Zags new No. 1; BGSU makes biggest jump
Might Ohio be the most competitive state in women's college basketball? Ohio State was the top program for years, but Xavier moved to the top of the queue with Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips, and it was tough to argue against Dayton as the top program a season ago. That doesn't even take into consideration Toledo's WNIT title in 2011.
Now another Ohio program, one that is no stranger to basketball success, is making a move for in-state bragging rights. It might take more time and more wins to make that a reality, but Bowling Green is the biggest mover in the mid-major rankings.
1. Gonzaga (3-1)
We'll get back to Ohio in a moment, but it's a team from the Pacific Northwest that replaces preseason No. 1 Dayton atop the rankings. A potential signature win got away at Oklahoma, a 76-72 lead turning into an 82-78 loss, but that doesn't change the overall profile. Haiden Palmer has been impressively efficient as the go-to option on the offensive end, but she's also getting help from Cal transfer Lindsay Sherbert (11.3 points, 7.3 rebounds per game). December is a big month for building an at-large profile. Gonzaga plays successive road games at Ohio State, Wisconsin and Stanford in a seven-day stretch beginning Dec. 8.
2. Bowling Green (6-1)
The Falcons beat the Buckeyes in Columbus on Sunday, their second win of the season against a quality Big Ten program (they beat Michigan on a neutral court to open the season). An Ohio native, senior Jillian Halfhill was a key figure in the win with 13 points, six assists, five rebounds and two steals against Ohio State, just as she was in a win last season against Dayton. Mid-major fans will remember the name Celeste Hoewisch, and Halfhill plays the game a lot like the guard who helped drive Green Bay to a Sweet 16. Halfhill isn't really a pure passer as a point guard, but like Hoewisch, she can shoot, defend, rebound beyond her size and, more than anything, compete. With Duke transfer Alexis Rogers and NC State transfer Erica Donovan alongside, it's a team well worth watching. A trip to Purdue looms on Dec. 22.
3. UTEP (4-0)
UTEP won its past two games by scores of 84-39 and 92-43. All right, that happens early in seasons, and it's not that much of a stretch to think the Miners are just that much better than Northern Colorado, the other team involved in the latter score. But 84-39 against Kansas State? The Kansas State that plays in the Big 12? That win marked UTEP's second-largest margin of victory against a Division I opponent and showed off what this team can do -- namely turn suffocating defense and good rebounding into tons of points. New arrivals Stacie Telles and Anete Kirsteine have greatly improved the team's 3-point shooting through the very early going.
4. Chattanooga (4-1)
You think Jim Foster's enjoying himself? Consider his thoughts after Taylor Hall had seven assists and no turnovers, and his team had just seven turnovers overall, in an 80-52 rout of Auburn. "I have been doing this for 36 years, and something I haven't coached is a great passing frontcourt player," Foster said. "If you look at great basketball teams in history, the Celtics' Larry Bird was a great half-court passer, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley were great passers as forwards. Really significant basketball teams have had that dimension, and that's what Taylor Hall is." Now the challenge: Chattanooga won't play its next home game until Jan. 4.
5. James Madison (4-0)
Since in-state dominance seems to be a theme, James Madison opened the season with a win against Virginia. But considering it has done that in four of the past six meetings, that's hardly a power shift. Kirby Burkholder has been as advertised, averaging 19.5 points and 10.5 rebounds, but notable performances have also come from Precious Hall, stepping into the role of supporting scorer behind Burkholder, and sophomore Angela Mickens, who has 24 assists in four appearances. Thanksgiving brings a tournament in Florida in which James Madison opens against UCLA and could potentially play the likes of Mississippi State and NC State or Middle Tennessee State in bracket play.
6. Dayton (2-3)
The three losses are there, but it's really only the second half of the most recent defeat at Vanderbilt that causes the Flyers to drop. Overtime losses at Iowa and Michigan State, both after strong second-half comebacks, hardly marked Dayton as irrevocably flawed, but an 82-52 loss against the Commodores in which Vanderbilt shot 57 percent from the field is more worrisome. A team shooting 28.8 percent from the 3-point line and allowing opponents to shoot 45.5 percent for the season needs work. A trip to Central Michigan on Dec. 5 is the lone game in the next two weeks.
7. Saint Mary’s (5-0)
As long as it's not something that needs to be repeated over the long run, Saint Mary's beating UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly this past weekend despite playing without injured star Jackie Nared is a positive sign. We knew Nared, who scored 37 points in a season-opening win against Washington, was the real deal. Getting support like Danielle Maudlin's 22 points and 22 rebounds against Cal Poly, or Lauren Nicholson's 26 points against UCSB, underscores how much depth there is on this roster. Alabama and Toledo at home over Thanksgiving weekend are modest tests.
8. BYU (5-0)
Xavier had one in Ta'Shia Phillips, Liberty had one in Katie Feenstra, but it's not very often you find one of the nation's best true centers playing beyond the big conferences. BYU's Jennifer Hamson is making a strong case to join that list. Solid a season ago, the 6-foot-7 senior is taking her game to new heights in the early going this season. She's averaging 19.6 points, nine rebounds and 3.8 blocks per game, and even on a night like Tuesday, when she got in turnover trouble putting the ball on the floor against double and triple teams in the first half against Washington State, she found a way to influence the game on one end or the other to finish with 20 points, eight rebounds and two blocks. Add a healthy Lexi Eaton, back from last season's ACL tear, and the Cougars bear watching.
9. Saint Joseph’s (5-1)
A win at LSU would have been nice, but that loss remains the only blemish for Saint Joseph's, which added a road win at Princeton on Tuesday to a résumé that already included a quality mid-major road win at Wichita State. While long-rage shooting has been an issue beyond Erin Shields to this point, the Hawks are shooting 51.7 percent on two-point attempts. In terms of offensive efficiency, that's in line with teams like Duke and Notre Dame. More road tests await with games at Quinnipiac, Temple and Villanova in the next two weeks.
10. Albany (5-0)
The team that could have, would have, should have beat North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA tournament a season ago is back at it. Granted, there isn't a lot of meat on the schedule -- a 10-point win at home against banged up Marist probably Albany's best win to date -- but the Great Danes are winning by more than 18 points per game. Shereesha Richards (23.2 points per game, 9.6 rebounds per game) and Sarah Royals (14.4 points, 6.0 assists) lead the way, while 6-foot-9 Megan Craig is a unique challenge in the post for opponents. If they are for real, road trips to Providence this week and Dartmouth next week won't slow them.
Next five: San Diego (4-0), St. Bonaventure (6-2), Green Bay (4-1), Utah State (4-0), Florida Gulf Coast (3-1)
Previous poll: Nov. 6 preseason poll