NCAA
Graham Hays, espnW.com 1051d

Princeton new No. 1 mid-major

Women's College Basketball, Dayton Flyers, George Washington Colonials, Green Bay Phoenix, James Madison Dukes, Western Kentucky Lady Toppers, Princeton Tigers, Chattanooga Lady Mocs, Long Beach State 49ers, Indiana State Sycamores

Courtney Banghart developed a standard response when asked about the outlook for her Princeton team this season, the first season the Tigers began coming off anything other than an NCAA tournament appearance since the fall of 2009, when every member of the current roster was in high school or even middle school.

It was a likable group of people, really likable. But she wasn't sure they knew how hard it is to win.

"I just didn't know if they actually had enough edge," Banghart said. "If they hated losing -- which is different, whether you hate losing more than you like winning, or you like winning more than you hate losing. I didn't know if they were able to make the shift. Was this team really going to hate to lose and come with that edge?"

They must really hate losing. Because they can't stop winning.

The final piece wasn't easy to put in place, Monday's 75-63 win at Hampton secured only in the closing minutes in a game still tied with as little as 11 minutes to play. But win Princeton did, completing the nonconference portion of its schedule with 16 victories in as many games. Senior Blake Dietrick -- who has this season solidified a place as one of the best all-around guards in the country while averaging 5.7 assists, 5.5 rebounds and shooting 49 percent from the field and 43 percent from the 3-point line as the team's leading scorer -- endured a rare off night, and 3-point shots weren't falling for the nation's most accurate team from long range. But sophomore Vanessa Smith came off the bench, nearly tripling her averages with career highs of 19 points and 11 rebounds, to help seal the win.

Whatever it took.

Earlier in the day, Princeton debuted at No. 22 in the AP Top 25, recognition of its place as one of four remaining unbeaten teams, along with No. 1 South Carolina, No. 3 Texas and No. 14 Mississippi State. This is the second time Princeton has been ranked, the only Ivy League women's team to ever earn that distinction, which is admittedly a slightly more impressive feat than claiming No. 1 in the rankings that follow here.

Even for Princeton, which is 133-29 over the past 5½ seasons under someone who is right there with Cal's Lindsay Gottlieb and a handful of others as the best young coaches in the sport, a perfect start is something new.

And something of which anyone smart enough to get into Princeton can't possibly be oblivious.

"I guess unless you're one of the top four teams in the country, it's so rare to be 16-0 or even when it was 10-0 or even 8-0 that you have no experience doing it," Banghart said. "I actually think what's unique about this group, and what I'm so pleased with about this group, is I do believe they know they're undefeated, but I absolutely know that they aren't obsessed with it. What they're obsessed with is the next game."

We, too, get ahead of ourselves if we turn 16-0 into 30-0, and speculation about the inevitability of an undefeated regular season will surely find its way into the ears of players on teams across the Ivy League, where back-to-back games on Fridays and Saturdays during league play already punish mental and physical lapses. Yet notwithstanding all those caveats, Princeton will be favored, be it explicitly by oddsmakers or implicitly by conventional wisdom, in all of its remaining games. By the standard it has set this season, it should enter the NCAA tournament without a loss.

And that is something worth pausing for a few moments to consider.

Given that the vast majority of Division I teams don't play in the biggest conferences, it might seem as if one of those smaller teams slipping through the regular season without a loss, while far from common, wouldn't be a rarity, either. That's not the case. There have been just 14 teams that entered the NCAA tournament without a loss. Of those, eight went on to win the national championship and complete a perfect season (five for Connecticut and one each for Baylor, Tennessee and Texas). Two more reached at least the Final Four: Louisiana Tech in 1990 and Notre Dame a season ago when it reached the championship game. And a third, Connecticut in 1997, reached a regional final.

That leaves just three instances in which teams from beyond the heavyweight division won every game on their schedule when the season began, none all that recent: Vermont in 1992 and again in 1993, and Liberty in 1998.

Which means it hasn't happened since Banghart herself was knocking down 3-pointers for Dartmouth.

But even if it isn't anything the program has experienced before, it's at least a distant cousin of a very familiar feeling.

Princeton lost three Ivy games a season ago. That exceeded its total of the preceding four seasons. Perfection might be a new possibility in the totality of a regular season, but it has been the standard to which the program is held in league play for at least as long as any of the current players have been around. To maintain that, when you are mired in the mundanity of a midweek practice after a bunch of wins in a row, means a commitment to being the best you can be rather than merely good enough to win the next game.

"You have to remember how hard it is to win," Banghart said of the perils of success. "Sometimes it's hard to do that when you're winning a lot, that it's a result of doing things the right way all the time. Those reminders have to come from within. You're not getting a lot of external messages, it's all internal and within the program, coach to player and player to coach and player to player. There's some challenges to that for sure."

There will be more attention on it this time because of the nonconference success, but it's the same challenge.

