Florida Gulf Coast starts out at No. 1 in mid-major preseason top 10 poll

Whitney Knight helped lead Florida Gulf Coast to the second round of the NCAA tournament last season. AP Photo/Michael Conroy

Basketball fans had mid-major programs to thank for much of the fun in the NCAA tournament.

It was just last spring that Dayton ran through the Big 12, SEC and ACC to reach the Elite Eight, while Gonzaga nearly toppled Tennessee in the Sweet 16. Off an unbeaten regular season that earned national attention -- as well as some from the White House -- Princeton made the most of a questionable seeding decision and gave Maryland a game on the Terps' home court.

And this year might be even better. Even without some familiar names from a season ago, this looks on paper like one of the deepest collection of viable mid-major teams in the past decade.

So let's get to the preseason top 10.

1. Florida Gulf Coast

Last season: 31-3 overall, 14-0 Atlantic Sun, NCAA tournament second round

What they have: Start with a good talent base that has the potential to be truly special if a few things go right. Whitney Knight is the cornerstone, a 6-foot-3 shot-blocker who is listed as a guard, like most of the roster, and led the Atlantic Sun in 3-pointers. The top three scorers are back, as are five of the top six. The rotation might gain Vanderbilt transfer Kady Schrann, if preseason injury concerns don't linger, and Georgia transfer Sydnei McCaskill after Christmas.

Name to remember: Taylor Gradinjan. If most people know anything about Florida Gulf Coast, it's that they shoot 3-pointers. True to form, FGCU ranked ninth nationally in 3-pointers a season ago. But in terms of 3-point efficiency, the past few years were, well, hit and miss. A sophomore by eligibility who is actually in her fourth year, Gradinjan could change that all on her own. Once in the rotation after coming back from multiple ACL tears, she was a 41 percent 3-point shooter.

Best chance to turn heads: Dec. 19 vs. Mississippi State

(Update: Knight is expected to miss several weeks at the start of the season after being diagnosed with a fracture in her left foot, the South Florida newspaper News-Press reported Tuesday after this article was originally published. Although there are opponents who will test a Knight-less team before then, the team's first game of national consequence is Dec. 3 against George Washington.)

2. George Washington

Last season: 29-4 overall, 15-1 Atlantic 10, NCAA tournament first round

What they have: The Department of the Interior. All right, the nickname needs work, but not many programs, mid-major or otherwise, can talk about running out a lineup that goes 6-2, 6-4, 6-5 across the front. Colonials coach Jonathan Tsipis has talked about doing just that at times with All-America candidate Jonquel Jones, Caira Washington and Kelli Prange. The team led the nation in rebounding by a healthy margin a season ago.

Name to remember: Caira Washington. The headlines will go to Jones, and deservedly so, in the case of a player who can do things like put up 24 points and 17 rebounds at Dayton. But to use a comparison to a recent mid-major success, Washington is the Ta'Shia Phillips to Jones' Amber Harris -- not in stature, where Washington gives up inches to Phillips, but certainly in value. The junior forward just can't afford to hit triple digits in fouls this season.

Best chance to turn heads: Nov. 21 at Stanford

3. Princeton

Last season: 31-1 overall, 14-0 Ivy League, NCAA tournament second round

What they have: A really long regular-season winning streak. Beaten in 2014-15 only by Maryland in the postseason (and the NCAA tournament selection committee), Princeton returns four of five starters and its most productive reserve. That the Tigers find themselves third here despite that continuity is because Ivy League player of the year Blake Dietrick turned pro. But Dietrick is also a reminder that players don't stagnate under Courtney Banghart.

Name to remember: Annie Tarakchian. Even Dietrick didn't take that many more shots than the rest of the team's core, so it's not as if any Tiger will ever channel Kobe Bryant. Still, it will be fascinating to see where Tarakchian goes from what was quietly one of the best complementary lines out there: 9.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.1 steals per game and 47 percent 3-point shooting.

Best chance to turn heads: Dec. 18 at Ohio State

4. Chattanooga

Last season: 29-4 overall, 14-0 Southern, NCAA tournament first round

What they have: Chattanooga a season ago was a quintessential mid-major. Smaller than some of the ranked teams it beat, namely Tennessee and Stanford, it nonetheless didn't concede athleticism before it even took the court. It excelled defensively, and it was efficient (it shot 52 percent against Tennessee and turned over the ball just 12 times against Stanford). More relevant to these rankings, almost the entire rotation that produced that returns this season.

Name to remember: Jasmine Joyner. Having just stated that Chattanooga is a quintessential mid-major success, those teams traditionally don't have a game-altering defensive presence in the post. They certainly don't have one who can step out of her league and block eight shots on the road at Notre Dame. The 6-2 junior is a big-time talent by any measure.

