FGCU leads mid-major rankings into the postseason

Whitney Knight and Florida Gulf Coast, which went 14-0 in league play, will host the Atlantic Sun tournament. Courtesy of FGCU

If mid-major teams often play with the freedom of nothing to lose in the NCAA tournament, perhaps it's because they already survived the part of the season when there was everything to lose. With NCAA at-large bids rarely a certainty, a season's worth of good work can vanish within a few bad minutes in a conference tournament. But with automatic bids soon up for grabs, here is a final look at the rankings.

1. Florida Gulf Coast (26-4, 14-0 Atlantic Sun)

Name to know: Whitney Knight. Kaneisha Atwater is the leading scorer by a slim margin, and the team needed her consistency, but Knight makes the Eagles so fascinating as an NCAA tournament bracket-breaker. Her shooting efficiency hasn't been there since a start to the season that was delayed by injury, but there just aren't a lot of 6-foot-3 players who average 3.1 blocks and 2.6 3-pointers per game -- and do it with more assists than turnovers. For a team that thrives on defense and 3-pointers, she's the talisman.

Résumé highlights: With Knight injured, FGCU won at George Washington in December, a time when Jonquel Jones was still in the lineup for the Colonials. The visitors didn't have much luck slowing Jones, but that's one of two home losses in the past two seasons for George Washington when it had its star available (the other was Maryland). A 65-60 loss to Mississippi State on a neutral court also showed what the Eagles are capable of against top-tier competition.

Championship Week: The Eagles host the Atlantic Sun tournament. A potential semifinal against rival Stetson stands out, while No. 2 seed Jacksonville was the only team to come within 10 points of FGCU in a conference game.

2. Green Bay (25-3, 15-1 Horizon League)

Name to know: Kaili Lukan. The five players who play the most minutes average between 9.3 and 12.6 points per game, so this is a collective effort. But to understand how a program wins 18 conference titles in a row, start with Lukan. The only senior in the lineup belongs on any list of the pound-for-pound strongest players. She shouldn't be able to post up as efficiently as she does at 5 feet, 10 inches. She shouldn't be able to defend with the intensity she does for nearly 34 minutes per game. She shouldn't be able to break an opponent's back with a slightly awkward 3-point shot. But she does all of that, and her younger teammates follow her lead because of it. That's Green Bay.

Résumé highlights: For all the opponents from big conferences, and there were six from among the ACC, Big East, Big Ten and SEC, a home win against mid-major peer South Dakota State is the best result. Neutral-site losses against Rutgers and Virginia underscored that the Phoenix might be able to survive one or the other, but they can't miss 3-pointers and turn over the ball.

Championship Week: Green Bay hosts its conference tournament and is the No. 1 seed, regardless of the outcome of its two remaining regular-season games. That means an automatic bye to the semifinals. Wright State, despite some struggles of late, is likely the most dangerous opponent, although Oakland is the only team to win in Green Bay this season.

3. South Dakota (24-5, 15-1 Summit League)

Name to know: Nicole Seekamp. Those who follow these rankings are familiar with the Australian guard. Granted an additional season of eligibility she didn't expect, she hasn't wasted it. She's also the best kind of star when it comes to the postseason, capable of finding 30 points for herself through a combination of 3-point shooting and driving, but more inclined to pile up assists (12th in the nation in assists per game). You want the unselfish star. In the postseason, sometimes you need the star good enough to be selfish.

Résumé highlights: Two derby wins against South Dakota State count for a lot, but the results more likely to register beyond the Summit League are a win at Illinois and a competitive loss against Washington. Granted, Illinois isn't postseason material, but South Dakota bossed the game in Champaign after a slow start. Ahead of Washington at halftime and down only two points entering the fourth quarter, the Coyotes then wilted under a 12-0 run by the Huskies. Those 153 seconds were every bit as defining as the other 37-plus minutes, but South Dakota played a good Pac-12-team level for much of the night.

Championship Week: The first team on this list that doesn't get to host a tournament, although it gets to play closer to home than any other team in the league in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. A potential semifinal against Oral Roberts wouldn't be a pushover, but the Coyotes will be glad to let South Dakota State and IUPUI fight it out on the other side of the bracket to reach the final.

