or free throw in 23 minutes. A sixth-year senior finally getting a good run of health, she scored 15 points in her second college game against Stanford -- and a lineup that included Candice Wiggins and Brooke Smith.
7. Duquesne (10-2)
A 62-49 loss at Florida to close the pre-holiday schedule was a definite downer for the Dukes, but they get a chance to erase some of that sting with road games against Pittsburgh, James Madison and St. Bonaventure before the first week of January is in the books. A big comeback against West Virginia on Dec. 17 helped keep them in the top 10, as does the belief that they can't possibly repeat an 0-for-19 shooting performance from the 3-point line against Florida.
8. Hofstra (9-2)
With wins against St. John's and Marist, Hofstra at least has control of the Hudson River (and that's not even counting a victory against Manhattan's Kansas State). Shante Evans came up big in the mid-major battle against the Red Foxes on Dec. 22, going for 29 points and 18 rebounds -- 13 of them on the offensive glass. With a star in Evans, a steady senior point guard in Candice Bellocchio, a scoring threat in Katelyn Loper and an X factor in Nicole Capurso, who has scored 20 twice this season despite 29.5 percent shooting, the Pride bear watching.
9. Fresno State (10-3)
Mid-major programs aren't supposed to beat Oklahoma the season after losing the star player who was a first-team, all-conference selection three years running, but that's exactly what Fresno State did on Dec. 8. Exit Jaleesa Ross, enter Washington State transfer Ki-Ki Moore, who averaged 17.7 points and 8.8 rebounds in six December wins, including four in a row after the victory against the Sooners. A Jan. 6 game at UNLV won't generate big headlines, but it's a good road test before Fresno State enters WAC play.
10. Princeton (8-4)
December was unkind to the Tigers, and January doesn't offer many opportunities for redemption with just three games on the schedule because of those pesky Princeton academics. (The Tigers do have December games remaining against Hofstra and Drexel.) But other than a loss at Navy, losses against Delaware and DePaul at home and Stanford on the road aren't entirely negative. One problem? Princeton can't buy a 3-pointer. A team that shot 41 percent on 17 attempts per game a season ago is shooting worse than 30 percent on similar attempts this season.
Next five: Hampton, Missouri State, Tulane, Dayton, UNLV
1. Gonzaga (4-1)
The No. 1 team holds down that spot in part because of its lone loss, not despite it. Gonzaga dropped a 76-61 decision at Stanford on Nov. 13, but in leading the Cardinal at halftime in that game and looking like they belonged all game, the Bulldogs again showed that they're playing with major talent at the mid-major level. But that only goes so far. Three more significant tests remain on the nonconfernece schedule, beginning with a visit from USC this Sunday, and neither that game nor neutral-site games against Georgia and Dayton come with credit for moral victories.
2. Green Bay (5-0)
The Phoenix extended their regular-season winning streak to 25 games with two victories in Puerto Rico over the holiday weekend. Taking care of business in an 82-62 win against Illinois was a good opening act -- Green Bay should beat Illinois, and it didn't dawdle in taking a 38-25 halftime lead and shooting 50 percent for the game. But the big victory came against No. 25 Georgia Tech. Down 54-48 with 1:24 to play, Green Bay forced overtime on an Adrian Ritchie 3-pointer with two seconds remaining, and then came back from five down in the extra period to win, 67-62. Julie Wojta (20.8 points, 9.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 3.4 steals per game) remains as underrated a player as there is in the top 25.
3. Delaware (4-0)
A season ago, Delaware was a middling team with a magnificent player. So is jumping them all the way to No. 3 an overreaction to a few good, early wins? Perhaps, and Thursday's game against Princeton is as meaningful a mid-major showdown as the calendar offers. But this team appears to be more than just Elena Delle Donne (whose 40-point performance in a victory against Penn State is the early frontrunner for game of the year). The biggest statistical difference for the Blue Hens comes from Florida transfer Trumane Lucas. Through four games, she has 15 assists and nine turnovers for a team almost even in assist-to-turnover ratio. A year ago? Try 297 assists and 568 turnovers.
