Belmont takes over top spot in mid-major rankings

Darby Maggard and No. 23 Belmont (26-3) are riding a 17-game winning streak and entered the AP Top 25 poll for the first time in program history on Feb. 12. Courtesy Belmont Athletics

The teams ranked here have played nearly 275 games since the start of the season, which makes it seem a tad unreasonable that, at least for most, their NCAA tournament aspirations will come down to the vagaries of short turnarounds and neutral courts in conference tournaments. Four days shouldn't matter more than four months, but this is the world we inhabit. Before March arrives, here is the final top 10 of the regular season.

1. Belmont (26-3, 16-0 Ohio Valley)

The Bruins would have held this spot had there been preseason rankings, so let's say they reclaim it for the final edition of the regular season. Early wins against Gonzaga and Florida Gulf Coast stood out, while losses at Oklahoma and against Stanford weren't as competitive as hoped. But the season-long body of work under a first-year coach and amid injuries suggests this is a team capable of not only scaring a top seed in the first round of the NCAA tournament, as Belmont did at Kentucky last year, but finishing the job. A top-100 recruit when she arrived in Nashville, Tennessee, junior Darby Maggard continues to be even better than advertised. She ranks in the top 25 nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio, 3-point percentage and 3-pointers per game.

Last week: No. 2


2. Green Bay (24-3, 14-2 Horizon)

In Green Bay's three losses, its opponents shot 48 percent from the 3-point line. In 24 wins, its opponents shot 23 percent. Sometimes this isn't complicated. True, Mississippi State had other ways to win in November, but Green Bay's league losses came down to shots made against a defense that doesn't give up much else. So despite 23 points and 21 rebounds from Jessica Lindstrom (who is averaging 21.7 PPG and 16.3 RPG in her last three games), Green Bay lost at Cleveland State last week and surrendered a season-high 71 points. The Phoenix have claimed at least a share of the best regular-season record in their conference every season since finishing second in what was then the Midwestern Collegiate Conference in 1997-98.

Last week: No. 1


3. Quinnipiac (22-5, 16-0 MAAC)

Both games this season against Marist suggest the rivalry that never got a chance to breathe (Quinnipiac's MAAC debut in 2013-14 was already the tail end of Marist's reign) is going to be a mid-major highlight the next few seasons. But after winning a wild double-overtime game at resurgent Marist on Sunday to sweep the season series, Quinnipiac rules the present. Sunday, the 3-point shot that so often serves the Bobcats well wasn't working. So instead, they collected a season-best 21 offensive rebounds and turned the ball over just eight times, one shy of matching a season best despite playing 10 extra minutes. They are, in other words, resourceful.

Last week: No. 5


4. Mercer (25-2, 12-0 Southern)

The wind has gone out of their sails offensively in recent days, but Mercer is not yet adrift. After a stretch of 14 games in which they reached 90 points on three occasions and at least 70 points on all but one occasion, the Bears scored 48, 53 and 57, respectively, in three games since the most recent mid-major rankings. But they also won all three of those games to remain atop the conference standings. That sets up a final week of the regular season in which the Bears host second-place East Tennessee State and third-place Chattanooga. They already clinched at least a share of the best regular-season record, so even one win will finish the job.

Last week: No. 3


5. Florida Gulf Coast (26-4, 12-1 Atlantic Sun)

Florida Gulf Coast rebounded rather well from its first conference setback earlier in the month, winning three of its past four games by at least 35 points. So with the Atlantic Sun seemingly in hand, can we pause to marvel at how Taylor Gradinjan got here? And not just because she traded the winters in her home state of Wisconsin for the beach. She played her first game for the Eagles on Nov. 10, 2012. Among her peers on a college basketball court were Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner. Multiple ACL injuries and almost six years later, she has played more minutes this season than any FGCU player and has at least one 3-pointer in all but two games.

Last week: No. 6


6. South Dakota State (22-5, 11-1 Summit)

The transitive property is fool's gold in sports, but it's still startling. Western Illinois beat Stanford on the road and is 19-6 in games not involving South Dakota State. But in two games between the conference foes, most recently this past weekend in Macomb, Illinois, South Dakota State outscored Western Illinois 154-90. Saturday's game was all the more impressive because the usually efficient Jackrabbits turned the ball over 23 times. But they got 64 rebounds (more than double their opponent's total) and let the familiar point production from Madison Guebert, Macy Miller and Myah Selland carry the day. Now comes the trip to South Dakota, the archrival that already won on South Dakota State's court.

Last week: No.7


7. Dayton (21-4, 14-0 Atlantic 10)

It's now two months without a loss for the Flyers, who clinched the A-10 regular-season title with their most recent win. That victory also marked the first time all season that the same player, Jenna Burdette, led the team in scoring in back-to-back games. Burdette ranks in the top 10 in the nation in 3-point field goal percentage, while teammate JaVonna Layfield is top 10 in rebounding. The Flyers are the only team with players ranked in the top 10 of those inside-outside categories. Other than Green Bay, Dayton might have the best chance for NCAA tournament at-large consideration on this list.

Last week: No. 8


8. South Dakota (23-5, 13-0 Summit)

South Dakota's win at South Dakota State on Jan. 25 seemed to light a fire under the loser, but it didn't give the victor a big head, either. Far from resting on that result, the Coyotes continue rolling into the rematch. They'll likely need a big game from sophomore Ciara Duffy, coming off a couple of quiet box scores in a second half of the season otherwise full of loud ones. Duffy is half of one of the more intriguing family stories in college basketball, unable to play with older sister Caitlin for all but a handful of minutes the past two seasons after Caitlin transferred from Colorado State. Injuries finally forced Caitlin to give up her playing career earlier this season.

Last week: No. 10


9. Central Michigan (21-4, 13-1 MAC)

The Chippewas hit one less shot than Buffalo on Feb. 14. It's difficult to knock them down for that result, which split the season series between the MAC division leaders and sets up a potential rubber match in the conference tournament (although the next MAC tournament that goes according to plan will be the first). Central Michigan responded with 95 points against Eastern Michigan this past weekend, matching its second-best output this season against a Division I opponent. Still, with a relatively short rotation -- all five starters average at least 29.9 minutes per game and two average 36 minutes per game -- it does become tempting to wonder if Central Michigan's own pace will test its postseason staying power.

Last week: No. 4


10. Buffalo (21-4, 12-2 MAC)

The season split with Central Michigan lifts Buffalo into the top 10 for the first time this season. Few mid-major wins appreciated in value more than Buffalo's early wins against Nebraska and St. John's, teams that began the week a combined 35-19 and with winning records in the Big Ten and Big East, respectively. Similarly, few additions look more valuable in hindsight than Buffalo adding Cierra Dillard to the mix. The UMass transfer who is in her first season on the court in the MAC is averaging 18.1 points per game since Jan. 1. Charlie Creme had Buffalo barely on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble in his most recent Bracketology.

Last week: NR


Dropped out: Rice

Previous polls: Nov. 15 | Nov. 29 | Dec. 13 | Dec. 28 | Jan. 13 | Jan. 24 | Feb. 7