Gonzaga takes over top spot in espnW’s mid-major rankings

Good luck trying to follow the person whose name becomes synonymous with success. It hasn’t been easy for Holly Warlick at Tennessee. It won’t be easy for whoever follows Geno Auriemma at UConn or Muffet McGraw at Notre Dame.

Even Kelly Graves might blush at finding his name in that company, but scaled to the mid-major world, it’s the challenge that awaited Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier when she succeeded Graves at a mid-major flagship. Yet as a new year arrives and conference play begins, a familiar name ascends to No. 1 in these rankings. Perhaps the real challenge will be replacing Fortier one day.

It’s easy to have depth when things are going well. Minutes are easy to distribute with double-digit leads. But Gonzaga’s rotation, which borders on 10 players with 6-foot-3 Jenn Wirth back in action after breaking her finger, isn’t fair-weather depth. The Bulldogs move to the top of this list because of a collective effort. Only Laura Stockton and Chandler Smith have played at least 30 minutes on more than one occasion this season. Supersub Jill Townsend averages barely three fewer minutes per game than leading scorer Zykera Rice.

Those fresh legs will be invaluable as the schedule shifts to WCC play because challenges await. All but one of the league’s teams are still protecting winning records. The only other leagues in which that’s the case? The ACC, Big 12, Big East and Pac-12. (Last ranking: 3)

So close. With the rare marquee at home, Central Michigan trailed Louisville by just one point on five occasions in the fourth quarter last week but couldn’t pull off the upset. As disappointing as that might be in the moment for the Chippewas, the main takeaway must be that this remains a team no opponent will be eager to play in March — as LSU and Ohio State learned a season ago. Reyna Frost used the showcase this past week to put up 22 points and 13 rebounds and hit a pair of 3-pointers. Hopefully a few pro scouts checked out the performance.

The loss against Louisville also came on the heels of a win at Vanderbilt in which the mid-major visitor outscored the SEC host 24-11 in the fourth quarter. Now comes the ever-difficult MAC, which is nipping at the heels of the WCC as the mid-major conference with the best record. (Last ranking: 5)

Christmas arrived about 20 minutes too late for the Coyotes. South Dakota seized its moment with a road win against then-ranked Missouri on Dec. 15, Ciara Duffy getting the best of Sophie Cunningham in that scoring duel. A tournament in Puerto Rico then opened with comfortable-enough wins against Grambling State and Loyola Marymount — Duffy again the star with 24 points and season highs of 11 rebounds and six assists against the Lions. They even had an eight-point halftime lead against Indiana in their third game in three days. But their own cold shooting and Ali Patberg’s hot hand for the Hoosiers doomed the Coyotes in the second half.

For mid-major fans, there isn’t a better pair of games in conference play than the South Dakota derby. South Dakota hosts South Dakota State in the first of those games on Jan. 6. (Last ranking: 1)

4. UAB (11-1)

Auburn is 11-1 and South Alabama hasn’t lost, so maybe we can’t proclaim the Blazers the best team in the state just yet. But they’re working on it. The highlight remains an overtime loss against Tennessee last month, but UAB went into its Christmas break with a win at Florida Gulf Coast. That’s no small feat for any opponent, let alone a peer from beyond the power leagues.

Scoring half your team’s points in an important road win is notable in any context, but Deanna Kuzmanic’s 31 points in the win in Florida continues an impressive response to a moment of adversity in the Tennessee game. An all-conference guard and UAB’s leading scorer, Kuzmanic missed two free throws in the final minute of that game that would have given UAB the lead. All she has done since is total 37 assists against 14 turnovers, 36 rebounds and 115 points in seven games (16.4 PPG, 5.3 APG, 5.1 RPG). Needless to say, UAB won them all. (Last ranking: 6)

