NCAA Teams
Graham Hays, espnW.com 654d

Green Bay maintains hold atop mid-major rankings

Women's College Basketball, Green Bay Phoenix, South Dakota State Jackrabbits, Duquesne Duquesne, Florida Gulf Coast Eagles

There are 32 voters in the Associated Press Top 25. With 25 points awarded for a first-place vote, 24 points for a second-place vote, etc., each poll is thus comprised of 10,400 points.

A unanimous No. 1 this week, Connecticut's 32 first-place votes earn the maximum 800 points.

Teams not in the American, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC, which means those teams eligible for the espnW mid-major rankings, received a combined 12 points.

That is one point more for an entire galaxy of teams than for Oregon, which beat North Carolina to open the season and then won 10 games against teams a combined 42-97 as of Jan. 3.

To single out Oregon is unfair, although coach Kelly Graves knows the story well from his time at Gonzaga. Young, talented and built around a senior star, the Ducks might be one of the 32 best teams in the nation, which is where they ranked before Monday's competitive loss at USC. The point made at their expense, as it could be at the expense of many other teams receiving votes, is that the most convincing line on their résumé at the moment is conference affiliation.

Nor is this a swipe at the voters. For one thing, they don't have dozens of hours each week to devote to weighing the merits of every team on every line of the ballot. For another, they might well be right. No one can prove Green Bay is better, whatever that means, than Michigan State or that South Dakota State is better than Seton Hall with any more certainty than the reverse.

But a season after Dayton reached the Elite Eight and after years of Green Bay punching above its weight, there was something disheartening about watching those teams play an entertaining and well-played game, at least from the host's perspective, that offered little reward for a win.

The best mid-major programs, mimicking what the likes of Connecticut, Notre Dame, Stanford and Tennessee have admirably done for so many years, increasingly play one another. Dayton played Gonzaga, Princeton and Green Bay in succession. Green Bay played Drake and South Dakota State earlier this season. South Dakota State scheduled Marist and Bowling Green, albeit in what turned out to be rare down cycles for those programs. They play these games, in part, because it is difficult to find power programs that will schedule home-and-home series.

The competition might make these teams stronger come March. It definitely makes their games more fun in November and December. But the current AP poll makes it clear that such efforts carry little weight nationally.

On to the rankings.

1. Green Bay (11-2, 1-0 Horizon League)

Last ranking: 1. Since: Home win vs. Dayton (68-52), road win at Milwaukee (63-42)

Spotlight on: Starting isn't everything. Much of Green Bay's success in December came with Tesha Buck bumped out of the starting lineup by an ankle issue. During the holidays, that went from a liability to an asset for this team. With Buck slowed, sophomore Jessica Lindstrom played like the next in a seemingly endless line of Phoenix standouts to emerge from, if not ashes, then obscurity. If the in-state product with a 3-point shot, and whatever innate desire it is that makes a good rebounder, is more productive during the next two-plus seasons than anyone Wisconsin or Marquette signed in her class, who would be surprised? But in hitting 8 of 12 3-point attempts in the two most recent wins, Buck looked healthy and eager to remind that she, too, is a major talent. One of them probably has to come off the bench. Whomever it is will be the best sixth woman out there.

What's ahead: The big game coming is Saturday's trip to Youngstown State, which is also 11-2 overall and eager to prove the Horizon League is more than a race between Green Bay and Wright State. Penguins coach John Barnes knows the Phoenix well as a former assistant.


2. South Dakota State (12-3, 2-0 Summit)

Last ranking: 2. Since: Road wins at Denver (76-39) and North Dakota State (81-63)

Spotlight on: Turning over a new leaf. Having studied up on South Dakota State's first couple of games, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw marveled before her team's game against the Jackrabbits at how well the opponent took care of the ball. That remains true, but as consistently successful as South Dakota State has been in Division I, that particular trait is a new development. South Dakota State ranks 11th nationally in fewest turnovers per game. It finished last season 91st in that category but ranked outside the top 100, and sometimes the top 200, in each of the five seasons before that. Not since the 2008-09 team, one of the best mid-major teams of this century, has South Dakota State been this good at taking care of the ball.

