As the countdown continues to the start of the 2020-21 women’s college basketball season on November 25th, ESPN.com’s expert panel is making their predictions. We continue with the Mid-Majors where we expect the Gonzaga Bulldogs to dominate the West Coast Conference and a three-team race in the Mid-American Conference. On Thursday, the Ivy League canceled winter sports, including women’s basketball, for the 2020-21 season.
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Biggest Bracketology Question | Picks
Medium-sized superlatives 2020-21
Mid Major Player of the Year
Graham Hays: Micaela Kelly, Central Michigan
Charlie Creme: Micaela Kelly, Central Michigan
Newcomer of the year
Hays: Maddie Krull, South Dakota
Cream: Bre’Amber Scott, Little Rock
Mid-Major 2020-21 Writers Roundtable
What’s the best mid-size conference race?
Cream: Ohio’s Cece Hooks, Central Michigan Micaela Kelly, and sophomore Buffalo Dyaisha Fair were on last week’s preseason watchlist for the Nancy Lieberman Award, which annually honors the top point guard in women’s college basketball. This creates the conditions for tough competition to be the best point guard in the MAC and serves as the basis for an intense three-way hunt for the MAC championship.
Middle Tennessee and Rice could be a tough two-team race in Conference USA. And if BYU can challenge Gonzaga, the West Coast conference could be interesting.
But more is better and that’s why I ride the MAC and what should a race be until the last weekend of the regular season.
Buffalo ended the conference 9-9 last season but should improve with League Freshman of the Year Fair and get help from 6-foot-1 Summer Hemphill, who is returning from a 2019-20 injury. Central Michigan has won five straight-season MAC titles and is the reigning conference player of the year with Kelly, who is perhaps the most underrated player in the country. Erica Johnson and her 18.9 PPG join Hooks, League Defensive Player of the Year, to give Ohio the MAC’s best backcourt.
By January 9, the Chippewas will have played both Ohio and Buffalo in the MAC’s Wednesday-Saturday scheduling format for the season for an early glimpse of how the race is developing.
Hays: The MAC is a great answer any time of the year, and this time of year more than ever for all of the reasons Charlie enumerated. But as someone living in the wrong time zone, I still look forward to spending a few late hours watching the West Coast conference. Between the WCC and Pac-12, this side of the country could have a monopoly on the most interesting basketball.
We know that the WCC has a nationally relevant team. Gonzaga would likely host NCAA tournament games as a top four seed a season ago. And while the Bulldogs weren’t immune to the normal wear and tear of the degree, they give back League Player of the Year in Jill Townsend, two conference-caliber strikers with sisters Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth, adding valuable 3-point to Abby with Grad Transfer. Shoot added O’Connor, an all-MVC selection at Loyola a season ago.
Unlike many midsize superpowers, Gonzaga will face competition as part of his conference (which will make things interesting for the NCAA selection committee, given that the focus this season is on league play). Portland won the WCC tournament last spring, returning the dynamic Australian duo Haylee Andrews and Alex Fowler. These two combined had 34 PPG, 13.7 RPG, and 7.7 APG a season ago.
The star power doesn’t stop there. It’s easy to overlook Shaylee Gonzales after everything has happened since we last saw her on a court, but the BYU security guard is returning after going missing with an ACL injury last season. As a freshman, Gonzales averaged 17 PPG, 5.6 RPG, and 4.1 APG for a team that won 26 games. Now she’s rejoining a roster that includes Paisley Johnson Harding, last season’s top scorer, and Sara Hamson, the NCAA’s leading shot blocker last season.
That makes three NCAA tournament teams and a lot of interesting games.
Why hasn’t a mid-major made the Final Four since Jackie Stiles and Missouri State in 2001?
Cream: The lack of a mid-major in the Final Four over the past two decades says more about the state of the game than about mid-major programs. The women’s tournament was largely dominated by higher Sami. In the 18 NCAA tournaments since the magical run from Missouri State to St. Louis, only seven teams seeded outside the top 3 have made it to the Final Four, and only Minnesota, a No. 7 seed in 2004, was lower as a top five seed. It’s not just the mid-majors’ failure to make the Final Four. Lower seeds just don’t get there. Fair or not, mid majors are not seeded well enough to make cheap matchups, making opponents too difficult to beat.
Only eight times in the same 18 NCAA tournaments did a medium-sized team get into the top 5 – and each time it was number 5. Six times those schools managed to hit the sweet 16 only to come across number 1 and to to lose. Where the state of Missouri has been most successful along the way, it defeated the No.1 Duke in this regional semi-final round.
It would be naive not to at least mention it, but you can’t overlook the argument that Power 5 schools have advantages in terms of recruiting and planning. So I don’t think the fact that no mid majors have made the Final Four in 20 years is an indictment. In fact, mid-majors are probably better than they have ever been at women’s game. The difference is probably Stiles. No mid-major program since has had a transformative star like Stiles with the ability to lead a team like her through a four-game run.
Hays: Start with the fact that no team has had Stiles since, though Elena Delle Donne, Amber Harris, and Courtney Vandersloot were admittedly damn good college players.
