The first in our series of look-aheads to the conference tournaments.
March 11-15, El Paso, Texas
The frontrunner: Middle Tennessee (12-1), which is ranked No. 23 in the latest AP Top 25 poll, has a two-game lead over three teams with three to play.
The challengers: Southern Miss, UTEP and Tulane are all bunched in second place with 10-3 conference marks, and East Carolina sits a game back at 9-4. The difference between fourth and fifth place is huge as the top four seeds earn double-byes and will be three tournament victories away from the title. Seeds five through eight will face a four-games-in-four-days path to the crown.
Wednesday's key games
UTSA at UTEP: The status of UTEP star Kayla Thornton is unclear after she collapsed in the locker room Saturday after leading her team past East Carolina. Thornton apparently has a concussion and as of Monday had not been cleared to return to action.
UAB at Southern Miss: UAB has won three in a row and is coming off an upset win over Tulane; high-scoring Southern Miss is the league's hottest team with eight straight victories.
The rest of the field: Seeds five through eight earn single byes, and while UAB's Blazers (7-5) look to be OK if they handle their business it gets awfully congested from there. Two teams from a group that includes Charlotte (6-6), Old Dominion (6-7), FIU (6-7), Rice (5-8), Tulsa (5-8) and North Texas (5-8) will earn the right to bypass first-round play. UTSA (4-9), Florida Atlantic (3-10) and Louisiana Tech (3-10) will all likely finish outside the top eight, and Marshall (2-11) will definitely be playing on opening day.
Old Dominion's prospects: After two straight road victories, the Lady Monarchs can now either play their way into or out of a first-round bye. We absolutely love ODU's chances on Wednesday at home against Louisiana Tech. The Lady Techsters are 1-11 on the road - although the win came last Wednesday in overtime at Tulsa - and are also the third-worst shooting team in the conference. Old Dominion is coming off holding Rice to 31.4 percent shooting and UTSA to 29.6. If the Lady Monarchs can apply that level of defense to LA Tech, this puppy might be over quickly. That said, the last time we felt this strongly about ODU getting a win was about a month ago against Marshall, and the Lady Monarchs needed some unlikely late heroics and overtime to rescue victory. So let's just see how things play out.
Old Dominion travels to FIU on Saturday and concludes regular-season play on March 5 at home vs. East Carolina. If the Lady Monarchs can win their remaining games, they will not only hit the postseason on a roll but should also find themselves in fairly decent shape for a WNIT bid - especially if they can advance a round or two in the CUSA tourney. But any regular season loss at this point muddies their WNIT outlook considerably.
Ebony Rowe, MTSU
Jerica Coley, FIU
Karisma Chapman, UAB
Kayla Thornton, UTEP
Jessica Kuster, Rice
Jamierra Faulkner, Southern Miss
Shae Kelley, Old Dominion
Jada Payne, East Carolina
Gabby Tyler, Charlotte
Chrishauna Parker, UTEP
Whitney Frazier, LA Tech
Tiffany Dale, Tulane
Abria Trice, East Carolina
Ny Hammonds, Charlotte
Kimberly Smith, Florida Atlantic
Kelsee Grovey, Tulsa
Player of the Year
We're not quite ready to trim this list to five yet, so here are eight newcomers we'd strongly consider:
Olivia Jones, Middle Tennessee State
Lefty Webster, Charlotte
Tesha Smith, UTSA
Leslie Vorpahl, Tulsa
Brittany Dinkins, Southern Miss
Kierra Jordan, Southern Miss
JaQuan Jackson, Louisiana Tech
Chelsie Romero, Marshall
Note: Old Dominion's Odegua Oigbokie and Destinee Young both have displayed All-Freshman team skills, but at 14.2 and 8.3 minutes per game respectively, they haven't logged enough time.
Freshman of the Year
Oliva Jones, Middle Tennessee State
Coach of the Year
Rick Insell, Middle Tennessee State