NCAA
Graham Hays, espnW.com 264d

Drake and Belmont lead way in final espnW mid-major poll of the season

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

The teams listed below have played nearly 300 total games, providing a pretty good sample size to assess them. Yet in most cases, each respective season now depends on what happens in two or three games in the days ahead. Such is the mid-major existence, when three days in March can either confirm or erase four months of work.

So for one last time before the NCAA tournament, let's get to the rankings.

1. Drake (23-4, 16-0 Missouri Valley)

Drake coaches and players couldn't help but bemoan how poorly they played in a recent MVC road game at Indiana State. The Bulldogs won by 19 points. Those are high standards. But to their point, Drake won by 44 points the next time out, then dispatched second-place Northern Iowa in an easier game than the overtime thriller those two teams played earlier in the season. Barring a slip in the final two regular-season games, with the conference title already clinched, Drake should enter the MVC tournament with margin for error in NCAA at-large consideration. (Last ranking: 1)

Player to watch: Lizzy Wendell (20.9 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.7 SPG). It's not a coincidence that the supposedly flawed win at Indiana State came on a night when Drake coach Jennie Baranczyk said Wendell was uncharacteristically flat (and when her streak of 102 consecutive double-digit scoring performances came to an end). Starting with the grind of the first Northern Iowa game, she is averaging 16.9 points over the past eight games -- terrific for most, less so by her own standards. A season is a long time to be the focus of every opposing defense. But with so much on the line in the Northern Iowa rematch, she scored 17 second-half points.

2. Belmont (24-5, 16-0 Ohio Valley)

Other than Connecticut, no team has dominated a conference to the same degree as Belmont. The Bruins finished five games clear of second place and became just the third OVC team to run the table in the regular season in the past 25 years. None of which matters to their NCAA prospects, unfortunately for them, unless they win the conference tournament in Nashville. And while the Belmont men's team receives a bye to the semifinals as the No. 1 seed, the women's bracket offers no such prize. Belmont opens against Southeast Missouri State on Wednesday. (Last ranking: 3)

Player to watch: Sally McCabe (12.0 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 2.7 BPG). The 6-foot-3 post shared the spotlight in recent games with Kylee Smith and Darby Maggard, who has 28 assists and three turnovers in the past two weeks. But McCabe dominated when the team rolled to a conference tournament title a season ago. If the game slows down in the postseason -- and that's a relative term for the fast-paced Bruins -- it's nice to have a post presence like her.

3. George Washington (20-8, 13-3 Atlantic 10)

George Washington and Dayton tied atop the A-10 and split regular-season meetings, but the Colonials ended up with the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. That isn't the worst fate. A quarterfinal against Duquesne, a team with postseason experience, will be no treat. But George Washington would avoid any potential semifinal against Saint Louis. The Billikens beat the Colonials in the only game between the two this season and rolled through a first-round game against Massachusetts by 40 points. An NCAA tournament at-large bid isn't impossible. It wouldn't hurt the cause if Florida Gulf Coast and Western Kentucky, George Washington's best nonconference wins, keep playing well in their own conference tournaments. (Last ranking: 9)

Player to watch: Lexi Martins (12.5 PPG, 7.7 RPG). The Lehigh transfer, who ranked third in the NCAA a season ago in rebounding, didn't even start a game for George Washington until the conference season. The Colonials wouldn't have shared the A-10 crown without her. She averaged 16.1 points in 26.7 minutes per game in conference play, compared to 7.7 points in 18.8 minutes before.

4. Green Bay (24-5, 15-3 Horizon)

The Phoenix made it difficult, and ultimately needed help from a peer to make it possible, but they got there in the end. A loss at Milwaukee meant Green Bay no longer controlled its own destiny in pursuit of a 19th consecutive conference title. That door opened again when Detroit upset Wright State. Green Bay promptly ground out a 58-51 win of its own at Wright State to forge a tie atop the standings. Making it 16 NCAA tournament appearances in 20 seasons won't necessarily require the Horizon's automatic bid -- Charlie Creme's Bracketology has the Phoenix in via an at-large bid, but a loss before the final of what is a newly neutral-site tournament would tempt fate. (Last ranking: 4)

Player to watch: Mehryn Kraker (18.0 PPG, 3.7 APG). She ranks in the top 50 nationally in field goal percentage despite attempting nearly six 3-pointers per game. Strip out the 3-point attempts, and entering this past weekend her field goal percentage would have trailed only Maryland's Brionna Jones and UConn's Napheesa Collier. That meant she would have checked in just ahead of South Carolina's Alaina Coates and Baylor's Kalani Brown.

