Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Virginia, Hampton, Richmond 1-2-3 in LadySwish state rankings

You've waited long enough for our second round of state rankings, and indeed much has changed since our preseason list. Drumroll, please.

1. VIRGINIA (6-3, 0-1 ACC)
Preseason rank: 2
Key victory: Virginia 79, JMU 58
Notable loss: Maryland 79, Virginia 55
It's hard to start out a regular season better than the Cavaliers did with the 79-58 dismantling of JMU. Also, first-year forward Sarah Imovbioh looks special, a future All-ACC performer (at least), and junior Kelsey Wolfe has really come into her own offensively while pleasing her coaches at times with a fairly decent imitation of the injured Lexie Gerson at the other end (2.5 steals). All that said, Virginia hasn't quite been VIRGINIA! since that season-opening blowout.  For one thing, the Cavaliers haven't been the defensive juggernaut they were a year ago. Virginia has allowed at least 65 points in five games. They gave up that many just four times during the entire 30-game regular season in 2011-12. The Cavs are also averaging nearly five more turnovers per game than they did last season. And after the humbling 24-point loss at Maryland, coach Joanne Boyle questioned her team's overall lack of toughness. So, yeah, Virginia definitely deserves to be ranked No. 1 in the Commonwealth. But the potential is there for this group to be a whole lot better than it's shown so far.
Coming up: Friday at Alabama (6-3); Dec. 28 vs. Norfolk State (1-8) in Cavalier Classic; Dec. 29 vs. Northern Illinois (3-5) or Xavier (4-5) in Cavalier Classic 

2. HAMPTON (7-3, 2-0 MEAC)
Preseason rank: 4
Key victory: Hampton 67, LSU 58
Notable loss: Florida Gulf Coast 70, Hampton 59
Despite massive roster turnover, there's been little dropoff in efficiency for the Lady Pirates, who still don't turn it over much (15.3 per game) while continuing to lock opponents up defensively. A year ago, the Lady Pirates ranked No. 2 in Division I in scoring defense. They currently check in at No. 9, surrendering just 48.7 ppg. Senior forward Keiara Avant (16.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg) is on the short list of MEAC Player of the Year favorites, and Hampton has also gotten inspired play from, among others, guards Nicole Hamilton and Kenia Cole. A case can be made that Richmond deserves this No. 2 spot, but we settled on Hampton because the Lady Pirates have the best win of the two teams, a 9-point triumph over LSU when Hampton led by 15-20 much of the night. The Lady Pirates also had their way with DePaul for about 35 minutes at the Paradise Jam, only to see the Blue Demons storm back and steal a one-point victory.
Coming up: Thursday vs. Prairie View (2-5) in Toledo Invitational; Friday vs. Toledo (8-1) or Evansville (2-7) in Toledo Invitational; Dec. 27 at St. Peter's (0-8); Dec. 30 at Virginia Tech (4-5); Jan. 2 at Boston College (5-4)

3. RICHMOND (7-4, 0-0 Atlantic 10)
Preseason rank: 3
Key victories: Richmond 58, Minnesota 46; Richmond 70, JMU 66
Notable loss: Green Bay 79, Richmond 48 (first game without Okoro)
It's simply not possible to lose a player the caliber of Genevieve Okoro and be a better team. So we're blown away with how these Spiders have gone 4-1 and are riding a four-game winning streak since their junior preseason All-Atlantic 10 forward went down for the season with a knee injury. Two big keys have been the play of Kristina King and Becca Wann. King has had games of 29 and 20 points since Okoro's injury. Meanwhile, all two-sport star Wann has done is average18.3 points over her last three games, lead the Spiders in rebounding for the season (7.4 rpg) and rack up nine assists in a Dec. 8 win over UNC Greensboro, the most by a Richmond player since 2009. Other than that, she's been kind of quiet. And we can't forget about senior sharpshooter Rachael Bilney, who is connecting on 43.5 percent of her 3-pointers. At this point, Hampton appears to have the higher ceiling. But the Spiders can improve their case on Wednesday when Florida Gulf Coast visits the Robins Center. During the Paradise Jam, FGCU proved to be one of the rare teams Hampton couldn't solve defensively (FGCU shot 46 percent against the Lady Pirates; no other HU opponent has cracked 37 percent). It will be interesting to see how the Spiders deal with these same Eagles.
Coming up: Wednesday vs. Florida Gulf Coast (5-4); Dec. 28 at Charleston (4-4); Dec. 30 at UNC Wilmington (1-6)

