Graham Hays, 1005d

Florida Gulf Coast continues to lead way in mid-major rankings

Women's College Basketball, Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, Green Bay Phoenix, South Dakota Coyotes

Short though it might be, February is a difficult month for mid-majors. With conference tournaments creeping closer, there are far more opportunities to hurt an NCAA tournament résumé than burnish it. One stumble against an RPI weakling can wipe out weeks of focus.

Fortunately, with only one loss among them during the past two weeks, that isn't much of a problem for these teams.

Let's get to the rankings.

1. Florida Gulf Coast (23-4, 11-0 Atlantic Sun)

Last ranking: 1. Since: Home wins vs. Jacksonville (58-39) and North Florida (75-50); road wins at Jacksonville (59-55), NJIT (53-32) and USC Upstate (56-44)

Spotlight on: They get three, you get none. This is getting repetitive, but FGCU's mix of defense and 3-point shooting is a pleasure to watch as an exercise in basketball philosophy. The Eagles rank eighth in the nation in 3-point field goals per game and rely on the shot to an even greater degree with Whitney Knight back from injury (in five games since the last mid-major rankings, they scored 120 of 298 points on 3-pointers). They also rank second in scoring defense. No other team ranked in the top 10 in 3-pointers per game makes even the top 50 in scoring defense.

What's ahead: A three-game lead with three games to play is a nice thing to have. The regular-season finale at Stetson looms as the most likely (if still not likely) stumbling block.

2. Green Bay (21-3 overall, 11-1 Horizon)

Last ranking: 3. Since: Home wins vs. Milwaukee (69-46), Youngstown State (69-35) and Cleveland State (71-53)

Spotlight on: Better on the boards. Green Bay ran rebound deficits with regularity during Kevin Borseth's first stint, and the program hasn't finished with a positive rebounding margin better than 3.2 per game since the 1996-97 season (when as proof some things never change, it beat Texas A&M and Minnesota). But Green Bay is averaging 5.1 more rebounds per game than its opponents this season. Much credit goes to sophomore Jessica Lindstrom, who has more than twice as many defensive rebounds as any two teammates combined and nearly the same for offensive rebounds.

What's ahead: The upcoming highlight is Wright State's visit on Feb. 25 (ESPN3, 8 p.m. ET), although the Phoenix have the security of a two-game lead on the second-place Raiders. The conference tournament will be in Green Bay, regardless of the regular-season standings.

3. South Dakota (20-5, 11-1 Summit)

Last ranking: 4. Since: Road wins at Denver (79-33) and Omaha (70-55); home win vs. Oral Roberts (71-48)

Spotlight on: Surviving the dog days. Although competitive at the top, especially the two schools from South Dakota and IUPUI, the Summit League isn't on the same level as the elite mid-major leagues. So it's worth watching how efficiently a team like South Dakota takes care of its business (i.e. adheres to the UConn no-games-off principle). Well, a defense that cut its points allowed per game this season from 69.9 to 65.3 in just the span of the past eight games seems to fit that description. The Coyotes aren't letting league foes hang around.

What's ahead: The second game of the South Dakota derby is ahead, with South Dakota State coming to Vermillion on Feb. 20. But a season-ending trip to IUPUI will also be a test.

4. South Dakota State (21-4, 11-1 Summit)

Last ranking: 5. Since: Road win at Omaha (65-47); home wins vs. North Dakota State (81-47), Oral Roberts (60-48) and Fort Wayne (92-64)

Spotlight on: First to 70 wins. This might be more intriguing than instructional (or perhaps neither), but since moving to Division I, South Dakota State is 161-15 when it scores at least 70 points in a game. Why mention that now? Because the Jackrabbits are averaging 69.8 points per game this season. There is no magic switch flipped at 70 points, obviously, but what that seems to speak to most of all, and what is true again this season, is the consistency of the program's defense and rebounding. If they get to 70, they win because you aren't going to get to 70.

What's ahead: In addition to the rivalry game this weekend, South Dakota State, like South Dakota, still travels to IUPUI. The prize for finishing first, of course, is a path through the conference tournament that only involved one of the other two top teams.

5. BYU (22-4, 14-1 WCC)

Last ranking: 8. Since: Road wins at Pacific (67-57) and Saint Mary's (65-44); home wins vs. San Francisco (65-62) and Santa Clara (70-63)

Spotlight on: Most valuable newcomer. This was always going to be a season of new faces in new places, Tennessee's Diamond DeShields and Baylor's Alexis Jones among the most recognizable. But has any newcomer made more of a difference to a team than Kalani Purcell, the New Zealander and transfer from Hutchinson Community College? The past week, as the Cougars clinched a share of a conference title, was just the latest example. Purcell played all 80 minutes in victories against San Francisco and Santa Clara and added two more double-doubles to a total of 14 this season. Oh yes, and she also leads BYU with nearly five assists per game.

