Commentary

Mid-major top 10 (and then some)

Originally Published: November 11, 2010
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

1. Xavier: Quite simply, Xavier isn't a mid-major in any recognizable sense of the term. By the end of the season, the Musketeers will have played a tougher schedule than a host of programs from major conferences (you can feel Syracuse's ears turning red from here). In addition to Atlantic 10 games against quality teams such as Dayton and Temple, Xavier faces NCAA tournament teams Middle Tennessee, Mississippi State, Duke and Stanford (the latter two on opposite coasts the weekend before and after Christmas, respectively), in addition to South Carolina, Michigan, Louisville, Cincinnati and Missouri.

With a pair of All-America candidates in Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips and a good returning cast around them, Xavier might have to be retired emeritus from this spot by the end of the season.

2. Green Bay: Minutes away from a trip to the Sweet 16 in a second-round game against Iowa State on the Cyclones' home court, Green Bay is back for more -- literally. All eight who played at least 10 minutes in that game against Iowa State return this season, led statistically by seniors Celeste Hoewisch and Kayla Tetschlag, the preseason Horizon League player of the year, and junior Julie Wojta.

There aren't any marquee games on the schedule, but the quantity of quality opponents in Wisconsin, Hartford, Utah, Penn State and Marquette (and possibly Minnesota) should give the Phoenix a chance to test themselves before conference play. This team can score, but one thing to watch for in a program that has traditionally excelled on both ends is field-goal defense. They ranked just seventh in the Horizon League last season but limited Virginia to 37 percent (and everyone not named Monica Wright to 28 percent) and Iowa State to the same 37 percent.

3. Gonzaga: Like the team at the top, the Bulldogs don't particularly want to be defined by the mid-major label. They have a chance to shrug it off if they can remain a top-25 team after losing Heather Bowman, one of the best players in program history, and Vivian Frieson, one of the best competitors and a player who saved her absolute best for the biggest stage of all in the NCAA tournament. And that's not even counting Tiffanie Shives, a shoot-the-lights-out marksman from behind the line.

Despite all of that, Gonzaga still has the talent to do it. It helps having Courtney Vandersloot, the best point guard in the nation in my book and a part of the discussion at worst. Janelle Bekkering and Katelan Redmon can emerge as consistent mid-teens double-digit scorers, but it's going to help if Vandersloot can buy them some easy baskets. And keep an eye on Kayla Standish, an agile 6-foot-2 big whom coach Kelly Graves said has the talent to be among the best ever at Gonzaga.

4. Princeton: All five starters return from a team that dominated the Ivy League last season, winning all 14 games by double digits and nine games by at least 20 points. That's likely to be the case again this season, but the tests for Princeton's place on the national scene come in November and December. The Tigers open against Fairleigh Dickinson at home on Saturday but then play Rutgers, Lehigh, USC and Delaware in the next three weeks (with the additional possibility of a game against Vanderbilt in Nashville in the final of a tournament).

Princeton is not your typical smallish mid-major, with 6-3 Devona Allgood in the post and three more 6-footers in the starting lineup in Niveen Rasheed, Lauren Edwards and Addie Micir. Throw in a quintessential facilitator at point in Lauren Polansky (6.2 assists and 3.2 steals per 40 minutes as a freshman) and you've got a group for whom last season's NCAA appearance might be only the beginning.

5. San Diego State: There is a lot of scoring to replace without Jene Morris and Quenese Davis, not to mention a fair bit of chutzpah, but last year's Sweet 16 surprise adds Arizona transfer Courtney Clements and highly regarded freshman Melissa Sweat to a good returning nucleus of Paris Johnson and Jessika Bradley in the frontcourt and Coco Davis on the perimeter.

Nobody in San Diego, least of all coach Beth Burns, will be complaining about what Johnson and Bradley brought to the court last season, but with the reshuffling going on in the backcourt, those two will have a lot to do with how this team fares. They combined for 125 blocks last season and have the potential to be the best post duo this side of Palo Alto when it comes to the left coast. At 6-6, Arizona transfer Malia Nahinu is intriguing, if only as a spot player.

6. TCU: It feels like Helena Sverrisdottir has been around long enough to feature in her own Icelandic saga, but that's only because she has been so good for the Horned Frogs from the moment she arrived from Hafnarfjörður (try typing that five times fast). The Mountain West shapes up to be as good, if not better, than some of the six major conferences this season, and the Icelandic point-forward is clearly the conference's most accomplished star. It's difficult to really classify her as a forward, but she was the only player taller than 6 feet to rank in the top 50 nationally in assists last season.

The Sverrisdottir lovefest aside, what puts TCU up here is that she has people to pass to, namely Emily Carter, who enjoyed a breakout conference season, and Starr Crawford.