4. LIBERTY (8-4, 1-0 Big South)
Preseason rank: 5
Key victory: Liberty 60, JMU 48
Notable loss: North Carolina A&T 60, Liberty 56
Two years ago, the Lady Flames were stunned in a game at UNC Central. Last year, they lost at North Carolina A&T. And on Saturday, the Aggies got 'em again. Memo to Liberty coach Carey Green - stop scheduling MEAC schools from North Carolina. That said, Saturday's setback is the lone blemish on an otherwise strong opening stretch that has seen the Lady Flames win by double digits at JMU and hold off improving Radford on the road in the teams' Big South opener.  A big key is senior Devon Brown (17.5 ppg) having the kind of season she's entirely capable of having of when healthy. Heck, the Lady Flames have even started getting their turnover problem under control (occasionally). Since Liberty's other losses were at Duquense (9-1), at nationally ranked Texas A&M - and the Lady Flames were actually in this one most of the way - and at defending national champion Baylor, we're not going to be too hard on them for the A&T debacle. The NCAA Tournament committee may not be as forgiving, though. An RPI-sapping defeat like this could be the reason the Lady Flames wind up being relegated to a No. 15 or 16 seed should they qualify for the national tournament.
Coming up: Thursday at VCU (5-5); Dec. 29 at Winthrop (5-4); Jan. 3 vs. Presbyterian (6-6)

5. OLD DOMINION (6-1, 0-0 CAA)
Preseason rank: 6
Key victory: ODU 55, Virginia Tech 35
Notable loss: California 63, ODU 47
This much is clear - the Lady Monarchs are a LOT better than they were last year. Last season, they lost at home to Virginia Tech by 12. This year, they whipped the Hokies in Blacksburg by 20. A year ago, they (somehow) dropped a home game to Maryland-Eastern Shore. This year, they drove up Route 13 and spanked the Eagles by 16. The question now is, exactly how much better are they? Is this a top-50 team? Top 100? It's hard to judge given who ODU has played. Look, we're not knocking the Lady Monarchs for their schedule. If we had a team that won just 10 games a year ago and was trying to build confidence and chemistry, we'd schedule conservatively, too. And it worked - the Lady Monarchs have developed to a point where they honestly seem to believe they can beat anyone. But when the best team you've beaten is a Virginia Tech squad that won just seven games last year, we're ready to see that belief put to a more serious test. ODU's appearance in the three-games-in-three-days World Vision Classic figures to do just that. By the way, wouldn't a game between ODU and Liberty be fascinating? Liberty's biggest weakness is turnovers, and ODU forces more turnovers than just about anyone. Meanwhile, the Lady Monarchs struggle with rebounding and Liberty is - again - one of the best rebounding team in the country. With each team's main strength aligning perfectly with the opponent's biggest weakness, who knows how it would all shake out?
Coming up: Wednesday at UNLV (3-6, opening round of World Vision Classic); Thursday TBA in World Vision Classic; Friday TBA in World Vision Classic

6. JAMES MADISON (3-6, 0-0 CAA)
Preseason rank: 1
Key victory: JMU 89, Green Bay 86 (OT)
Notable loss: Quinnipiac 65, JMU 60 (Dukes are 1-3 at home. Went 15-3 at home last season)
It's the defense, folks. A year ago, the Dukes held opponents to just 34 percent shooting (8th in Division I) and allowed just 56.9 points per game. Through nine games this year they're surrendering 68.6 ppg - a shade under 12 more per contest - and rank 192nd in field goal percentage defense. JMU could get away with shaky offensive efficiency last season because the Dukes were so good at shutting down the other guys. This year, that defense simply hasn't been quite good enough to bail the offense out. It certainly hasn't helped that senior and defensive ace Nikki Newman has been battling a knee injury. Now comes word, courtesy of the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record, that Newman sustained a fractured foot early in Sunday's loss to Duquesne. No definitive word yet on how long she will be out, but during his weekly press conference Monday, Dukes coach Kenny Brooks said "my guess is she'll be out a good while." Yet despite all this, it's probably not wise to give up on the Dukes yet. Look at the teams they've lost to. Virginia, Quinnipiac (7-1), Minnesota (9-3), Richmond, Liberty and Duquesne (9-1). Not a bad squad in the bunch (combined record: 45-16). Also, JMU's remarkable rally to win in OT against Green Bay, which ranks as arguably the best win by any team in these rankings, shows this team still has a high ceiling. Add this to the fact that the Colonial Athletic Association doesn't appear to be nearly as strong at the top as it was a year ago, and if the Dukes can tighten a few things up, this group is resilient enough to still make a push. Here's hoping Sunday's second-half effort against Duquesne is the catalyst.
Coming up: Friday vs. American (4-4); Dec. 28 vs. Maine (1-9); Dec. 31 vs. Georgia Southern (1-6)

