Who else? Green Bay returns to top of mid-major rankings

Allie LeClaire and No. 20 Green Bay are 21-2 this season and riding a 10-game winning streak. Courtesy Green Bay Athletics

Always take the Dutch in long-distance speedskating. Always go with the Germans or the Swiss in bobsled. Always stick with the Norwegians in cross-country skiing. And always go with Green Bay as the No. 1 mid-major by the time February arrives. As the Winter Olympics commence, there is a new-but-familiar team atop the mid-major rankings.

1. Green Bay (21-2, 11-1 Horizon)

The Phoenix return to the top spot on the strength of a 10-game winning streak, including victories in recent days against conference challengers IUPUI and Wright State (to sweep the season series against the Raiders). Those two wins also highlighted senior Allie LeClaire's importance. She still trails Jessica Lindstrom for the overall team scoring lead, but LeClaire's 22 points against IUPUI and 22 points against Wright State highlight her ability to get her own shots from long range or craftily off the dribble and score in spurts (she had 18 in a win against Arizona State and 22 in a win at Northwestern).

Last week: No. 3


2. Belmont (22-3, 12-0 Ohio Valley)

The gang is all here. The lineup available in recent games was as close to ideal as the Bruins are going to get. Four consecutive wins by 20-plus points speaks to how good that can be for a team that beat Florida Gulf Coast and Gonzaga and scored 111 at Vanderbilt earlier this season. The recent run included a 22-point win against SIU-Edwardsville, a team that has lost twice to Belmont by a combined 39 points and is 10-0 against the rest of the league. Belmont continues to dazzle offensively. It records assists on 66.8 percent of its field goals, better than the likes of fluid offenses like Connecticut (64 percent), Baylor (62 percent) and Notre Dame (58 percent).

Last week: No. 4


3. Mercer (22-2, 9-0 Southern)

Amidst a field of familiar names that are here most seasons, Mercer is the newbie. It hasn't been to any NCAA tournament since 1985 and that lone trip was to the Division II tournament. But these Bears show no signs of slowing down with February upon us. They rolled through what could have been a difficult road swing to East Tennessee State and Chattanooga, beating both opponents by at least 20 points. At a combined 37.2 points per game, KeKe Calloway and Kahlia Lawrence can hobnob with Mississippi State's Teaira McCowan and Victoria Vivians (38.9 PPG), Oregon's Ruthy Hebard and Sabrina Ionescu (36.7 PPG) and Louisville's Asia Durr and Myisha Hines-Allen (34.4 PPG), among some other elite duos.

Last week: No. 5


4. Central Michigan (18-3, 10-0 MAC)

Buffalo is the only other team that has fewer than four MAC losses, and Central Michigan just beat its fellow division leader. The Chippewas have a difficult upcoming stretch that includes the return game at Buffalo, a road trip to Toledo and a home game against Ohio, all teams with winning MAC records, but they control the league at this moment. That is thanks in no small part to Tinara Moore, the senior whose career arc could go in the textbook for player development. A lightly used reserve as a freshman but the league's defensive player of the year by the time she was a junior, Moore is averaging 18.6 points. 9.4 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game as a senior.

Last week: No. 7


5. Quinnipiac (19-5, 13-0 MAAC)

Quinnipiac has just one player ranked in the top 15 in scoring in MAAC games, and that player, Jen Fay, recently attempted all of one shot in a game against Fairfield. The Bobcats won that game by 19 points. They're winning conference games by an average of more than 24 points per game, a margin even Marist struggled to reach at the height of its MAAC domination. All of which sums up the best about a team that rivals Belmont when it comes to sharing the basketball, averaging assists on 67 percent of its field goals.

Last week: No. 8


6. Florida Gulf Coast (22-4, 8-1 Atlantic Sun)

Florida Gulf Coast slips from No. 1 after losing at North Florida and scraping by Jacksonville (although a blowout win in the return game against North Florida on Tuesday offered positive momentum). Even on a team that isn't going to get away from a balanced offense, recent days speak to China Dow's importance. She had back-to-back big games in the wins against Jacksonville and North Florida, totaling 43 points, but FGCU felt the effects when she didn't get it going in the loss. The Middle Tennessee State transfer, now in her second season on the court for FGCU, has become a consistent double-digit scorer in the second half of the season.

Last week: No. 1


7. South Dakota State (19-5, 8-1 Summit)

The one game each season that South Dakota State can't afford to lose is the Summit League championship game. But if there is a second game the Jackrabbits really don't want to lose, it's a home game against South Dakota. For the second time in the past three seasons, that's exactly what happened. In fact, South Dakota State has lost at home to South Dakota more often than the rest of the league combined over the past seven seasons. Did it sting? Well, South Dakota State won its next game by 56 points and its next three games by a combined 126 points. The rematch is Feb. 21, although the Jackrabbits are currently without freshman Myah Selland.

Last week: No. 2


8. Dayton (18-4, 11-0 Atlantic 10)

Dayton didn't blink when presented with the opportunity to seize control of the A-10 race. It jumped on Duquesne early when the teams met Jan. 31 and eased to a 79-70 win. Third in her conference but fourth nationally in rebounding (the A-10 has some rebounders), JaVonna Layfield totaled 18 points and 17 rebounds against the Dukes. She's the only player in the top 15 nationally in rebounding who is listed at shorter than 6 feet, and one of only three such players averaging double-digit rebounds per game. Back-to-back home games against Fordham and George Mason on Feb. 18 and 21 might settle the A-10 regular-season race.

Last week: No. 10


9. Rice (17-3, 7-1 Conference USA)

Defense helped get Rice this far, but that defense is about to get tested. While not quite as smothering as Green Bay, which not only leads the nation in scoring defense but also ranks second in field goal defense (Rice was 22nd and 51st, respectively, as of Tuesday), the Owls are among the more smothering mid-major groups. But after a trip to Louisiana Tech -- not easy in its own right -- Rice will play Western Kentucky and at UAB and Middle Tennessee State in a span of eight days. Not only are those three teams a combined 21-6 in the league, the Lady Toppers and Blazers are first and second in the league in scoring offense, respectively.

Last week: No. 9


10. South Dakota (19-5, 10-0 Summit)

The Coyotes don't have the overall résumé to surpass their in-state rival in the rankings (South Dakota State's victories against Oklahoma and NC State still look good), but the aforementioned rivalry win and perfect conference record more than merits South Dakota's season debut in the top 10. There was a time last season when Allison Arens did a good Nicole Seekamp impersonation as a one-woman headliner, but the Coyotes this season look more like what you would expect with a member of Kevin Borseth's coaching tree on the bench in Dawn Plitzuweit. Arens can still go off, but six players have attempted between 146 and 203 field goals. Against the Jackrabbits, senior Kate Liveringhouse took double-digit shots for the first time since November and scored 20 points.

Last week: NR


Dropped out: Duquesne

Previous polls: Nov. 15 | Nov. 29 | Dec. 13 | Dec. 28 | Jan. 13 | Jan. 24