Don't sleep on these Mid-Major teams -- even if they're not from BCS conferences

October 15, 2012 - 6:41pm
Elena Delle Donne of Delaware was the last year's Division I scoring leader, the senior is hoping to lead the Blue Hens back to the NCAA tournament. (Photo courtesy the University of Delaware)

Elena Delle Donne of Delaware was the last year's Division I scoring leader, the senior is hoping to lead the Blue Hens back to the NCAA tournament. (Photo courtesy the University of Delaware)

The national Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today polls due out soon do a fine job of tracking the teams in the major conferences. Problem is, there are more than 340 programs in Division I, and most of these schools don’t get much attention until they play their way into the NCAA Tournament in March.

With that in mind, here’s our preseason stab at the top 15 teams in the non-BCS conferences.

1.   Delaware

Conference: Colonial Athletic

Last season: 31-2, CAA regular-season and tournament champions, NCAA second round

After the greatest year in Blue Hens’ history, everything is in place for the team to do that campaign one better as all five starters and virtually everyone else of consequence is back. (It also won’t hurt that Delaware is hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament). Of course, everything begins with All-American and Division I scoring leader Elena Delle Donne. But what makes this team special is the fact that Delle Donne is not just an elite points-producer but a player who willingly deploys her immense all-around skills to enhance the play of those around her. Delle Donne battled injuries her first two seasons, so keeping her healthy again is obviously a high priority. Also, the Blue Hens did a great job of not getting ahead of themselves and building on success game-by-game in 2011-12. If they can continue focusing on today’s practice instead of March’s potential, another special season certainly seems in store.

2.  Middle Tennessee State

Conference: Sun Belt

Last season: 26-7, Sun Belt tournament champions, NCAA first round

Expectations are understandably sky-high as five starters and 11 of the 12 letterwinners are back; the lone departure (reserve forward Molly McFadden) did not score a point last season. It seems as though Eboni Rowe (16.3 ppg, 10.1 rpg) has been around forever since she’s been a dominant player since she set foot on campus, yet the Sun Belt Player of the Year is just entering her junior season. In addition, senior guard Kortni Jones (16.8 ppg, the conference single-season record for 3-pointers) and senior forward Icelyn Elie (13.7) should ensure the Blue Raiders maintain their status as one of the nation’s most potent offensive teams. MTSU also boasts an intriguing junior college transfer – 6-6 Jeniece Johnson, a former Top-50 national high school recruit who originally signed with Kentucky and comes in as the tallest player in MTSU history.

3.  Green Bay

Conference: Horizon

Last season: 31-2, Horizon regular season and tournament champions, NCAA first round

Wildly successful head coach Matt Bolland has moved on to Illinois, but the program figures to be stabilized by the return of Kevin Borseth, who kicked off Green Bay’s run of 14 straight Horizon League titles before departing for a five-year stint at Michigan. The greater task will be replacing forward Julie Wojta, who blossomed from solid contributor into one of the nation’s best players as a senior. This team is always greater than the sum of its parts, though, and with four returning starters – led by senior guard Adrian Ritchie and senior forward Lydia Bauer – on hand and Borseth back to sort things out, the Phoenix figure to remain in the national discussion.

4.  San Diego State

Conference: Mountain West

Last season: 25-7, MWC tournament champions, NCAA first round

Four starters and several other key parts return for the Aztecs, including the killer backcourt trio of MWC Player of the Year Courtney Clements (17.4 ppg), point guard Chelsea Hopkins (6.5 apg, eighth nationally) and Kiyana Stamps (8.0 ppg). The Aztecs didn’t get a lot of RPI credit for their non-conference schedule last season, but coach Beth Burns has lined up a considerably more rigorous slate of non-league foes this season. All indications are Burns thinks this group can handle it.