5. Ohio (10-0)

One of nine remaining unbeaten teams in Division I, Ohio added a quality mid-major win at IUPUI to a resume that already included a win against Purdue since last we checked in. The Bobcats didn’t exactly slow IUPUI post Macee Williams — one of the best mid-major players in the country, she accumulated 27 points and 16 rebounds — but they did counter with 22 points, seven rebounds and six assists from Erica Johnson. A 5-foot-11 redshirt freshman listed as a forward but who plays a guard’s game, Johnson has topped 30 minutes twice this season, against Purdue and IUPUI. MAC opponents won’t be excited at making her acquaintance. (Last ranking: 7)

A loss knocked Buffalo out of these rankings the last time around. With some help from results elsewhere, a loss gets the Bulls back on the list this time. It’s all about context. Much like MAC rival Central Michigan, Buffalo used a high-profile home loss to show it’s still a team capable of the same magic it produced in a Sweet 16 run a season ago. In this case, Stanford came to town a few days before Christmas. The Cardinal left with a win, but not before they were challenged to almost the same degree as in a win at Tennessee. In a 62-55 victory, Stanford scored its fewest points of the season.

Summer Hemphill’s return to the court, including 24 points in her debut against Dartmouth, gives Cierra Dillard some much-needed relief in the scoring department. A double-digit scorer a season ago, Hemphill was ineligible in the fall semester. (Last ranking: NR)

There are no easy trips to Laramie, Wyoming. Just check an atlas. And this season’s Wyoming team might yet make a run at a conference title. Still, for the first time this season, South Dakota State has a loss that is difficult to explain away if it is auditioning for the same kind of “mini major” status that Gonzaga once occupied, somewhere between mid-major and major.

The same could be said of a loss against Buffalo a month ago, of course, but that came 24 hours after a tense affair against Baylor. This past week’s loss against Wyoming was damning because the Jackrabbits were simply outplayed by a peer. Now it’s back to work with three road games to open Summit League play, including the derby at South Dakota. (Last ranking: 2)

The Lobos have the weakest resume of the teams here. But they added two wins of at least some note since the last update. First, they swept the home-and-home series against New Mexico State, winning on the road Dec. 15 against a team that is 7-2 when it doesn’t play its in-state rival. Then the Lobos beat Stephen F. Austin 74-33 just before the Christmas pause, a win against the best record among Southland Conference teams. NCAA tournament at-large material? Not so much, but still progress for the new-look Lobos.

The early Mountain West schedule is helpful, too, as the first three opponents are just 9-23. (Last ranking: 9)

To borrow words of wisdom from a silver screen sage: Boy, that escalated quickly. Once 8-1 entering its only three December games against Division I opposition, Drake limped into Christmas with a three-game losing streak against South Dakota State, Iowa State and Iowa.

That Drake conceded 257 points in those losses, at least 80 in each case, isn’t good, but it isn’t the real issue. Drake’s preferred tempo is going to produce high-scoring games. The problem is the ease with which quality opponents scored. South Dakota State, Iowa State and Iowa shot a combined 48.5 percent in their wins. Drake’s first nine opponents shot a combined 38.6 percent. It almost doesn’t matter what the Bulldogs do offensively — and highlighted by Becca Hittner’s 32 points against Iowa, they weren’t bad. Against top-tier teams, they can’t just trade baskets. (Last ranking: 4)

There are a lot of teams vying for this spot, open thanks to Green Bay and Portland State exiting the rankings. All of the contenders are flawed, all have strengths. When in doubt, having Tricia Cullop as coach tends to be a good tiebreaker.

Toledo got off to a slow start this season, the sizable scale of defeat more problematic than the result against Maine and Dayton. But it approaches 2019 after a 32-point win against Stony Brook, an opponent that was 10-1 and in contention for this spot until, well, it lost by 32 points. That came after Toledo, while not as competitive as MAC rivals Buffalo and Central Michigan in their examples, acquitted itself well enough in a home loss to Notre Dame earlier this month.

The Rockets don’t have a scorer like Cierra Dillard, although Kaayla McIntyre is no slouch. They aren’t as exciting as Central Michigan. But in a conference that promises its share of ups and downs, they don’t beat themselves. (Last ranking: NR)

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