Green Bay takes over top spot in mid-major rankings

Kaneisha Atwater helped Florida Gulf Coast return to the rankings. And with Whitney Knight back, the Eagles have a formidable 1-2 punch. FGCU Athletics

The top spot in The Associated Press Top 25 poll hasn't changed hands since just after Valentine's Day. And you have to go still deeper into the mists of history to find a third team ranked No. 1.

Fortunately, you will find no such stability here. As the year nears an end, a third No. 1 ascends.

Let's get to the rankings.

1. Green Bay (9-2 overall)

Since last rankings: Home wins vs. South Dakota State (58-57), Belmont (66-62) and Loyola (65-51); road wins at Wisconsin (72-58), Butler (55-46)

In the spotlight: Wisconsin's team. A comeback win against Belmont on Tuesday wasn't the most convincing way to solidify No. 1, but here Green Bay sits. With the possible exception of Gonzaga before Washington's revival and Washington State's improvement, there is little in the country like Green Bay's domination of a state it shares with two bigger athletic departments. Beating Wisconsin on Dec. 13 wasn't even the best win of the past fortnight, just business as usual, as four starters scored in double figures and the Phoenix shot 52 percent. Green Bay swept Wisconsin and Marquette for the second season in a row. Since 2009-10, the Phoenix are 6-1 against Wisconsin and 5-1 against Marquette. It makes you wonder if the Big Ten and Big East programs, that between them have fewer in-state players than Green Bay alone, are learning from their mistakes.

What's ahead: The headliner is Dayton's visit on Dec. 30. A loss to the Flyers a year ago knocked the Phoenix out of the Top 25. Three road games then open Horizon League play.

2. South Dakota State (10-3)

Since last rankings: Home wins vs. DePaul (88-79) and Northern Iowa (89-86 2OT); road wins at Creighton (53-51) and Bowling Green (58-45); road loss at Green Bay (58-57)

In the spotlight: Season as microcosm of program. The win against DePaul was the fifth in 23 games against ranked teams since South Dakota State moved to Division I less than a decade ago. But that followed an earlier seven-point loss against Maryland, which was the fifth loss by single digits against a ranked team. And that, in turn, followed an 11-point loss against Notre Dame, one of seven losses by 10-12 points against ranked teams. So while it took a slightly aberrational performance to upset the Blue Demons, freshman Madison Guebert hitting four 3-pointers, Kerri Young setting a career high with eight assists and Macy Miller doing Miller things with 19 points, the result was no aberration. Those are the games in which this program isn't competitive against the best competition.

What's ahead: Summit League play begins with road games at Denver and North Dakota State, teams that have a combined three wins this season against Division I opponents.

3. Saint Mary's (10-2)

Since last rankings: Home wins vs. Washington State (75-71), Cal Poly (87-83 OT); road win at San Francisco (78-68)

In the spotlight: Devyn Galland's hot hand. Against San Francisco, Saint Mary's was outscored in the paint, had fewer rebounds and more turnovers, and made fewer free throws than its opponents despite attempting seven more. And the Gaels led by 22 points with three minutes to play. The lesson here is that good shooting trumps most other numbers, and Saint Mary's is a very good shooting team. That doesn't mean everyone always has a hot hand, but it means there are a lot of hands that can get hot. Galland, a former Oregon transfer, is a case in point. Averaging just five points per game on the season, Galland hit 11-of-20 3-point attempts and averaged 12.7 points in the past three wins.

What's ahead: The win against San Francisco opened the WCC schedule, which continues with a game against Santa Clara before Christmas. Then comes a potentially season-defining road trip, games at BYU on Dec. 31 and San Diego on Jan. 2.

4. Dayton (7-3)

Since last rankings: Home win vs. Princeton (85-81); home loss vs. Gonzaga (57-47)

In the spotlight: Jenna Burdette's time. The Flyers lost in their first game without one of their most valuable players, losing at home to Gonzaga days after Kelley Austria's season-ending injury, but perhaps it prepared them to play without another standout in a win that halted the slide. Without Austria and Amber Deane, Dayton followed Burdette's 22 points and seven assists to a win against Princeton. That gives Burdette 44 points on 16-of-23 shooting since the Austria injury, the first 20-point performances in the sophomore guard's career. She presumably isn't going to shoot 70 percent all the time, and there will be growing pains for and around her -- she was charged with eight turnovers while receiving little help in the loss against Gonzaga -- but credit to her for action.

What's ahead: The nonconference schedule wraps up with a visit to Green Bay on Dec. 30, but the tests don't end there. Atlantic 10 plays opens with a trip to Duquesne on Jan. 3.

5. Florida Gulf Coast (9-4)

Since last rankings: Road win at Providence (50-41); neutral-site wins vs. Arizona (57-55) and Western Michigan (60-42); neutral-site loss vs. Mississippi State (65-60); home win vs. Saint Thomas (86-33)

In the spotlight: Holding down the fort. Whitney Knight is back on the court, and Florida Gulf Coast is back in the top 10. But if far from coincidental, the connection between those developments only equals that between Kaneisha Atwater's play and the Eagles reclaiming this spot. A major talent in any setting, Knight made her season debut against Providence and totaled 16 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks in sparse minutes. And her presence, as further suggested by five blocks in 23 minutes against Mississippi State, changes how the court looks. But Atwater scored 69 points in 101 minutes over the span of three days in which FGCU scared the daylights out of Mississippi State and beat Arizona and Western Michigan (she also totaled 22 points and 11 rebounds in an earlier win against George Washington). Those two together makes for a compelling partnership.