4. Colorado State (27-1, 17-0 Mountain West)

Name to know: Ellen Nystrom. Take your pick when the team's four leading scorers average between 10.4 and 12.6 points per game. But Nystrom and Elin Gustavsson have been starters in each of the past three seasons, which also happen to be the seasons in which Colorado State became the first Mountain West team to win three consecutive regular-season titles. The 6-foot-1 Nystrom is able to rebound like a forward and run a half-court offense like a point guard.

Résumé highlights: In all honesty, the résumé is on the lean side, partly because the Mountain West plays so many conference games. But a win against BYU in which Colorado State led for more than 39 minutes, even if it wasn't ever able to completely pull away, counts for something. What separates Colorado State is how ruthlessly it picked apart the schedule in front of it, shooting 45 percent from the field with nearly 100 more assists than turnovers, compared to opponents that shot 33 percent with more than 200 more turnovers than assists.

Championship Week: Colorado State heads to Las Vegas for the Mountain West tournament, where a potential rematch with Fresno State would be enticing after the Rams won the only regular-season meeting at home Tuesday in a game much closer than the 68-55 score.

5. BYU (24-5,16-2 West Coast Conference)

Name to know: Lexi Eaton Rydalch. The breadth of her offensive game is a sight to behold. She gets to the free throw line eight times a game but also attempts six 3-pointers per game. That's a rare combination of range and aggressiveness. Among the most comparable players in that respect is Washington's Kelsey Plum, and it's not a stretch to put them in the same sentence. Given the quality of her supporting cast, and considering George Washington's Jones is injured, Rydalch might be the individual mid-major talent a favored seed least wants to draw in the NCAA tournament.

Résumé highlights: There is no better result on this list than BYU's neutral-site win against Texas A&M. It's all the more notable because it's not as if BYU broke out of character. The Cougars didn't shoot the lights out. Rydalch was good but not outlandishly so. It was just BYU doing things it can absolutely hope to replicate in any given game, and it was good enough to beat one of the SEC's best teams (in contrast to BYU's disastrous performance at Oklahoma).

Championship Week: The WCC looked like it was going to be a traffic jam at the top, but BYU lost just once before it clinched the title and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament in Las Vegas. The top seed is nice, but it could mean a semifinal against Gonzaga, which certainly has postseason experience and just routed the Cougars in Spokane (although fifth-seeded Gonzaga is technically the underdog in its quarterfinal against fourth-seeded Santa Clara).

6. St. Bonaventure (23-6, 12-4 Atlantic 10)

Name to know: Katie Healy. Talk about quietly putting together a fantastic college career. All Healy has done is average 16.5 points and 7.8 rebounds as a sophomore, 14.1 points and 6.5 rebounds as a junior and now 15.6 points and 7.1 rebounds as a senior. Yet even amidst that consistency, her shooting efficiency, ball control and defensive effect reached new highs in her final season. She's the kind of forward a team can build an NCAA tournament bid around.

Résumé highlights: Much of the work is recent, which is why St. Bonaventure debuts here in the final edition. The Bonnies beat both George Washington and Duquesne down the stretch. It was admittedly an up-and-down February, but add that closing kick to wins earlier this season against James Madison (without Healy) and Penn State, and the record of achievement is there. Colorado State is the only team on this list with a more dramatic difference between its own field goal percentage and what its opponents shoot from the field.

Championship Week: The February stumbles mitigated by big wins mean St. Bonaventure is only the No. 4 seed in this week's A-10 tournament in Richmond, Virginia. If seeds hold in the quarterfinals, that sets up a rematch against George Washington in the semifinals. Would that be a must-win game for the Bonnies to have hope for an NCAA tournament bid, automatic or otherwise? The RPI suggests not necessarily, but the gut says otherwise.

7. South Dakota State (23-6, 13-3 Summit League)

Name to know: Macy Miller. She's the focus of every opposing defense. She has attempted nearly a hundred more shots than any of her teammates and more free throws than any of them. She leads the team in assists. And yet for all of that, Miller has turned over the ball just 48 times in 794 minutes this season. That takes something special from anyone, let alone a sophomore. Whether the result of all that defensive attention, fatigue or something physical, Miller's overall production and efficiency dipped in Summit games, but she's a guard with big-stage skills.

