NCAA
Graham Hays, espnW.com 276d

Drake takes over top spot in espnW mid-major poll

Women's College Basketball, Drake Bulldogs, Green Bay Phoenix, Gonzaga Bulldogs, Harvard Crimson, South Dakota Coyotes

You might have heard that Connecticut is still unbeaten in conference play -- and every other kind of play. Maryland and Texas are similarly making runs at conference perfection in the Big Ten and Big 12, respectively.

But those three giants aren't alone in their excellence. With only a handful of games remaining, Belmont (Ohio Valley), Drake (Missouri Valley), New Mexico State (WAC) and Penn (Ivy) are also close to wrapping up unbeaten conference seasons.

Three of the four appear below. Spoiler alert: sorry, Aggies.

Let's get to the rankings.

1. Drake (20-4, 13-0 Missouri Valley)

The Bulldogs didn't back into the No. 1 spot (or a place in the AP Top 25) when Green Bay opened the door. Their win streak is 14 games, with only a five-point loss against Auburn marring results over the past 18 games. The Bulldogs beat their three most recent MVC opponents by a combined 129 points. In a top-heavy conference, only three teams currently have winning conference records. Drake hosts both of them in back-to-back games, with second-place Northern Iowa visiting Feb. 24 and third-place Missouri State traveling to Des Moines on March 2. (Last ranking: 2)

Top honors: Caitlin Ingle (11.8 PPG, 6.8 APG, 68 percent from the field in four games). The point guard quietly posted a nearly perfect line in Drake's most recent game against Bradley. She finished with seven assists, no turnovers and just one miss on eight shots from the field. Second in the nation in assists per game, she's also in the top 25 in assist-to-turnover ratio.

2. Gonzaga (21-4, 12-2 West Coast)

The wins don't always come easily, but they keep coming. As for the degree of difficulty, Gonzaga survived at Santa Clara on Feb. 4 despite scoring just 13 points in the second half. Jill Barta rescued a 50-49 victory with two free throws with two seconds remaining. The Bulldogs left it almost as late against Saint Mary's on Feb. 11, with a 59-58 win secured when Laura Stockton scored with nine seconds left on the clock. A 35-point win against BYU in which the Bulldogs shot 53 percent from the floor and held the Cougars to 16 first-half points was a bright spot. (Last ranking: 3)

Top honors: Kiara Kudron (10.8 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 3.8 APG in four games). Some of the team's best performances haven't been on the offensive end, but Kudron is turning in a wonderfully versatile final season. In addition to the points and rebounds she provided a season ago, she has nearly matched her total assists in her first three seasons.

3. Belmont (21-5, 13-0 Ohio Valley)

The Bruins have already clinched the OVC regular-season title with three games to spare. They aren't in line for NCAA tournament at-large consideration, their current 15-game win streak notwithstanding, so the sole focus turns to the conference tournament on home turf in Nashville -- though not their home court. (Last ranking: 5)

Top honors: Darby Maggard (18.3 PPG, 6.3 APG in four games). Many teams here have a player who is a clear favorite to appear in this space: Drake's Lizzy Wendell, Green Bay's Mehryn Kraker, Gonzaga's Jill Barta, etc. One of the most appealing things about Belmont is how much of an ensemble it is. Even point guard Maggard is one instrument among many, but she has been playing a pretty good solo in recent days. She hit 21 of 32 3-point attempts in the past four games.

4. Green Bay (21-4, 12-2 Horizon)

Oakland was again the banana peel in Green Bay's season, handing the Phoenix their first league loss Feb. 2 after beating them twice a season ago. The most recent result came just 20 days after Green Bay beat Oakland by 42 points. The manner in which Green Bay lost -- a botched inbounds play that gave Oakland a free run at a layup and 3-point play in the final seconds -- was as stunning as the result itself. The Phoenix still seemed stunned two days later, when they lost at Detroit. The body of work speaks for itself, but NCAA at-large hopes are dwindling, and Wright State has the upper hand for the Horizon regular-season title. Those teams meet Feb. 24 in Dayton; Green Bay won the first meeting by 21 points. (Last ranking: 1)

Top honors: Mehryn Kraker (20.0 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 3.8 APG in four games). There wasn't much more she could do to avert disaster on the road trip. Kraker totaled 24 points, five rebounds and five assists in the loss at Oakland, then nearly single-handedly kept things close with 35 points against Detroit (she hit 14 field goals; the rest of the team hit 12). In those two losses, she shot 54 percent and played 77 of 80 minutes.

