December 19, 2021 

NCAA mid-majors making moves

Teams and players making a statement all across the country

It is hard to believe that when we get to the middle of December our conversations turn to “how does this impact the NCAA tournament field?” We can check NET rankings daily; marvel at how conference play begins so early and circle the need-to-see league games that are just around the corner. But if you are in the extra-large basket of mid-major programs across the country, the landscape of college basketball is always a bit different.

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Mid-major coaches know that their post-season destiny is likely tied to one result – winning your post-season conference tournament. Automatic bids are matched with tournament championships. And at-large selections into the NCAA field for mid-majors are more difficult to come by. Many of these programs use their non-conference schedule to challenge their teams and get them ready for conference play; even knowing that January and February may not be the end-all for them. March is the time to peak and play your best.

What I love about college basketball is that some of the best and brightest stars; the unsung heroes and most consistent programs in the sport are not always the ones we see all the time on TV or in write-ups. They play in smaller arenas and spend more time on buses than their Power 5 friends. But I promise you – these are teams that most coaches do not want to see in their side of the bracket come selection Sunday.

The weekly women’s mid-major Top 25 poll at helps us keep track of who’s hot and who has been shaking things up across women’s basketball. Here are some interesting notes and statistics that also stand out right now (games through Dec. 16 via statistics):

  • Four of the top five scorers in the nation are from mid-major programs: #1 Jasmine Dickey, Delaware (25.6 points per game); #3 Destiny Leo, Cleveland State (24.2 points per game); #4 Jennifer Coleman, Navy (23.7 points per game) and #5 Kierstan Bell, FGCU (23.6 points per game)
  • Columbia’s Carly Rivera is second in the nation in total assists
  • Jasmine Franklin of Missouri State is second in the nation with 13.1 rebounds/game
  • Wyoming’s Tommi Olson leads the nation in assist/turnover ratio (4.33)
  • Clair Steele of Lehigh is third in assist/turnover ratio (4.20)
5’4 junior Carly Rivera of Columbia University is one of the best distributors in the nation to date.
(Photo credit: Mike McLaughlin, Columbia University Athletics)
  • Kent State (Mid-American Conference) is third nationally in 3-point FG percentage (42%)
  • FGCU (Atlantic Sun Conference) is third and Drexel (Colonial Athletic Conference) is seventh nationally in assist/turnover ratio
  • South Dakota (Summit League) has spent 75 consecutive weeks in the mid-major polls
Senior Lindsey Thall is currently second on the Kent State career charts for three-point field goals made at 189 and counting.
(Photo credit: Kent State Athletics)

 Let’s look at some teams and players you want to keep an eye on:

#20/#22 BYU: The Cougars are currently the only mid-major program in the Top 25 of the AP or Coaches poll. They are 8-1 with their only loss being a 99-91 overtime setback at surging Oklahoma. Three players are averaging double figures, with 6’1 forward Lauren Gustin averaging a double-double. WCC play starts for them on Dec. 30. Two huge games to circle on the calendar – Feb. 5 and Feb. 19. This is when BYU takes on Gonzaga. And you can bet they will settle things for a third time in the WCC postseason tournament.

6’1 sophomore Lauren Gustin and the Cougars are 8-1 and poised for another run at the WCC title. (Photo credit: BYU Photo)

(R/V) GONZAGA: How lucky are we that two of the top mid-major programs are in the same conference? The Bulldogs are 8-2, with both losses coming to Pac 12 teams (a 4-point loss to Stanford and a 2-point loss to Washington State.). Head coach Lisa Fortier is in her eighth year at Gonzaga and led them to the program’s ninth WCC tournament title in 2021. Her team has two non-conference games left before a brief holiday break and WCC play starts Dec. 30. Twin sisters Kayleigh and Kaylynne Truong are the top two scorers on a balanced and experienced roster that will be gunning for BYU in those February matchups.

STEPHEN F. AUSTIN: When a program can rattle off five consecutive 23-win seasons, you know that consistency is the name of the game in Nacogdoches, Texas. Head coach Mark Kellogg challenges his teams every year – case in point, a recent road trip to the northwest to play at Gonzaga and Portland. Currently 8-3, SFA will play on Dec. 20 and then gear up for WAC play. They have three players averaging double figures. And are led by 6’ senior Stephanie Visscher of Sweden, whose game has a true European feel with her ability to shoot the three. As a team, they are +22.4 in scoring margin and +11 in the turnover margin category – they will get up and down and defend for 40 minutes. Teams have been warned.