4. Princeton (6-0)
It's worth noting that Delaware started out last season with five wins in a row before an 18-point loss at home to Princeton derailed things. The Tigers look every bit as good this season, if not better. Coming off last season's knee injury, Niveen Rasheed is averaging 17.7 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, including 19 and 12 in a victory against Villanova and 18 and 11 in a win against Marist. And for a team that shot better than 40 percent from the 3-point line a season ago, it's worth noting the strong start this season comes despite little success from the new line.
5. San Diego State (4-1)
Courtney Clements is making an early case for Mountain West honors, all-mid-major honors and just about any other accolade you can come up with. The Arizona transfer is averaging 19.2 points per game in her second season with the Aztecs, shooting 47.9 percent from the floor and 44.8 percent from the 3-point line. She matched Keisha Hampton nearly point for point in a victory against DePaul in Hawaii, and did it without turning the ball over in 37 minutes. A loss to Portland in that tournament keeps San Diego State from climbing higher, but a win at home against Washington on Nov. 26 was a nice recovery.
6. Florida Gulf Coast (3-1)
The season began with a missed opportunity in a 57-51 loss at Seton Hall, but if not exactly a threat in the Big East, Anne Donovan's team is perhaps no longer a mere speed bump. And the Eagles made up for that Seton Hall result with a 59-58 win against Michigan State the week before Thanksgiving behind 20 points and 13 rebounds from Sarah Hansen. Like more than a few markswomen, Kelsey Jacobsen is off to a slow start from the 3-point line, whether or not it's related to the new distance. But well-regarded freshman Whitney Knight is filling the void (5-of-11).
7. Oral Roberts (5-1)
A loss at home against Missouri State over the weekend was the first bit of bad news this season for Oral Roberts, which couldn't stop Casey Garrison. But that doesn't erase the positives of double-digit wins on the road at Wisconsin and at home against Louisiana Tech. As might be expected, Kevi Luper is scoring, hitting for at least 22 points in every game until the Missouri State loss. But Luper also has 12 assists, no small matter for someone who had 29 assists in 34 games a season ago. Road tests at Arkansas and Kansas remain before Christmas.
8. Northern Iowa (4-1)
It's difficult not to imagine what might have been had Jacqui Kalin stayed healthy, but Northern Iowa isn't letting the preseason loss of the reigning Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year stop it. Other than a four-point loss to Iowa in a game it led with 36 seconds to play, Northern Iowa has steamrolled to wins by an average of 19 points per game. A different player led the team in scoring in each of the wins, a good way to make up for losing one great player. Rachel Madrigal looks positively Kalin-like in averaging 15.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game while shooting 54.9 percent from the floor and 44.8 percent from the 3-point line.
9. Tulane (5-1)
The Green Wave are well on their way to claiming in-state bragging rights with a 4-0 record against Louisiana teams. The biggest of those, of course, was a 65-62 overtime win against LSU on Nov. 19. The Green Wave committed 24 turnovers in that game, but they beat the Lady Tigers on the boards -- freshman Adesuwa Ebomwonyi is averaging five offensive rebounds per game, forming a formidable partnership on the glass with veteran post Brett Benzio.
10. Temple (2-4)
Yes, that's a 2-4 record, and yes, fans of UC Davis, UTEP, James Madison and a host of other unbeaten teams are free at this point to grumble. The Atlantic 10 has been a mystery to this point. In terms of talent, Temple, Duquesne and Dayton still look like locks to make this list by the end of the season. But they also have eight losses between them (Duquesne's only on the hook for one of them, but it was at North Dakota). Temple stays and the other two go for now. That's mostly because aside from an inexplicable loss against Northern Illinois, Temple has taken its turn against worthy competition and held its own. The Owls trailed Ohio State and St. John's by two points in the final minute and Texas A&M by four points with less than three minutes to play.
Next five: Duquesne, UC Davis, Hartford, Marist, James Madison.
Monday morning headline: New star, familiar fate for Duke
The headline this morning is Baylor's Brittney Griner taking over a game on a court where few opponents ever do so, turning in a second half against Tennessee that will echo from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Rocky Mountains.
But Mechelle Voepel was on hand to chronicle Baylor's victory in Knoxville, so top billing here goes to the weekend's other game between national championship hopefuls. Other than further confirmation that Natalie Novosel is clutch, this time hitting the winner at the buzzer, Notre Dame's 56-54 win against Duke in the Bahamas showed off a new star for the Blue Devils and a familiar struggle to score at the end of big games in which the team's defense did plenty.
