Why mid-majors have the most to gain in Thanksgiving tournaments

For mid-major teams such as Karli Rucker's Northern Iowa, Thanksgiving tournaments can make or break a season. Missouri State tops this week's mid-major poll. UNI Athletic Communications

Thanksgiving tournaments are a preview of coming attractions for basketball's ruling class. The holiday getaways are an opportunity for Louisville and Oregon (3:15 p.m. ET Saturday) or Baylor and South Carolina (8 p.m. ET Saturday) to play each other in the kind of games they expect to encounter deep in the NCAA tournament -- but without the stakes attached.

For mid-major teams such as Northern Iowa, those with aspirations of making major impressions come March, Thanksgiving can make or break a season. Those are the teams that need this week.

Northern Iowa will play five teams from power conferences this season. Two of those games come in the span of 24 hours this week against Alabama and Ohio State in Las Vegas. The other three are spread over six weeks. The Panthers are among the fortunate: They at least share a state with two power conference teams, Iowa and Iowa State, who are traditionally willing to play the Missouri Valley Conference foe in ongoing home-and-home series.

A team such as South Dakota State lacks that built-in access to the kind of games that both help a mid-major program's RPI and catch the attention of poll voters. Top mid-majors playing each other makes for good basketball and helps those teams, but it doesn't move the needle. When South Dakota and Drake played two weeks ago, the result was a net decrease in their combined votes in the Associated Press poll. They need wins against the Power 5.

"I think it's important for the growth of the game to play those teams and not be afraid to play them on the road. ... It's hard this year because, I mean, we could lose easily. But I think we have to [play those teams]." Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw on the importance of scheduling mid-major teams

As such, South Dakota State heads to Cancun this week to play USF and Notre Dame, as well as fellow mid-major powerhouse Florida Gulf Coast. A year ago, it was Baylor in Las Vegas. The year before that was NC State in Puerto Rico. Filling out the fields in holiday tournaments is the most cost-effective way for mid-majors to get games against teams unlikely to go to Brookings, South Dakota, in a home-and-home arrangement. Why go all that way to play a game they might lose?

In addition to the neutral games this week, Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw is among the coaches willing to venture places that top teams rarely do. Notre Dame went to Toledo last year and Fordham this season. The Fighting Irish even went to South Dakota State a few years ago, and McGraw asked for a microphone afterward to thank the fans for the atmosphere in a tight game.

"I think it's important for the growth of the game to play those teams and not be afraid to play them on the road," McGraw said this week. "Playing games like these, I think it's really good because everybody in the game knows South Dakota State, Florida Gulf Coast are great mid-major teams. Nobody wants to play them in the NCAA tournament. It's hard this year because, I mean, we could lose easily. But I think we have to [play those teams]."

Until that's the norm, holiday tournaments are a must for mid-majors serious about their NCAA tournament at-large résumés.

As Drake plays Auburn and possibly Arizona State near Fort Myers, Florida, as Ohio takes on Pitt in Daytona Beach, and as South Dakota faces Ohio State in Las Vegas, there is a strong case to be made that, no matter the headliners, these are the sort of games that matter most this week.

Now on to the rankings.

1. Missouri State (6-1)

The Lady Bears are the rare mid-major that can afford to put their feet up at Thanksgiving, with their résumé work nearly complete. On top of earlier wins at Minnesota and Oklahoma, along with a competitive loss at Oregon State, Monday's win at South Dakota cements their No. 1 position. Alexa Willard always seemed to have an answer when the Coyotes started to rally. She led all scorers with 21 points, including five 3-pointers. No surprise there. The senior has yet to hit fewer than half her 3-pointers in a game and is shooting 61.5% from behind the arc. Last ranking: 3

2. Gonzaga (3-1)

Step back, and Gonzaga's overtime loss at Stanford last week is compelling evidence of this team's potential and one of the best performances by any team this season relative to venue and opponent. But up close, thinking about that two-point lead with 16 seconds to play, it must feel like the one that got away. Depth and a variety of scoring options are going to be Gonzaga's strengths this season. It will be interesting to see if sophomore Melody Kempton, valuable in that game with LeeAnne Wirth in foul trouble, uses her strong performance as a stepping stone. Last ranking: 5