What's ahead: After almost a month during which it played one home game, South Dakota State plays four of its next five games at home, including games against South Dakota and IUPUI.


3. Duquesne (13-1, 1-0 Atlantic 10)

Last ranking: 7. Since: Road win at Pittsburgh (79-65), home win vs. Dayton (89-58)

Spotlight on: Youth movement in Pittsburgh. Notre Dame's Marina Mabrey and Arike Ogunbowale regularly impress. Duke's Kyra Lambert and Angela Salvadores have their moments. Michigan's Hallie Thome and Nicole Munger, too. Good freshman combos exist around the country. Still, good luck finding one more productive, especially relative to outside expectations upon arrival, than Duquesne's Kadri-Ann Lass and Chassidy Omogrosso. Whether from just up the road from Pittsburgh (Omogrosso) or not (the Estonian Lass), they are at once beneficiaries of playing with an experienced guard like April Robinson and also the kind of shot-makers from long range (Omogrosso) or mid-to-short range (Lass) that a distributor like Robinson needs. Robinson was brilliant as the Dukes earned city bragging rights against Pitt and demolished A-10 measuring stick Dayton, but two freshmen who are just getting started helped make it happen.

What's ahead: It can't take conference foes for granted, but Duquesne doesn't face a team with a winning record until George Washington visits on Jan. 17.


4. Florida Gulf Coast (12-4, 0-0 Atlantic Sun)

Last ranking: 5. Since: Home wins vs. Quinnipiac (71-70), Auburn (52-45) and Hartford (64-44)

Spotlight on: Block party. Whitney Knight has 21 blocks in seven appearances since returning from injury. The rest of the team has 25 blocks in 16 games. That is about as much of a difference as one player can make. Knight, who is also already third on the team in steals, makes the Eagles a completely different defensive entity. With no downturn in the quality of opponents, Florida Gulf Coast is forcing 18.6 turnovers per game with Knight healthy, compared to 16.1 turnovers per game without her.

What's ahead: It remains to be seen exactly what Stetson, which earned three of its nine wins against teams from outside Division I, brings to the table this season, but the rivalry between these two Atlantic Sun programs is real. Saturday's conference opener should be fun.


5. Gonzaga (12-4, 4-0 WCC)

Last ranking: 6. Since: Road win at Loyola Marymount (66-59), home wins vs. San Francisco (68-47) and Santa Clara (53-44)

Spotlight on: Surviving without star. Well, star might be misleading when it comes to a balanced lineup, but Elle Tinkle is at least as influential a figure as anyone else on the roster. The senior missed the first four WCC games (and two more before that) with a knee issue. One curious trend, given that Tinkle herself is one of the team's long-range assets, is that Gonzaga attempted more 3-pointers and drew far fewer free throw attempts than its first four league opponents. That's a reversal on the first 12 games.

What's ahead: After a trip to Portland on Saturday, a three-game stretch awaits that could determine the conference season. First comes an arduous road trip to BYU and San Diego, followed by a visit from Saint Mary's on Jan. 21.


6. Princeton (11-3, 0-0 Ivy)

Last ranking: 8. Since: Road win at Marist (77-44), home win vs. Hampton (79-55)

Spotlight on: Getting defensive. Marist and Hampton combined for fewer assists in 80 minutes against Princeton than an otherwise struggling Dayton did in 40 minutes in its win against the Ivy champs shortly before Christmas (those two teams nearly combined for fewer field goals, too). One imagines defense might have been a topic of conversation for coach Courtney Banghart over the holidays.

What's ahead: Princeton plays just once more before its traditional extended January break (20 days between games this year), but it's a big one at Penn on Saturday to open Ivy League play. Since taking Duke to the wire in the season opener, Penn has quietly been building its own case for consideration here. Both listed at 6 feet, 3 inches, the combination of Michelle Nwokedi and Sydney Stipanovich (29.5 PPG, 19.7 RPG, 5.6 BPG) presents a distinctly non-Ivy-sized challenge.