Duke limited Notre Dame to 33 percent shooting from the floor, including just five assists on 18 field goals. And when Blue Devils freshman Elizabeth Williams scored to give her team a 53-51 lead with 2:44 to play, the prospects for a win looked good. After all, Williams was on her way to 16 points, 13 rebounds and seven blocks, not quite the 32 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks Griner totaled against the Fighting Irish a week ago, but ample confirmation, if any was needed, that Williams is the real deal. But the Blue Devils didn't score another field goal, a fitting conclusion for a second half in which they shot 19 percent from the floor.
Duke has the talent to compete for a championship. It has the defense to compete for a championship. The trust factor that teams like Notre Dame have earned on offense? Not yet.
Best individual weekend performance: Chassidy Fussell, Texas. The Longhorns played their final game of the weekend in Hawaii after this entry was filed, but the first two efforts are enough to land Fussell in this spot. The sophomore opened the weekend with a career-best 30 points in a 79-53 rout of Virginia that knocked the Cavaliers from the ranks of the unbeaten. Her line wasn't quite as gaudy in Saturday's game against California, but she made the last of her 15 points count, scoring with 1:11 to play to give the Longhorns their first and only lead in a 61-60 win. One sign of growth for Fussell? Despite a cold start from the 3-point line this season (21.4 percent entering Sunday), she's shooting better overall from the field (46.5 percent to 40.1 percent as a freshman).
Best team weekend performance: Nebraska. Make it two wins in two attempts against ranked opponents for the Cornhuskers. Beating USC by 18 points in Lincoln a week before Thanksgiving was impressive, but Sunday's win on the road against No. 24 Florida State was arguably even better. In part that's because it came in Tallahassee, but also because it occurred without a big day from sophomore star Jordan Hooper, who put up 22 points and 13 rebounds against the Women of Troy but shot just 3 of 15 from the floor against the Seminoles (Hooper did get 21 points and eight rebounds in Friday's win against Florida A&M in the tournament hosted by Florida State). Still unbeaten, Nebraska gets a shot at Georgia Tech in Atlanta this week.
Beyond the headlines: Michigan starts strong. Nebraska wasn't the only Big Ten team (nope, still doesn't sound right) to make a case that it could be ranked heading into a big road game against an ACC opponent. Michigan is 7-0 for the first time since 1999 after winning the Paradise Jam by beating Prairie View A&M, Washington State and Marquette. It survived a scare in the first game before blowing out the Cougars by 30 points and the Golden Eagles by 20 points. Junior Jenny Ryan isn't scoring a lot of points, but with 32 assists, 13 turnovers, 42 rebounds and 25 steals in seven games, she's playing the kind of basketball that defines coach Kevin Borseth's style. The schedule so far has been heavy on teams from BCS conferences, albeit not those conference's strongest programs, but the Wolverines now need to show something as they move up in weight class to face Maryland this week and Iowa State this weekend.
Way beyond the headlines: Green Mountains turnaround. Don't start printing banners just yet, but Vermont deserves this much attention. The last most people heard of the Catamounts, Courtney Pilypaitis and May Kotsopoulos were confounding opponents and spellcheckers alike, beating Wisconsin in the first round of the 2010 NCAA tournament and holding their own against Notre Dame in the second round. The interim wasn't pretty. Coach Sharon Dawley left for Massachusetts and new coach Lori Gear McBride, left with a cupboard that was young if not empty, suffered through a 5-25 debut season that included a 95-38 opening loss at Nebraska and 15 consecutive losses before her first win.
Well, with Saturday's win against Texas Southern, the Catamounts are already 6-1 in Gear McBride's second campaign. The Canadian pipeline that runs through Burlington is still flowing with post Lauren Buschmann and guard Kristine Lalonde (although the latter missed both games on the Thanksgiving trip to Texas). Seton Hall transfer Shanai Heber leads the team in assists.
Bet you didn't know they're the Sugar Bears: Central Arkansas had a tough weekend in Texas, going 1-2 in the Texas Tech Classic, but full credit to junior Megan Herbert for reaching a milestone. Listed at just 5 feet, 11 inches, Herbert had 21 points and 13 rebounds in Friday's win against Louisiana-Monroe for her 50th double-double in 68 career games.
