The 2011-12 season is going to be a hard act to follow for the mid-major community.
By the time last season came to a close, Delaware and Green Bay occupied places in the top 10 and their respective stars, Elena Delle Donne and Julie Wojta, occupied places on the Associated Press All-America teams. Arguably the most mid-major school in the semi-major Atlantic 10, St. Bonaventure ran the table in its league, reached the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament and was ranked in the Top 25, where it was joined by Ivy League power Princeton. There was yet another Sweet 16 appearance for Gonzaga and another first-round upset by Marist, this time against Georgia.
The new season begins with Delle Donne still wearing Delaware blue, but many of last season's other mid-major stars no longer around. Time will tell if that means new teams emerge, or if new faces step forward in familiar places.
Just to go over the ground rules again, all conferences other than the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC are eligible for consideration in espnW's Mid-Major Top 10.
1. Delaware (Colonial, 31-2 last season): There is a lot of talk about one player, and for good reason, but the Blue Hens return seven of the eight players who averaged double-digit minutes a season ago. Delle Donne's value needs no explanation at this point, but the All-American's preseason disclosure that she is dealing with a recurrence of Lyme disease only underscores the preexisting reality that Delaware needs more from the supporting cast if it is to go from a team that can get to the second round of the NCAA tournament to a team that can get to New Orleans.
Two players to watch: Danielle Parker and Lauren Carra. If Parker (8.6 points, 7.5 rebounds per game) becomes a consistent secondary scorer and Carra (31.9 percent 3-point shooting) becomes more accurate as a relief valve, big things await. Beyond the Preseason WNIT, Delaware has big home games against Princeton and Maryland.
2. Middle Tennessee (Sun Belt, 26-7): Continuity is a mid-major program's best friend, and no program has more of it than Middle Tennessee this season. The Blue Raiders return 99 percent of their scoring from a team that beat Kentucky in the regular season and gave Vanderbilt a good run on the latter team's own court in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The names to know are Kortni Jones, Ebony Rowe and Icelyn Elie, who combined to average 46.8 points, 20.9 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game last season. That trio also averaged 5.9 steals per game between them, spearheading a defense in coach Rick Insell's high-speed system that forced 20.9 turnovers per game.
A possible mid-major showdown against Delaware in the Preseason WNIT would be fun to watch, and regularly scheduled tests await against Tennessee and Kentucky on the road.
3. BYU (West Coast, 26-7): This could be the best BYU team in quite some time. To be sure, it's probably worth asking Haley Steed, the outstanding point guard and Nancy Lieberman Award finalist who begins her seventh season in Provo (injuries derailed her first three attempts). The rest of the lineup isn't quite that experienced, but it does look a lot like the group that won 26 games last season. Leading scorer Kristen Riley is gone, but three of the top four scorers, all of whom averaged between 9.5 and 11.4 points per game, return in Lexi Eaton, Jennifer Hamson and Kim Parker Beeston. The Cougars also regain the services of forward Keilani Unga, a former starter who last played during the 2009-10 season and has since had two children with husband and former BYU football player Harvey Unga.
The biggest problem is a schedule that doesn't provide many opportunities to turn heads -- or build RPI strength -- before conference play.
4. Gonzaga (West Coast, 28-6): First, Gonzaga had to replace Heather Bowman and Vivian Frieson. Then it was Courtney Vandersloot. Now it's Katelan Redmon and Kayla Standish. And for the first time since all of that began, for the first time since the 2007-08 season, Gonzaga isn't the preseason favorite in the WCC. But don't count out the Bulldogs, picked to finish behind BYU. Kelly Bowen is also gone, but the returning backcourt of Taelor Karr and Haiden Palmer is a foundation to build around, especially with Jazmine Redmon (no relation to Katelan) likely to join them after spending much of last season as the sixth woman. Those three finished last season with 160 more assists than turnovers for a team that makes a habit of ranking among the best in valuing the ball.
If some combination of 6-foot-5 Shelby Cheslek, 6-4 Sunny Greinacher and 6-3 Stephanie Golden break through in the post, the end of the season might have a distinctly familiar look.
5. Princeton (Ivy League, 24-5): Harvard could make things interesting with 6-4 former McDonald's All-American Temi Fagbenle taking the court this season, but Princeton plays the game at a different level than the rest of a conference the Tigers are 41-1 against the past three seasons. Princeton will have a new offensive look this season without reliable low-post presence Devona Allgood and also needs to replace her classmate Lauren Edwards, the team's second leading scorer as a senior. But the Tigers still have one of the best mid-major players in the country in senior Niveen Rasheed, who led the team in points, rebounds, assists and steals last season, and senior point guard Lauren Polansky, already a two-time conference defensive player of the year. They also have the kind of recruiting class rarely seen in the Ivy League, a group that at the very least should provide immediate depth.