Best chance to turn heads: Nov. 23 at Tennessee, Nov. 30 vs. Connecticut, Dec. 28 at Stanford

5. Green Bay

Last season: 28-5 overall, 15-1 Horizon, NCAA tournament first round

What they have: Led by the versatile trio of Tesha Buck, Mehryn Kraker and Kaili Lukan, the Phoenix return 87 percent of the scoring from a team that went 5-2 against major conferences and deserved better than a first-round game against Princeton. They also add one of the most notable mid-major transfers. The catch is that few could be more valuable in scoring 6.7 points per game than former point guard and defensive stopper Megan Lukan.

Name to remember: Ashley Luke. It's always nice to add a transfer who a season ago averaged 19.7 points per game, three points per game more than any player in the successful history of the Green Bay program. It's even better when she knows her way around campus. After transferring from Green Bay to Western Illinois after her freshman year, Luke is back for a final season in Wisconsin.

Best chance to turn heads: Nov. 28 vs. Rutgers

6. Gonzaga

Last season: 26-9 overall, 15-3 West Coast, NCAA tournament Sweet 16

What they have: Let's call it institutional memory. Gonzaga loses stars and still thrives. It even lost Kelly Graves to little ill effect, coming within a whisker of the Elite Eight for Lisa Fortier. So while the Bulldogs lost the leading scorers off that team, Keani Albanez and Sunny Greinacher, they know how to reload. There is still a lot of size, as well as a quality point guard and promising shooters.

Name to remember: Elle Tinkle. Not to suggest it was one-to-one cause and effect, but Gonzaga started to look like its old self a season ago about the time Tinkle hit her stride. Younger sister of former Stanford player Joslyn and daughter of Oregon State men's college basketball coach Wayne, her name stands on its own in Spokane, a rare scorer both reliable from long range and able and willing to get to the free throw line.

Best chance to turn heads: Nov. 15 vs. Stanford

7. Dayton

Last season: 28-7 overall, 14-2 Atlantic 10, NCAA tournament Elite Eight

What they have: Let's get the elephant out of the room with whom they don't have: Andrea Hoover and Ally Malott. Those two combined to average 32.9 points and 14.1 rebounds per game, and even those stats don't do them justice. That still leaves a player who had a double-double and four blocks against Louisville in the Sweet 16 (Jodie Cornelie-Sigmundova) and a lot of backcourt depth.

Name to remember: Kelley Austria. After tearing her ACL midway through the 2013-14 season, Austria came on late a season ago. She averaged 14 points, four rebounds and two steals in the final two games of the A-10 tournament and NCAA games against Iowa State, Kentucky, Louisville and Connecticut.

Best chance to turn heads: Jan. 10 vs. George Washington, Feb. 14 at George Washington

8. South Dakota State

Last season: 24-9 overall, 12-4 Summit, NCAA tournament first round

What they have: Defense and rebounding are all but assumed as strengths by this point in the program's development. Last season's team was one of the best at ball control, and enough of the core returns to expect more of the same, especially with distributor Gabrielle Boever back from injury. Several pieces need to be replaced, including leading scorer Megan Waytashek, but an incoming class that includes the Minnesota and South Dakota players of the year intrigues.

Name to remember: Macy Miller. A freshman who comes in and does one or two things well is an asset. The South Dakota high school player of the year once removed, Miller came in a season ago and did a lot of things -- shooting 49 percent from the field, 88 percent on a team-high 135 free throw attempts, leading the team in assists and finishing with a positive assist-to-turnover ratio.

Best chance to turn heads: Nov. 21 vs. Notre Dame

9. Drexel

Last season: 20-11 overall, 14-4 Colonial, WNIT

What they have: Continuity helps, and Drexel returns its top four scorers from a season ago. Granted, Jamila Thompson was one of Drexel's most productive players without being a point producer. She's gone, but Sarah Curran and Rachel Pearson return as well-rounded, double-digit scorers. Drexel has also gone back to Europe for reinforcements in its freshman class.

Name to remember: Meghan Creighton. As much as Thompson moving on hurts, Creighton returning helps. She played just seven games a season ago before injury ruled her out. She's not likely to score a lot of points, but she's a 3-point threat at point guard who also manages a two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio.

Best chance to turn heads: Dec. 29 at Syracuse

10. BYU

Last season: 23-9 overall 12-6 West Coast, NCAA tournament first round

What they have: BYU loses Morgan Bailey and her near-automatic double-double, but it still has backcourt depth. Specifically, it still has Lexi Eaton Rydalch. A talented scorer from the outset in Provo, she became a much more efficient one a season ago. Her hot streaks are something to behold. BYU wasn't a good rebounding team even with Bailey, so that's an issue.

Name to remember: Makenzie Morrison Pulsipher. Eaton Rydalch is the first chair and point guard Kylie Maeda is the conductor, but Morrison Pulsipher could make the tune come together if her sublime 3-point touch stretches defenses and opens up room on the court for developing players inside. And she's a more complete offensive player than merely a shooter.

Best chance to turn heads: Dec. 5 vs. Texas A&M (in Hawaii)