South Dakota State starts out on top of mid-major rankings

Macy Miller is back for South Dakota State after a knee injury sidelined her for all but the first nine games of last season. Courtesy of South Dakota State Athletics

The espnW mid-major rankings return, hopefully better late than never. As a refresher or an introduction, teams from conferences other than the ACC, American, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC are eligible for consideration in this biweekly and entirely subjective top 10.

1. South Dakota State (2-0)

The Jackrabbits usually appear near the top of these rankings at this time of year because of a tendency to pick up right where they left off from one season to the next. In this instance, the top spot is as much about Macy Miller's individual ability to pick up where she left off. After missing all but the first nine games of last season with a knee injury, she totaled 20 points, six rebounds and seven assists in an overtime win at George Washington this past weekend. A guard with size and athleticism, she could play anywhere. She just happens to play for a mid-major.

South Dakota State returned much of the talent that kept the team afloat without Miller a season ago, and added Iowa transfer Tagyn Larson to the rotation. With Miller healthy, that equals No. 1.

2. Northern Colorado (2-0)

The Big Sky hasn't been a big part of these rankings over the years, but what is there not to like about Northern Colorado right now? The Bears produced one of the more eye-catching results of the opening weekend, certainly beyond the marquee games between ranked opponents, with a 94-88 win against DePaul on the Big East team's home court in Chicago. They then turned around and won a game at Denver less than 48 hours later.

And it's not as if this team came out of nowhere. With all five starters back from a 22-win team a season ago, a victory against Florida Gulf Coast included in those results, Northern Colorado was the preseason pick to win the Big Sky this season. With LSU visiting Wednesday and a trip to Quinnipiac ahead next week, we'll soon have more data points.

3. Green Bay (2-0)

Chattanooga has given any number of power conference foes fits, and we know Jim Foster can coach. But in 80 minutes of basketball against Green Bay the past two seasons, the Mocs were outscored 131-85, including 48-19 in the first quarter. So after a 60-30 win over Chattanooga to open the season, Green Bay appears ready for life after espnW mid-major player of the year Mehryn Kraker. Allie LeClaire and Jessica Lindstrom are the cornerstones, but Jen Wellnitz totaled seven steals and eight assists without a turnover in the win. She's as athletic a guard as the program has had.

Winning at Green Bay a season ago was an important step for Wisconsin under the direction of coach Jonathan Tsipis. Now coming off an opening win of their own, the Badgers host the Phoenix on Wednesday. They haven't won back-to-back games in the annual series in nearly a decade.

4. Middle Tennessee State (2-0)

Not only did the Blue Raiders go to Nashville and beat Vanderbilt to open the season, they did it despite losing their best player -- their conference's best player -- to injury in the first quarter of that game. Hopefully Conference USA preseason player of the year Alex Johnson's ankle injury won't linger because that would be about the only way to sour moods in Murfreesboro right now. She didn't play in Tuesday's win against Tennessee Tech.

The gloss of the win against the Commodores was dulled when Central Michigan ran past the SEC team Tuesday night, but the means matters. Without Johnson for most of two games and without last season's point guard Ty Petty, the Blue Raiders had assists on 27 of 38 field goals in their opening two wins.

5. Western Kentucky (1-2)

Coach Michelle Clark-Heard spent part of the summer with USA Basketball, and Team USA is about the only challenge not included in Western Kentucky's early schedule. The Lady Toppers beat Missouri, lost in overtime to Iowa and competitively in regulation against Notre Dame, but don't pay attention to the record -- they showed more and accomplished more in those opening three games than will many mid-major (or even major) teams that run out to 5-0 or 6-0 starts.

It was a rough shooting night all around against the Fighting Irish, but in alternating 30-point games against the Tigers and Hawkeyes, Tashia Brown and Ivy Brown more than made up for points that Kendall Noble took with her when she graduated.

The road gets easier in the coming weeks but not immediately. A trip to Indiana on Friday makes for as fascinating a matchup as you're going to find without a ranked team involved.

6. Florida Gulf Coast (1-0)

Exactly how all the pieces came together could be a much longer story. There is a sixth-year senior, enough junior college transfers to almost make up their own unit, and someone from decidedly landlocked Austria, but somehow it feels as if the pieces fit together rather well. A win against Illinois, major conference credentials notwithstanding, isn't the strongest foundation for that case, but the Eagles led the Illini by 25 points after three quarters and generally dominated.

Florida Gulf Coast will spend Thanksgiving in Las Vegas playing some potentially telling games, beginning with DePaul and potentially including in the bracket format the likes of Ohio State and Stanford, or fellow mid-major contenders Belmont and Gonzaga. Senior Rosemarie Julien is the Atlantic Sun preseason player of the year, but keep tabs on Houston Baptist transfer Lisa Zderadicka, the Austrian and a potentially pivotal X factor as a playmaker for this team.

7. New Mexico (2-0)

New Mexico isn't here solely because it affords the opportunity to talk about Jaisa Nunn against Marquette, but that very early candidate for performance of the season merits the space all the same. The 6-foot-3 junior was nearly perfect in the upset win against the ranked Eagles. Sure, 39 points and 13 rebounds are good no matter how they come. But she hit 14 of 15 shots from the field, 11 of 12 shots from the free throw line and played 34 minutes without a turnover.

Mix in a healthy Nunn with outstanding point guard Cherise Beynon and newly eligible sharpshooter Tesha Buck, a transfer from Green Bay, and the Lobos look set. It would be nice if they played a road game before December, but hey, Albuquerque must be nice this time of year.

8. Belmont (1-1)

The preseason mid-major rankings went on sabbatical this season, but in the interest of full disclosure, Belmont would have been the team atop them. That didn't look too sage after an opening loss at Oklahoma. It's one thing to lose a challenging road game, but the Bruins were out of it disappointingly early in Norman. It was a 23-point setback that could have been worse.

But that damage done, at least Belmont bounced back to win at Tulsa, outscoring its host in each of the four quarters. Belmont returns four starters from a team that went 27-6 and nearly upset Kentucky in the NCAA tournament a season ago. It regains the services of starter Maura Muensterman, a transfer from Indiana who missed almost all of last season with injuries. So while it will take some time to adjust to a new coach, consider this ranking a hedging of bets.

9. Hampton (1-0)

Like the Big Sky, the MEAC is close enough to the low-major end of the spectrum to make appearances in these rankings few and far between. But like Northern Colorado, that isn't an excuse to ignore evidence. And right now, a season-opening win at North Carolina is evidence.

Granted, North Carolina isn't what it used to be, and isn't as good as the DePaul team that Northern Colorado beat. But Hampton's only other trip to Chapel Hill led to a 43-point loss. And the outcome this time was a good bit better than the ACC trip with which Hampton closed last season, a 63-point loss at Duke in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

10. Western Illinois (3-0)

Playing two non-Division I opponents in the opening week of the season should be a good way to get left out of this discussion pending more complete credentials, but a grudging exception is made here for the Leathernecks. That has next to nothing to do with what they did against Illinois College and William Woods, which are, to the best of espnW's knowledge, actual schools, and more to do with the very talented core of a 26-win NCAA tournament team returning intact.

Senior Emily Clemens is one of the names mid-major fans need to know this season, and the cast around her, from shooter Morgan Blumer to undersized shot-blocker Olivia Braun, is legit.