Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Silent majority rankings (as of Dec. 12)

Took a couple of weeks off, but we're back to take another stab and ranking the best teams in the non-BCS conferences. As always, to the degree it's possible we try to base these rankings on what teams have done, not on what we think they'll do in the future. For example we still believe that Temple will wind up being one of  the best teams in this category. But right now, we're mindful of the fact that the Owls are just 4-5, albeit against a tough schedule.

For comparison purposes, here's the latest Collegeinsider.com mid-major poll. Also:

Previous Ladyswish rankings
Nov. 21

Silent majority rankings (through games of Dec. 12)

1. Delaware (8-0)
There's nothing fluky about the Blue Hens' record, as Delaware's last seven opponents have a combined record of 46-16. Furthermore, four of those games have been on the road; that's as many road games to this point as Baylor (3) and UConn (1) combined. Most people are aware that Blue Hens' megastar Elena Delle Donne leads Division I in scoring (29.3 ppg). But these are our favorite EDD numbers - 8 games, 11 turnovers. Of course, Delle Donne's been a stud from the day she arrived on campus (although she was a volleyball stud that first year). It's been the additions of guards Trumae Lucas and Akeema Richards, the subsequent team depth those additions have created and an underrated defense that has allowed Delle Donne's transcendence to elevate this team from merely good to, so far, really special. While the Blue Hens strive to maintain a "one game at a time" focus, we can't help looking ahead to a potential showdown of unbeatens at Maryland on Dec. 29 if Delaware can advance to the final of the Terrapin Classic.

2. Green Bay (8-0)
We've been riding the Blue Hens since the preseason, but we won't argue with anyone who believes these guys should be No. 1. Not only have the Phoenix avoided any stumbles through a rugged schedule, but they've done it without playing over their heads. In fact, we're not sure they've played a complete game at anywhere near the level they're capable of, which must be a pretty exciting thought for Green Bay fans. But while there are definitely areas to clean up, the Phoenix have already displayed a knack for making clutch plays down the stretch (against Northern Iowa and in an overtime win over Georgia Tech) and for overcoming sluggish starts (5 turnovers in the first 5 minutes against Marquette; a 13-0 deficit to open the game against Northern Iowa). Senior forward Julie Wojta (20.3 ppg, 10.3 rpg) continues to flourish in the roles of leader and go-to player, but as always what makes the Phoenix an elite team is how well all the talented pieces blend. Love how Green Bay shares the ball (18.3 assists per game). Would like to see a fewer turnovers (20.5), though.

3. St. Bonaventure (8-1)
Those wins by the Bonnies at St. John's and at West Virginia still resonate, and they gave Delaware more problems than anyone else has in their lone loss (61-49). This is a well-drilled, sum-is-greater-than-its-parts group that makes few mistakes (just 12.8 turnovers per game) and has succeeded in getting games played on their terms and at their tempo. If it's our team, we'd let Jessica Jenkins (14.3 ppg) shoot more because we love her smooth stroke and the ways she can create space to let it fly, but the results say that Jim Crowley is doing just fine without our advice.  Here's hoping Megan Van Tatenhove is OK, after hitting her head on the floor late in the first half of Saturday's game against Buffalo. She did not return. The absence of their talented forward didn't stop the Bonnies from rolling to a 76-45 victory. It was the third straight game in which the Bonnies held an opponent to 45 points or less. That stretch included a 65-45 dismantling of Indiana.

4. Florida Gulf Coast (6-1)
That season-opening stumble at what has turned out to be a much-improved Seton Hall team seems like a distant memory as the Eagles have run the table ever since. Their six-game winning streak includes a one-point win over Michigan State and an easy decision over talented-but-young Richmond. Of course, no discussion of FGCU is complete without mentioning 3-pointers -- lots of 'em. The Eagles lead Division I with 13 3s per game, have drained at least 10 in six of their seven games and knocked down a Division I record-tying 21 in a 106-27 rout of NAIA Webber International. So far, 58.8 percent of this team's shots have been taken from beyond the arc, and six Eagles have connected on at least 9 from distance.

5. Gonzaga
We were surprised to see the Zags score just 51 points in a four-point loss to USC, as this team often gets that by halftime. Gonzaga shot just 30 percent from the field in that game - and had just five assists - and was barely at 40 percent in a win over Eastern Washington and down to 38 percent in a victory over Montana. The easy conclusion is that they miss Courtney Vandersloot's ability to create easy baskets, and any team would. But Vandersloot wasn't around when they hung 101 points on Hofstra, 99 on Portland State and 91 on Idaho earlier this season. It's possible USC established a blueprint for how to slow these guys down. But we think Kelly Graves and Co. will figure things out - there's too much firepower on hand to not get those numbers back in their customary mid-to-upper 40s.