Princeton players will have time to mull their newfound status during the annual break in the schedule that adds up to almost three weeks without a game after Saturday's Ivy opener against Penn, the product of final exams and a reading period in which no games, conference or otherwise, can be scheduled. The first half of the season upon which they can reflect has been a time of, well, firsts, from the 16-0 record to meeting First Lady Michelle Obama, whose niece Leslie Robinson is a freshman on the team. Banghart described both experiences as "empowering," the latter perhaps the grander lifetime memory. But perhaps also the less daunting.

"That was a little bit easier, in terms of the preparation for it," Banghart said.

Easier than perfection, that is.

Now on to the rest of the mid-major top 10.

2. Green Bay (10-3)

What happened: For the first time all season, Green Bay let a game get away from it. Green Bay took a 13-point lead at Dayton on Dec. 28 but couldn't hold off the second-half charge from the home team in a 72-66 loss. The only other action of the past two weeks was a win over NAIA Davenport University this past weekend. Green Bay's only other losses this season? In overtime at Vanderbilt after it rallied from a big deficit and against Connecticut.

What to know: Green Bay is not a program that philosophically relies on the 3-point shot to the same extent as the likes of Florida Gulf Coast, Creighton or Villanova (while not the norm, the Phoenix attempted just four 3-pointers in a win against Arizona State earlier this season). But the shot is part of the offense and probably a necessary one when it comes to postseason potential. Unfortunately for Green Bay, it has gone missing. The Phoenix jumped to their lead against the Flyers in large part because they shot 50 percent from the 3-point line in the first half. For the rest of December and the first game of January, six games in all, they hit 21 3-pointers and shot 19.8 percent from deep.

What's next: at Wright State (Jan. 7), vs. Youngstown State (Jan. 10), vs. Milwaukee (Jan. 17)

3. Chattanooga (12-3)

What happened: How do you follow a second win against a top-10 opponent? Short of scoring 200 points, it's pretty much an impossible encore. So, no, wins against SIU Edwardsville and South Dakota on a neutral court in San Antonio, and a 54-52 last-second road win at Harvard, don't generate quite the buzz of that win against Stanford before Christmas. But the results do make it nine games in a row without an opponent scoring even 60 points.

What to know: Add this to the list of fascinating statistical lines for the season (what, no one else keeps that list?) Chattanooga made 22 field goals when it beat Harvard on Monday, 20 of which came from the starting five. Alicia Payne and Ka'Vonne Towns were part of that starting quintet but made just 1-of-12 shots between them. Which isn't to say they weren't involved. Those two combined to assist on 16-of-22 field goals and committed just one turnover. The short bench without injured Aryanna Gilbert is a concern, but the balance is one of the team's strengths.

What's next: at Wofford (Jan. 10), at Furman (Jan. 12), vs. Western Carolina (Jan. 17), at UNCG (Jan. 19)

4. Long Beach State (13-1)

What happened: If the whole Big West thing doesn't work out, Long Beach State is in pretty good shape to finish in the top half of the Pac-12. Already in possession of a win against California, and losers against USC only in overtime, the 49ers went to Colorado on Dec. 30 and came home with a 62-56 win. Given that there isn't a lot of RPI strength in their other road wins, that might prove a crucial part of an NCAA tournament at-large résumé. Long Beach State also beat LIU Brooklyn before the Colorado trip.

What to know: Even on the road, Long Beach State attempted five more field goals and two more free throws than Colorado, in part because the home team committed 25 turnovers against a defense forcing about that many in most games. Opponents are attempting an average of roughly two fewer field goals and six fewer free throws per game than Long Beach State. That's one good way to go from 17-15, Long Beach State's record a season ago, to the heights of this season's start. The Big West games against Cal State Northridge should be must-watch material.

What's next: vs. UC Irvine (Jan. 8), vs. UC Davis (Jan. 10), at Cal Poly (Jan. 15), at UCSB (Jan. 17)

5. Florida Gulf Coast (13-2)

What happened: Florida Gulf Coast braved the holiday period in the Northeast and made the most of its stay in a tournament in Philadelphia hosted by Saint Joseph's. The Eagles didn't play the hosts, denying us that aviary pairing, but they did beat Cal State Northridge and Quinnipiac, two fellow mid-majors that have flirted with these rankings this season. After ringing in 2015, they also won at Harvard by double digits to close out nonconference play.

What to know: Central Michigan's Crystal Bradford might be better known, in part for her NCAA tournament and USA Basketball history, but there aren't many more versatile mid-major players than Whitney Knight. The 6-foot-3 whatever-position-you-need did more than a little bit of everything during the three most recent wins. She totaled 27 points, eight rebounds, six blocks, three steals and three assists against Northridge, a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds against Quinnipiac, and knocked down five 3-pointers against Harvard.

What's next: vs. Stetson (Jan. 10), vs. North Florida (Jan. 14), at Jacksonville (Jan. 17)

6. George Washington (12-2, 1-0 Atlantic 10)

What happened: A week after Dayton rallied against Green Bay to preserve the nation's longest home winning streak, thereby knocking the latter out of the No. 1 spot in these rankings, George Washington did what no team had since Feb. 11, 2012: beat the Flyers on their own court. That result to open Atlantic 10 competition, along with earlier wins at Towson and Loyola, left George Washington 35-13 since the start of last season. That is from a program that went 25-61 in the three seasons immediately preceding the new coaching regime.