Setting the week to come (Monday-Friday)
North Carolina at Penn State (Wednesday): Penn State bounced back well after getting Delle Donned against Delaware, beating Iowa State and host Nevada over the holiday weekend, but a home game against the Tar Heels is their best chance to make a statement before conference play. Alex Bentley (1.21 assist-to-turnover ratio this season, down from 1.71 last season) will need to take care of the ball to avoid feeding the Tar Heels' transition game.
Florida State at Ohio State (Wednesday): Ohio State's Samantha Prahalis has a lot to prove this season without Jantel Lavender around, but credit where credit is due. Prahalis came up big in Sunday's win against a ranked LSU team, leading the Buckeyes with 28 points, eight assists and eight rebounds. With games Wednesday against Florida State and Sunday at Oklahoma, the stage is hers.
Delaware at Princeton (Thursday): You can have the ACC-Big Ten clashes; the best game of the week takes place in Princeton's Jadwin Gym. Delaware's Elena Delle Donne continues to be the best one-woman show this side of Brittney Griner, following up her 40-point effort in a win against Penn State with more typical (for her) lines of 22 points and nine rebounds in a victory against Villanova and 26 points and 18 rebounds against previously unbeaten St. Bonaventure. Meanwhile, unbeaten Princeton is beating some decent teams by double-digit margins, including Saint Joseph's, Villanova and Marist. Niveen Rasheed (17.7 points per game) isn't Delle Donne, but she's darn good.
Hartford at Marist (Thursday): This one is worth the price of admission just to watch Jennifer Rizzotti and Brian Giorgis coach, but it's also a meaningful test for a Hartford team off to a 5-1 start after beating TCU and Central Florida in the latter team's Thanksgiving tournament.
Miami at Michigan State (Thursday): Credit to Spartans coach Suzy Merchant for her willingness to even play road games at places like Florida Gulf Coast, but after losing that one and a neutral-site game against Villanova, this is Michigan State's best chance to regain some national footing. Likewise, for a Hurricanes team without any nonconference road wins of note in recent seasons, it's a chance to prove something in a tough road stop.
The mid-major top 10 returns with the same ground rules. All conferences beyond the BCS six (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC) qualify for consideration.
No, Courtney Vandersloot didn't gain additional eligibility. But just as Tennessee won a football national championship the season after Peyton Manning exited, Gonzaga isn't doomed without its All-American. Depth is the reason the Bulldogs will be fine. Few teams in any conference have size like the Bulldogs do in 6-foot-3 sophomore Stephanie Golden, 6-4 freshman Sonja Greinacher (a German youth international who coach Kelly Garves went head-to-head with Louisville to land) and 6-5 freshman Shelby Cheslek. Instant eligibility for Kansas State transfer Taelor Karr is a big backcourt plus.
Key player: Kayla Standish. Seniors Standish and Katelan Redmon give the Bulldogs two established stars, but that doesn't mean Standish, a 6-2 former prep high jump champion, is anywhere close to hitting her ceiling just yet. She's a 20-10-3 (points-rebounds-blocks) threat every time she steps on the court.
Key games: Playing at Stanford on Nov. 13 is the attention grabber, but back-to-back December games against Georgia and Dayton in Las Vegas are the real proving ground.
With just more than 12 minutes to play in its second-round game last season, Temple was within five points of Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish went on a run that carried them all the way to Indianapolis, and the Owls went home, but Tonya Cardoza has taken what Dawn Staley turned around and continued crafting a nationally relevant program. A full season of Hofstra transfer Joelle Connelly inside to complement 6-4 Victoria Macaulay means one more way for Temple to frustrate the heck out of opponents defensively.
Key player: Kristen McCarthy. Point guard Shey Peddy drives the Owls, but she needs a partner. McCarthy's shooting efficiency slipped last season, but she's a do-everything forward.
Key games: There is no shortage, including defending champion Texas A&M in the Bahamas and Duke at home on Dec. 30. Road games against Ohio State and Rutgers are also important tests.
Preseason scrimmages are usually fool's gold. Consider Justine Raterman's 10 points in a recent Dayton scrimmage the exception to that rule. Reports early this fall were Raterman was on the leading edge of the typical timeframe for rehabbing a torn ACL, an injury she suffered in last season's NCAA tournament, and her presence on the court in the scrimmage seems to confirm as much. With Raterman, an elite player when healthy, alongisde underrated point guard Patrice Lalor, shot-blocking center Casey Nance and freshman Ally Malott, Dayton has Sweet 16 talent.
