Drexel takes over top spot in mid-major rankings

Sarah Curran and Drexel are 10-2 overall and have won seven consecutive games. Courtesy Drexel Athletics

It is difficult to fool those who know you best. One of the criticisms frequently leveled against mid-major résumés is that even a middling team from a major conference would run roughshod through a smaller conference. Isolated from context, any conference defeat thus becomes an indictment of both NCAA tournament at-large credentials and overall credibility.

If they lost to so-and-so, they couldn't have been that good to begin with.

But context is always useful. Play 16 to 18 games against the same opponents every season and familiarity erodes other advantages. A season ago, just three mid-major teams went undefeated in conference -- Colorado State, Florida Gulf Coast and UC Riverside. There were five undefeated mid-majors the season before that and two the season before that.

So with yet another new No. 1 below and only two mid-major teams even receiving votes in the most recent AP Top 25, odds are that the perception of this season's mid-majors is going to get worse before it gets better. Many of the teams below and others in contention will lose games between now and March (Gonzaga got an early start) against opponents that aren't household names.

Just don't write them off because of it.

1. Drexel (10-2, 1-0 Colonial)

Little of its work from the past two weeks catches the eye, but Drexel didn't create any drama where none need exist, either. The Dragons led at the half in wins against Lafayette, Massachusetts, George Mason and Towson and never trailed in the second half. Their most impressive work came before Thanksgiving, but a team with 49 more assists and 85 fewer turnovers than their opponents refuses to beat itself. You win a lot if you don't beat yourself. (Last ranking: 2)

Top honors: Bailey Greenberg (10.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 60.7 field goal percentage in four games). Sarah Curran posted back-to-back big games against George Mason and Massachusetts in a holiday tournament in Florida, but Greenberg's steady play as a freshman stands out. She quietly had three of her four best scoring performances of the season during this most recent stretch.

2. Green Bay (11-2, 2-0 Horizon)

While sticking to the friendly confines of the Kress Center over the holidays helped, Green Bay responded well to a disappointing loss against Wisconsin earlier in December. The Phoenix allowed a total of just 114 points in victories against Butler, Northern Kentucky and Wright State, and won each game by at least 20 points. After a weekend trip to UIC and Valparaiso, Green Bay hosts frequent bugaboo Oakland and then Detroit Mercy, the other Horizon teams to start 2-0. (Last ranking: 3)

Top honors: Mehryn Kraker (20.7 PPG, 2.0 SPG, 71.9 field goal percentage in three games). She is having one of the best seasons of any mid-major player in the country, but the past three games were something special even by her standards. In addition to the overall shooting percentage, she hit 10-of-14 3-point attempts in the three wins. Only two Green Bay players this century have averaged as many as 18 points per game (Kraker's current average) for an entire season.

3. South Dakota (13-2, 2-0 Summit)

Even the team that won the Summit League and the WNIT a season ago didn't start the season 13-2. But that's where these Coyotes sit after wins against Denver and South Dakota State. They continue to play at an almost identical statistical level as the team a year ago, which is remarkable considering they lost not only Nicole Seekamp but second- and third-leading scorers Tia Hemiller and Kelly Stewart, respectively. The only home game among the next four is also the biggest hurdle, with IUPUI visiting Saturday (ESPN3, 2 p.m. ET). (Last ranking: 7)

Top honors: Allison Arens (26.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 4.0 APG in two games). No need to repeat ourselves, since Arens' work already earned espnW national player of the week honors.

4. Saint Louis (11-3, 1-0 Atlantic 10)

The Billikens didn't schedule a lot of opportunities to stand out, but they didn't waste what they had. A 72-61 win at home against Missouri on Dec. 21, on the heels of a decent win against Washington State, significantly enhances the résumé and lessens the sting of earlier losses. They followed with victories against Lipscomb and Davidson by a combined 82 points. Now comes a stretch in which Saint Louis plays three consecutive nationally televised games in league play, the run capped by a home game against Dayton on Jan. 15 on ESPNU. (Last ranking: NR)

Top honors: Sadie Stipanovich (20.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 60.0 field goal percentage in three games). Take nothing away from Jackie Kemph, who had 18 points and eight assists against Missouri and leads the team in both categories, but we need to single out Stipanovich's 33-point effort against Davidson. Not only did she score the team's first 12 points, and 17 points in the first quarter, but she gave Saint Louis the lead by hitting her first career 3-pointer at the first-quarter buzzer.

