Preseason mid-major top 10: Drake, South Dakota and Rice lead way

Becca Hittner, one of the nation's top shooting guards, and Drake open on top of our preseason mid-major rankings. Dylan Heuer/Drake Athletics

What would the most recent WNBA playoffs have been without Jonquel Jones or Natasha Cloud? What would college basketball be without the legends of Elena Delle Donne and Jackie Stiles? All of them spent their college years somewhere other than a major conference.

Whether producing memorable players or postseason runs, such as South Dakota State and Missouri State reaching the Sweet 16 a season ago, mid-majors matter. That's why we continue to turn the spotlight on them every two weeks with these rankings.

What does the mid-major landscape look like this season?

1. Drake (27-7, 17-1 Missouri Valley)

Leading scorers Becca Hittner (19.7 PPG) and Sara Rhine (18.3 PPG) and coach Jennie Baranczyk are Drake's three key returnees. One of these years, a Power 5 program that isn't in the top 25 as often as it should be might convince Baranczyk to leave Des Moines, Iowa. Until then, she's going to keep coaching the kind of efficient, entertaining basketball that propelled Drake into the top 25 a season ago. That will be easier with assets such as Hittner, who shot 40% from the 3-point line, and Rhine, who shot 61% from the field. The Bulldogs lost two starters, so it's not just rinse and repeat this season. But adding former Washington starter Kierra Collier, a guard who sat out last season as a transfer, should help smooth out the rotation.

2. South Dakota (28-6, 14-2 Summit)

Like the only team ranked ahead of it, South Dakota has enough continuity at the top end to maintain and even build on the previous season's success. That begins with Ciara Duffy, who is right there with Hittner and a handful of others in the conversation as the most valuable mid-major players. She's a hyper-efficient player -- 47% from the field, 40% from the 3-point line, 87% from the free throw line -- whose playmaking skills in a forward's frame make her a nightmare matchup. A luxury off the bench a season ago, Hannah Sjerven returns as a double-digit scorer and post presence. The Coyotes open their season against Green Bay, Drake, Utah and Missouri -- and play Ohio State and South Carolina before Christmas.

3. Rice (28-4, 16-0 Conference USA)

The cornerstones remain in place. Are you sensing a trend? Erica Ogwumike returns not just as the reigning Conference USA Player of the Year but also the league's female athlete of the year across all sports. Inch for inch, she's the best rebounder in the family (averaging 10.5 rebounds per game a season ago, despite giving up around half a foot to Nneka and Chiney). Nancy Mulkey doesn't give up inches to anyone, and the 6-foot-9 Oklahoma transfer has grown into a game-changing presence at Rice. What could stop the Owls? They lost their top two 3-point shooters: Lauren Grigsby and Nicole Iademarco combined to shoot 41.6% from behind the arc, and the rest of the team shot 32.6%. Back-to-back games against Texas A&M and Oklahoma State just before Thanksgiving highlight the schedule.

4. Gonzaga (29-5, 16-2 West Coast)

The Bulldogs are the first team on this list that doesn't return its leading scorer from a season ago. In fact, they don't return any double-digit scorers. But how much success has anyone had betting against this program over the past decade? There will be change. Zykera Rice is gone. So are Chandler Smith and Laura Stockton. Stockton's injury was among the blows that hit Gonzaga hard in the postseason, even as the team pushed Oregon State in the NCAA tournament. But there is still a playmaker in Jessie Loera and a sharpshooter in Katie Campbell. Plus, in Jill Townsend, back from a broken leg, and sisters Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth, there is ample potential of the sort this program so often turns into all-conference performers and wins. The ingredients won't be quite the same, but the finished product should look familiar.

5. Ohio (30-6, 14-4 MAC)

It's a season of change for the MAC. Cierra Dillard no longer piles up points for Buffalo. Reyna Frost and Presley Hudson are gone at Central Michigan, and so is retired coach Sue Guevara. Megan Duffy left the bench at Miami to take over at Marquette. Just about the only bastion of sameness is Athens, Ohio, where Bob Boldon returns a whole lot of talent from a 30-win team that reached the WNIT quarterfinals. Start the list with Cece Hooks, the do-everything junior who hopefully won't be one of the nation's most underrated players for much longer. The Bobcats also return MAC freshman of the year Erica Johnson (who won sixth player of the year honors) and all-conference selection Amani Burke. An enhanced schedule opens at Syracuse and includes games against Ohio State, Pitt, TCU and Texas.