Key player: Malott. It's a lot to put on a freshman, but McDonald's All-Americans/Under-18 national team players are rare at this level, even for the semi-major A-10. The Ohio native is a 6-4 talent with an all-court game.
Key games: A trip to Connecticut over Thanksgiving break jumps off the page, but games against Boston College, Illinois and Gonzaga in about a two-week span in December might be more useful measures.
4. Green Bay
Like Gonzaga, Green Bay is eager to prove once-in-a-generation players don't mean once-in-a-generation success. Celeste Hoewisch and Kayla Tetschlag are gone, taking a lot of on-court production and even more leadership with them from a team that reached the Sweet 16 and lost just twice all season. But five of seven rotation players return for a program that, at least statistically, doesn't rely on the individual. With senior Hannah Quilling and juniors Lydia Bauer, Adrian Ritchie and Hannah Quilling around, ball possession and 3-point shooting will remain strengths.
Key player: Julie Wojta. You don't survive as a 6-foot post without being versatile, but Wojta thrives in that role by taking versatility to new levels. She led the Phoenix in assists, defensive rebounds and blocks. A quiet presence, at least in comparison to Tetschlag and Hoewisch, leadership is the next thing she'll be asked to provide.
Key games: Playing Illinois and Georgia Tech in Puerto Rico is the best test against top competition, although the Dec. 23 game at Wisconsin has meaning after the offseason coaching carousel.
5. Florida Gulf Coast
Finally eligible for the NCAA tournament after completing the transition to Division I, Florida Gulf Coast might not waste much time availing itself of the new opportunity. Five of the six main rotation players return from a team that went 28-4 a season ago, including leading scorer Sarah Hansen and 3-point wizard Kelsey Jacobson. Newly eligible Oregon State transfer Brittany Kennedy and a freshman class highlighted by top-100 signee Whitney Knight and Greek foward Anthi Chatzigiakoumi suggest depth won't be an issue.
Key player: Courtney Chihil. Any 5-8 player who leads a team in rebounding (5.8 per game) and leads a conference in assist-turnover ratio (1.89) is worth singling out for attention. The one rotation loss, Shannon Murphy, was a big one, but Chihil could soften the loss. She does everything else.
Key games: It isn't the biggest BCS opponent, but a road game at Seton Hall to open the season is a start and sets the stage for a Nov. 19 showdown at home against Michigan State.
If you're starting to sense that the Atlantic 10, even with Xavier in rebuilding mode, is on another level, you're right. The third A-10 entry in these rankings missed the NCAA tournament a season ago, but won 24 games, beat Ohio State in Columbus and advanced to the third round of the WNIT. Momentum is building for coach Suzie McConnell-Serio. Five players averaged between 8.2 and 12.6 points per game last season, and four of them return, two of them as mere sophomores. A fifth returnee, guard Jocelyn Ford, averaged 4.9 assists and 4.5 steals per 40 minutes.
Key player: Alex Gensler. Sophomores Wumi Agunbiade and Orsi Szecsi are the potential stars with unlimited ceilings, but Gensler is the senior who grabbed a starting spot as a freshman and carved out a heck of a career. A proficient shooter, she's also the kind of player who will be interesting to track as she adjusts to the new 3-point line.
Key games: Duquesne is setting itself up to miss out on NCAA at-large consideration with a weak nonconference schedule, but the final two weeks of December will include West Virginia and Pittsburgh and could include Florida.
They lost consummate point guard Alisa Kresge and went back to the NCAA tournament. They lost all-time leading scorer Rachele Fitz and went back to the NCAA tournament. Now they lose MAAC Player of the Year Erica Allenspach. And yes, they should go back to the NCAA tournament. Coach Brian Giorgis still has Corielle Yarde, the team's leading rebounder at 5-8 and on Allenspach's heels in just about every other category, and a lot of rotation players who gained experience as freshmen and sophomores last season.
Key player: Kristina Danella. The Massachusetts transfer is eligible after sitting out last season and should play a big role. A 6-1 forward, Danella averaged 11.6 points and 5.6 rebounds as a sophomore at UMass and has 3-point range.