7. Dayton: No team in the country lost a more valuable player who averaged fewer than 10 points a game than Dayton did in Kendel Ross (all right, the Canadian checked in at 9.9 ppg as a senior, but it's a good bit of hyperbole). Nevertheless, Dayton remains a national factor and a potential thorn in Xavier's side because just about everyone else returns from the team that knocked off TCU in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

That begins with Justine Raterman, who won't get the attention she merits because nobody plays 30 minutes a game in Jim Jabir's effective system. Per 40 minutes, Raterman averaged 19.6 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, and the versatile forward's range extends comfortably beyond the 3-point line. And while Patrice Lalor is easy to miss at 5-6, she's not easy to contain when she looks to distribute.

8. Arkansas-Little Rock: The Trojans take care of the ball about as well as any team in the country (fifth-best in the country last season, to be precise, after Connecticut, Stanford, Oakland and Gonzaga). That makes sense; you wouldn't want to waste possessions if you had Chastity Reed, either. The Sun Belt superstar enters her senior season with a chance to reach new heights both personally and within the team framework. She averaged 24.8 points per game last season, fourth in the nation, yet still managed to assist on a healthy 16 percent of the field goals she didn't score -- meaning she had a hand in more than half of the baskets the team scored.

UALR needs a new sharpshooter to emerge with the departure of Kim Sitzmann, but whoever gets open, Asriel Rolfe and Shanika Butler (291 assists against just 105 turnovers) will get her the ball.

9. Bowling Green: The losses are significant, most notably starters Tamika Nurse and Tara Breske, who added healthy doses of pace and power, respectively, to the starting lineup. But Bowling Green isn't a program that suffers a plethora of peaks and valleys under Curt Miller. It doesn't hurt to have Lauren Prochaska back. The senior scorer doesn't have any excuses for flubbed acceptance speeches after winning MAC player of the year honors in back-to-back seasons to go along with the MAC freshman of the year award she won in her debut campaign.

The Falcons know they can count on Prochaska and senior point guard Tracy Pontius. The variables could work out in their favor if sophomore Chrissy Steffen, a 6-foot guard in a conference in which that isn't an everyday occurrence, follows through on the promise she showed off the bench last season, and if Jen Uhl and Maggie Hennegan can hold their own as undersized posts in a league in which that is most definitely an everyday occurrence.

10. Temple: It won't take long to get an early read on Temple, which opens the regular season by hosting Ohio State on Friday evening. But the Owls also might need a little time to grow after losing LaKeisha Eaddy and Jasmine Stone, their leaders in assists and rebounds, respectively.

They make this list because of Kristen McCarthy, whose years as an understudy paid off when she took the leading role last season, and Qwedia Wallace, who showed off her scoring touch with big games in a tough A-10 final loss against Xavier (18 points in a 57-55 overtime defeat) and a first-round NCAA win against James Madison (21 points). But with McCarthy and Wallace out there as players to watch, one key to the season, if not the key, might be B.J. Williams and Shay Peddy at point guard. Williams was second on the team in assists as a reserve last season, while Peddy sat out after transferring from Wright State. A committee wouldn't be the worst development in the world, but if one of them seizes command on the court, look out.

And because it's preseason and there are way more than 10 teams worthy of mention, let's go a bit deeper into the mid-major waters for the 10 teams that just missed the preseason cut.

11. James Madison: Don't go handing Elena Delle Donne all the Colonial Athletic Association hardware just yet. Dawn Evans is right there as the league's best player, and the Dukes return almost everyone from a team that made the NCAA tournament.

12. UC Santa Barbara: Ignore the exhibition loss to Cal State Monterey Bay. It might take time, but in Cal transfers Angelei Aguirre and Kelsey Adrian, 6-4 Mekia Valentine (12.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and four blocks per game) and guard Emile Johnson, coach Lindsay Gottleib has a team.

13. Fresno State: Jaleesa Ross is back, which is more than enough to put the Bulldogs in any postseason race. But so is the Australian connection, led by Hayley Munro and Emma Andrews.

14. Louisiana Tech: The bad news is Shanavia Dowdell isn't around anymore. The good news is just about everyone else is. Adrienne Johnson could be on some All-America lists by spring.

15. Marist: There's no more Rachele Fitz, but the Red Foxes aren't fading away. Guards Erica Allenspach and Corelle Yarde are legit, and freshman Emma O'Connor is a name to remember.

16. Wyoming: Four starters, and 10 players in total, return from a team that won 21 games last season. A weak nonconference schedule will limit early exposure, but Hillary Carlson and Aubrey Vandiver will have the Cowgirls in the mix in the Mountain West.

17. BYU: The Cougars return four starters of their own from the WNIT quarterfinalists. The backcourt of Haley Hall, Mindy Bonham and Jazmine Foreman each topped 120 assists last season.

18. Oral Roberts: The schedule might not be what it was last season, but it's still loaded with road tests for the high-scoring backcourt duo of Kevi Luper and Jaci Bigham (41.5 ppg combined).

19. Boston University: Vermont and Hartford will reload, but Boston University could keep America East relevant behind its guard trio of Chantell Alford, Mo Moran and Alex Young.

20. Samford: How many players led their team in rebounds, assists and blocks? Samford's 6-3 post Savannah Hill did and forms an excellent one-two punch with guard Emily London.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.