Last season, we saw a changing of the guard in many ways.
South Carolina took over the top spot from Connecticut, defeating Mississippi State to claim their first-ever championship and setting themselves up for a potentially long stay on the throne. And we also saw another potential trend...
(In Paul Revere voice) The mid-majors are coming.
We saw teams like Belmont (Ohio Valley), FGCU (Atlantic Sun), Long Beach State (Big West) and Penn (Ivy League) give established programs a run for their money in the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament. And Quinnipiac, a small private school in Hamden, Connecticut, coming out of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, made it all the way to the Sweet 16 before getting bounced out by the eventual champions.
So this season, we’ve decided to give you 10 mid-major teams that could put a scare into brackets nationwide.
1) DAYTON FLYERS (Atlantic 10, 21-10 in 2016-17)
For a team that made it to the NCAA Tournament seven of the last eight years (including an Elite Eight appearance in 2015), a smart basketball fan wouldn’t sleep on Dayton. Yet every year, it seems like the pollsters skip over them. No poll (including the College Insider Mid-Major Top 25) has them ranked or receiving a single vote.
But this year’s team is eerily reminiscent of last year’s. Second-year head coach Shauna Green will have a relatively veteran squad, bringing back 10 letter winners, led by second-leading scorer and senior Jenna Burdette.
After only losing by nine points to Tennessee in the opening round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, the defending Atlantic 10 champion Flyers will look to make a further push and prove that the pollsters were wrong...again.
2) DRAKE BULLDOGS (Missouri Valley, 28-5 in 2016-17)
For the Bulldogs, their bite is just as dangerous as their bark. After finishing with a perfect home record (13-0) last season, they have been picked by coaches to repeat as champions in the Missouri Valley Conference. And who can blame them?
Last year’s team outscored their opponents by almost 20 points a game, and are bringing back two of their top three leading scorers (Becca Hittner, Sammie Bachrodt). And after making their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 10 years, College Insider has them ranked as the #3 team in the Mid-Major Top 25.
3) FLORIDA GULF COAST (Atlantic Sun, 26-9 in 2016-17)
Three points was all that separated 13-seed FGCU from upsetting 4-seed Miami in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, but don’t bet on this team to rest on their laurels and take an off-year. 16th-year head coach Karl Smesko isn’t about that life, and neither is his team.
The senior trio of Erica Nelson, Rosemarie Julien and Taylor Gradinjan will be looked at to provide the bulk of the scoring. Julien, the Preseason ASUN Player of the Year, shot nearly 50 percent from the floor last season and was the team’s leading scorer (11.0) last season.
The Eagles will also lean a lot on transfer Lisa Zderadicka, who led Houston Baptist in scoring, assists and steals last season. Eyes will be on them, as College Insider has them ranks #6 in their preseason top 25.
4) GONZAGA BULLDOGS (West Coast, 26-7 in 2016-17)
After finishing 1st in the West Coast Conference last season (12th time in the previous 13 seasons) and returning 62 percent of their scoring, Gonzaga is looking to make another big push to the Big Dance. Not only are they returning their top scorer (redshirt junior Jill Barta, 16.8 ppg last season), but they return seven players from last season’s squad.
The Bulldogs will also welcome guard Katie Campbell, who was a star at Ventura College last season. Her 18 points a game will be a boost for a team that didn’t have much scoring outside of Barta, and also adds youth to a squad that is #2 on College Insiders’ Mid-Major Top 25.
5) GREEN BAY PHOENIX (Horizon, 27-6 in 2016-17)
The #4 team in the Mid-Major Top 25 will definitely have a chance to prove their ranking early on in the season, as they have a date with AP #7-ranked Mississippi State on Thanksgiving weekend. But this team is built to handle that kind of pressure.
Senior Jessica Lindstrom comes back to lead the Phoenix scoring attack. After only pulling eight double-doubles in her first two seasons, Lindstrom went off last year, pulling 14 of them in helping lead Green Bay to an 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Despite losing by 12 to Purdue in the opening round, the Phoenix have the ammo to win their 17th Horizon League championship and make a third consecutive trip to the tournament.