5. Drake (9-4, 2-0 Missouri Valley)

It was so close to a perfect stretch for the Bulldogs, undone only by a wild 85-80 loss against Auburn on Dec. 21. Drake led that game 29-23 at halftime, which tells you something about the scoring pace of the second half. That said, they bounced back to beat Eastern Washington a day later at a tournament in New Orleans and then returned from Christmas with conference road wins at Wichita State and Missouri State. Only Troy, Northern Illinois and Sacramento State average more points per game among mid-major teams than Drake. (Last ranking: 5)

Top honors: Lizzy Wendell (24.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 2.8 SPG in four games). Given that she was already averaging 21-plus points per game, it borders on amazing that Wendell's 32 points and 22 points against Wichita State and Missouri State, respectively, marked the first time all season she reached 20 in back-to-back games.

6. Harvard (11-1, 0-0 Ivy)

While wins against Siena, UNC Asheville and Buffalo to close 2016 lacked any wow factor, Harvard did at least do what one-loss Buffalo's 11 other opponents failed to do this season. Harvard, which ranks in the top 30 in the nation in field goal defense, didn't allow any of its last three opponents to shoot even 35 percent. The ever-oddball Ivy League schedule means Harvard plays its first two conference games against Dartmouth, first at home and then two weeks later on the road. (Last ranking: 9)

Top honors: Katie Benzan (15.7 PPG, 5.3 APG, 2.0 SPG in three games). Harvard has a short rotation, so any injury would be problematic. But take away Benzan and the 3-point game really suffers. She has more than a third of the team's total 3-pointers, and their accuracy drops from 38.1 to 33.5 percent without her contributions.

7. Gonzaga (9-4, 0-2 WCC)

Well, that didn't go very well. The team that beat Stanford and Northwestern to climb to the No. 1 spot in these rankings and the fringes of the AP Top 25 lost its first two conference games at Pepperdine and at home against Pacific. A fairly recent addition to the WCC, Pacific became just the second league team to win twice at Gonzaga's McCarthy Center. The big wins aside, Gonzaga is buried in RPI triple digits and is likely living in the all-too-familiar reality of needing to win the WCC's automatic bid to reach the NCAA tournament. (Last ranking: 1)

Top honors: Kiara Kudron (12.7 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 3.3 APG in three games). While it wasn't enough in the end, she and Jill Barta combined for 44 points against Pepperdine.

8. Ohio (10-2, 1-0 MAC)

There will be few more puzzling defeats all season than Ohio's loss at North Carolina A&T on Dec. 28. That result came sandwiched between wins against Illinois and Bowling Green in the MAC opener. There are some troubling signs for Ohio, which is the worst rebounding team in these rankings and one of the worst 3-point shooting teams. But its defense and its best player keep it here. A test for that defense awaits against high-scoring Northern Illinois on Saturday. (Last ranking: 4)

Top honors: Quiera Lampkins (21.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 3.0 SPG). She scored 26 points on 10-of-19 shooting in the loss, so that result will likely puzzle her as much as anyone. Jasmine Weatherspoon posted double-doubles in the two victories, but Lampkins remains the cornerstone.

9. Western Kentucky (10-4, 2-0 Conference USA)

The Lady Toppers are another team that went untested over the holidays, although much of that was out of their hands. The conference schedule sent FAU and FIU, two of the weakest teams in the league, to Kentucky. At least the host didn't mess around, outscoring them by a combined 88-40 in the first half. For the season, Western Kentucky is allowing just 25.1 points per game in the first half, highlighted by an NCAA record two points allowed against Lipscomb. (Last ranking: NR)

Top honors: Kyvin Goodin-Rogers (12.7 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.0 BPG in three games). Eligible for a little less than a month, the Kentucky transfer's line of 18 points, seven rebounds and three blocks against FIU could be a preview of coming attractions in conference play.

10. Boise State (12-1, 2-0 Mountain West)

The Broncos make their debut here. A couple of Boise State's early wins came against non-Division I opponents, which inflated the record, but opening conference play with a comfortable win against Utah State and a road win at Colorado State lends some heft to a résumé that also has a neutral-site victory against Charlotte and a win at Saint Mary's. (Last ranking: NR)

Top honors: Brooke Pahukoa (12.0 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 1.0 SPG in two games). Boise State nearly derailed Colorado State's perfect MWC run a season ago, coming within four points of the Rams on the road. This wasn't the same Colorado State team, but Pahukoa made sure Boise State left Fort Collins with a win this time around by scoring 20 points in a 51-45 win.

Dropped out: George Washington, South Dakota State, UNLV

Previous rankings: Nov. 3 (preseason) | Nov. 23 | Dec. 8 | Dec. 21