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Florida Gulf Coast takes over top spot in mid-major rankings

Kaneisha Atwater and Florida Gulf Coast have held eight consecutive opponents to fewer than 50 points in a game. FGCU Athletics

Glance at the first two entries below and you might feel a sense of déjà vu creep over you. Don't worry, while Tuesday was indeed Groundhog Day, you are not stuck in a time loop. Bill Murray will not be making an appearance. But when it comes to the elite of mid-major basketball, we are right back where we started when the alarm clock went off to start the season.

Consider the rankings below dedicated to Punxsutawney Phil and Ned Ryerson.

1. Florida Gulf Coast (18-4, 6-0 Atlantic Sun)

Last ranking: 2. Since: Road wins at Lipscomb (71-39), Kennesaw State (78-47) and North Florida (65-38)

Spotlight on: Defense leads full circle. The team that was No. 1 when these rankings debuted a few months ago, then dropped out entirely for a few weeks, reclaims the top spot. Many words have been written here about Whitney Knight, and her return is surely a cornerstone of the current discussion, but team defense lands the Eagles here. They still haven't allowed an opponent to reach 50 points this calendar year, nor 40 points in three of the past four wins. Part of that is the Atlantic Sun competition, sure, but this team wasn't profligate with the points allowed against George Washington, Mississippi State or Arizona.

Florida Gulf Coast ranks sixth in the nation in scoring defense and 37th in field goal defense. The latter, in particular, is worth noting. After barely squeezing into the top 100 in field goal defense the three previous season, the Eagles ranked 33rd in that measure a season ago. Between the defensive style and 3-point shooting, it's a simple but elegant formula for mid-major success. Get the most value possible from your shots and allow your opponent the minimum value from their shots.

What's ahead: FGCU is unbeaten but also tied for the conference lead. That should change in the next week and a half, with two games against similarly unbeaten Jacksonville.


2. George Washington (19-3, 9-0 Atlantic 10)

Last ranking: 3. Since: Home wins vs. Massachusetts (67-50), George Mason (82-68) and Saint Louis (89-80), road win at Davidson (79-60)

Spotlight on: Season on her shoulders. Make that the spotlight on Jonquel Jones' shoulder. There are many positives to take away from winning three in a row without Jones. All the more in winning, for the most part, comfortably and prolifically in a way that showcased the collective talents of Lauren Chase, Shannon Cranshaw, Kelli Prange, Hannah Schaible and Caira Washington. But when it comes to this team's potential in a national tournament, those positives will be best savored only if Jones returns to the lineup that is more than just her backup band. For now, reports are she remains day-to-day.

What's ahead: There are only three other A-10 teams with winning league records, and George Washington's lone remaining game against any of them is at St. Bonaventure on Feb. 17 (although a visit from Dayton on Feb. 14 is never something to overlook).


3. Green Bay (18-3, 8-1 Horizon)

Last ranking: 1. Since: Road wins at Northern Kentucky (81-73) and Wright State (63-58), home win vs. Detroit (58-36), home loss vs. Oakland (58-56)

Spotlight on: No margin for error. For the most part, it was a successful fortnight. Green Bay showed offensive muscle to get past Northern Kentucky in a potential trap game, then won at co-league frontrunner Wright State. And when it did suffer a setback against Oakland this past week, it responded by holding Detroit to 36 points -- the fifth conference opponent to fall short of 50 points. But mid-major teams don't operate with much margin for error, and the home loss against Oakland will cost the Phoenix their momentum in national polls and the top spot here. This is an excellent team that nonetheless sometimes sees its 3-point and free throw shooting blink out.

What's ahead: A season-long five-game home stand continues against Milwaukee, Youngstown State and Cleveland State. Only the last has a losing league record.


4. South Dakota (17-5, 8-1 Summit)

Last ranking: 4. Since: Home wins vs. IPFW (92-60), IUPUI (65-59) and North Dakota State (80-54), road win at Western Illinois (102-77)

Spotlight on South Dakota: Rested and ready pays off. Nicole Seekamp did it again. The Australian standout's ongoing rich vein of form, even by her previous standards, continued with 12 fourth-quarter points to lift South Dakota to a win against Summit co-contender IUPUI, just as she won the day late at South Dakota State. But the seeds of those clutch performances might have been planted in games that required no such heroics. South Dakota blew out more overmatched opponents in recent games, meaning Seekamp played fewer than 30 minutes against IPFW, North Dakota State and Western Illinois.

What's ahead: The end of the month is the portion of the remaining schedule with the higher degree of difficulty. But Oral Roberts, the lone league team to beat South Dakota, visits on Feb. 13.


5. South Dakota State (17-4 overall, 7-1 Summit)

Last ranking: 6. Since: Home wins vs. IUPUI (68-66 2 OT) and Western Illinois (85-63), road win at Oral Roberts (68-50)

Spotlight on: Present good, future better. There are nine freshmen and sophomores on the South Dakota State roster. Ponder that for a minute. The current iteration of this mid-major dynasty is just getting up to speed. Take Madison Guebert, who in just the time since the previous rankings experienced the roller-coaster highs (8-of-11 shooting against Western Illinois) and lows (1-of-9 shooting against IUPUI) familiar to many freshmen. But it's the promise of those highs -- i.e. Guebert is shooting 49 percent (25 of 51) from the 3-point line since Christmas -- that means the Jackrabbits are here to stay.

