We could call it the Jackie Stiles Trophy. Except the Missouri Valley Conference already claimed the name of its most famous women's basketball alumna for the conference player of the year award.
Louisiana Tech was too much of a superpower back in the day to be mid-anything, so Teresa Weatherspoon is out. The same goes for Old Dominion's Ticha Penicheiro.
So how about awarding the Elena Delle Donne Trophy to the best mid-major player in college basketball? That has a certain ring to it. Now if we can just get the WNBA MVP, USA Basketball star and former Delaware All-American to sign off on lending her name to the cause.
All of which is to say there is quite a lineage of talent at schools beyond the power conferences. With all the awards floating around, surely there is room to acknowledge the best player among the more than 250 Division I programs eligible for the espnW mid-major rankings.
With most teams wrapping up nonconference play over the holidays and readying for more familiar faces in their respective leagues, the mid-major player of the year race remains wide open. Whether as cornerstones of teams ranked in the mid-major top 10 (and AP Top 25, in some cases) or players whose performances shine too brightly to ignore, here are the front-runners in current running order.
Ciara Duffy, South Dakota: A year after Macy Miller wrapped up her career at South Dakota State, the state is still home to the best the mid-major ranks have to offer. Duffy leads Summit League players in assists and ranks third in scoring and 12th in rebounding. Oh, yes, she's also averaging more than two 3-pointers per game at a 54% clip, the third-best accuracy in the nation. She accumulated those numbers against a more demanding schedule than those of most of the teams in the conference. With lines such as Duffy's in a win against Ohio State (22 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists), the 6-foot guard plays a hard-to-define and harder-to-defend game similar to that of Oregon State's Mikayla Pivec, who is vying for national player of the year.
Micaela Kelly, Central Michigan: This shaped up as a season of change for Central Michigan, but Kelly's strongest credential is that things feel very familiar for the Chippewas. There is no Sue Guevara after the long-time coach retired. No Presley Hudson or Reyna Frost, players who vied for mid-major player of the year honors a season ago. No problem. Playing one of the more difficult mid-major schedules -- at Louisville, South Dakota State and Western Kentucky and home against Dayton, Green Bay and Marist -- Kelly began the week fifth in the nation in scoring at 22.6 points per game and second on the team in rebounds and assists. Not coincidentally, the Chippewas began the week 5-3 and back in these mid-major rankings after Kelly put up 38 points on 12-of-18 shooting in a win against South Dakota State.
Alexa Willard, Missouri State: Friday's headliner between Missouri State and Gonzaga features two of the most balanced teams in college basketball, mid-major or otherwise. That makes it difficult to single out anyone on a court full of talent. Missouri State's Jasmine Franklin could just as easily top this list by the end of the season, as someone who consistently produces double-doubles and serves as the defensive backbone. But beyond merely leading the team in scoring, it's Willard who scored 29 points in a win at Oklahoma, 21 points in a win against South Dakota and 21 more in a competitive loss at Oregon State. Her ability to influence big games without an offense revolving around her is precisely why she makes the list at the moment.
Raina Perez, Cal State Fullerton: A three-game losing streak during the week after Thanksgiving knocked Fullerton out of consideration for the top 10, but that doesn't disqualify Perez here. Although she was a valuable starter for the Titans a season ago -- and among the leading scorers for Northern Arizona as a freshman in 2016-17 -- she is playing at a completely different level at the moment. Perez began the week ranked seventh in the nation in scoring, at 22.4 points per game. Among the six players ahead of her, only Iowa State's Ashley Joens was shooting even 46%. Perez checks in at 51% from the floor -- and that's as a 5-foot-4 guard shooting 44% from the 3-point line.
Bella Alarie, Princeton: One of the preseason favorites is unfortunately cast in the Lauren Cox role in this debate, having missed four of her team's 10 games this season because of injury. The result is that teammate Carlie Littlefield is the stronger candidate based solely on performance to date, with a Duffy-esque line of 15 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game. But Alarie returned over the weekend to score 23 points and block three shots in a win against Penn State. Throw in the 26 points, 7 rebounds and 4 blocks she had in an overtime loss at Iowa, and it's enough to keep the best WNBA prospect beyond the major conferences primed for a closing kick.
Also in the running: Bailey Greenberg, Drexel; Keri Jewett-Giles, FGCU; Stella Johnson, Rider; Mariah Miller, Cleveland State; Sara Rhine, Drake; Kamiah Smalls, James Madison
Now on to the final team rankings of the calendar year.
