MAAC's Iona joins mid-major rankings

Taylor Hall leads Chattanooga in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. AP Photo/Patrick Murphy-Racey

For the better part of a decade, the MAAC had more vowels than contenders. Iona finally evened the score.

So while par for the course in leagues like the West Coast Conference and Atlantic 10 that stretch the definition of mid-major to begin with, there is more than a little significance to a pair of MAAC teams appearing on the list below.

As things stand at the moment, neither Marist nor Green Bay is in first place in its respective conference. That’s news in the mid-major ranks because over the past decade, those two schools won 17 of a possible 18 outright regular-season conference titles. In the lone exception, Green Bay shared the 2005-06 Horizon League title. But while the Phoenix finally got caught in a youth movement that opened the door for Youngstown State, Wright State, UIC and others to compete in the Horizon, Marist remains what it has long been. Just ask Oklahoma.

Even after his team made a second-half run against the Red Foxes on New Year’s Eve, longtime Canisius coach Terry Zeh wasn’t optimistic about anyone in the league catching a team that went 53-1 the past three seasons.

“Can people give them a game? I think people can,” Zeh said without a whole lot of confidence in the sentiment. “I still think it’s Marist and the rest of us. I don’t think it’s Marist and a bunch of teams. It’s Marist. And it’s the rest of us.”

Damika Martinez and Joy Adams might disagree. Behind Martinez, who is averaging 24.3 points per game, and Adams, averaging a Courtney Paris-esque 18.2 points and 14.1 rebounds per game, Iona maintains sole possession of first place in the MAAC after it became the first conference team in nearly five calendar years to beat Marist in Poughkeepsie earlier this month. The Red Foxes still have a slightly fuller body of work, but the Gaels beat a good Pacific team and an Arizona team that is floundering but still hails from a more prosperous basketball neighborhood.

Do dynasties beat competitors down or lift up the level of play across the board? It's a familiar question in women's basketball, which by and large seems to be no closer to catching Connecticut on any sort of permanent basis than it was at the start of the century (much as it struggled to chase Tennessee before that). One season won't answer that question in the MAAC. Perhaps not even two seasons will, considering Martinez is a junior and Adams a sophomore as the cornerstones put in place by former coach Tony Bozzella and now built upon by Billi Godsey. As Zeh said almost a month ago, it needs to happen "more than once in every Halley's Comet.”

But for now, the MAAC has a new contender and the mid-major rankings have a new member.

1. Gonzaga (18-3, 8-1 West Coast; Charlie Creme’s projected NCAA tournament seed: No. 5)

Gonzaga struggled more than might have been expected in recent wins at Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount, needing overtime to escape with a win against the latter this past week. The optimist would point out that they are nonetheless two games clear of the only team with a tiebreaker edge and play just two more road games (albeit the difficult trip to BYU and San Diego). Haiden Palmer continues to excel, including a 32-point effort in the win against Loyola Marymount, but she’s taking 24.7 percent of her team’s shots in WCC play. It looked early like Lindsay Sherbert might be a No. 2 scorer, but neither she nor Sunny Greinacher nor Keani Albanez has seized that role on more than a sporadic basis.

2. Middle Tennessee (17-3, 6-0 Conference USA; projected seed: No. 8)

Make it more than a month since any team scored as many as 60 points against the Blue Raiders. Ebony Rowe just became the program’s all-time leading scorer, but defense is still this team’s bread and butter. Consider the in-state competition. Tennessee’s opponents record assists on 55 percent of their field goals. It is 54 percent for Vanderbilt’s opponents. Neither of those teams need to apologize for the way they play defense. But Middle Tennessee’s opponents record assists on just 48 percent of their field goals, in addition to committing 20 turnovers per game.

3. James Madison (15-4, 5-0 Colonial; projected seed: No. 9)

Speaking of defense, since allowing 74 points in a loss at North Carolina (10 points below what the Tar Heels average on the season), James Madison has limited its first five conference opponents to an average of 49.2 points per game. Only two other CAA teams own winning conference records. James Madison just beat one of them, Drexel, by 27 points. Now College of Charleston comes calling Friday with a 4-2 CAA mark. As for offense, James Madison’s starters have produced 13 double-digit scoring efforts in the past three games. That’s balance.

