Shock join poll, Gonzaga maintains top spot
No need for delay this week. With most teams entering the backstretch of conference play and postseason positioning growing clearer by the day, let's get right to the rankings.
1. Gonzaga (22-3, 12-1 WCC; Charlie Creme’s projected NCAA tournament seed: No. 5)
If the WCC race was a steeplechase, Gonzaga would be approaching the last water jump -- some ground left to cover after it but the last bit of drama approaching. In the weeks since the last mid-major rankings, the Bulldogs reeled off four wins by at least 35 points and now sit three full games clear of second place BYU. Now comes a road trip to San Diego and BYU that could put Gonzaga over the top before it even gets to a rematch against Saint Mary’s. In addition to everything else she does, Haiden Palmer has been piling up assists of late. She, Jazmine Redmon and Danielle Walter have combined for a Vandersloot-ian 228 assists against 95 turnovers.
2. James Madison (19-4, 9-0 Colonial; projected seed: No. 7)
The last time a team scored more than 57 points against James Madison was Jan. 2. The last time a team other than North Carolina did it (and the Tar Heels had to work to get their 74 points) was Dec. 18. The last time an unranked team did it was Dec. 4. And, well, you get the picture. Not that this team limits its own point production. In four games since last we checked in on the Dukes, Kirby Burkholder is averaging 21.2 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.5 steals, and two of her teammates scored at least 25 points in a game in that span.
3. Chattanooga (21-3, 13-0 Southern; projected seed: No. 12)
Palmer, Burkholder and now Taylor Hall. The lesson in these rankings is it’s nice to have a senior star who can do a little bit of everything and a lot of most things. The Lady Mocs have effectively lapped the field in the SoCon with just five games to play, four full games in front of second place and six games in front of third place. Hall leads the team in almost everything (although Jasmine Joyner recently forced her to at least share the lead in blocks), but freshman Chelsey Shumpert has made good use of conference play and become more of a playmaking presence recently.
4. Bowling Green (20-3, 10-1 MAC; projected seed: 11)
Bowling Green still trails Central Michigan by a game in the MAC as next week’s rematch of a phenomenal game between the two in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., approaches, but the overall résumé is strong enough for the Falcons to earn the final NCAA tournament at-large bid in Creme’s most recent projected bracket. Like recent games between the Broncos and Seahawks and Chelsea and Manchester City, next Wednesday’s game pits the MAC’s best offense (Central Michigan) against its best defense (Bowling Green). Since that loss to the Chippewas, senior point guard Jillian Halfhill has hit 14-of-21 3-point attempts to rank second in the conference in 3-point shooting.
5. Dayton (15-5, 8-1 Atlantic 10; projected seed: No. 8)
The Flyers would rather not have the opportunity to show it off, but one of the hallmarks of a program that has turned the corner is the ability to recruit depth. So it is with Dayton, which lost starting guard Kelley Austria to injury, only to see freshman Celeste Edwards rise to the occasion. A top-50 recruit, Edwards scored 17, 18 and 17 points, respectively, in Dayton’s past three games and added six rebounds and six steals in this past weekend’s crucial win at Duquesne. Jim Jabir’s team also regained the services of Amber Deane this past week after she missed time with a concussion. Only four A-10 teams have losing conference records, but Dayton plays four of its final seven games against them.
6. Middle Tennessee (19-4, 8-1 Conference USA; projected seed: No. 8)
The stumble came in Hattiesburg, Miss., where Southern Miss point guard Jamierra Faulkner’s 11 assists got the better of Ebony Rowe’s 22 points and 13 rebounds on Feb. 5. Actually, Rowe did all she could to get her team the win in that game, it was the rest of the lineup shooting 28 percent from the field and 42 percent from the free throw line that caused problems. Middle Tennessee bounced back with a win against Rice, but that remains the issue for the Conference USA leaders. They have Rowe and they have defense, but the offense is inconsistent and inefficient.
7. Central Michigan (15-8, 11-0 MAC; projected seed: No. 10)
The Chippewas do make it interesting. With the Bowling Green rematch looming, Central Michigan nearly gave away its lead in the standings by losing at Ball State this past week. Down by 19 points early in the second half, still down by 15 points with a little more than six minutes to play and eight points with less than three minutes remaining, Central Michigan rallied to win in overtime. Crystal Bradford did what she does. She finished with 26 points, 15 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals and two blocks and hit both a 3-pointer and a three-point play late in regulation. She nearly made it back-to-back triple-doubles with 18 points 13 rebounds and seven assists in Sunday’s win against Buffalo.
8. Wichita State (20-2, 11-0 Missouri Valley; projected seed: No. 11)
The Shockers haven’t cracked the top 10 before this week, which means we really haven’t talked enough about Alex Harden. The junior leads her team in points and assists, the latter accompanied by a better than two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio, and is second in rebounds, steals and blocks. She shoots 51 percent from the field, 41 percent from the 3-point line and 83 percent from the free throw line. Add those efforts to a defense forcing nearly 20 turnovers per game and limiting opponents to 37 percent shooting and you have a mid-major success story.
9. Green Bay (14-7, 7-2 Horizon; projected seed: No. 14)
Welcome back to the rankings, Green Bay. Or considering how few of the current Phoenix were a part of the program’s past success, perhaps just welcome. Green Bay started this season as a very young team and endured close losses -- six points at St. Bonaventure, five points against Wichita State, four points against Purdue, four points in overtime after squandering a lead at Wisconsin. It’s still young, but it is also now playing some of the best mid-major basketball. Redshirt freshman Mehryn Kraker has emerged as a needed 3-point outlet, true freshman Tesha Buck continues to show an all-around game beyond her years and sophomore Kaili Lukan is blossoming as a go-to scoring option for her sister, quietly excellent redshirt junior point guard Megan, to find.
10. Marist (19-6, 13-2 MAAC; projected seed: N/A)
It is strange to see Marist with two conference losses by the middle of February, the most recent a home loss against Fairfield this past weekend, but we’re not yet in unprecedented territory. Five years ago, Marist lost a pair of MAAC games at home. It won the conference regular-season and tournament titles and pushed Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament. And its stumbles aside, the current team leads the MAAC in scoring margin, field goal offense and field goal defense.
Next five: No. 11 Fordham, No. 12 BYU, No. 13 Iona, No. 14 Saint Mary’s, No. 15 St. Bonaventure.