What's ahead: South Dakota State gets some time at home in February, playing four of its next five games at Frost Arena, those games almost entirely against teams with losing league records.


6. Duquesne (19-2, 7-1 Atlantic 10)

Last ranking: 7. Since: Home win vs. St. Bonaventure (74-62), road wins at Richmond (65-44) and VCU (71-67)

Spotlight on: April Robinson leads the way. The win at VCU this past Sunday was more fraught than Duquesne might have liked, the lead trimmed to a single possession in the closing minutes. But with a big 3-pointer and free throws from Robinson, it didn't matter. That is par for the course. Robinson had a tough day by any standards in the recent loss against George Washington, but look at how she responded. Against a St. Bonaventure team looking to take advantage of a wounded opponent and leapfrog into second place, she put up 20 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists. Then she took charge of back-to-back wins in Virginia. It won't always work out, but you have to be comfortable with a team following that kind of lead.

What's ahead: Like other teams here, it's the end of the month that holds the marquee games.


7. San Diego (20-2, 10-1 West Coast)

Last ranking: Home wins vs. Pepperdine (74-55) and Loyola Marymount (82-58), road wins at Pepperdine (70-54) and Loyola Marymount (75-67)

Spotlight on: Maturation of a program. The most recent made it five consecutive seasons of at least 20 wins for the Toreros. But it's also impressive that this season, the best start in program history, the wins are coming a different way. San Diego ceded the rebound advantage three times in four games against Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount and still won comfortably. The team has a slim positive rebound margin on the season. This after it ranked 16th nationally in rebounding margin a season ago. Maintaining results while adapting to personnel strengths is noteworthy.

What's ahead: Thursday's game at Saint Mary's is the first of a bunch of difficult road games this month and a rematch of San Diego's lone conference loss.


8. BYU (18-4, 10-1 West Coast)

Last ranking: 9. Since: Home wins vs. Loyola Marymount (75-61) and Pepperdine (69-64), road wins at Loyola Marymount (82-75) and Pepperdine (77-66)

Spotlight on: All-American caliber. Who is the best player beyond the major conferences? By WNBA and All-America potential, it is probably George Washington's Jones. Army's Kelsey Minato is in the larger discussion. So, too, Albany's Shereesha Richards. But spare a thought, and maybe even an All-America vote, for Lexi Eaton Rydalch. Match her up in a scoring duel with Ohio State's Kelsey Mitchell or Washington's Kelsey Plum and she isn't going to look out of place. A vastly improved 3-point shooter since her early days, completing an offensive game that can score attacking the basket and on mid-range shots, Eaton Rydalch averaged 34.5 points per game this past week. She isn't a mid-major scorer; she's a scorer at a mid-major.

What's ahead: BYU visits Saint Mary's two days after San Diego makes the trip to Moraga, California. That's the biggest upcoming test, but visits from Santa Clara and San Francisco loom.


9. Arkansas State (16-3, 10-0 Sun Belt)

Last ranking: 10. Since: Road wins at UT-Arlington (78-71) and Texas State (74-59), home wins vs. Georgia State (75-54) and Georgia Southern (77-54)

Spotlight on: Follow their lead. Even in the kind of company kept here, or the AP top 25, for that matter, there are few more efficient combinations than Aundrea Gamble and Khadija Brown-Haywood. Arkansas State's two leading scorers average nearly 34 points per game between them, which is fine, but they do so while combining to average barely four turnovers per game, shoot 49 percent from the field and 79 percent from the free throw line. Just for good measure, they account for 53 percent of the team's assists this season. When you start with efficiency like that, it becomes a good bit less complicated to fit the necessary pieces together for the kind of season we see thus far.

What's ahead: A road game at second-place Louisiana-Lafayette on Feb. 11 is the marquee upcoming game. Arkansas State won the first meeting by 27 points at home.


10. Colorado State (18-1, 8-0 Mountain West)

Last ranking: NR. Since: Home wins vs. Air Force (71-47) and Wyoming (63-42), road win at San Jose State (80-78)

Spotlight on: Global basketball debuts. Without actually doing the math for several hundred rosters, can we just agree that no team compiled more air miles getting its players to campus than Colorado State, there not being many direct flights to Fort Collins, Colorado, from Sweden (four), Denmark (two), Norway, Romania and Brazil? Like UTEP, another one-loss team absent from these rankings, Colorado State's schedule strength kept it on the outside for a long time, but it just keeps winning games. One reason? It ranks 19th nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio. If its opponents were a single entry in those same assist-to-turnover rankings, that entry would rank 332nd.

What's ahead: Although unbeaten, Colorado State is merely tied for the Mountain West lead with Fresno State. Their only meeting comes March 1 in Fort Collins. The Feb. 10 visit to Boise State is a more immediate challenge.


Fell out: Wright State

Previous rankings: Nov. 3 (preseason) | Nov. 25 | Dec. 9 | Dec. 23 | Jan. 6 | Jan. 20