The days around Thanksgiving are a season within a season for mid-major programs. Holiday tournaments in Florida, Las Vegas, Mexico and other warm, sunny destinations offer chances to mingle with major programs that wouldn't risk trips to places such as Brookings, South Dakota, and Spokane, Washington, for reasons wholly unrelated to winter weather. Three games in three days might not offer ideal conditions for scouting and preparation, but it's better than nothing.
Here's how the mid-major landscape looks after the busy Thanksgiving break.
1. Green Bay (5-1)
The Phoenix are unlucky No. 26 in the AP Top 25, with their upward mobility stalled by a loss against then-No. 7 Mississippi State that wasn't all that close early and grew even less so when the SEC team opened the second half on an 18-4 run. But if that third game in three days proved one too many (though Mississippi State was just as weary), Green Bay claimed what it needed from the trip to Mexico, with a 61-48 win against then-No. 24 Arizona State a day earlier. That résumé-enhancer marked the fifth time in five games that the Phoenix held a foe to fewer than 50 points, a streak that includes a convincing win against South Dakota State and a rout at Wisconsin.
Arizona State was one part of a portfolio that could give Green Bay leeway come March. The next part, just as necessary, comes Saturday when the Phoenix host No. 23 Marquette. Green Bay has a five-game win streak in the annual series, but this could be the best Marquette team in some time.
Last week: No. 3
2. South Dakota State (5-1)
South Dakota State was outplayed in Green Bay and unable to find any offensive rhythm against a very good defense. It didn't help that freshman Myah Selland was at less than full strength in that game, having missed a game three days earlier with an injury. How good can Selland be? Ask NC State, which watched the 6-foot-2 freshman score 20 points and hit four 3-pointers in South Dakota State's neutral-court win at a Thanksgiving tournament. Players with Selland's size and skill set usually end up in power conferences.
Another recruiting coup for the Jackrabbits a few years ago, Madison Guebert also scored 20 points against the Wolfpack. She did the same in the next game against Charlotte, including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. Combine Selland, Guebert and Macy Miller, and this remains a team that has a whole lot of potential come spring.
Last week: No. 1
3. New Mexico (7-0)
The Lobos have yet to leave home this season, but they have put in some miles on the court in playing seven games already. That most recently includes a sweep of Wichita State, UC Irvine and Illinois in a holiday tournament, three credible opponents if not exactly championship contenders. After sitting out last season, Green Bay transfer and redshirt senior Tesha Buck wasted no time re-establishing herself as one of the more pure-shooting mid-major players. Through seven games, she's shooting 47 percent from the 3-point line and has a four-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio.
A trip to UTEP on Thursday isn't like going to Stanford or Storrs, but it is a road game against a team that was in contention for these rankings and has started well. Between that game, a rivalry game at New Mexico State and a trip to Oklahoma in a few weeks, the Lobos can make their case for No. 1 by the time Christmas arrives.
Last week: No. 7
4. Middle Tennessee State (4-0)
Unlike a lot of the top mid-majors who use Thanksgiving tournaments to squeeze in as many RPI-relevant games as they can muster, Middle Tennessee State played sparingly. With games yet to come against Louisville, Kentucky and USC, among others, the Blue Raiders will have their chances to make a national impression. The best news for this team was the return of Alex Johnson after she missed all but five minutes of the first three games with an injury. The preseason conference player of the year came off the bench against UNC Asheville on Nov. 26 and scored six points in 13 minutes.
This week brings trips to Georgia Tech and Ole Miss, winnable games against major conference competition but far from guaranteed success on the road.
Last week: No. 4
5. Belmont (5-2)
A 74-53 loss against Stanford over the holiday was an improvement on a similarly lopsided season-opening loss at Oklahoma. In the more recent case, Belmont at least went to halftime level with the Pac-12 team before falling off the pace. As important for our purposes, that loss came between impressive mid-major wins over Gonzaga and Florida Gulf Coast in the three-day tournament in Las Vegas. Those are both arguably more impressive nonconference results than anything the Bruins registered all of last season.