Aside from the fact that Stiles is a one-off phenomenon, I see two parallel factors here.
As with so many things in sports, it’s outright bad luck, especially when it’s a relatively small sample. Missouri State was a four-caliber final team in 2001, defeating Duke No. 1 in Sweet 16. But the right team won’t always take the right breaks.
I am forever convinced that the Green Bay team could have reached the Final Four in 2011 if it hadn’t had to face Brittney Griner in Sweet 16. This Baylor team, despite not winning the title, was exactly the worst match for a mid-major, and a poor first half didomed the Phoenix. Or take Xavier’s run to Elite Eight a year earlier and Dee Dee Jernigan’s heartbreakingly missed layups. There was nothing structural that kept Xavier away from the Final Four this year. It was just bad luck.
However, the other factor is structural. It’s getting harder and harder to be a mid-major.
As much time has passed since Stiles reached the Final Four in 2001 as had passed between that feat and the last AIAW championship in 1982. It was a new century, but in some ways it was the end of an old era when programs like Missouri State, Old Dominion or Louisiana Tech could compete for national championships because they respected the sport more than schools with larger sports departments or football Family trees.
Now, it’s not just a handful of Power 5 programs that put both resources and commitment into the sport, but 30-40 of those programs – programs that have built-in benefits when it comes to general bidding and seeding in the NCAA tournament and do not lose players to the pros early on.
I agree with Charlie. Mid-majors are better today than ever before. Final Four properties are all the more difficult to claim.
Which mid-major trainer would most seamlessly move to a Power 5 school?
Cream: The resume states that Drake’s Jennie Baranczyk is ready for a Power 5 job. Under Baranczyk, the Bulldogs have won 20 or more games for six seasons in a row, and Drake would have played his fourth consecutive NCAA tournament if COVID-19 hadn’t forced his cancellation. The Bulldogs have remained undefeated in MVC for consecutive seasons (2016-17 and 2017-18), including two MVC tournament titles, the only times to be reached in league history. Perhaps most significant, Drake has beaten seven Power 5 opponents in the past two seasons, including South Carolina in November 2018.
The biggest question at Baranczyk seems not to be their willingness, but their willingness to leave. After all, the Des Moines native seems happy about Drake. Any decision to leave their hometown for a bigger program could be several years away.
Hays It is noteworthy that only one of the high profile jobs that opened this off-season went to a medium-sized coach. And even this came with an asterisk, as the new Mississippi national coach Nikki McCray-Penson had a high priority in this sport.
The carousel that Notre Dame’s Niele Ivey and Duke’s Kara Lawson brought back from NBA stints is a good development. Expanded opportunities for women in basketball mean more opportunities for coaching jobs and a more diverse pool of candidates. But there are also many medium-sized trainers who would excel in any conference.
Amaka Agugua-Hamilton from the state of Missouri, along with her MVC colleague Baranczyk, tops this list.
Despite losing the team’s leading scorer and the only selection of any first-team conference from a Sweet 16 run under Kellie Harper in 2018-19, Agugua-Hamilton arguably led the State of Missouri to one in 2019-20 more impressive regular season. Their offensive team was more efficient, despite having a more difficult schedule. She has extensive conference experience as an Associate Coach in the state of Michigan and has shown that she can be successful in various regions. In doing so, she presumably established contacts across the Middle Atlantic, the Northeast and the Midwest.
With its history and fan base, the state of Missouri need not be a short-term springboard. With a Kelly Graves-like run (or now a Lisa Fortier-like run), Agugua-Hamilton could settle for a program that at least has the potential to hover between the mid-major and major labels. But she could feel at home anywhere.
What is the biggest bracketology question in medium-sized conferences?
Cream: How will the mid-majors create tournament-worthy resumes without conferencing against Power 5 schools?
The grading process for NCAA tournaments will be different this season and likely not good for mid majors. For years they have found it difficult to prepare general application documents to compete with those of the Power 5 schools. Your best chances are against the same larger programs in November and December. Few or none of these will exist this year.
For a Gonzaga or Missouri state, the odds of high quality NCAA tournament seed may depend on how they look in just one game on Thanksgiving weekend at a time. Gonzaga plays South Carolina at an event in South Dakota. Missouri State plays Maryland, Florida, in what could be the Lady Bears’ only chance of qualifying for the Top 20. Other mid majors don’t even have that one game and instead play 20-22 games against competitions that normally shouldn’t be considered. Anything that is not completely dominated leaves a lot of question marks in the middle peloton for a large selection, while many Power 5 schools have regular playing times with such competitions right in their own league.
One likely difference this year that could help the mid-majors: the metrics (NET is the basic measurement for the first time this year) shouldn’t matter as much with a smaller sample size of games and a higher percentage of games Everyone is in the conference. This could attribute much of the committee members’ assessment to the vague and uncertain “eye test”. For example, should a Fresno state completely dominate the Mountain West in the regular season, but stall in the conference tournament (assuming they ultimately exist that season), that regular season would potentially be enough to receive a general bid.
The bottom line is that the selection process is going to be more confusing and unclear than it has ever been, and all traditional signs suggest this is not good for the mid-majors.