Drake leads way in first espnW mid-major poll of new season

Forward Sara Rhine, a 6-foot-1 redshirt junior, and Drake are off to a 2-0 start this season. Drake Athletics

Among much that was obscured, and gloriously so, by a Final Four for the ages, the story of the most recent NCAA tournament was a mid-major story.

Buffalo and Central Michigan marched to the Sweet 16. Quinnipiac earned an opportunity to share the court, and not just the state, with UConn. Florida Gulf Coast ended Missouri's season. Even Creighton, no longer a mid-major but born of those roots, pulled off an upset.

Whether those results were proof there will be similar mayhem every year, they showed that it can happen. The right talent evaluation, player development and style of play can, at least to within the fringes of the Top 25, overcome a deficit of resources.

As a new season begins, so does the espnW mid-major top 10. Same as ever, the ground rules are simple: Teams in the ACC, American, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC are not eligible. Everyone else is fair game. We'll check in every fortnight.

1. Drake (2-0)

Drake made 66 field goals in its first two games, wins against Nebraska and Western Illinois. It recorded assists on 50 of those field goals. There is more to success than any one number, of course, but registering assists on 76 percent of your field goals is a decent encapsulation of a philosophy of play that has served the Bulldogs well for seven seasons with coach Jennie Baranczyk. So does the fact that redshirt junior Sara Rhine, a first-team all-conference pick a season ago and the MVC's first player of the week this season, continues in a sixth woman role.

With all five starters back from a team that won 26 games a season ago, few teams are as balanced and experienced. Drake will have opportunities to shape an NCAA tournament résumé this season. In addition to consecutive games against South Dakota State, Iowa State and Iowa in December, the Bulldogs will play Rutgers and either Notre Dame or Gonzaga in Canada later this month.

2. South Dakota State (2-1)

The opener is going to haunt the Jackrabbits, but at least a lot of season remains to exorcise that 39-point loss at Marquette. Even Notre Dame lost a game by 33 points a season ago, so life goes on. Marquee (that combination of letters might still be stressful in Brookings) games remain against Baylor on a neutral court and Oregon at home, but South Dakota State is at the forefront of "scheduling up" within the mid-major ranks, playing inter-regional games against the likes of Buffalo, Central Michigan, Chattanooga and Florida Gulf Coast. Whether the selection committee pays enough attention to that for it to matter in March remains to be seen.

Two such games provided a good response to the opening loss. Trailing by as many as 12 points in the first quarter against Florida Gulf Coast, South Dakota State went on a 68-40 run in the final three quarters. The Jackrabbits then withstood Central Michigan's frenetic style on the road. Back for her fifth year, Macy Miller scored 48 points on 61 percent shooting in the wins.

3. Belmont (1-1)

Belmont led NC State on the road at halftime of its opener but ran out of steam (and fouls) in the second half. While the second half was an opportunity missed, the first half indicated that the Ohio Valley's dominant program in recent years will continue to thrive, despite losing three starters from a group that won 31 games and reached the NCAA tournament a season ago.

It helps that a pair of returning starters, seniors Darby Maggard and Jenny Roy, are two of the best mid-major players in the country. A 3-point shooter and distributor in the Stephen Curry mold, Maggard is hopefully a recognizable name by now. That might not be the case for Roy, a marvel of versatility who has yet to average double-digit points in her career but contributed 7.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.1 steals per game as a junior.

4. South Dakota (2-0)

The roster turnover is significant, with two starters and a key reserve lost to graduation (not to mention valuable assistant coach Kayla Tetschlag to the major conference ranks at Wisconsin). But South Dakota still has the infrastructure in place to challenge its in-state rival for a Summit League title and a second trip to the NCAA tournament since moving to Division I a decade ago.

Returning starters Allison Arens, Ciara Duffy and Madison McKeever are the foundation, all part of the preseason all-conference teams. The hope will be that someone like junior Taylor Frederick, who scored 26 points on 9-of-12 shooting in an opening win against Creighton, is on the verge of a breakthrough to further diversify the lineup.

