Few things in sports are more valuable than the superstar with the ability to rise to the occasion. That someone's best should be saved for their biggest moments.
But what about the person who doesn't rise to the moment so much as live there permanently?
What if every game was the occasion?
It would look a lot like Ciara Duffy, the best mid-major player in the country at the moment.
That unerring consistency, over 40 minutes or four months, is what separates South Dakota's Duffy. And Duffy is the biggest reason a program that was just getting started in Division I a decade ago is currently ranked ahead of Tennessee, Texas and quite a few brand names that aren't used to looking up at a team from the Summit League.
The Sabrina Ionescu of the Great Plains, Duffy averages 17 points. 6.1 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game for a Coyotes team ranked an all-time high No. 21 in the AP Top 25. She's also shooting 50 percent from the field, a staggering 51 percent from the 3-point line (she's four 3-pointers shy of qualifying for the national lead) and 80 percent from the free throw line.
Duffy's scoring average is impressive but still a comparatively modest 14th among players whose teams are ranked in the AP poll.
But here's the thing. She hasn't scored more than 23 points in a game all season. Average 17 points over 21 games without ever scoring more than 23. That isn't easy to do. She hasn't scored 43 points in a game (Rhyne Howard). She hasn't scored 37 points (Ionescu). Nor has she scored 33 points (Rennia Davis) or even 30 points (Sonya Morris).
What Duffy has done, excluding a game against an NAIA school in which she played just 12 minutes, is go out and score around 17 points. Every single game. She scored 20 points in a loss at South Carolina and 21 points in a win against rival South Dakota State. She scored 16 at Utah and 18 at home against Oral Roberts -- all while collecting those rebounds and assists at almost the same relentlessly, unerringly consistent rates.
She is the perfect fit for a team that is far from a one-woman show but which nonetheless needs a special player in order to climb as high as it has in the rankings. That said, with a month to play, Duffy still has company from at least two people in the race for mid-major player of the year.
Bella Alarie, Princeton: She has played half as many games as Duffy and Kelly, but unlike with the injuries that cost her a few games early, that's mostly now because of Princeton's odd schedule. It seems a lot to ask her to average 25 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks the rest of the way -- the line she posted in a big win at Penn earlier this month -- but that's basically what she did average a season ago. And no one else in the country is going to do that.
Micaela Kelly, Central Michigan: In a world of false humility it is refreshing to hear Kelly sum up her own case rather succinctly. "As I go, the team goes," the senior recently told the Detroit News. She's not wrong. Which is why the season is going very well for the Chippewas despite a new coach and significant roster turnover. Her point wasn't a selfish one, but to say she understands she sets the tone for others to follow. She is tied with Kentucky's Howard for second nationally in scoring. And some turnovers notwithstanding, she's efficient.
If we want to round out an all-mid-major team with a month to play in the regular season, Rice's Erica Ogwumike and UT Martin's Chelsey Perry would fit alongside Alarie, Duffy and Kelly.
Belmont's Ellie Harmeyer, James Madison's Kamiah Smalls, Missouri State's Alexa Willard, IUPUI's Macee Williams and Gonzaga's Jenn Wirth would make a good second five.
But it's going to take something special to dislodge Duffy as the player of the year, mostly because she's going to go out and do something very good every time she takes the court.
Now on to the rankings.