7. VIRGINIA TECH (4-5, 0-0 ACC)
Preseason rank: 7
Key victory: Virginia Tech 47, Wisconsin 38 (Badgers are 7-3); Virginia Tech 71, Appalachian State 68 (App State is 6-1)
Notable loss: ODU 55, Virginia Tech 35
One stat sums up the major challenge for the Hokies night in and night out - Tech ranks 329th out of 343 Division I teams in scoring offense. Tough to win when you can't score. But starting with Saturday's ACC conference opener against Wake Forest, the Hokies will have the services of junior college transfer Uju Ugoka, a 6-1 forward and a two-time JC first-team All-American who was forced by the NCAA to sit out the first nine games for a minor violation of amateur rules that occurred before she arrived in Blacksburg. No one's expecting Ugoka to jump in and immediately get 20 and 10 every night (although it would be nice). But at the very least she should give the Hokies a low-post presence opposing defenses will have to respect, which in turn could free up the perimeter players who currently produce most of Tech's scoring. And if this happens, the Hokies may finally start making some ACC teams a little nervous.
Coming up: Saturday vs. Wake Forest (5-5); Dec. 28 vs. North Carolina A&T (5-3); Dec. 30 vs. Hampton (7-3)

8. RADFORD (5-5, 0-1 Big South)
Preseason rank: 8
Key victory: Radford 72, William and Mary 55
Notable loss: Clemson 74, Radford 55
The Highlanders didn't give themselves a chance Sunday at Clemson, turning the ball over 17 times in the first half alone. With a cleaner performance, Radford figured to have an excellent shot at a win over an ACC program that came in with just one victory and already owned home losses to Presbyterian and South Carolina State. Other than that, it's been a solid opening stretch by the Highlanders. When they win, they win big (each of their five victories have been by at least 12 points). When they play ACC teams, they struggle (0-3 with each loss by at least 17 points, although they did play Miami essentially to a draw for about 30 minutes). Radford's other two games have been nailbiters, and the Highlanders struggled down the stretch both times and suffered two-point losses. To challenge for a Big South title, the Highlanders will need to do a better job of closing out these 50-50 games.
Coming up: Dec. 29 vs. Longwood (3-6); Jan. 3 vs. UNC Asheville (2-8)

9. GEORGE MASON (4-4, 0-0 CAA)
Preseason rank: 10
Key victory: George Mason 58, UAB 55 (UAB is 7-2)
Notable loss: Maryland 90, George Mason 40
Nice to see senior point guard Rahneeka Saunders (20.5 ppg in her last four games) come alive as a scorer. In Saunders, Janaa Pickard, Amber Easter, Joyous Tharrington and Shavonne Duckett, the Pats have a starting five full of solid contributors. But with bench productivity limited beyond Kyana Jacobs, this team suffers more than most when one of the main cogs can't go. For example, Pickard (11.5 ppg, 7.7 rpg) sat out a Dec. 5 home game against a good Akron team, and the Patriots lost by 16 points. Mason was 3-0 at home heading into the game.
Coming up: Saturday at George Washington (5-5); Dec. 29 vs. Georgia Southern (1-6)

