If there is anything to take away from narrowing down the Top 10 mid-major programs heading into the 2015-16 campaign, it's that mid-major women's hoops carries a heavy load of both talent and tradition. While it feels like somewhat of an injustice limiting the pool to just 10, these mid-major programs deserve every ounce of attention that is headed their way this season.
Tied for a preseason Ivy League favorite, returning four of five starters and coming off a 31-1 record last season, the Tigers are bound for another impressive year. Head Coach Courtney Banghart's squad averaged a staggering 16.9 assists and shot just short of 50% from the field. This ultimately landed Princeton its fifth Ivy crown in the last six years and highest-ever NCAA seeding (No. 8) in conference history.
In the 2015 USA Today Preseason Coaches' Poll, Princeton earned the No. 25 spot. Senior captains Annie Tarakchian, Alex Wheatley and Taylor Williams, will pave the way for yet another historical season.
Tarakchian was a First-Team All-Ivy selection averaging 10.3 points per game alongside Wheatley's 10.7 points per game, who was also named to First-Team All-Ivy. Despite graduating All-American Blake Dietrick, the Tigers still return three players who averaged double figures last year.
Another preseason favorite in the Southern Conference and coming off a hot 2014-15 season is the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. If there are two words to describe the Mocs, it would be disciplined and gritty. Not only did they lead the nation in fewest personal fouls per game, but were ranked second on a national scale in points allowed per game at 50.5.
Chattanooga returns Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year in Alicia Payne, SoCon Tournament Most Outstanding Player Jasmine Joyner and all-conference honoree Chelsey Shumpert. In two short years, Head Coach Jim Foster has posted an impressive 58-8 record.
He has taken UTC's program to new heights- and year three looks just as promising. He returns three players who averaged double figures in points last season in Shumpert, sophomore Keiana Gilbert and Joyner, who was also pulled down 8.2 rebounds per game.
Florida Gulf Coast
Florida Gulf Coast is a senior-dominated team who knows how to put the ball in the hole; especially from three-point land as they averaged a blistering 9.7 made threes per game last season.
The Eagles are coming off a 14-0 finish in the Atlantic Sun Conference, 31-2 overall, where they averaged 72.7 points per game and held their opponents to 53.7, good for 10th in the country. It is no surprise FGCU was tabbed preseason No. 1 in the Atlantic Sun and No. 22 in the espnW's preseason polls.
The Eagles return several key players in reigning A-Sun Player of the Year Whitney Knight, Preseason Defensive Player of the Year Kaneisha Atwater and preseason all-Conference selection Stephanie Haas.
Knight averaged a team-best 15 points per game, shooting 42% from behind the arc, while Atwater was close behind her with 14.4 points per game. This depth in addition to Head Coach Karl Smesko, who has been named the A-Sun Coach of the Year six times during his 13-year tenure, will be a lethal combination.
Green Bay has been a dangerous team in the Horizon League over the last 15 plus years, and the 2015-16 season will be no different. For the eighth straight year, the Phoenix topped the preseason Horizon League polls at No. 1, and three players in juniors Tesha Buck and Mehryn Kraker and redshirt senior Ashley Luke were deemed first and second team selections. Even with Luke out for the season due to injury, Green Bay has a handful of weapons they can turn to.
Kraker and Buck averaged 12.5 and 11.6 points per game, respectively in the team's 28-5 finish and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Although they fell to Princeton in the first round, Green Bay had other notable wins over traditionally strong programs including Arizona State and a double overtime thriller against Purdue University.
If there is any program that has been a model of consistency among mid-major programs, it's Gonzaga. The Bulldogs have won the last 11 regular season West Coast Conference titles and have been tabbed the preseason favorite for the third straight year. In her first season, Head Coach Lisa Fortier led Gonzaga to a remarkable 28-6 record and trip to the Sweet 16.