The new arrivals need to acclimate quickly; Princeton plays at Marist in the second week of the season and faces UCLA, Rutgers, Hofstra, Delaware, Villanova, Illinois State and DePaul before Christmas.
6. Marist (MAAC, 26-8):
It might take some time, perhaps more than the Red Foxes have before trips to Oklahoma and Kentucky and neutral-site games against Connecticut and Purdue in the season's first two months. But there are the ingredients here for something special even by the standards of this program. The losses are significant -- Corielle Yarde and Brandy Gang, the team's two leading scorers last season -- but experience remains in juniors Leanne Ockenden, Casey Dulin and senior Kelsey Beynnon, all starters last season. Much of the buzz in Poughkeepsie centers on 6-3 redshirt sophomore Tori Jarosz, eligible after sitting out last season following a transfer from Vanderbilt. Coach Brian Giorgis also loves his freshman class, which includes potential instant-impact players Sydney Coffey, daughter of former NBA player Richard Coffey, and Madeline Blais and 6-5 Delaney Hollenbeck, another asset if she's healthy.
7. Green Bay (Horizon, 31-2): The best player in program history is gone, but the coach who recruited her is back, a development that ought to at least make Green Bay one of the most interesting teams to follow. After a season in which the Phoenix spent a lot of time ranked in the top 10 and came within seconds of a second consecutive Sweet 16 appearance, Wojta took her All-American accolades to the professional ranks and Matt Bollant took the coaching job at Illinois. Cue a second act for Kevin Borseth, the man who lifted the program to new heights at the Division I level before Bollant added a few more floors. In Lydia Bauer, Sarah Eichler, Megan Lukan and Adrian Ritchie, Green Bay still has a core that contributed a lot of minutes to the NCAA tournament runs of the past two seasons. They're also the kind of kids likely to buy into Borseth's system without reservation, but there will be an adjustment process without Wojta and Bollant.
8. San Diego State (Mountain West, 25-7): The Aztecs fell off the radar after opening last season 4-4, including losses against Portland and city rival University of San Diego, but they hit their stride and gave LSU a fight in an NCAA tournament first-round game in Baton Rouge. The all-transfer backcourt of Courtney Clements (Arizona) and Chelsea Hopkins (Duke) did much of the heavy lifting, with Clements averaging 17.4 points per game and Hopkins averaging 6.5 assists per game with more than twice as many assists as turnovers. Both are back, and coach Beth Burns offered up the prediction that fellow returnee Malia Nahinu, a 6-6 senior center who blocked 4.9 shots per 40 minutes last season would work her way into WNBA draft consideration by the end of the season. San Diego State gets a chance to prove itself right away when it opens the season at UCLA on Saturday.
9. Davidson (Southern, 22-10): Preseason polls always seem to lean toward rehashing the past more than predicting the future. Hopefully that isn't the case for the teams above, but it's nice to see a new face on the list. Regular-season champion in the Southern Conference a season ago, Davidson had to settle for the WNIT after losing in the conference tournament. But with 12 returning players, third-year coach Michele Savage has a team capable of even better. The list of returnees includes reigning SoCon player of the year Sophia Aleksandravicius, a 6-5 New Yorker who averaged 13.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game last season, and leading scorer Laura Murray. Davidson will sink or swim out of the gates, opening against North Carolina in the Preseason WNIT and coming out of that tournament with a game at Rutgers over Thanksgiving week (trips to Miami and Tennessee loom in December).
10. Tennessee-Martin (Ohio Valley, 23-9): The best backcourt in Tennessee? It's a crowded competition when you look at the rosters of Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee, but Tennessee-Martin isn't giving ground to any of them with Heather Butler and Jasmine Newsome. Those two combined to average 43.4 points and 9.4 assists per game last season, with Butler hitting more than three 3-pointers per game at a 42 percent clip and Newsome among national leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio. Freshman Cortrice Golden, referred to even in official university recaps as "Big Baby," could lend some rebounding muscle to a lineup that ceded the advantage on the boards to opponents last season. It could be a rough November -- the Skyhawks face Baylor, Stanford and Louisville in succession at one point -- but the team is for real.