5.   James Madison

Conference: Colonial Athletic

Last year: 29-8, WNIT final

Talk about a smooth pivot from the Dawn Evans Era. Head coach Kenny Brooks got a somewhat offensively challenged group to buy into tenacious defense, and the result was a school-record 29-win season and victories over Syracuse, Virginia and Wake Forest en route to the WNIT final. Four of the top five scorers are back, along with a promising recruiting class led by point guard and ESPN Top 100 recruit Angela Mickens. If the Dukes can smooth things out when they have the ball and remain in lockdown mode when they don’t, look out. And don’t forget, this is a group that gave Delaware fits in the teams’ lone regular-season meeting last year.

6.  Gonzaga

Conference: West Coast

Last year: 28-6, NCAA Sweet 16

After three straight Sweet 16 appearances, the Bulldogs will trot out one of their least-experienced editions (nine freshmen and sophomores). Still, coach Kelly Graves believes this might be his deepest team he’s ever fielded, and they’ll again be bolstered by one of the nation’s most passionate fan bases. Plus there are still a few proven performers, most notably in the backcourt with West Coast Conference Newcomer of the Year Haiden Palmer and Taelor Karr, the co-Division I leader in assist-turnover ratio. The non-conference schedule – USC, Stanford, Ohio State, potentially Louisville – is rugged, so the Zags may take some non-league lumps. But this should also brace them for what figures to be another fiercely contested title chase in the top-heavy WCC.

Like last season, Niveen Rasheed hopes to lead the Princeton Tigers to an NCAA tournament berth. (photo by Beverly Schaefer)

7.  Princeton

Conference: Ivy

Last year: 24-5, Ivy champions, NCAA first round

The Tigers lose 1,000-point scorers Devona Allgood and Lauren Edwards and must integrate five freshmen. But they still have forward Niveen Rasheed, who made a triumphant recovery from an ACL tear in late December 2010 and returned to All-American-caliber form in 2011-12. As talented as Rasheed is, however, the Tigers have always achieved excellence by committee. In addition, Tigers’ coach Courtney Banghart is one of the best at adapting a playing style to fit the talent on hand. It all adds up to a group that may still have enough to hold off hard-charging Harvard for Ivy supremacy.

8.  BYU

Conference: West Coast

Last year: 26-7, WCC tournament champions, NCAA first round

The Cougars’ hopes got a major boost when the NCAA granted point guard Haley Steed an additional year of eligibility. Steed, who suffered ACL tears in each of her first three college seasons, ranked fourth nationally with 237 assists last season and was the main reason BYU led Division I in assists per game. Add in WCC Co-Newcomer of the Year Lexi Eaton, guard Kim Parker Beeston and 6-7 center Jennifer Hamson, and the Cougars appear poised for a spirited defense of their 2012 WCC Tournament title.

9.  Tulane

Conference: Conference USA

Last year: 23-11, WNIT second round

Four starters return for the Green Wave, including first-team All-CUSA guard Olivia Grayson and guard Danielle Blagg, the league’s top freshman a year ago. Tulane must replace Brett Benzio’s 9.1 rebounds per game, and the fact that the Green Wave feature nine freshmen and sophomores suggests this team’s best results might be a year or two away. Still, given the way the team exceeded modest expectations a year ago, coach Lisa Stockton – and more importantly, the players – believe they can be really good right now.

10.  Charlotte

Conference: Atlantic 10

Last year: 16-14, WNIT first round

The 49ers will move to Conference USA in 2013-14 but are in position to leave an Atlantic 10 in transition with a bang. All five starters are back from a team that battled inconsistency a year ago but have now had a full season under coach Cara Consuegra. The newcomers include freshman guard Shequana Harris, who was named New York City Player of the Year by the New York Post after leading Murry Bergtraum to its 14th straight city title.