4. Chattanooga (17-3, 9-0 Southern; projected seed: No. 12)

Good luck finding another player who leads her team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. And if there are others out there, none of them play for teams that are also undefeated in their respective conference. Taylor Hall continues to do it all for the Lady Mocs. The flip side of that is a good supporting cast never hurts. Alex Black is playing more minutes since conference play began and has more than doubled her scoring average in the process. Keep an eye on the next two. Chattanooga travels to second-place Davidson and fourth-place Georgia Southern.

5. Marist (15-5, 9-1 MAAC; projected seed: No. 10)

All were expected, but Marist bounced back from its loss at home against Iona with four consecutive wins. Casey Dulin enters Wednesday’s game against Rider just one assist behind Leanne Ockenden for the team lead, which is more impressive when you consider Dulin missed the first nine games with an injury. Of just as much note, while she’s also closing in on the team lead in turnovers despite the late start, she’s 21 assists in the black. A season ago, she finished three turnovers in the red. Dulin is going to try and make plays, and her mindset is a tremendous asset for the Red Foxes. But it’s all the more an asset if she keeps that ratio firmly in positive territory.

6. Bowling Green (16-3, 6-1 MAC; projected seed; N/A)

How much does Bowling Green get penalized for the overtime loss at Central Michigan in a fantastically entertaining game? On one hand, the Falcons gave the game away with their inability to manage the ball late in regulation. Going into that game, they had 16 more turnovers than assists through 16 games, essentially breaking even. Over the past three games, they have 22 more turnovers than assists. On the other hand, they went on the road against the preseason conference favorite and controlled the tempo for about 35 minutes. This weekend brings a short trip up the interstate to play rival Toledo, which has performed better of late after a very rough start to the season.

7. San Diego (18-2, 7-2 WCC; projected seed: No. 9)

Last we checked in on the rankings, San Diego was coming off back-to-back losses at Portland and Gonzaga. It appears that was more bump than free fall. The Toreros are working on a three-game winning streak in which they have yet to allow more than 58 points. Of note, that includes a 60-45 win against BYU on Jan. 18. A trip to BYU and a home game against Gonzaga hover in the more distant future, but this weekend’s trip to Pacific and Saint Mary’s might be the most important weekend of the regular season for a team that still needs to prove its road credentials.

8. Dayton (12-5, 5-1 Atlantic 10; projected seed: No. 8)

A loss is ultimately a loss, but the way Sunday’s game against Saint Joseph’s got away had to hurt. Down by just a point with five minutes left, Dayton lost 75-63. It didn’t help that weather left the Flyers grounded on Saturday and forced them to fly to Philadelphia on Sunday morning. Of more long-term concern is the fact that the Flyers played that game without Amber Deane and Kelley Austria, players who each average double-digit points and more than 30 minutes per game. Deane’s return from a concussion could come soon, but Austria’s absence might be prolonged, pending tests on her injured knee. Losing her shooting, playmaking and defense would be a devastating blow.

9. Central Michigan (11-8, 7-0 MAC; projected seed: No. 11)

Remember what was said about Chattanooga’s Hall? Well, Crystal Bradford made it a close call. She’s nine assists shy of leading the Chippewas in all those same statistical categories despite sitting out one game and coming off the bench in nine others. Certainly within the MAC, and to some degree in any game, the only person who can slow down Bradford is Bradford. But credit, too, to Niki DiGuilio, the senior sharpshooter who has doubled her scoring average of a season ago to 14.2 points per game and complements Bradford. Just one of the five teams Central Michigan plays before its rematch against Bowling Green currently has a winning conference record.

10. Iona (17-2, 10-0 MAAC; projected seed: No. 13)

The Gaels avoided any letdown after the historic win at Marist. But there have been some close calls already in conference play. One of those came at Fairfield, which comes to New Rochelle, N.Y., this Thursday to complete the season series.

Next five: No. 11 Saint Mary’s, No. 12 Saint Joseph’s, No. 13 Wichita State, No. 14 BYU, No. 15 Duquesne.