Somewhere between dashing through the snow in sleighs and forgetting old acquaintance, i.e. the holiday season, mid-major basketball goes through metamorphosis. Teams that during the season's opening months chased Goliath around the country in search of signature wins now encounter familiar faces hoping to test their own slingshots in conference play. December's plucky underdogs are January's merciless despots.
Which teams have the biggest targets on their backs? Glad you asked. Let's get to the rankings.
1. Green Bay (10-1)
Imagine what this team will do if it starts hitting its shots. That's an exaggeration, of course, but while making itself comfortable in the AP Top 25 after a win at Northwestern this past week, Green Bay is also shooting 31.9 percent from the 3-point line. Projected over a season, that would be among the program's lowest single-season marks this century. It hasn't mattered because this particular group plays together defensively like even few Phoenix teams have. But Green Bay has shooters of a quality to make this all more than a hypothetical. Case in point: Allie LeClaire. Off to a slow shooting start in volume and accuracy, but with three years' worth of evidence to the contrary, she hit four 3-pointers in the win against Northwestern.
Green Bay and Wright State are to the Horizon League something like what Connecticut and Notre Dame used to be to the Big East. One program has what the other wants. That makes Dayton, Ohio, a difficult place for the Phoenix to begin their conference schedule this week. While the Raiders have only one win in the past decade in the series, that lone setback in 2014 denied Green Bay an NCAA tournament bid. And two of the past nine games went to overtime.
Last week: No. 1
2. Ball State (11-0)
Here's the list: UConn, Louisville, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Villanova, West Virginia ... and Ball State. As conference play arrives, those are the only remaining undefeated teams in the country. And if a win at Purdue earlier this month started to provide context for this team's potential, a convincing win against Western Kentucky this past week continued to fill in those details. A program at the top of the mid-major spectrum that has been the odd team out in these rankings the past couple of times around, Western Kentucky could have exposed a pretender. Instead, Ball State led by 18 after the third quarter. Moriah Monaco matched Western Kentucky star Tashia Brown nearly point for point. She had 24 points in the win after scoring 26 against Vanderbilt and 18 against Purdue.
The MAC looks like it will be one of the most competitive conferences in the country, and that begins quickly for Ball State with a visit from Central Michigan this weekend.
Last week: No. 7
3. South Dakota State (10-3)
A few years ago, a game at Creighton would have been a tantalizing mid-major clash. Now it's an opportunity against a major conference foe. And not a lot has changed about the basketball involved. That about sums up the difficulty of these labels. But whatever labels you prefer, South Dakota State suffered its most disappointing loss of the season against the Bluejays on Dec. 15. The Jackrabbits weren't a lock, but it was a quality road matchup that was within their capabilities to win. Subsequent victories against rebuilding Drake and Wichita State aren't as impressive this season as they would have been in some recent seasons.
In five games since Louisville held her in check, Macy Miller is averaging 19.6 points. 5.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists. That includes a near-perfect game against Wichita State, when she scored 22 points on 9-of-9 shooting from the field and had eight assists and just one turnover.
Last week: No. 2
4. Florida Gulf Coast (12-3)
Florida Gulf Coast has had more luck this season against major conference foes than its mid-major peers. The resume is built on wins against DePaul, Illinois and Kentucky, particularly the Blue Demons and Wildcats. But after an earlier loss against Belmont on a neutral court, the Eagles went to Chattanooga on Dec. 17 and frittered away a 10-point lead over the game's final six-plus minutes. That would normally necessitate a step backward in the rankings, but most of those with the credentials to move up also stumbled. So after bounce-back wins against Harvard and SIU Edwardsville, here the Eagles remain. It makes for an interesting subplot to Friday's visit from South Dakota State, one of the mid-major games of the year.