Résumé highlights: Did South Dakota State peak too early? Or are two recent road losses by a total of eight points against the other teams in the Summit's ruling triumvirate just hiccups? Put aside wins and losses and no team here has a better résumé than South Dakota State. It ran with and beat DePaul. It beat Arkansas. It gave Notre Dame one of the ACC giant's true tests this season, and led Maryland with five minutes to play on a neutral court. In part because of its schedule, it doesn't have the most impressive statistics here, but it proved itself on the court.

Championship Week: It will be a difficult road if South Dakota State doesn't want to put its NCAA at-large credentials to the test. Before it can even get another look at South Dakota, it likely has to go through IUPUI in the Summit semifinals. It took the Jackrabbits two overtimes at home to subdue the Jaguars, and they lost the rematch in Indianapolis.

8. James Madison (22-5, 15-1 Colonial Athletic Association)

Name to know: Jazmon Gwathmey. It's an alternate history easily forgotten, at least outside of Harrisonburg, but the mid-major landscape would look different if James Madison hadn't lost Precious Hall to a season-ending injury before the first game. That said, Gwathmey rose to the occasion. The CAA Preseason Player of the Year with a game strong in every area but scoring, she has more than doubled her scoring average of a season ago to 21.4 points per game.

Résumé highlights: Go back to games against West Virginia and Baylor on back-to-back days just before Christmas. James Madison led West Virginia by four points with six minutes to play but couldn't withstand a late run. It would be a stretch to call a loss to Baylor the following day competitive, at least in the sense of doubt about which team would win, but the Dukes held up better on no rest than a lot of teams with more rest did against Kim Mulkey's team this season. Defense gives the team NCAA upset potential even without a shooting night for the ages.

Championship Week: Look out for a potential CAA tournament semifinal against Elon, a team that twice gave James Madison all it could handle in the regular season (although Elon would be no lock to get past Delaware in a potential quarterfinal).

9. Princeton (21-4, 10-1 Ivy League)

Name to know: Michelle Miller. The example of a pure shooter. Miller is good across the board -- 51 percent on two-point field goals, 44 percent from the 3-point line, 88 percent from the free throw line. Even when Princeton was on its heels early against Ohio State, she hit shots. She isn't likely, by design or inclination, to put up 25 shots in a game, but she will get points.

Résumé highlights: The aforementioned game at Ohio State wasn't a highlight, although Princeton isn't the first team to struggle against Kelsey Mitchell and Ameryst Alston. And the Big Ten provided the high-water mark, too, a robust home win against Michigan. It isn't last season's team, it isn't as consistent as last season's team, but Princeton returns to the rankings on the strength of its offensive efficiency.

Championship Week: There is no conference tournament in the Ivy League, but there will be no shortage of drama in pursuit of the regular-season title and NCAA automatic bid. Princeton and Penn are tied atop the standings and meet in the regular-season finale. But each hosts Harvard and Dartmouth before the finale, with the latter two teams in third and fourth place, respectively.

10. Arkansas State (24-4, 18-1 Sun Belt)

Name to know: Aundrea Gamble. She's just outside the top 50 nationally in points per game, assists per game, steals per game, field goal percentage, free throw percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio. And you know what? It might well be more difficult to be that close in all of those categories as to be in the top 50 in any one of them. Former Stanford All-American Candice Wiggins was a more prolific 3-point shooter and played at a higher level, obviously, but it's not a bad place to begin if you want a comparison point.

Résumé highlights: A win at Florida Gulf Coast stands out, even if the host played without Knight. Equally telling are competitive losses at Florida and Nebraska. Arkansas State will give up size to most any team it faces should it reach the NCAA tournament, as it did in both of those losses. But a team with a hyper-efficient offense, ranking in the top 40 in the nation in both field goal offense and assist-to-turnover ratio, generally kept to its strengths and kept close (minus a cold touch from the 3-point line against Nebraska).

Championship Week: The Sun Belt tournament is in New Orleans, but the game to anticipate is a potential Arkansas derby in the final against Arkansas-Little Rock. It was Little Rock that ended Arkansas State's 18-game winning streak and perfect conference season Tuesday.

Previous rankings: Nov. 3 (preseason) | Nov. 25 | Dec. 9 | Dec. 23 | Jan. 6 | Jan. 20 | Feb. 2 | Feb. 17