Despite losing to Duke, Xavier still No. 1
1. Xavier (10-1)
It wasn't enough to escape what sounded like a wild finish at Cameron, but Xavier's defense is back to its normal stifling self -- good news with a trip to Stanford still on the itinerary for next week. In wins on the road at Middle Tennessee on Dec. 9 and at home against Mississippi State on Dec. 17, neither the Blue Raiders nor the Bulldogs cracked 30 percent shooting. But that's small potatoes compared to forcing the Blue Devils (admittedly not the nation's most accurate team) to miss 52 shots on Tuesday. Xavier also beat the Blue Devils on the boards -- in fact, Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips beat the Blue Devils on the boards by themselves.
The bad news is the Musketeers couldn't muster much offense of their own against Duke, but perhaps there is even a silver lining there. Sophomore sharpshooter Katie Rutan returned from an injury absence for the Mississippi State game and upped her contributions off the bench to 20 minutes against Duke. Her range could prove crucial in the rematch of last year's Elite Eight thriller against Stanford.
2. Marist (9-2)
Even Marist coach Brian Giorgis sounded a little wary earlier this season about the schedule he put together for the Red Foxes, a slate that included a particularly tough eight-game stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year's. With one of those games still to play at Arizona State on Dec. 28, Giorgis looks crazy like a, well, Red Fox. Wins against regional foes Villanova (away), Hartford (away) and Boston University (home) were nice, but the eye-catching results came over the past three days in Las Vegas. Marist knocked off Nebraska, Louisville and Houston in a little more than 48 hours. Corielle Yarde came up big in the opening win against Louisville, totaling 25 points, 10 rebounds and four assists, but Erica Allenspach took it from there. The senior guard was the only Marist player in double figures in either of the past two wins, scoring 20 points against Nebraska and a career-best 34 points against Houston.
3. Bowling Green (11-1)
The Falcons emerged unscathed from their first back-to-back true road games, edging Western Kentucky and rolling over Austin Peay and returning from an extended break with a resounding 82-59 win against Canisius on Dec. 21. One of the team's unsung and undersized posts alongside Maggie Hennegan, Jen Uhl came up big in all three wins to complement the familiar backcourt stars. Uhl had nine points, seven rebounds, two blocks and a steal against Western Kentucky and added 16 points, four rebounds, four assists and three steals against Austin Peay. She also had 14 points in just 16 minutes as the minutes were spread around in the rout of Canisius.
And while celebrating the continuation of Connecticut's winning streak on Tuesday, it's also worth pausing to do the same for Lauren Prochaska as her NCAA-record streak of 70 consecutive made free throws came to a close against the Golden Griffins.
4. Green Bay (11-1)
There's no shame in losing at Marquette, a team that played Connecticut tough on the top-ranked team's home court and looks capable of a strong Big East run. But when you post 20-win seasons with the same annual regularity as the snow falls in Wisconsin, there's not much room for moral victories. That's especially true for this edition of the Phoenix, who came out sloppy against their in-state rival on Dec. 12 and couldn't dig out of a hole caused by 25 turnovers. If you're looking to understand Green Bay's defensive philosophy, consider that its top four scorers also all have between 23 and 33 steals through 11 games.
5. Gonzaga (9-3)
It's not quite Xavier at Duke, but Gonzaga passed its own Tuesday showdown with flying colors in a 91-64 win against BYU, one of two major tests before conference play (along with a neutral-court game in Seattle against Notre Dame on Dec. 29). The Bulldogs have been piling up points since a so-so trip to Hawaii over Thanksgiving. They've scored 80 or more in all five games since that trip and 91 or more in four of those games. Katelan Redmon topped 20 points four times during that stretch and rather quietly ranks in the top 25 nationally in scoring.
6. Houston (8-2)
The Cougars made the most of their first extended run against postseason-caliber competition, knocking off Louisville and Nebraska before falling in the finale to Marist on a neutral court in Las Vegas. Still her team's primary distributor, junior Porsche Landry is enjoying a breakout scoring campaign. The team's leading scorer before the tournament in Vegas, she put up 21 against both the Cardinals and Cornhuskers. Teamed with do-everything standout Courtney Taylor and Brittney Scott, last season's leading scorer, Landry completes a nice trio for Houston to take into Conference USA play.
7. Middle Tennessee (9-3)
One of the toughest mid-major schedules in the country rolls on. Middle Tennessee beat St. Bonaventure and Kansas State on back-to-back nights to begin the week at a tournament in San Antonio. Also since the last edition of the top 10, the Blue Raiders beat Central Florida and James Madison and lost to Xavier (its other losses came against unbeaten Arkansas and Georgia Tech). Ebony Rowe has been stellar as a freshman, but sophomores Kortni Jones and Icelyn Elie (25 points, 16 rebounds against James Madison) also continue to show signs of being part of a young foundation upon which to build through Sun Belt play.
8. Florida Gulf Coast (9-0)
Florida Gulf Coast made the most of its last chance to score a win against a team from a BCS conference, beating Indiana 73-69. Courtney Chihil came close to a triple-double against the Hoosiers, totaling 16 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds. It had been a light schedule over the past two weeks, but senior guard Shannon Murphy made the most of it, too. Murphy played 39 minutes in a win at Troy (12 points, five assists, four steals) on Dec. 12 and all 40 minutes in a win against Florida International (14 points, six assists, three steals) on Dec. 15. Then again, perhaps time management isn't an issue for a player working on three consecutive seasons of all-academic honors in the Atlantic Sun.
9. Charlotte (9-2)
The 49ers nearly fell victim to an upset against VCU, allowing a pair of 20-point scorers in the process. But they escaped that trap on Dec. 11 and put up a line that hinted at both rested (51 rebounds) and rusty (28 turnovers) in beating Arkansas State by 18 points on Dec. 19 after a week away from action. If there's an area of concern, it's probably possession value. Charlotte is averaging better than 20 turnovers a game, a dicey way to make a living in a league with teams like Xavier, Dayton and Temple. But Charlotte also shares with itself -- six players have led or shared the lead in scoring through the team's first 10 games.
10. Central Michigan (7-3)
The Chippewas still have a big game looming against Pitt on New Year's Eve, but they've quietly done nice work against a quality schedule. They turned in a strong showing on the road against a quality Northwestern team on Dec. 11, losing 92-84, and beat Ole Miss 82-66 a week later at home. The latter was the team's first game in the new McGuirk Arena in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., and senior Kaihla Szunko made sure she'll stick around the arena's record book well beyond graduation with a triple-double (21 points, 16 rebounds and 10 steals).
Next five: Drexel, Fresno State, Dayton, Tulane, Nevada