With Shelby Cheslek and Elle Tinkle, both preseason all-conference picks, in the lineup, Bulldog opponents will have their hands full. Tinkle was an All-WCC First Team selection last year, and rightfully so given the way she rounded out her junior season.
She averaged 14.9 points- shooting 50.6% from the field and 43.8% from three- and 5.9 rebounds per game in conference play. Cheslek, a 6'5" center, started in all but one game for Gonzaga posting four double-doubles and averaging 8.2 rebounds per game.
South Dakota State
Among the best in the Summit League, South Dakota State has earned a name for themselves over the last several years. Preseason No. 1 in their league, the Jackrabbits will rally behind junior Kerri Young and sophomore Macy Miller.
As a rookie, Miller averaged 14.7 points per game, 4.8 rebounds, and 2.8 assists while shooting 50% from the field in conference play. She put up 453 points in her career debut, setting the single-season freshman scoring record.
Although SDSU lost two key starters, Young and sophomore Ellie Thompson with one more year under their belt should help pick up the slack. Young and Miller both garnered first team all-conference preseason honors while Thompson claimed a spot on the second team. The Jackrabbits also return senior guard Gabrielle Boever, who sat out last season. She adds a dangerous dimension to South Dakota's squad in terms of steals and assists.
Led by Head Coach Bob Bolden, Ohio returns three of five starters from last season's 27-5 finish, Mid-American Conference crown and an appearance at the Big Dance. The Bobcats' roster is infused with upperclassmen carrying six juniors and three seniors. Senior guard Kiyanna Black led the way in scoring a year ago averaging 16 points while junior guard Quiera Lampkins was not far behind with 12.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.
Bolden has essentially built Ohio's program from the ground up as he led the Bobcats to their first conference title in 2015 since the 1994-95 season. While having a target on their back is not necessarily a familiar concept, Bolden's crew has undoubtedly learned how to win over the last couple years, and they certainly have what it takes to build on their most recent successes.
An unthinkable statistic: being named preseason No. 1 in the Big South Conference 18 out of the last 19 years. It is safe to say the Flames are far from just a flash in the pan, but rather a dominating force among conference rivals. They have two players, Ashley Rininger and Sadalia Ellis, who were named to the preseason all-conference squad. Rininger led the team in scoring (12.8), rebounding (8.9) and blocks (53 total) a year ago.
The Flames finished 26-7 overall and lost just one key scorer in Karly Buer. They notched a big win over Penn State and hung tough with a handful of powerhouses in the University of Minnesota, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina- who they only lost to by six points in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Earning six of nine first-place votes in the America East preseason polls, the University of Albany presents a lot of strengths again this year. No team in the America East has ever won five straight league titles, but UAlbany is looking to change that this time around. The 2014-15 Player of the Year Shereesha Richards will lace up for her final season surrounded by talent including junior Imani Tate.
Tate averaged 14.2 points, which was a 10-point increase from her sophomore season, and was named the Sixth Player of the Year for the 2014-15 campaign. Tate alongside 2014-15 All-Rookie Team member Tiana-Jo Carter as well as junior guard Zakiya Saunders, who notched 122 assists a year ago, has Head Coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson's sixth season looking like a bright one.
In many ways, Drake is somewhat of a dark horse among mid-major foes. Head Coach Jennie Baranczyk has spent the last few years rebuilding a vision and elevating the program, but that is not to undermine the damage Drake's squad could do this year as she enters her fourth season.
The Bulldogs were preseason ranked second behind Missouri State and return three major contributors in juniors Lizzy Wendell and Caitlin Ingle along with reigning Freshman of the Year Maddy Dean.
Wendell, the Missouri Valley Conference Preseason Player of the Year, averaged a league-best 21.8 points per game and dropped 43 points on two separate occasions in the 2014-15 campaign. Her offensive tenacity combined with Ingle at point guard will be a tough duo to shut down. Ingle averaged 6.7 assists last season, ninth best in the country, and was a First Team All-MVC selection along with Wendell.