What's ahead: It's surprising to see in a conference with so many quality teams, but BYU can clinch the outright WCC regular-season title as soon as Thursday against San Diego. A road trip to Portland and Gonzaga then precedes the conference tournament in Las Vegas.

6. George Washington (21-4, 11-1 Atlantic 10)

Last ranking: 2. Since: Road win at Richmond (62-47), home win vs. Dayton (72-62), road loss at Fordham (76-69)

Spotlight on: Extra option. Harping on George Washington's 3-point shooting is a bit of a dead-horse situation. The Colonials don't shoot them often, they win a lot without shooting them often, so move on, right? Yes, but it's still a nice option to have, especially with Jonquel Jones still missing because of a shoulder injury. That makes it interesting to see Kelli Prange, part of the post presence without Jones, hit 4-of-9 3-point attempts in the three games since the last mid-major rankings. The 6-foot-5 post also wasn't shy to shoot from long range a season ago, but the more she refines it, the better.

What's ahead: What shapes up as the most difficult game remaining comes with Wednesday's visit to St. Bonaventure. Even with Jones, the Colonials lost their last visit to Olean, New York.

7. Duquesne (23-2, 11-1 Atlantic 10)

Last ranking: 6. Since: Home wins vs. Massachusetts (73-64 OT), Rhode Island (61-56), Saint Joseph's (73-59), road win at Davidson (77-62)

Spotlight on: Eighth time the charm? Most of the teams in these rankings are NCAA tournament regulars, or at the very least repeat guests. Only Duquesne and Arkansas State have yet to appear in the NCAA tournament. And while Arkansas State's drought spans more total wins, Duquesne's pain is fresher. Since the last mid-major rankings, the Dukes reached 20 wins. It marks the eighth consecutive season that Duquesne reached that milestone, which also happen to be the only eight times in program history. George Washington fans are excused, but shouldn't the rest of us hope for something other than an eighth consecutive trip to the WNIT?

What's ahead: It's a tougher closing stretch than George Washington in the race for the regular-season title. In addition to a road game at St. Bonaventure, like the Colonials, Duquesne also travels to Dayton and Saint Louis for difficult road tests.

8. Arkansas State (20-3, 14-0 Sun Belt

Last ranking: 9. Since: Home wins vs. South Alabama (58-51) and Troy (94-80); road wins at Louisiana-Lafayette (74-62) and Louisiana-Monroe (78-64)

Spotlight on: Good company. Aundrea Gamble averages better than 18 points and four assists per game and shoots 50 percent from the field. Good numbers, right? But how good? She's the only player in the Sun Belt who meets those criteria. Then you start looking around. There isn't anyone like that in the Pac-12. Same for the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and SEC. There is at least one other person who fits the description, of course. And Connecticut's Breanna Stewart is nice company to keep.

What's ahead: The Sun Belt season is endless, so a lot of basketball remains. Among Arkansas State's six games still to play is a trip to second-place Arkansas-Little Rock on March 2.

9. Colorado State (22-1, 12-0 Mountain West)

Last ranking: 10. Since: Home wins vs. San Diego State (70-54) and UNLV (83-52); road wins at Nevada (64-37) and Boise State (83-51)

Spotlight on: Stark statistical contrast. It's difficult to find a better illustration of Colorado State's strengths than the game against UNLV this past week. Colorado State finished with 23 assists and four turnovers. UNLV finished with one assists and 11 turnovers. Colorado State ranks third in the nation in field goal defense and 11th in assist-to-turnover ratio. Only two other teams make the top 11 in both categories: Baylor and Connecticut.

What's ahead: The Rams still have six league games to play, but the only one against a team with a winning record in the Mountain West at the moment is the showdown against second-place Fresno State on March 1.

10. Penn (18-3, 7-0 Ivy League)

Last ranking: NR. Since: Road wins at Harvard (68-48) and Dartmouth (56-41), home wins vs. Columbia (71-51) and Cornell (65-50)

Spotlight on: It starts on the glass. There are 34 Division I players averaging double-digit rebounds. That two of them play for Penn helps explain the lone newcomer's presence here. Success isn't quite as simple as letting Michelle Nwokedi and Sydney Stipanovich do all the work (if it was, Penn wouldn't have beaten Princeton earlier this season in a game in which it finished with 16 fewer rebounds than its opponent), but it's a nice foundation around which to build.

What's ahead: Five of the final seven games are on the road, including the regular-season finale at Princeton on March 8.

Fell out: San Diego

Previous rankings: Nov. 3 (preseason) | Nov. 25 | Dec. 9 | Dec. 23 | Jan. 6 | Jan. 20 | Feb. 2

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