COLUMBIA: The Ivy League has two teams in the top ten of the poll and the Lions are riding a 9-3 record into the holiday break. Head coach and alumna Megan Griffith is in her sixth year at Columbia and has put together a team that has found its stride after missing the entire season last year due to the pandemic.  5’11 sophomore Abbey Hsu leads them in scoring and has already hit 45 threes this season. 6′ junior Kaitlyn Davis also averages double figures and leads the Lions on the boards. Both players have garnered Ivy League Player of the Week honors in the pre-season. Ivy League play starts in January – look for the Lions to contend for a championship.

5’11 sophomore Abbey Hsu leads a balanced Columbia team into Ivy League play next month. (Photo credit: Mike McLaughlin, Columbia University Athletics)

PRINCETON: Coming off a 97-77 overtime win over Buffalo this week, Princeton sits at 7-3 and bracing for two monster non-conference matchups before Ivy League play starts. The Tigers will go up against Texas on Dec. 22 and Central Florida on Dec. 29. With no rest for the weary, they will be tested at Columbia in their second Ivy League game on Jan. 7. Princeton is led by 6’0 senior Abby Meyers who is averaging 17.4 points per game and 43% from the three-point range. As a team, the Tigers are averaging just under 15 turnovers a game. If they can take care of the basketball in their late December games, it will be a great sign for things to come when the calendar turns to 2022.

The Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) is loaded every year with teams that are built with solid all-around talent and hard-nosed, no-nonsense attitudes. There are no easy games in this league and the 2021-22 season will be no different. A few teams in the MVC have been making an early statement:

(R/V) MISSOURI STATE: The reigning conference champions are at it again, building their resume with tough non-conference matchups and decisive wins. The Bears took care of business and beat in-state rival Missouri 79-51 at home and have two games left in December before MVC play tips after the holiday break. The roster for Missouri State is stacked with experience, including “super senior” Brice Calip and senior Jasmine Franklin, who is averaging a double-double (15.1 points and 13.1 rebounds per game). Fellow senior guard Mya Bhinhar leads the team in assists. The Bears are focused to repeat as MVC champs and make a trip back to the Sweet 16.

Senior Jasmine Franklin is averaging a double-double the Bears and is currently second in the nation in rebounds/game.
(Photo credit: Jesse Scheve, Missouri State University)

DRAKE: First-year head coach Allison Pohlman and the Bulldogs sit at 7-2, riding a six-game winning streak. They have two tough tests against Big Ten opponents Nebraska and Minnesota before the holidays and then kick off MVC play on Dec. 30. This team is balanced, led by three experienced juniors averaging double figures and true freshman Katie Dinnebier (2021 Miss Iowa Basketball) who has started every game and leads the team in assists and steals. On the season, Drake is averaging 83.2 points per game and giving up 69.1 per game. Early MVC home games of interest: Jan. 15 versus Missouri State and Jan. 21 versus UNI.  

Drake is second in the nation in field goal percentage at 48.8% (as of Dec. 16)

NORTHERN IOWA: The Panthers are always a consistent sight in the poll and currently sit in the top 20. Coming off at one point loss at #12 Iowa State, UNI will escape the Iowa winter for a few days of sunshine and the women’s Maui Jim Holiday Classic tournament before the holiday break. Junior guard Kam Finley has been their leading scorer, including dropping 28 on Iowa State. Senior Karli Rucker, a three-time MVC all-conference selection is second in scoring at 12.2 per game. Once MVC play starts, the Panthers will get their first crack at Missouri State on Jan. 13 when the Bears come to Cedar Falls.

UNI is sixth in the nation in assist/turnover ratio (as of Dec. 16)

Written by Missy Heidrick

I am a retired Kansas State shooting guard and spent almost 20 years working in Higher Education and Division 1 athletics. I am currently a basketball analyst for television and radio, contributing correspondent at The Next, Locked on Women's Basketball podcast host, WBB Naismith Award board of selectors member and run my own consulting business. I am a proud mother of two and wife to a patient husband who is almost as big of a sports junkie as I am!

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