Besides a trip to struggling-but-SEC Vanderbilt just before Christmas, Belmont doesn't have much of national note left on its schedule. But two games to watch are a trip to Arkansas State and a visit from Wright State. Those aren't games that greatly enhance NCAA tournament at-large résumé, but they should test Belmont.
Last week: No. 8
6. UC Davis (6-0)
A Thanksgiving week road swing through Pacific, Southern Utah and Seattle produced three wins by a combined 84 points. The names of those opponents won't turn heads, but that's a lot of travel and basketball in the span of seven days to manage without getting distracted. Focus doesn't seem to be a problem for this team; it opened its season with a win against Washington State, the same team that ended UC Davis' previous season in the WNIT.
As far as consistency goes, it's difficult to do better than Morgan Bertsch of late. One of five returning starters for the Aggies, she has scored at least 20 points in each of the past five games and shot 60 percent (32-of-51) on the recent road trip.
Last week: NR
7. Florida Gulf Coast (6-2)
Short of working in the Golden State Warriors, it's difficult to imagine a more difficult physical challenge than playing on back-to-back days against DePaul and Ohio State, two teams that will happily squeeze a game and a half of possessions into four quarters. That was what Florida Gulf Coast took on in Las Vegas immediately before the aforementioned loss to Belmont. That, in turn, came after the Eagles played three games in four days leading into Thanksgiving.
But if the legs were gone by the end, they were there in a valuable overtime win against DePaul. Not surprisingly after that run, we won't see much of the Eagles in competitive games for a week or two, but a rare home game against Kentucky looms on Dec. 8.
Last week: No. 6
8. Loyola Marymount (8-0)
What to make of the schedule? Although a win at Saint Louis, which still has Jackie Kemph, is impressive enough, Long Beach State might be headed for a rough season after years of competitiveness, and Arizona might not be ready to turn the corner. But there are two good reasons to give the Lions the benefit of the doubt: Gabby Green and Cheyanne Wallace.
The leading returning scorer, Wallace has more than ably stepped into the void left by the departure of all-WCC selection Jackie Johnson. She's averaging better than 20 points per game against Division I opposition and getting to the free throw line nine times per game. Newly eligible after transferring from Cal, where she arrived as a top-25 recruit, Green leads the team in assists, steals and blocks, is second in scoring and is third in rebounding.
Last week: NR
9. Saint Joseph's (5-0)
If a team is going to shoot 57 percent from the 3-point line, it probably needs a spot on this list. Granted, Saint Joseph's isn't likely to keep up that pace from its opening five games, but it's just one small measure of what has been a very good opening stretch for the Hawks. We could just as easily pick out that their three leading scorers, Sarah Veilleux, Chelsea Woods and Alyssa Monaghan, have combined for 149 field goal attempts and just 20 turnovers. Or that a team that barely won the rebounding battle over the course of its schedule a season ago is, with basically the same cast, outrebounding opponents by nearly 11 boards per game this season.
Last week: NR
10. Northern Colorado (4-2)
It all looked so good. After wins at DePaul and against LSU, Northern Colorado ventured to the Northeast for two games. And after one quarter at Quinnipiac, last year's Sweet 16 sensation, the visitors led 19-5. Stop reading now if you are a Bears fan. Quinnipiac outscored Northern Colorado 55-30 in the final three quarters. With bench short and minds perhaps not clear, Northern Colorado then scored 33 points in a loss at Fordham, missing all but one of 26 3-point attempts.
For now, the quality wins keep the Bears here, but upcoming games against BYU, Pacific and Colorado State, all quality programs from leagues higher up the mid-major pecking order, await.
Last week: No. 2
Dropped out: Western Kentucky, Hampton, Western Illinois
Previous polls: Nov. 15