11.  Marist

Conference: Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

Last year: 26-8, MAAC regular-season and tournament champions, NCAA first round

True, the Red Foxes graduated MAAC Player of the Year Corielle Yarde. But these guys seem to lose the league’s best player every year – this will be the third straight season and fourth time since 2006 – and canny coach Brian Giorgis always figures out a way to navigate a new group to the top of the MAAC. Guards Casey Dulin and Leanne Ockenden and forward Elizabeth Beynnon, who went for 23 points and 16 rebounds in Marist’s overtime victory over Niagara in the MACC Tournament semifinals, provide a solid nucleus. Giorgis is also excited about a four-player class of newcomers he says may be his best ever.

12.  Howard

Conference: Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

Last year: 24-9, WNIT first round

After a 1-5 start to 2011-12, the Lady Bison went 23-4 the rest of the way, came within a missed tip-in of ousting Hampton in the MEAC Tournament final, then scared Virginia in Charlottesville before falling in overtime in the WNIT. All five starters are back from a team that posted a school record for wins and finished the year 56th in RPI. The group features arguably the two best players in the league in guards Saadia Doyle and Tamoria Holmes and is led by one of Division I’s rising young coaches in Niki Reid Geckeler. In short, this group poses a major threat to Hampton’s goal of winning a fourth straight MEAC crown.

13.  Richmond

Conference: Atlantic 10

Last year: 23-9, WNIT second round

The Spiders lose just one player from their 2011-12 edition -- granted, that loss is a significant one, as first-team All-Atlantic 10 guard Abby Oliver wasn’t just the leading scorer, she was also something of a security blanket for coach Michael Shafer whenever Richmond was in a tough spot. If the Spiders can find someone – or more likely, a committee – to approximate Oliver’s contributions, this still-young but experienced team has a bright outlook, particularly if it can reverse its tendency to fade late in the season.

14.  Harvard

Conference: Ivy

Last year: 18-12, WNIT second round

Start with the 12 letterwinners, led by first-team All-Ivy selection Christine Clark. Then add an intriguing cast of newcomers, most notably 6-4 sophomore forward and Great Britain Olympian Temi Fagbenle, a former McDonald’s All-American who spent a year in residency at Harvard last year, and 5-11 freshman guard Shilpa Tummala, ESPN’s No. 69 recruit nationally in the Class of 2012. Everything’s in place for the Crimson to take a major step forward.

15: Central Michigan

Conference: Mid-American

Last year: 20-16, WNIT first round

A year ago, the youthful Chippewas got two seasons worth of experience in an action-filled campaign that included some in-season suspensions after a fighting incident, often-sensational play from three freshmen and two heartbreaking losses at season’s end – a last-second setback to Eastern Michigan in the MAC tournament final and a one-point setback to Illinois State in the WNIT. All five starters are back, and that doesn’t include sophomore Crystal Bradford, who led the team in scoring despite coming off the bench. Few teams figure to be as hungry to get 2012-13 under way.

Five others to watch

St. Bonaventure (31-4): Two major losses from last season’s Atlantic 10 powerhouse and Sweet 16 squad in sharpshooter Jessica Jenkins and post Megan Van Tatenhove make another 31-win season unlikely. But few teams are as disciplined and well-coached.

Liberty (24-9): The perennial queens of the Big South – winners of 14 of the last 16 league titles - figure to continue their league dominance.

Florida Gulf Coast (29-3): Only two starters return, and promising reserve guard Whitney Knight has already gone down for the season with an ACL tear. But after setting an NCAA record for made three-pointers last season, you can bet these Eagles will keep on firing away in the Atlantic Sun.

Tennessee-Martin (23-9): Wade Trophy watch list selection Heather Butler (23.8 ppg) and fellow junior Jasmine Newsome should keep the Skyhawks the team to beat in the Ohio Valley.

Fresno State (28-6): With a new coach (Raegan Pebley) and a new conference (Mountain West from the Western Athletic), it’s good to have the stability of three of the top four scorers returning led by junior guard Ki-Ki Moore, last season’s WAC Player of the Year.