5. Elon (23-6, 15-2 Colonial)

The good news is Elon, so steady ever since scoring just nine points in the first half of its opener at Green Bay, is a win away from clinching the CAA regular-season title. The program less than a decade removed from a 5-26 season will seek that history at home against last-place UNCW. The bad news is that despite a shiny RPI, Creme can't find a path forward that doesn't involve winning the conference tournament. Oh, and the league tourney happens to be taking place at James Madison -- the team responsible for two of Elon's six losses this season. (Last ranking: 8)

Player to watch: Malaya Johnson (8.9 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.7 BPG). The junior opened the calendar year with 17 points and nine rebounds in a win against Charleston and hasn't looked back. She averaged 6.3 points and 5.1 rebounds during the 2016 portion of the schedule. She is averaging 10.7 points and 7.7 rebounds during the 2017 portion. That includes two solid lines in the losses against James Madison. She's the extent of the interior size in Elon's regular rotation.

6. James Madison (21-7, 14-3 Colonial)

For the reasons above, James Madison is still in a good position despite a surprise loss at home against William & Mary recently that dropped the Dukes a game behind Elon in the standings. Because of Charleston using inappropriate basketballs earlier this season, it appears still mathematically possible for James Madison to draw Towson in the CAA quarterfinals. Towson already beat the Dukes twice this season. Still, despite losing its coach and three starters after last season, another starter to injury early this season and finally yet another returning starter to a mutual parting of ways in December, here this team sits. (Last ranking: 5)

Player to watch: Precious Hall (23.2 PPG, 5.6 RPG). She offers arguably the most boom-or-bust production of any player in the country. When things don't go well, as with 4-for-24 shooting with eight turnovers in the loss against William & Mary, the ripples capsize a team. But things don't even need to go really right, as they did when she scored 41 points in one of the wins against Elon, for her to propel the team. She's shooting 30.7 percent in losses and 38.9 percent in wins.

7. Western Kentucky (22-6, 14-2 Conference USA)

It took time, but the team that opened the season No. 2 in these rankings appears to be hitting its stride as March arrives. Seven consecutive conference wins, including the first victory in more than a decade at Middle Tennessee State and an averted buzzer-beater against Charlotte, have the Lady Toppers in control of their conference destiny. Win at North Texas and Rice this week and they are the No. 1 seed in the tournament in Birmingham, Alabama. They are the only team in the league with any NCAA at-large hopes, but those are on the decidedly slim side. (Last ranking: NR)

Player to watch: Kendall Noble (15.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 5.1 APG, 2.6 SPG). Every season there's a group of mid-major seniors that would make the NCAA tournament better with their presence. One of the most complete players, Noble ranks near the top of the current list and is doing all she can to earn the invite. As good as the overall numbers are, she's bettering all of them in league play.

8. Gonzaga (23-6, 14-4 West Coast)

Despite a win at Stanford and another WCC regular-season title, Gonzaga has played itself out of NCAA tournament at-large consideration, which about sums up a curious season. Recent losses at San Francisco and BYU bookended a conference season that began with back-to-back losses and featured narrow escapes amid the intervening winning streak. For the whole season, Gonzaga has more than double the scoring margin of any WCC team (and it played a quality schedule). In WCC games, Gonzaga doesn't even lead the league in scoring margin. (Last ranking: 2)

Player to watch: Elle Tinkle (8.3 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.7 SPG). Go back to the win at Stanford and it was a two-woman show between Tinkle and Jill Barta. But while Barta maintained a breakout season, the shots have stopped falling for Tinkle in her final campaign, her sixth in Spokane after receiving a hardship waiver from the NCAA. She offers much more than points, both tangibly and otherwise, but a few March 3-pointers would go a long way.

9. Western Illinois (23-6, 13-3 Summit)

The fourth team from the Summit to be ranked this season is the one that enters the conference tournament as the No. 1 seed. Better late than never in welcoming the Leathernecks. After back-to-back losses against IUPUI and South Dakota State in late January, Western Illinois halted the slide with a win at South Dakota (those three opponents are the others ranked here at various times this season). That was the first of eight consecutive wins to close the regular season, including a win against South Dakota State and another against South Dakota. (Last ranking: NR)

Player to watch: Emily Clemens (19.2 PPG, 7.1 APG, 2.5 SPG). There is a Nicole Seekamp vibe to what the Western Illinois junior is doing, although the 5-4 Clemens gives up a few inches to the former South Dakota star. Clemens played all 40 minutes in seven of Western Illinois' final nine games in the regular season and missed a total of only seven minutes in that span. It also might be a good idea to stop fouling her. She took 90 free throws in the team's final eight games. Only two players in the nation have made more foul shots this season.

10. Bucknell (23-5, 15-2 Patriot League)

The Bison clinched the Patriot League regular-season title by winning at second-place Navy this past weekend -- a game they won by nine points after outscoring the hosts 24-6 in the final quarter. The Patriot League is one of the few that still offers its regular-season champion with the tangible reward of hosting any game it plays in the conference tournament. The road to a third NCAA tournament runs through Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. (Last ranking: NR)

Player to watch: Claire DeBoer (16.1 PPG, 7.3 RPG). She scored 13 of her 15 points and recorded all three of her assists in the game against Navy after halftime. The senior is the third-leading scorer in program history, one of the top 50 active leading scorers in Division I and the preseason favorite for Patriot League Player of the Year. She's had a fantastic career that is missing just one thing.

Dropped out: Colorado State, Middle Tennessee State, Penn

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

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