Flyers hold on to top spot in mid-major rankings

Michelle Miller, left, and Princeton have big games coming up against Ohio State and Dayton, while Green Bay and Allie LeClaire host South Dakota State on Dec. 19. Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire

That way madness lies.

College basketball's mid-majors aren't quite so cruel as Shakespeare made King Lear's offspring, but there is a certain brain-curdling quality to any attempt to try to sort out the deserving from the rest.

The easy and logical criterion is ranking the teams based on the evidence of what they have done. But what does that mean? Do wins trump all, including context? Is Chattanooga's two-point loss at Tennessee, for example, more of an accomplishment than UTEP's 13-point win at home against Idaho State? For that matter, does Chattanooga get more, less or equal credit for merely playing Connecticut, even though it lost by 48 points, than UTEP does for beating any of the teams on its schedule?

That's not to pick on UTEP, which despite sitting as one of a handful of unbeaten teams beyond the major conferences is not among the 10 teams below. But there does seem to be a growing gulf in the mid-major ranks between programs that schedule up and those that stay in their proverbial lane.

The latter isn't a character flaw, but it makes comparison tricky.

Let's get to the rankings, which include three new teams.

1. Dayton (6-2 overall)

Since last rankings: Neutral-site win vs. Louisville (79-66) and Maine (58-37), road win at Toledo (83-57), neutral-site loss vs. Stanford (74-66), road loss at Purdue (61-58)

In the spotlight: Kelley Austria injury a major setback. Dayton has been busy since Thanksgiving, but the results mean little in comparison to another season-ending injury for Kelley Austria. The standout senior defender and 3-point shooter suffered a torn ACL in the victory at Toledo. She will at least be able to return for another season this time, an injury in her sophomore year coming too late to redshirt. Freshman Lauren Cannatelli was already playing more and more minutes, and that won't stop. But the injury also places more on Amber Deane's shoulders. A complementary scorer the past few seasons, her emergence this season was best illustrated when she totaled 29 points, six assists and six rebounds in the win against Louisville at a tournament in Florida, her third game in three days.

What's ahead: A mid-major murderers' row awaits. Dayton hosts Princeton and Gonzaga before Christmas and visits Green Bay before the year is out.

2. South Dakota State (6-2)

Since last rankings: Neutral-site wins vs. Pittsburgh (55-54) and Old Dominion (71-39), home wins vs. Portland State (74-65) and Northern Colorado (66-62), neutral-site loss vs. Maryland (62-55)

In the spotlight: If not a good loss, a telling loss. It remains to be seen what the victories against Pitt and Arkansas, which hasn't won since its trip to Brookings, South Dakota, will mean by the end of the season. But as was the case in the earlier game against Notre Dame, the best measure in the past two weeks of how good the Jackrabbits are came in a result that doesn't do much to help their postseason résumé because it was a loss. Leading 17-4 after the first quarter, Maryland wasn't ever in danger of losing to South Dakota State, but neither could one of the best teams shake its opponent in a game in which every Terrpain other than Brionna Jones and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough combined to shoot 8-of-35.

What's ahead: The Jackrabbits become temporary Big East members, traveling to Creighton and hosting DePaul in a four-day stretch, then visit Green Bay before Christmas.

3. Princeton (6-1)

Since last rankings: Home win vs. Michigan (74-57), neutral-site wins vs. UC Irvine (83-42) and Seattle (85-48)

In the spotlight: Safety in numbers. At least for now, getting into Princeton appears more difficult than getting into Princeton's lineup. It is staying in the latter that will be difficult for many of the 17 players who have already logged double-digit minutes. What rotation emerges from that mass of humanity is important, but three Tigers have already gone a long way toward easing the graduation of Blake Dietrick. Amanda Berntsen, Michelle Miller and Annie Tarakchian are averaging 40.5 points per game this season, 11.7 more than a season ago. Even when Tarakchian had a tough shooting day against Michigan, Miller and Berntsen combined for 37 points in the convincing win on national television.

What's ahead: They can't look this far ahead, but we can. NCAA tournament seeding is on the line when the Tigers travel to Ohio State and Dayton as part of a busy pre-Christmas schedule.

4. Green Bay (4-2 overall)

Since last rankings: Road win at Drake (86-61), neutral-site win vs. Tulane (79-58), neutral-site losses vs. Virginia (68-59) and Rutgers (54-43)

In the spotlight: Allie LeClaire emerges. If Green Bay hits 3-pointers and takes care of the ball, it can do things like go on the road and rout a very good Drake team. If it does one of those things well, as it did in protecting the ball against Vanderbilt, it can win a lot of games. If it does neither, you have the Virginia and Rutgers games. All of which makes LeClaire, even on a team of equal parts, a bellwether. Her line at Drake -- 30 points, including 8-of-10 3-point shooting, 8 rebounds, 5 steals and just 2 turnovers in 34 minutes -- will go down as one of the best of the season.

What's ahead: After a Horizon League reunion with current Big East member Butler, a short road trip to Wisconsin and a visit from South Dakota State highlight the pre-Christmas schedule.