Last week: No. 4
5. Rice (9-2) Promoting the Owls into the top five would be more confidently done if they had their full complement of Ogwumikes, but upheaval elsewhere in the mid-major ranks in recent days opens the door. So despite playing its past four games without Olivia Ogwumike, the team's third-leading scorer in points per game this season, Rice climbs to the fifth spot. It helps that the Owls still have Erica Ogwumike, the leading scorer this season, but Nicole Iademarco is the star of late. In the final two games before Christmas, Iademarco totaled 47 points and hit nine 3-pointers. That last part is one of the secrets of success for a team with a short rotation. Five Owls average at least one 3-pointer per game and all of them shoot at least 38 percent from beyond the arc.
Last week: No. 10
6. Wright State (9-3)
Last time around we ran through some of the contenders for mid-major player of the year. That Wright State's Chelsea Welch wasn't among those mentioned is a good indication it was not a comprehensive list. The senior ranks in the top 20 nationally in scoring, the only such player among the teams listed here, and showed off her best form in recent games against Belmont and Georgia. In helping Wright State become just the second team in the past three seasons to win at Belmont, joining Green Bay on that list, Welch put up 29 points on 12-of-15 shooting and added six assists. The Raiders couldn't follow that up with a win at Georgia, doomed by a bad first quarter, but Welch kept things respectable with 25 efficient points and 10 assists.
Last week: NR
7. New Mexico (12-1)
How much weight should one bad day carry in evaluating a team? It's a theme we'll return to later in these rankings. New Mexico's 42-point loss at Oklahoma on Dec. 16 came in just the team's third road game of the season. That makes the margin all the more damning (and the score didn't flatter Oklahoma, which led by 52 after three quarters and coasted home). Granted, New Mexico didn't have Jaisa Nunn, whose rebounding and general presence was missed, but the Lobos now must prove themselves all over again. The place to do so isn't in Albuquerque but on the road in the Mountain West. The first road game of note is at Wyoming on Jan. 10.
While beating Lamar at home days after the loss at Oklahoma revealed little, it did feature Nunn's return from a head injury and a 40-point virtuoso shooting performance by Tesha Buck.
Last week: No. 3
8. Belmont (10-3)
Should we start with the good news or the bad news? Belmont didn't just claim city bragging rights by beating Vanderbilt, it piled up 111 points in routing the SEC school by 37 points. That matched the most points ever allowed by Vanderbilt and the most points scored by Belmont in Division I. Three Bruins scored at least 20 points, and Ellie Harmeyer, Darby Maggard and Kylee Smith combined to hit 13-of-27 3-point attempts in the process. You might have guessed that was the good news. The bad news came in the aforementioned loss to Wright State.
The rest of the OVC owns a combined 47-74 record, so as the season shifts to conference play, Belmont undergoes as much of a David-to-Goliath transformation as any team listed here.
Last week: No. 6
9. Duquesne (10-3)
The rankings include two teams coming off recent losses by more than 40 points. That is, well, uncomfortable and not the most ringing endorsement of the mid-major product. But at least in Duquesne's case, the blowout loss came at the hands of UConn, which a season ago beat DePaul by 45 points and Oregon by 38 points and is winning by an average of nearly 30 points a game this season. All of which is to say there aren't many teams that want to be judged by how they fare against the Huskies, including Duquesne after a 104-52 loss in Toronto. But with wins against Central Michigan, Pittsburgh, Toledo and Virginia, teams that are otherwise 31-13 this season, Duquesne completed nonconference play with a quality resume.
Last week: No. 8
10. Western Illinois (10-3)
It's a rule in the mid-major rankings: Beat Stanford on its own court, you make the top 10. Granted, it's not a rule that gets applied all that often. Western Illinois returns to this list on the heels of a 71-64 win at No. 18 Stanford last week. How significant was the result? Among the teams ranked in last week's AP Top 25, only Missouri had lost to a mid-major opponent, and that setback against Western Kentucky came on a neutral court. Losses against Northern Illinois and Milwaukee knocked the Leathernecks out of top 10 (losses that improve with the knowledge that those teams are a combined 17-6), but even after a loss at Gonzaga in the most recent game to end their road trip, the win at Stanford counts for a lot.
Last week: NR
Dropped out: UC Davis, Central Michigan