Key games: An early road trip to Princeton makes for an interesting mid-major clash, but the high-profile tests come around Christmas against Auburn (on a neutral court) and when Kansas State comes to Poughkeepsie on Dec. 29.
South Dakota State proved it's possible for Summit League teams to wedge their way into the national conversation. Oral Roberts is the obvious choice to follow suit this season, but Oakland's defense and ball control could win the day. Led by junior forward Bethany Watterworth (17.9 points per game), the top five scorers return from an Oakland team that won 20 games, led the Summit in field goal defense and finished with a positive assist-turnover ratio last season. Center Brittany Carnago gives the Grizzlies a 6-4 shot-blocking presence few mid-major teams have.
Key player: Watterworth. Mid-major teams can't afford a lot of one-dimensional players, and Watterworth is the kind of all-around star that shines in leagues like the Summit. She averaged nearly a block and steal per game last season, led her team in assists and 3-pointers and finished second in rebounding.
Key games: They won't be long road trips, but bus rides to play Michigan State on Nov. 27 and Purdue on Dec. 20 will give the Grizzlies a chance to compete with the best in the region.
9. Oral Roberts
If nothing else, Oral Roberts is going to be fun to watch. But with five starters and the Summit League's top reserve returning from a team that won a pair of WNIT games, there should be plenty else besides entertainment. The Golden Eagles run, averaging 84.4 points and forcing 23 turnovers per game last season. National scoring and steals leader Kevi Luper (23.7 points per game, 3.7 steals per game) is the embodiment of the team's philosophy.
Key player: Jaci Bigham. Luper is clearly the star of the show, but her backcourt partner since both arrived as freshmen is the X factor. Bigham shot 42.5 percent on 233 3-point attempts as a freshman. That dipped to 31.5 percent on 143 attempts last season, as Jordan Pyle became a bigger part of the offense. Bigham also played through an ACL tear at the end of the season, proving her toughness but delaying the start of her rehabilitation.
Key games: It's a schedule built for a veteran team. The first weekend includes a trip to Wisconsin, and road trips to Houston, Arkansas and Kansas follow, along with home games against Missouri State and Louisiana Tech.
A season can hardly be considered a missed opportunity when it ends with an Ivy League championship and another trip to the NCAA tournament, but Princeton's chance to be a real March sleeper undeniably went by the wayside when leading scorer Niveen Rasheed suffered a season-ending knee injury after 12 games. If she's back to 100 percent alongside three other returning full-time starters and the player who took her place in the starting lineup, the Tigers once again have the look of a team that could exceed the typical Ivy profile.
Key player: Lauren Edwards. Rasheed is obviously a key player, but she's not alone. Princeton won't have Addie Micir, the team's leader in assists and 3-pointers last season. That makes Edwards, a 6-foot guard coming off back-to-back All-Ivy selections, all the more important in both distribution and long-distance shooting.
Key games: In addition to the game against Marist, Princeton welcomes Delaware and DePaul to Jadwin Gym, in addition to a monumental road game at Stanford and more manageable ones at Drexel and Hofstra.
11. Saint Joseph's: The Hawks return all five starters and 95 percent of the scoring from a team that went 20-12 and reached the second round of the WNIT. Five regulars had more assists than turnovers for a ball-control team.
12. Missouri State: It hurts losing Tia Mays, who left the program after averaging six rebounds and three blocks per game in her lone season, but Missouri State returns four starters. Senior Casey Garrison is going for a second MVC player of the year award.
13. Chattanooga: The Mocs should be back after missing the postseason (NCAA or WNIT) for the first time since 1999. Leading scorer Whitney Hood (18.8 ppg), shooter Kayla Christopher (41.2 percent on 3-pointers) and playmaker Tenisha Townsend (3.7 assists, 1.71 assist-turnover ratio) return.
14. Delaware: They have one of the 10 or 15 most talented players in the country, and a returning cast that held its own when that player, Elena Delle Donne, was injured for part of last season. But a team that totaled 297 assists against 568 turnovers still needs to prove it's at least the sum of its parts.
15. TCU: A talented freshman class and Iowa State transfer Whitney Williams will help replace Helena Sverrisdottir and Emily Carter, but losing Starr Crawford for the season with concussion-related issues is a big blow.