5. Chattanooga (5-3)

Since last rankings: Home wins vs. Arkansas State (55-54) and UT Martin (61-46), home loss vs. Connecticut (79-31)

In the spotlight: More Jasmine Joyner. Yes, we're basically pretending the second half against Connecticut never happened. And yes, that rule basically applies to the entirety of college basketball. In victories against Arkansas State and UT Martin, neither a walk-over in the mid-major world, Joyner totaled 9 blocks (her line of 31 points, 15 rebounds and 7 blocks against UT-Martin ranks up there with LeClaire). She's not going to get to the Brittney Griner/Louella Tomlinson territory in the record book, but the 6-foot-2 junior forward could match former IUPUI player Brooke McAfee as the shortest with 400 career blocks.

What's ahead: For all the attention on the games against Tennessee and Connecticut, the trip to South Florida on Dec. 13 is no less a big game. It would be a résumé cornerstone if earned.

6. Saint Mary's (7-2)

Since last rankings: Road win at California (64-63), neutral-site win vs. Villanova (67-60), home win vs. Fresno State (83-81 OT), home losses vs. Missouri (95-78) and UC Davis (78-71)

In the spotlight: Roller-coaster Gaels. It is a crowded list, but Saint Mary's might be the most perplexing team here. Beaten soundly by Missouri (admittedly still unbeaten) and at home by UC Davis, the Gaels turned around and beat California and Villanova in the span of barely 24 hours, the former on its home court, to not only stay in these rankings but move up a couple of spots. Lauren Nicholson put up points in the defeats and can always score, but in 71 minutes against Cal and Villanova, she not only scored 38 points (including a career-high-tying 29 against Villanova) but also had seven assists and just two turnovers.

What's ahead: The Gaels begin WCC play before Christmas, but Washington State visits first.

7. Wright State (8-2)

Since last rankings: Neutral-site wins vs. George Washington (77-71) and Houston (75-61), home win vs. Butler (66-53), neutral-site loss vs. Iowa (83-77)

In the spotlight: A supporting cast for Kim Demmings. The Raiders debut on the strength of a holiday tournament performance that was good -- and nearly great. Down big early against Iowa and still down by double digits in the fourth quarter, they rallied to within three points in the final minute. Undeterred, they bounced back with wins the next two days, with Demmings scoring 32 points in 31 minutes against George Washington. She needs 148 points to break the Horizon League career scoring record. She's the star, but a very productive freshman class is boosting Wright State's stock.

What's ahead: Georgia visits on Dec. 20 in what is likely a must-win to build any kind of NCAA tournament at-large profile (it will fight Green Bay for the Horizon's automatic bid).

8. Idaho (7-1)

Since last rankings: Neutral-site wins vs. Iowa State (97-65) and Texas State (75-55), home wins vs. Wyoming (61-57) and Northwest Christian (71-48), neutral-site loss vs. Duke (74-68)

In the spotlight: Aussies in Moscow (Idaho). The Vandals scared Duke with 3-pointers and buried Iowa State with them. Their four leading scorers combine to make nearly nine 3-pointers per game and shoot 37 percent (including 9-of-11 from Taylor Pierce against Iowa State) from behind the arc. That same quartet also has 32 more assists than turnovers, primarily through senior Connie Ballestero. And as with so many stories in the college game these days, there is an Australian involved. Idaho lost an Australian who averaged 20 points as a senior last season, Stacey Barr, but countrywoman Geraldine McCorkell had 18 points against Duke and 24 points against Iowa State in thus-far superb sophomore season.

What's ahead: It won't take long to know if Idaho will stick around. A trip to Texas Tech on Dec. 9 is followed by a trip to Oregon State on Dec. 12.

9. Drake (6-2)

Since last rankings: Neutral-site wins against UNLV (76-68) and Tulsa (91-80), home loss vs. Green Bay (86-61), road loss at South Dakota (92-87 OT)

In the spotlight: Board work sends Bulldogs tumbling. A team can win while running a rebound deficit. Drake did just that earlier this season against Iowa State. But it's tough to win if the opponent's offensive rebounds nearly match your total rebounds (the South Dakota loss) or if ceding the rebounding edge to a team that rarely enjoys that luxury (the Green Bay loss). Through Monday, Drake ranked No. 299 in rebounding margin. As Ohio State (No. 295) will attest at the moment, that trims the margin for error elsewhere.

What's ahead: A trip to Iowa on Dec. 22 presents an opportunity for an in-state sweep of the power conferences.

10. Army (7-1)

Since last rankings: Home wins vs. Albany (65-62) and Rider (57-42), road wins at Yale (65-61) and St. Francis (74-35)

In the spotlight: Command structure. Army probably isn't a program that can compete at this level on a regular basis, but this shapes up as a once-in-a-long-time kind of season. The three most important players are seniors who have started most or all of their time in the program: Kelsey Minato, Aimee Oertner and Jean Parker. And Minato can play on any court against anyone. In going to Duke and closing within four late in the fourth quarter or beating an Albany team on the cusp of these rankings, Army played the kind of defining games it simply didn't have on the schedule en route to 23 wins a season ago.

What's ahead: A very light schedule awaits before Patriot League play begins on Dec. 30.

Previous rankings: Nov. 3 (preseason) | Nov. 25