Mid-major top 10
1. Gonzaga (20-1, 9-0 West Coast)
As Gonzaga rolls through the West Coast Conference, it's growing ever more difficult not to think about how close this team is to being undefeated. The Bulldogs led Stanford with 16 seconds remaining in regulation and had a shot to win even after the host pulled level. In the context of one of the most balanced offenses in the AP Top 25, it's interesting to watch Jill Townsend assert herself. Coming off a season-high 28 points, she has taken double-digit shots in four of the past six games -- compared to three times in the first 15 games. Last month's ranking: 1
2. South Dakota (19-2, 8-0 Summit)
Watching South Dakota defeat its first five conference opponents by an average margin of 34 points was one thing. Watching the Coyotes then rout rival South Dakota State by 35 points was the indication this team is dialed in. So much so that when South Dakota led Oral Roberts by a mere seven points after the first quarter this past Sunday, it ended a streak of three games in a row in which South Dakota led by at least 20 points after the first quarter. Last month's ranking: 4
3. Florida Gulf Coast (20-2, 7-0 Atlantic Sun)
Someone in this very space might have suggested that the Atlantic Sun merited close attention this season because, as good as FGCU might be, it might finally face some competition. Well, the Eagles are playing closer conference games. They're "only" winning by an average of 24 points per game, compared to 24.4 a season ago. So it's a very familiar story. It does bear watching that as good as Keri Jewett-Giles and Davion Wingate, FGCU's leading scorers, are from the 3-point line, the rest of the team is shooting a collective 30 percent from there. Last month's ranking: 2
4. Princeton (13-1, 1-0 Ivy)
The Tigers have only played one game this month, but they made it count with a commanding second half in a 20-point win at Penn. With its games on back-to-back days, the Ivy League schedule isn't much fun, but at least Princeton should be well rested. If there is a concern at this stage, it might be offensive efficiency. Even with Alarie's efficiency, Princeton is shooting barely 40 percent from the floor, what would be its worst mark since 2016-17 -- when it went 16-14. Last month's ranking: 5
5. Central Michigan (14-4, 7-0 MAC)
The most important part of Central Michigan's remaining schedule will unfold in the next few days, Wednesday's visit to Buffalo followed by a Saturday home game against Ohio. If the Chippewas come through that stretch against the two best teams in the MAC East, they will have a lot of separation from the entire conference (although a road swing to Ball State and Toledo at the end of next month is no picnic). As good as Kelly is, having Gabrielle Bird step up of late is a big deal. She has hit 21-of-50 3-point attempts in seven conference games. Last month's ranking: Not ranked
6. Missouri State (16-3, 6-1 Missouri Valley)
January has been a roller coaster, but Missouri State is keeping its lunch down for now. The best moment was obviously the win against Drake on Jan. 10 that saw the Lady Bears erase a six-point deficit in the final 97 seconds. Sydney Manning's buzzer-beating 3-pointer finished the comeback in a 69-67 win. But after narrowly escaping a loss against Loyola in overtime earlier in the month on the road, Missouri State lost at Southern Illinois on Jan. 17. They play every other team in the top half of the league in the next 17 days, so consistency will be tested. Last month's ranking: 3
7. James Madison (15-3, 6-1 Colonial)
Kamiah Smalls is the star and the one who deserves her place on any list of the best mid-major players in the country. But who is the most valuable player in the country averaging fewer than 10 points per game? There are some interesting candidates (Oregon State's Aleah Goodman and Oregon's Minyon Moore come to mind). James Madison's Kayla Cooper-Williams might have them all beat. While not a scorer, she began the week sixth nationally in blocked shots and 19th in rebounds. She's expected to return this week after missing the past four games. Last month's ranking: 7
8. Rice (13-6, 8-0 Conference USA)
It has been a puzzling season for Rice, which should have beaten Texas A&M but also lost to Texas Southern and got blown out by 31 points at Oklahoma State. Who are the Owls? Right now they are the undefeated leader in Conference USA, so perhaps they're figuring out that identity. Then again, they've only played two of the teams with winning C-USA records at the moment, so early February games against UAB, Middle Tennessee and Old Dominion will offer more clues as to whether there is enough offense to complement a very sound defense. Last month's ranking: Not ranked
9. Bradley (16-2, 7-0 Missouri Valley)
Bradley doesn't have the nonconference résumé that Drake or even Northern Iowa have. But it does have wins against both of those teams in the past week, cementing its place on this list -- and more importantly, atop the conference. Perhaps as impressively, it got those wins with some imperfect performances. Bradley beat Drake and Northern Iowa despite leading scorer Lasha Petree suffering through a weekend in which she missed 20 of 22 shots. Petree, who has also scored 30 twice this season, is the reason Bradley won a lot of games. But it speaks well of this team's potential in the best mid-major league this season that her teammates picked her up. Last month's ranking: Not ranked
10. Drake (13-6, 5-2 Missouri Valley)
A few points away from conference perfection is, well, still not perfection. The close losses at Missouri State and Bradley leave Drake teetering, with Fresno State among those pushing for this spot. The upside is Drake gets most of the league's other contenders at home over the final weeks of the MVC schedule. Also upside, Becca Hittner is starting to shoot a lot more like the reigning and preseason MVC player of the year. Last month's ranking: 8
Fell out: South Dakota State, Penn, Western Kentucky