5. James Madison (18-6, 11-2 Colonial)

Only two opponents this calendar year have reached 60 points, which suggests the program's defense didn't leave town with former coach Kenny Brooks. The most recent effort was a 61-54 win over Elon in which the Dukes earned a season sweep of the CAA's other frontrunner by limiting the Phoenix to 30 percent shooting. They rank among the top 25 nationally in field goal defense. Three consecutive road games await, highlighted by a trip to Drexel on Feb. 24. (Last ranking: 9)

Top honors: Amber Porter (10.8 PPG, 1.8 BPG in four games). Precious Hall is going to get her points, but Porter has been an effective scoring option off the bench in recent days. The Stetson transfer led all scorers with 20 points against Elon and needed just 19 minutes. That after she totaled 12 points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes against Delaware. She's also a 6-foot-3 defensive presence who averages 12.3 rebounds and 4.4 blocks per 40 minutes.

6. Middle Tennessee State (16-8, 11-2 Conference USA)

The Blue Raiders have a lot of losses relative to the rest of the teams here, but it's difficult to find many bad losses amidst a very competitive schedule. And perhaps we are now witnessing the benefit of those early games against the likes of Arizona State, Kentucky and Louisville. On a road trip that shaped the conference race, Middle Tennessee State won at fourth-place Old Dominion and third-place Charlotte this past week to take sole possession of first place. That sets up a consequential home game against Western Kentucky on Thursday. (Last ranking: NR)

Top honors: Ty Petty (22.3 PPG, 7.3 APG, 4.8 RPG in four games). Petty has been on a roll since at least Christmas. She averaged 13.9 points prior to Dec. 25 and is averaging 20.2 points per game since. Middle Tennessee State isn't a stifling defensive team and turns the ball over almost as often as it forces turnovers. But in the long line of scorers like Chrissy Givens, Amber Holt and Ebony Rowe, Petty and Alex Johnson give this team a chance.

7. Colorado State (19-6, 11-2 Mountain West)

There was a slip at Utah State, which costs the Rams a spot here, but they were generally successful in navigating a tricky stretch of games. Pulling off an overtime win at Fresno State after trailing by five points with less than a minute to play in regulation helped. The tricky stretch now gives way to something outright arduous: Colorado State and second-place Wyoming meet twice in the span of 14 days, first in Colorado and later in Wyoming. In the days between, Colorado State plays third-place New Mexico. (Last ranking: 6)

Top honors: Ellen Nystrom (10.0 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 4.3 APG in four games). She scored the winner against Fresno State with four seconds left in overtime. And it was Nystrom who scored the field goal in the final minute of regulation that cut the deficit to three points and set up Myanne Hamm's equalizer in the closing seconds to force the extra period.

8. Elon (19-6, 11-2 Colonial)

Despite being swept by James Madison, Elon remains close to the class of the mid-major ranks in one important way: RPI. The Phoenix checked in at No. 31 in this week's release, with only Harvard ahead among teams considered for these rankings. Hence Elon's place as a No. 11 seed in Charlie Creme's most recent NCAA tournament projection. Given that the CAA tournament is hosted by James Madison this year, that at-large profile matters greatly. (Last ranking: 8)

Top honors: Shay Burnett (15.8 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 5.3 APG in four games). Elon's leading scorer wasn't immune to the shooting woes against James Madison, but she has been excellent in conference play. She ranks in the top eight in the CAA in points, rebounds and assists and is just outside the top 10 in steals.

9. George Washington (17-8, 10-3 Atlantic 10)

What do we know about the A-10? It promises to put on a heckuva show in its conference tournament. Between Dayton, George Washington and Saint Louis, three teams within a game of each other at the top of the standings, there is a team that won't be much fun to play in the first round of the NCAA tournament. But it's also all but a sure thing that only one of those teams is going to make it to the Big Dance. The Colonials get the nod here, fresh off a shutdown defensive performance against Dayton this past weekend, the latest in a string of such gems. (Last ranking: NR)

Top honors: Caira Washington (16.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.0 BPG in four games). Take your pick of Washington or Lexi Martins, who put up similar numbers the past fortnight. They're the essence of the Colonials, who have more interior assets than most mid-major teams.

10. Penn (14-6, 7-0 Ivy League)

A seemingly endless array of teams missed opportunities to make or confirm statements the past two weeks. Penn did both by routing Harvard in a showdown at the top of the Ivy League and then methodically beating its next three opponents to entrench itself in first place. With its two big stars inside, Michelle Nwokedi and Sydney Stipanovich, Penn ranks 14th in the nation in field goal defense. Harvard put that in practical terms when it scored 12 points in the first half. (Last ranking: NR)

Top honors: Michelle Nwokedi (10.8 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 3.0 BPG in four games). She was at her best in the win over Harvard. Honorable mention goes to Princess Aghayere. The sophomore scored 63 points in her first 15 appearances this season. She scored 33 points in two appearances this past week. Penn has defense. Another scorer wouldn't hurt.

Dropped out: Harvard, South Dakota, Saint Louis

Previous rankings: Nov. 3 (preseason) | Nov. 23 | Dec. 8 | Dec. 21 | Jan. 4 | Jan. 18 | Feb. 1

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