10. VCU (5-5, 0-0 Atlantic 10)
Preseason rank: 12
Key victory: VCU 79, UMKC 55 (Rams hit a program-record 13 3-pointers)
Notable loss: Old Dominion 74, VCU 51
Lots of good stuff lately from the Rams, who have gone 5-2 since Nov. 20. Robyn Parks...is this the same player? You sure can't tell by her numbers (6.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg last season; 18.0 ppg, 8.8 rpg this year). Freshman sharpshooter Jessica Pellechio ranks 3rd in Division I in 3-pointers per game and connected on 9 bombs during her 30-point barrage against UMKC. And after battling injuries her first two seasons, junior forward Shekinah Henry is finally showing now what she's really all about, particularly on the boards (8.6 rpg). So why No. 10? Well, VCU's last four victories have come over teams with a combined record of 6-28. The fifth win was at home over 4-5 UMKC. We're not knocking the Rams for who they've beaten, in fact, it's canny scheduling for a team with a new coach trying to digest a fresh system. But we're holding out something closer to a signature win - which the Rams will have a chance to produce Thursday against Liberty. Oh, and guys, can you work on those free throws (61.2 percent)? Robyn Hobson (5 of 6), you're OK. But the rest of you Rams, let's start knocking 'em down.
Coming up: Thursday vs. Liberty (8-4); Friday vs. NJIT (6-5); Dec. 27 at Ohio State (7-3)

11. WILLIAM & MARY (2-6, 0-0 CAA)
Preseason rank: 11
Key victory: William and Mary 88, Austin Peay 76
Notable loss: Radford 72, William and Mary 55
The good news: Emily Correal (18.0 ppg, 8.9 rpg, two-time CAA Player of the Week, 1,000 career points) is in full-fledged beast mode. Also, with Janine Aldridge, Taylor Hilton, Jaclyn McKenna and Kyla Kerstetter all shooting 35 percent or better from 3-point range - actually, even Correal has made 2 of 4 from deep - the Tribe has at times been a deadly long-range shooting team. Too often, though - and this has been going on the past three years - the Tribe wastes strong performances because of an inability to close out winnable games. Four of W&M's losses are by 7 points or fewer, including a two-point setback at Pittsburgh in which the Tribe led by five with less than 3 minutes remaining. There are some teams William and Mary simply doesn't match up with. But if the Tribe could just do a better job in the games they put themselves in position to win, that record would look much better.
Coming up: Friday at North Carolina A&T (5-3); Dec. 30 at Cornell (5-3)

12. LONGWOOD (3-6, 0-0 Big South)
Preseason rank: 13
Key victory: Longwood 60, Bucknell 52 (Lancers' 2nd straight road victory; Bucknell is 5-4)
Notable loss: N.C. State 102, Longwood 49 (Wolfpack crack 100-pt. barrier for 1st time in 15 years)
The Lancers have played three road games at BCS conference schools, games likely scheduled at least in part for financial considerations. Longwood is 0-3 in those games with an average margin of defeat of 31 points. But we already knew the Lancers weren't at that level yet. Take those games away and we're looking at a 3-3 team on a two-game winning streak. Two of the defeats were by single digits, and the other was a 10-point loss to a very good Richmond team. In other words, the Lancers have been extremely competitive against the reasonable portion of their schedule. So don't be fooled if Longwood gets thumped around in upcoming road games at Arizona (Thursday) and Arizona State (Saturday). Once Big South play commences, these guys will be just fine.
Coming up: Thursday at Arizona (7-3); Saturday at Arizona State (6-4); Dec. 29 at Radford (5-5)

13. NORFOLK STATE (1-8, 0-2 MEAC)
Preseason rank: 9
Key victory: Norfolk State 60, Penn 51
Notable loss: UNC Greensboro 71, NSU 63 (UNCG snaps 4-game losing streak, improves to 2-6)
A promising season swung violently in the wrong direction at the 4:39 mark of the second half of NSU's second game, when starting guard Rae Corbo went down for the season with a knee injury. At that point the Spartans were 1-0 and in good shape for a second victory against South Carolina-Upstate. They went on to let that extremely winnable game slip away in overtime and have lost every game since. This despite a very manageable schedule which, given NSU's veteran talent, figured to have them at something like 6-3, 5-4 at the worst, by this point. To be fair, no one should pin all of NSU's struggles on Corbo's absence. The Spartans have too many other good players running around on healthy legs for that. But in addition to being a fine all-around player, Corbo was NSU's leading returning scorer from a year ago. NSU was somewhat offensively challenged even with Corbo. Without her, well.... Still, the Spartans are fully capable of turning things around, and their upcoming MEAC schedule will provide plenty of opportunities to get on a roll.
Coming up: Wednesday vs. D-II Chowan (0-8); Dec. 28 at Virginia (5-3) in opening round of the Cavalier Classic; Dec. 29 vs. Northern Illinois (3-5) or Xavier (4-5) in Cavalier Classic

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