What to know: The Colonials have had Jonquel Jones and Lauren Chase on the court at the same time in barely half their games because of various injuries, but the game at Dayton showed how important they are individually and together. Jones had a monster game with 24 points and 17 rebounds and teams with Caira Washington in the kind of frontcourt teams in bigger leagues covet. But Chase was vital, too, totaling seven assists in 28 minutes off the bench against Dayton in her second game back from injury. She assisted on three of Jones' field goals and also scored four key points as the game seesawed back and forth in the closing minutes.

What's next: vs. Saint Joseph's (Jan. 7), vs. Richmond (Jan. 10), at Rhode Island (Jan. 15), at Massachusetts (Jan. 18)

7. Western Kentucky (12-2, 1-0 Conference USA)

What happened: Western Kentucky had a quieter holiday season than most, which is only fair since it had a busier November than most. Its only games the past two weeks were road trips to Belmont and Marshall, the latter to open Conference USA competition. The Lady Toppers trailed for a total of 68 seconds in those two games and won both by double digits. That makes seven consecutive wins by double digits.

What to know: If college basketball had a comeback player of the year award, Alexis Govan would have to be one of the favorites. Among the top 50 active career scorers despite playing the second-fewest games of any senior on that list, Govan missed most of last season with a leg injury but is averaging 17.2 points per game on 52 percent shooting. And as might be expected, she's only getting better. She scored 22 points in the win at Marshall and has reached 20 points in four of the past six games.

What's next: at Charlotte (Jan. 8), at Old Dominion (Jan. 10), vs. Florida Atlantic (Jan. 15), vs. FIU (Jan. 17)

8. James Madison (11-2, 2-0 Colonial)

What happened: James Madison missed an opportunity but acquitted itself well in a 66-62 loss at Vanderbilt just before New Year's. That leaves home wins against UCLA and Pittsburgh as the best results out of league for the Dukes, who narrowly avoided being on the other end of an upset in a 67-66 win against Towson to open CAA play this past weekend and eased to a 74-57 win against UNC-Wilmington on Tuesday.

What to know: James Madison came away with a rebounding edge in the loss at Vanderbilt; it just couldn't hit shots (which, it's fair to say, can also be ascribed to the defensive effort from the host). UCLA and Maryland are the only teams this season to finish a game with more rebounds than James Madison. Meanwhile, while 5-7 guard Angela Mickens can help on the boards -- she had eight rebounds against Pitt -- it's her playmaking that merits special attention. She had 19 assists in the games against Vanderbilt and Towson and ranks fourth nationally.

What's next: at Northeastern (Jan. 9), at William & Mary (Jan. 11), at Elon (Jan. 15), vs. Drexel (Jan. 18)

9. Dayton (9-4, 0-1 Atlantic 10)

What happened: Dayton's home streak came to a close in the aforementioned loss against George Washington, but it also picked up what should rank as either its best or second-best win of the season, competing for that honor with a road victory at Vanderbilt just before Christmas, when it beat Green Bay. Between the Green Bay and George Washington games, Dayton also completed a home-and-home sweep of Central Michigan with a 98-89 road win.

What to know: Andrea Hoover had one of her more difficult days against George Washington, scoring fewer than 20 points for just the third time in the past 10 games and failing to record an assist for the first time all season, but she still finished with 15 points and seven rebounds. She also hit two 3-pointers, notable because there are only two players in the nation shooting 50 percent from the 3-point line and leading their team in scoring: Hoover and Oregon State's Sydney Wiese. That's pretty good company for either one to keep.

What's next: at Davidson (Jan. 7), vs. Duquesne (Jan. 11), at St. Bonaventure (Jan. 18)

10. Wichita State (11-3, 2-0 Missouri Valley)

What happened: Wichita State's only loss since Thanksgiving was a three-point setback at Tennessee, a stretch that began with a win against Ohio State that looks better by the week and continued this past weekend with two wins to open conference play. The first of those MVC victories was the most impressive, a 63-52 win against an Indiana State team that had recently delivered St. John's its first loss of the season and which beat Wichita State in Wichita a season ago.

What to know: The last two weeks offered a convincing demonstration as to how good Alex Harden is. They also showed there is more to the Shockers than their star. Playing without Harden because of illness against Sam Houston State, Wichita State still forced 27 turnovers and limited its opponent to 27 percent shooting (granted, that was more than twice as many points as it allowed in its previous game, an eye-popping 66-20 win against Winthrop). But, well, Harden is pretty darn good. In the win against Indiana State, she put up 21 points, 11 steals and six assists. Not done, she came back two days later with 20 points, four steals and three assists against Evansville.

What's next: at Missouri State (Jan. 9), at Bradley (Jan. 16), at Loyola (Jan. 18)

Previous rankings: Nov. 12 | Nov. 26 | Dec. 10 | Dec. 24

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