What's ahead: Auburn visits on Dec. 30 in the final game against a major conference opponent.

6. Gonzaga (9-4)

Since last rankings: Road wins at Dayton (57-47), at Colgate (80-50) and at Pepperdine (74-57)

In the spotlight: Three-point bellwether. Gonzaga rained in 3-pointers in its recent wins, 11 at Colgate and nine at Pepperdine. That's significantly more than the total in all four losses this season. Against North Carolina, Stanford, USC and Washington State, the Bulldogs shot 20.9 percent on 3s. In nine wins, they shot 37.3 percent. Even that is misleading, as they beat West Virginia while hitting just 3-of-18 3-point attempts. Cause and effect is tricky. It isn't that Gonzaga needs to shoot more 3s or would have won those games if not for cold shooting. It's just that open looks, easier to come by against smaller and less athletic teams, might represent the gap between this team and elite status.

What's ahead: After a game at Loyola Marymount on Wednesday comes a tricky homestand against Santa Clara and San Francisco. Last time San Francisco visited Spokane, it took four overtimes for the host to come out with a win.

7. Duquesne (11-1)

Since last rankings: Home win vs. St. John's (76-57), Ohio (64-47), Maryland-Eastern Shore (95-59), Slippery Rock (79-54)

In the spotlight: Opportunity seized. The schedule didn't leave Duquesne many opportunities to impress, and one was missed in an earlier loss at Princeton, but the Dukes dismantled St. John's in the second half on Dec. 19. More specifically, April Robinson and Deva'Nyar Workman took apart the Red Storm. Workman scored 21 points after halftime in the win, while Robinson totaled eight second-half assists. For Workman, in particular, it's an impressive trend. She scored a career-high 24 points against Syracuse a season ago, meaning her two most prolific games came against ranked opponents.

What's ahead: As mentioned earlier, a home game against Dayton on Jan. 3 is an early A-10 headliner, but first Duquesne must manage the short trip to intra-city rival Pittsburgh on Dec. 30.

8. Princeton (9-3)

Since last rankings: Home wins vs. Pitt (61-47) and Fordham (55-44); road losses at Ohio State (90-70) and Dayton (85-81)

In the spotlight: Opportunity missed. In the scheme of things, it wasn't a catastrophic fortnight, which is why Princeton remains after the wins against Pitt and Fordham. But the uncompetitive game at Ohio State, flattered even by the lopsided margin, and loss at shorthanded Dayton are sobering. The Tigers played excellent offenses that like to push tempo, but the Ivy League team also didn't produce the defensive performances on which last season's perfection was built. Princeton had multiple three-game stretches a season ago in which it didn't allow as many points as it did in two games in Ohio.

What's next: It's difficult to know what to make of Marist this season, suffering in the nexus of personnel losses and a brutal schedule, but a visit there on Dec. 29 is still a test for Princeton.

9. South Dakota (9-4)

Since last rankings: Road wins at Illinois (85-76), San Jose State (87-77) and North Dakota (73-70); home win vs. Dakota Wesleyan (94-54); home loss vs. Washington (77-64)

In the spotlight: A spree of 3s. South Dakota entered Tuesday's game against Illinois ranked 16th nationally in 3-pointers per game (8.7) and 19th in 3-point accuracy (38.2 percent). The Coyotes proceeded to erase an early double-digit deficit against the Big Ten team by hitting 12 3-pointers at a 46 percent success clip. They built such an advantage and so thoroughly got what they wanted, the lead as great as 19 points in the fourth quarter, that they didn't seem quite sure what to do next, hence a final score that flattered the host. It is no coincidence that the team is 9-2 and averaging 85.3 points with Nicole Seekamp (more on her later this week) in the lineup after she sat out the first two games. The Australian fifth-year senior is a decent 3-point option in her own right, but it's the spacing and ball movement that she creates that opens up the court for a balanced offense.

What's ahead: The first South Dakota derby is Jan. 17 at South Dakota State, and those will be fun. The Summit League opener against Denver is the team's only game in the next two weeks.

10. Army (9-1)

Since last rankings: Road win at NJIT (71-35); home win vs. Emerson (86-47)

In the spotlight: Give us more Minato. Other than the fact that Army somehow managed to play 17 people in the win against NJIT, there isn't much to say about the recent games. Which means more time to talk about Kelsey Minato, who reached 2,000 career points on Dec. 19. She joins Minnesota's Rachel Banham, Wright State's Kim Demmings and UConn's Breanna Stewart as the only active players to reach that milestone (although BYU's Lexi Rydalch will likely join them the next time she plays). Minato also ranks first among active Division I players in free throw percentage, and her 88.9 percent conversion rate would rank 13th in Division I history. All the more impressive is that she has already hit more total free throws than all but four of the people ahead of her for accuracy.

What's next: Three Patriot League teams have winning records, and Army plays the other two in its first two conference games. Lehigh visits on Dec. 30, and Army travels to Bucknell on Jan. 2.

Previous rankings: Nov. 3 (preseason) | Nov. 25 | Dec. 9