3. South Dakota (5-1)

Perhaps no team in the country put together as challenging a November schedule, certainly relative to its own standing. Running that gauntlet of perennial mid-major powerhouses and major conference opponents was bound to catch up at some point. It did against a Missouri State team that had already hammered Minnesota and Oklahoma on the boards and asserted itself against the Coyotes, too. Now Friday's game against Ohio State looks crucial. Add a win there to victories against Utah and Missouri, and the résumé still has significant at-large potential. Last ranking: 2

4. Drake (4-1)

The Bulldogs responded well to the loss at South Dakota at the start of this ranking period, beating Creighton and Western Illinois. Limiting the Big East team to 29% shooting and protecting an early lead just three days after letting one slip away in South Dakota stands out. But perhaps the best development was seeing shots fall for Becca Hittner against Western Illinois. Drawing every opponent's defensive focus, the reigning MVC player of the year hit just three of 22 3-point attempts in the first four games. She matched that with three more against Western Illinois and got to the free throw line eight times. That's what she does at her best. Last ranking: 1

5. Ohio (4-1)

How does the first win against Ohio State in program history sound? Granted, the two schools hadn't played in more than a decade, but last week's result probably tops even wins against Purdue the past two seasons as the signature result of Bob Boldon's time in Athens (Ohio also beat Indiana and Illinois in that time, which isn't likely to make scheduling any easier). The Bobcats struggled to make shots against both Syracuse and Ohio State, as might be expected. But in both cases, one a competitive loss and the other a win, they forced turnovers. Last ranking: 9

6. Northern Iowa (5-0)

Ohio wasn't the only team turning the normal in-state order on its ear. Beating Iowa for the first time in 13 years in the annual series is one thing, but winning by 22 points is eye-catching (though, oddly, Northern Iowa's only two other wins in the series were by 44 and 21 points). The Panthers did it to the Hawkeyes without a point from leading scorer and all-conference guard Karli Rucker and modest numbers from Megan Maahs, the former all-MVC pick who otherwise looks stellar in her comeback from an injury and redshirt season. Last ranking: Not ranked

7. Princeton (5-1)

Sandwiched between Megan Gustafson's departure and Caitlin Clark's impending arrival, this is the year to play Iowa if you're going to make the trip. Princeton is going to regret an overtime loss against the Hawkeyes. Upcoming games against Penn State and Missouri won't move the needle much if both continue to struggle. The positive: Bella Alarie was fantastic against the Hawkeyes. Princeton beat Seton Hall and FGCU essentially without her because of injury (she played briefly against FGCU). As long as they don't have to keep playing without her, those wins look all the better for the opportunity they afforded players such as Carlie Littlefield to take charge. Last ranking: 6

8. Marist (5-0)

It's early, but senior Rebekah Hand is putting together a résumé for the mid-major player of the year discussion. Consistently very good the past two seasons, she has taken her scoring efficiency to new heights early this season. She's averaging 20 points per game on 51.6% field goal shooting, 41.2% 3-point shooting and 90.9% free throw shooting. That's the 50-40-90 holy trinity of efficiency. Marist's schedule isn't going to generate an at-large bid, but its next three games against Central Michigan, Princeton and Green Bay are a mid-major fan's delight. Last ranking: 8

9. Florida Gulf Coast (5-1)

The loss at Princeton was the only time this season that FGCU shot poorly from the 3-point line. Depending on what you think of UCF, it might also have been the only time this season that the Eagles played an opponent capable of making those bread-and-butter shots uncomfortable. That's about to change, with Notre Dame, USF, South Dakota State, LSU and Duke all on the schedule in the next month. Everyone shoots for FGCU, but Nasrin Ulel might be a bellwether. Although off to a slow start, the offense demands that last year's leading scorer keep shooting. Last ranking: 7

10. Western Kentucky (4-1)

Western Kentucky beat Belmont by 31 points and Central Michigan by 35 points. Those are two programs that don't lose all that often, let alone by 30-plus points. The Lady Toppers don't even have Alexis Brewer, the West Virginia transfer who was a key presence a season ago but is out while rehabbing from a shoulder injury and surgery. If she returns at full strength and playmaker Whitney Creech continues scoring as a complement to Dee Givens, look out. Last ranking: Not ranked

Dropped out: Belmont, Rice