6. Boise State (28-5, 16-2 Mountain West)

Boise State played like a team ready for more than appearance prizes in an overtime loss at Oregon State in the first round of last season's NCAA tournament. As the Broncos eye a fourth consecutive berth, all the pieces are in place for a longer run. Riley Lupfer battled through a physically challenging junior season, but those struggles allowed classmate Braydey Hodgins room to shine. If both are healthy, Boise State has one of the best scoring combos in the mid-major ranks. And Jayde Christopher will be sure they get the ball. The Kansas transfer nearly set a program record for assists in her first season in Idaho. Transfer Mallory McGwire, a 6-foot-5 center who played her first two seasons (2016-2018) at Oregon, could be the X factor. The schedule is slightly improved, highlighted by trips to Louisville and TCU and a visit from BYU.

7. Florida Gulf Coast (28-5, 16-0 Atlantic Sun)

Doubt the Eagles at your own peril when longtime coach Karl Smesko returns the two leading scorers from the previous season, Nasrin Ulel and Keri Jewett-Giles, as well as two more proven 3-point shooters, Chandler Ryan and Davion Wingate. Then there's Tytionia Adderly, who was third in the conference in rebounding. Ashli O'Neal is immediately eligible as a graduate transfer from Indiana State, and one of the better guards in the Missouri Valley last season is an intriguing asset. One of the best mid-major schedulers, FGCU will play Notre Dame, USF and South Dakota State in Cancun and has home games against LSU and Duke.

8. Princeton (22-10, 12-2 Ivy League)

Few coaches in the country appeared as difficult to replace as Courtney Banghart, who turned the demands of Princeton to her advantage in building an Ivy dynasty. Yet few coaches are a better fit to take on that challenge than Carla Berube, the former UConn standout who won big at Tufts amidst all the peculiar challenges of Division III sports. It also doesn't hurt to walk into a job and find Bella Alarie waiting for you. Princeton's place on this list obviously centers on Alarie, the versatile 6-foot-4 senior who is less a great mid-major player than a great player who happens to play for a mid-major. Freshmen and sophomores played a lot of minutes for the Tigers last season. Their maturation should help fill in the supporting cast around Alarie.

9. Marist (23-10, 13-5 MAAC)

It has been years since the Red Foxes made an appearance here, with the one-time MAAC dynasty dethroned atop the league by Quinnipiac and absent from the NCAA tournament since 2014. That might be about to change. Marist returns four starters and placed two of them, Alana Gilmer and Rebekah Hand, on the preseason all-conference first team. Add Grace Vander Weide, who led the MAAC in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio a season ago, and the pieces are in place. One caveat is that though December games against Princeton and Green Bay are mid-major showdowns, the schedule leaves almost no chance for NCAA at-large consideration.

10. (tie) South Dakota State (28-7, 15-1 Summit)

Everything is relative. If you could build a mid-major program from scratch around Tagyn Larson and Myah Selland, you'd feel good about the winter ahead. It's only the knowledge that they used to play alongside Macy Miller and Madison Guebert that breeds pessimism in Brookings, South Dakota. Replacing an all-time mid-major talent in Miller and a stellar scorer in Guebert is impossible, but coming off their first Sweet 16 appearance, the Jackrabbits will move on. This should be a breakout season for Selland, a 6-foot-1 wing with all-around game. Rylie Cascio Jensen and Tylee Irwin are NCAA tournament-caliber role players. The question is can sophomores Sydney Stapleton and Addison Hirschman, prep standouts who played sparingly as freshmen, give the rotation the strength in numbers it will need to adjust without Miller and Guebert.

10. (tie) Missouri State (25-10, 16-2 Missouri Valley)

That's right. It's preseason, so the more, the merrier, with a tie for the final spot. Missouri State opened last season with seven losses in its first eight games. It lost only three of its next 27 games, the last of those defeats against Stanford in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Enough of that team returns, led by Brice Calip (10.1 PPG), Alexa Willard (12.3 PPG) and Jasmine Franklin (7.6 RPG), to expect that momentum will carry over. But in addition to leading scorer Danielle Gitzen graduating, Missouri State lost coach Kellie Harper to Tennessee. Shameka Ealy's return from a torn ACL should help new coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton settle in.