6) NORTHERN COLORADO BEARS (Big Sky, 22-8 in 2016-17)
For a team that didn’t make it out of the first round of their conference tournament, the Bears are getting a lot of love from the pollsters. College Insider has them as the 13th best team in the Top 25, and are also the lone Big Sky team in the poll, leapfrogging last season’s Big Sky champ Montana State. It is pretty easy to see why they are getting so much respect, however.
For starters, they bring back their entire starting five from last season, including junior guard Savannah Smith (15.9 ppg last season) and senior Savannah Scott (led Big Sky in 3-point percentage - 45.0). They were also the top Big Sky team in scoring margin, 3-point percentage and assists. Their defense is also stingy as well, as they averaged 8.8 steals a game.
7) QUINNIPIAC BOBCATS (Metro Atlantic Athletic, 29-7 in 2016-17)
The Quinnipiac Bobcats were on NOBODY’S radar going into last season. They had only been to the NCAA Tournament twice (2013, 2015) and didn’t have what you would call a household name on their roster. Yet, here were the Bobcats, beating Marquette and Miami in the first two rounds of the tournament before getting bounced out of the Sweet Sixteen by eventual champion South Carolina.
As an end result, the Bobcats have been given the number one rank by College Insider for only the second time in team history, and deservedly so. Last season’s returning scorer (Jen Fay) and rebounder (Aryn McClure) come back, and head coach Tricia Fabbri, going into her 23rd season, will have a reasonably balanced squad to work with. The schedule they have will definitely give them a reason to prove they are the best, with early challenges against Northern Colorado and NCAA #5-ranked Ohio State.
8) SOUTH DAKOTA STATE JACKRABBITS (Summit, 23-9 in 2016-17)
Fresh off a season where they made the Women’s NIT, the Jackrabbits aren’t being slept on much anymore. Not only did they receive the #5 ranking in the Mid-Major Top 25, they also received six votes in the USA Today Coaches poll, making their first appearance there since January of 2016.
South Dakota State returns three starters from last year’s team, including senior and preseason All-Summit League first team selection Ellie Thompson, who led the team in scoring (13.5) and double-doubles (5).
Juniors Macy Miller and Madison Guebert (also first-team selections) will help round out the scoring attack for the Jackrabbits, who will undoubtedly need scoring with a top-heavy schedule like theirs. With Drake, Florida Gulf Coast, North Carolina State and Oklahoma early, the Jackrabbits will be able to build a thick skin early to prepare for a return back to the NCAA’s.
9) STETSON HATTERS (Atlantic Sun, 26-7 in 2016-17)
The Hatters, who received 76 votes in the Mid-Major poll, are a team that despite being a constant presence in every postseason tournament (have appeared in the NCAA, WBI and WNIT; seven straight postseason appearances) are continually overlooked.
The Hatters will have a fairly new squad in Lynn Bria's tenth season (seven newcomers), but also bring back six letterwinners from a team that won its first-ever Atlantic Sun regular season championship last season. The most significant X-factor will be Sarah Sagerer, who was named ASUN Defensive Player of the Year after ranking seventh in the nation with 100 blocks.
However, Sagerer has been out all preseason with an undisclosed injury, which is hurting her potential WNBA Draft stock, as some scouts – privately – question how much Sagerer loves the game. Fellow letterwinner Brittany Chambers also returns after leading the team in scoring (11.8 ppg).
10) TOLEDO ROCKETS (Mid-Atlantic, 25-9 in 2017)
The 2017 MAC Champion Toledo Rockets received 83 votes in the Mid-Major Top 25, and while they didn't place, they have all the pieces in place to shake up the poll. Nine letterwinners return, including four of their five starters.
Head coach Tricia Cullop, going into her tenth season, has a powerhouse trio in juniors Kaylaa McIntyre and Mikaela Boyd and senior Jay-Ann Bravo-Harriett, three of the top four leading scorers from last season. And after losing to Creighton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Rockets will be looking to wash out the taste of defeat and also be the first team to repeat as MAC champions in 10 years.