1. Missouri State (9-1)
The game against Gonzaga is Missouri State's third this season against a ranked opponent, with all of those games played on the road. That's the same number of ranked opponents as Stanford, the team atop the AP Top 25. It's also as many road games against ranked opponents as the combined total of Stanford, UConn, Oregon and Oregon State, the top four teams in the big poll. Previous ranking: 1
2. South Dakota (11-1)
Now 4-0 against the major conferences after recent wins against Ohio State and Creighton, South Dakota saved the biggest test for last, with Sunday's trip to South Carolina (SEC Network, noon ET). The Coyotes are second in the nation in 3-point accuracy and third in 3-pointers made. South Carolina's first six opponents shot 19.2% from long range, but the Gamecocks' past five opponents shot 40%. Previous ranking: 3
3. Gonzaga (10-1 )
A road trip to Laramie, Wyoming, shortly after final exams and days before a visit from Missouri State invited trouble. But Gonzaga outlasted Wyoming and now heads home for the ultra-rare meeting of ranked mid-majors. Among national leaders in assists, senior Jessie Loera scored a career-best 18 points in Tuesday's win. She also reached double figures this season against Stanford, Purdue and Washington State. She won't score a lot, but she gets them when they're needed. Previous ranking: 2
4. Florida Gulf Coast (11-1)
FGCU faces LSU, Temple and Duke before the ball drops on New Year's Eve. It's telling that a different player led FGCU in scoring in each of its Thanksgiving wins against Notre Dame, South Dakota State and South Florida. But Keri Jewett-Giles had 31 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 steals in the two games in which she wasn't the leading scorer. That's why the redshirt senior guard gets a nod as a player-of-the-year candidate. Previous ranking: 9
5. Princeton (9-1)
Someone give Missouri coach Robin Pingeton an award because it seems like the Tigers play every mid-major contender (and are suffering for it). Princeton visits Missouri on Wednesday for its fourth and final game against a major conference opponent. Although far from unused as a freshman last season, Julia Cunningham has already matched her 3-point total (14) as a sophomore. That's a big deal for a team that doesn't have a lot of 3-point production. Last ranking: 7
6. Central Michigan (5-3)
The Chippewas are averaging close to 80 points per game during their five-game winning streak, which is a sign that all is right for the mid-major version of DePaul. Other than a blowout loss at Western Kentucky, the competitive losses (by six points against Green Bay and 13 points at Louisville) don't hurt the résumé. Freshman Molly Davis already has games of 10 assists (Green Bay), 21 points (Dayton) and 20 points (South Dakota State). Not bad. Previous ranking: Not ranked
7. Western Kentucky (8-2)
Western Kentucky has the aforementioned 35-point win against Central Michigan and a 31-point win against a decent Belmont. It also secured a good road victory at Oklahoma earlier this month. But inconsistency on the road, including recent close calls at Ball State and Samford on top of a loss at Saint Mary's, creates questions headed into Wednesday's game at Purdue. Previous ranking: 10
8. Drake (7-3)
It's slightly alarming to think that Drake's 17-point lead in the third quarter of a November game at South Dakota could be the season's high-water mark. We're a long way from that reality, but the latest puzzler was Tuesday's 93-84 loss at Oklahoma in a game not as close as the final margin suggests (the same Sooners beaten by Missouri State and Western Kentucky this season). The Bulldogs open MVC play with Northern Iowa and Missouri State, so their ranking is in peril. Previous ranking: 4
9. Duquesne (9-2)
It is almost a letdown that the leading scorer for a team that is so often the United Nations of college basketball is from barely 250 miles from campus. But there's nothing disappointing about Libby Bazelak's development to the fringes of the mid-major player-of-the-year debate as a junior. Have no fear, Duquesne's current nine-game winning streak is aided by contributions from Hungary, Spain and Sweden, including 38 points from Laia Sole this past weekend. Previous ranking: Not ranked
10. South Dakota State (7-6)
South Dakota State's loss to Marquette on Tuesday was a one-possession game in the final minute. The Jackrabbits led Central Michigan with around two minutes to play over the weekend. They lost to FGCU on a game winner with six seconds left. So, yes, six losses make the list (wins against USF and Notre Dame help). Even without leading scorer Myah Selland, out indefinitely with a foot injury, and second-leading scorer Paiton Burckhard, who left the Marquette game because of an apparent injury, the Jackrabbits have proven more than many teams with better records have.
Fell out: Ohio, Northern Iowa, Marist