7. South Dakota (10-4, 1-0 Summit)

Last ranking: 9. Since: Home win vs. Denver (85-60)

Spotlight on: A 3-point democracy. South Dakota isn't alone in making use of the 3-point shot; Florida Gulf Coast and DePaul are among the handful teams of that average slightly more of those field goals per game. But South Dakota's balance sets it apart. Six players average at least one 3-pointer per game, and the least accurate of them shoots 35 percent from long range -- indeed, four of those players shoot better than 40 percent. The past two games, Jaycee Bradley had the hot hand, hitting 8-of-13 attempts. It's less stressful to rely on the shot when so many people can play that role.

What's ahead: Three conference games precede it, including an Omaha team that started 2-0 in the Summit League, but all eyes for interested neutrals will be on the trip to South Dakota State on Jan. 17 (the return game is in late February).


8. Wright State (11-2, 1-0 Horizon)

Last ranking: NR. Since: Home wins vs. UIC (73-62) and Valparaiso (80-63)

Spotlight on: Not just Kim Demmings. For Wright State to make a run in March, it needs Demmings at full speed. That said, if you could guarantee that she will be at full speed in March, it would not necessarily be the end of days if she needed some help before then. The catch, of course, is there are no guarantees the ankle injury currently bothering Demmings will clear up on an ideal timetable. In the meantime, freshman Emily Vogelpohl proved a capable understudy with 20 points and five assists in the win against UIC and 20 points, eight rebounds and six assists in the win against Valparaiso.

What's ahead: Wright State hits a run of games it should win but could lose, i.e. the life of a good team in a mid-major conference. This weekend's visit from new conference member Northern Kentucky tops that list.


9. George Washington (11-3, 1-0 Atlantic 10)

Last ranking: NR. Since: Road wins at Illinois (70-57) and Saint Joseph's (70-45), home win vs. Hartford (82-51)

Spotlight on: Blunt instrument basketball. That's a compliment, by the way. The win at Illinois highlights the flimsiness of the mid-major label. After all, shouldn't it be the team from the power conference that overcomes 25 turnovers by bludgeoning its opponent 56-35 on the boards? Instead, not unlike its win against Iowa, George Washington played that role against the Illini. Familiar to A-10 fans from the days when Xavier did it with Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips (if only the Colonials had a shooter like Katie Rutan to complete the ensemble), George Washington will try its best to push around any team. In 11 games since the start of last season against teams from the six conferences that don't qualify for these rankings, George Washington claimed the rebounding edge every time.

What's ahead: That the game at Dayton on Jan. 10 isn't the headliner in the next two weeks is evidence of both Dayton's funk and the difficulty of George Washington's upcoming schedule. In addition to the trip to Ohio, a game at Duquesne on Jan. 17 looms large.


10. Santa Clara (12-3, 3-1 WCC)

Last ranking: NR. Since: Road wins at Saint Mary's (73-67) and Portland (67-45); road loss at Gonzaga (53-44)

Spotlight on: Positive spin. The new year began with a thud, the loss at Gonzaga ending Santa Clara's 12-game winning streak. Then again, even that setback had a positive: Since an overtime loss in Spokane nearly a decade ago, Santa Clara had lost its previous eight road games against the Bulldogs by an average of 35 points. The earlier win at Saint Mary's, in which a team that has been at times careless with the ball committed just eight turnovers, adds to a résumé that already includes the stunning win at Stanford and a win against Texas Tech. Defense and rebounding lead the way.

What's ahead: Santa Clara will entrench or lose its place by next week. There isn't much middle ground with conference visits from BYU on Thursday and San Diego on Saturday.


Fell out: Saint Mary's, Dayton, Army

Previous rankings: Nov. 3 (preseason) | Nov. 25 | Dec. 9 | Dec. 23

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