6. Hartford (8-3)
The Hawks rocket up this chart off the strength of back-to-back victories over Hofstra and Boston College and will take a three-game winning streak into a Dec. 22 post-exam showdown at Richmond. Junior guard Daphne Elliott was pivotal in the two big wins, averaging 15.5 points, 5.5. rebounds and 4.5 assists to earn America East Player of the Week honors. But the biggest key to the Hawks' recent surge seems to have come on defense. Hartford surrendered just three second-half field goals Monday to Dartmouth, limited BC to just 45 points and held high-scoring Hofstra nearly 25 points under its average.

7. Princeton (7-2)
We figured the Tigers' souped-up schedule would result in their taking a few non-conference lumps. We just didn't figure one of those lumps would come last Friday at Navy. The Tigers have implemented a fullcourt pressure defense that has been suffocating at times. But the Mids shot 47.9 percent in their victory, and the Tigers also struggled to contain Delaware in an 81-70  loss. It's still early, though, and we're still awfully high on this team long-term.

8. Hofstra (6-2)
Hartford finally slowed these guys down and engineered a 61-59 victory last week, but the Pride has overwhelmed all other comers with one of the most explosive offenses in Division I. Hofstra ranks 12th in Division I in scoring (80.5 ppg). Ironically, star forward Shante Evans' scoring numbers are actually down from a year ago (15.8 ppg this season vs. 18.1 a year ago), but the Pride is scoring more points and winning more games. We suspect no one is happier about this tradeoff than Evans herself.

9. Hampton (7-1)
Their schedule hasn't been the most rigorous, but the Lady Pirates' recent ability to add some potent offense to their always-tenacious defense has us believing they can maintain this level against tougher foes. A long-distance assault led by reigning MEAC Player of the Week Choicetta McMillian has fueled Hampton's newfound offensive productivity - McMillian has made 42.3 percent of her 3-pointers and Hampton ranks seventh in Division I in 3-point marksmanship (40.1). Of course, that Hampton also ranks fourth in scoring defense and is holding opponents to 32.7 percent shooting isn't really news, as that's what these guys always do.

Note: Hampton coach David Six politely took issue with our opinion of his team's schedule. We noted that Hampton's RPI was just 103 when the week began. But Six pointed out that Lady Pirates played their first five games on the road, which is certainly a challenging way to open a season no matter who you're playing.

10. Fresno State (7-3)
Oklahoma was probably overrated - at least to start the season - but full credit to these Bulldogs for engineering their first victory over a ranked team since 2008 when they shot down the Sooners 69-66 last week. Sophomore Ki-Ki Moore led the way with 21 points, 10 rebounds and 6 steals. Up until that result, we weren't paying that much attention to the Bulldogs, figuring the loss of the great Jaleesa Ross would have set them back. Shame on us.

11. Northern Iowa (7-2)
Here's another case where we thought the loss of a premier player would impact a team more than it has. We figured the preseason ACL injury to Missouri Valley Player of the Year Jacqui Kalin would remove the Panthers from the ranks of the contenders. Katelin Oney, Rachel Madrigal and K.K. Armstrong lead a balanced attack, UNI can be deadly from 3-point range and the Panthers have held five of their nine opponents below 50 points.

12. BYU (9-2)
Looks like Gonzaga's going to have some real competition in the West Coast Conference this year. Since starting the season 1-2, the Panthers have won eight straight. Six of the victories have been by double digits, including a 24-point pasting of Syracuse in Hawaii. And even the two losses, to Duke and at Kansas State, are respectable, particularly the six-point setback to the mighty Blue Devils.

13. Duquesne (7-1)
The Dukes simply weren't defending very well early in the season, and it cost them in an 86-80 loss at North Dakota. This team is never going to be a lockdown defensive juggernaut, but the Dukes have been better at that end ever since, and even some pretty good defense will usually be enough with the way this group can score (79.4 ppg on 46-percent shooting, 19 assists per game). Duquesne will take a five-game winning streak into Florida's Gator Holiday Classic Dec. 20, where the Dukes will open against Maine.

14. Memphis (8-1)
We're still waiting for a signature win, and seven of the Tigers' victories have come in Memphis. But while Brittany Carter and Jasmine Lee are ballers, there are plenty of other nice pieces and we like the way Melissa McFerrin coaches 'em up. The Tigers finally proved their act can travel well on Saturday with a  15-point win at Arkansas-Little Rock.  After such a convenient early schedule, these guys should be primed to really take off now.

15: UTEP (8-0)
The Miners have beaten just two teams with winning records (Denver 7-3, Idaho State 6-4), and both of those victories came at home. But when you're holding opponents to 30.4 percent shooting and are one of 11 unbeaten teams in all of Division I, we suppose we'd better recognize. UTEP is 2-0 on the road this season, but this program has historically struggled on the road, so this streak could end as soon as Friday at Loyola-Marymount. But until then, go get 'em, Miners!

On the verge: Temple, Dayton, Toledo, Tulane, Richmond, Towson, Marist, James Madison, UNLV.

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