A week that already featured one mid-major showdown (South Dakota State beat Central Michigan) will wind to a close with another when South Dakota visits Drake on Thursday.

5. Bucknell (2-0)

With three consecutive appearances in either the WNIT or NCAA tournament, the Bison have been consistently good for some time. Still, the manner in which they dispatched Quinnipiac in a high-profile mid-major clash during the season's opening week was a head turner. Leading by only a point at halftime in that game, Bucknell outscored Quinnipiac 25-6 in the third quarter.

That recent postseason experience matters because much of it is still in uniform. Seniors Kyi English, Kaitlyn Slagus and Kate Walker either started or at least played significant minutes for all three of those teams and now form the core of the bison. A 6-foot-2 forward who piled up 24 rebounds in her first two games this season and also has 3-point range, Slagus is a name to know as Bucknell faces a tough week ahead with Drexel and Syracuse on the schedule.

6. Central Michigan (1-1)

We don't know how the Chippewas will fare in living up to the success of last season's Sweet 16 run. We do know they will entertain as they attempt to find that answer. It's in Central Michigan's DNA to do everything at full throttle. Good for nearly five offensive rebounds per game, among many things, Reyna Frost should be on the short list for mid-major player of the year. Presley Hudson is a fearless point guard. And the sight of Micaela Kelly at full speed is breathtaking.

Some of what doomed the Chippewas against South Dakota State is fixable, such as the inability to recognize a shooter on a hot streak. Some of it is more troublesome, as South Dakota State isolated smaller defenders in the paint and scored point after point in the second half.

7. Dayton (1-1)

It might take some time to fit everything together, which made an early game at Maryland all the more challenging, but Dayton has a whole lot of upside. The known is holdovers such as Lauren Cannatelli and Jayla Scaife, key parts of Dayton's NCAA tournament at-large bid a season ago. After a breakthrough season, Scaife received both preseason first-team all-conference and all-defense recognition. The unknown includes South Carolina transfer Araion Bradshaw; former Illinois State standout Shakeela Fowler, who sat out last season with a medical redshirt; and freshman Kyla Whitehead, the sort of near-top-100 recruit with which the Flyers thrive.

8. IUPUI (3-0)

In one sense, IUPUI can thank Sydney Roule for its place here after the sophomore hit a 3-pointer with less than two seconds to play to beat UT-Martin on Tuesday. That win against a team picked to finish second in the Ohio Valley came on the heels of a Power 5 road win at Mississippi. But in the larger sense, IUPUI is a player in the mid-major picture because of sophomore Macee Williams. The preseason player of the year in the Horizon League and a former top-70 recruit, Williams had 24 points and nine rebounds against UT-Martin and 23 points and 12 rebounds against Mississippi. If Tamya Sims, a preseason all-conference selection, returns from injury soon, the Jaguars will challenge the conference supremacy of the team below.

9. Green Bay (0-2)

Green Bay led No. 15 DePaul by eight points with a little more than 7 minutes to play on the road and led Northwestern by 11 points late in the third quarter at home. The Phoenix were unable to close out either game. Both optimists and pessimists have plenty to poke through in those results. But all the more in light of Northwestern's win against Duke, credit Green Bay's competitiveness as it adjusts to a very different rotation than that which took it back to the NCAA tournament a season ago. Unfortunately, there is no half-full spin for losing starter Karly Murphy to a torn ACL a minute into the season. Life gets no easier with Missouri next on the schedule.

10. Boise State (2-0)

The Broncos have quietly settled in as a mid-major presence, making the NCAA tournament in three of the past four seasons and winning the Mountain West regular-season and tournament championships a season ago. For all of that success, they still have junior Riley Lupfer, the preseason conference player of the year. Lupfer and Spanish senior Marta Hermida form one of the most entertaining backcourts out there -- and freshman Jade Loville is poised to add to the fun.

The only disappointment is the schedule. With a pair of non-Division I opponents and little of note besides Louisville next week, it's NCAA tournament automatic bid or bust for the Broncos.