MAC dominates espnW mid-major rankings with four teams in poll

Cece Hooks and Ohio are one of four Mid-American Conference teams in this week's mid-major power rankings. The Bobcats are third behind No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 UAB. Ohio Athletics

The best conference in women's college basketball? For the second time in a row, the Mid-American Conference placed four teams in the top 10 of espnW's mid-major rankings. No conference has done that in the AP Top 25 this season. No team did it last season. Or the season before that.

Yes, we're having a little fun. Even MAC-natics presumably wouldn't claim superiority over the ACC, Pac-12 and similar folks. But the MAC showed in last season's NCAA tournament that it can hold its own against just about any team on any given day -- and there are a lot of good days for basketball in this conference.

Now on to the rankings.

1. Gonzaga (15-1, 4-0 WCC)

A boxer generally can't be saved by the bell, but the buzzer to end the first quarter of Saturday's game against Pacific might have saved Gonzaga's No. 1 ranking. Already down seven points and struggling defensively, Gonzaga watched a half-court heave apparently extend Pacific's lead to double digits. Then video review determined that the shot came too late, and Gonzaga went on a 34-17 run and coasted to a 23-point win against a pretty good foe.

But as much as they caught a break on the clock, the Bulldogs benefitted from the spark point guard Jessie Loera provided off the bench in the first half. It was another example of how deep this team is. A starter until December, Loera has been even better off the bench. She had eight assists in the win against Pacific and has 27 assists in six games as a sub.

The game of the year in the WCC looms, as Gonzaga visits BYU next Thursday. (Last ranking: 1)

2. UAB (14-1, 2-0 Conference USA)

There won't be many more efficient lines this season than the one Katelynn Thomas compiled in last week's win against Florida Atlantic. In just 16 minutes, due in part to three fouls, she scored 23 points and hit 10 of 14 shots, which included 15 points in eight minutes in the second half. Then again, Thomas is UAB's third-leading scorer this season, at 12.8 points per game, and its leading rebounder, despite playing just 19.4 minutes per game.

If that's efficiency inside, Rachael Childress is the model of efficiency outside. Since missing all eight of her 3-point attempts against Alabama State last month, her only game without a 3-pointer, Childress has hit 21 of 44 attempts (48 percent) from long range in five games. (Last ranking: 4)

3. Ohio (12-0, 1-0 MAC)

Ohio trailed by double digits with more than six minutes to play in the third quarter at Buffalo over the weekend, and its two leading scorers each had four fouls. The Bobcats apparently had the Bulls right where they wanted them. That dire predicament birthed a 14-5 run that brought Ohio back into the game and allowed the lone remaining unbeaten team on this list -- and one of only three in the country, along with Louisville and NC State -- to take the lead in the fourth quarter and hold on for an overtime win.

One of the players who picked up four fouls in two-plus quarters, Cece Hooks nonetheless totaled 16 points and three steals (she had seven in the game) in the second half and overtime. That included this bit of magic to claim a lead in the fourth quarter. Ohio hasn't played the same caliber schedule as some teams here, but Hooks has been at her best against Purdue, IUPUI and Buffalo, Ohio's three best wins. (Last ranking: 5)

4. Central Michigan (10-3, 1-0 MAC)

The Chippewas were one quarter away from having a case for the No. 1 ranking. Unfortunately for them, they were outscored 21-3 by Tulane in the quarter in question. That opening period against one of the NCAA's stingiest scoring defenses doomed Central Michigan, which scored a season-low 57 points -- its fourth consecutive game of fewer than 70 points. Yet all was again right with the world one day later, when the Chippewas beat then-No. 24 Miami 90-80 on the Hurricanes' court.

It is both a tribute to their fitness and something to keep an eye on that Reyna Frost, Presley Hudson and Micaela Kelly played 231 of 240 available minutes in those games. But with plenty of rest, Central Michigan travels to Ohio on Wednesday for one of many marquee MAC games. (Last ranking: 2)

5. South Dakota (14-3, 2-1 Summit)

Well, that lived up to the billing. Go back and watch South Dakota's 105-98 double-overtime win against South Dakota State if you have a few spare hours. The first of at least two meetings between rivals was physical, competitive and a whole lot of fun.

It was also the kind of virtuoso performance from Ciara Duffy (28 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists) that deserves recognition. Playing 49 of 50 minutes, Duffy accounted for 11 percent of her season's points, 10 percent of her rebounds and 16 percent of her assists (not including the wraparound pass she managed at the end of regulation that nearly won the game).

The bad news is that perhaps even South Dakota was too excited about the game. And if Denver used to be a road trip that was lenient, that's no longer the case. The Coyotes gave up 104 points in regulation in a loss on Jan. 3, so the Pioneers sit atop the Summit League. (Last ranking: 3)

6. South Dakota State (10-6, 2-1 Summit)

Duffy's performance was all the more impressive became it came in response to Macy Miller, whose own effort (31 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 41 minutes) underscored why she ranks among the best mid-major players in the country and has for several seasons. With running mate Madison Guebert struggling through a rare poor shooting day, Miller carried the load. She hit a game-tying 3-pointer with less than 10 seconds to play to force overtime and scored 13 of her 31 points in the two overtime periods.

Now the Jackrabbits, who have traveled from Wyoming to Indiana in recent weeks without playing a home game, can settle in with six of their next eight games at Frost Arena. That will match the total they've played at home the entire season to date. (Last ranking: 7)

7. Drake (10-4, 2-0 Missouri Valley)

A breather wasn't a bad development for Drake, which went a full two weeks without a game over the holidays after losing three in a row against South Dakota State, Iowa State and Iowa in December. The Bulldogs returned to the court and opened conference play with their biggest margin of victory this season in a 29-point win at Bradley and then rolled over Illinois State by 18 points. That's about par for the course for a team that won MVC games by an average of 22 points a season ago. Sara Rhine had back-to-back double-doubles with 20-plus points and is shooting 67 percent since she moved into the starting lineup six games ago (starting five of six games). (Last ranking: 9)

8. Buffalo (8-4, 0-1 MAC)

Buffalo still doesn't have a bad loss on its résumé. With the return of Summer Hemphill and just four players who have appeared in all 12 games, this feels like a group with the potential to be its best in March. But letting a big lead slip away at home in a conference opener obviously stings. The Bulls lost just two conference games last season, and both were on the road.

Rest seems like a good thing for someone who plays nearly 40 minutes a game, but Cierra Dillard looked out of rhythm at times against Ohio. Playing a game for the first time in nearly two weeks, she picked up a technical foul for verbal sparring and missed 11 of 14 attempts. That said, credit her for self-awareness. On a day when looks were sparse, she totaled seven assists and just two turnovers in 39 minutes. (Last ranking: 6)

9. New Mexico (12-1, 2-0 Mountain West)

New Mexico's affection, shall we say, for loading up on home games has drawn criticism here in the past, but even we can't find a way to pin this one on the Lobos. New Mexico tried to play at Long Beach State a few days before New Year's but was stopped in its tracks by a blizzard. That said, a subsequent narrow escape at Nevada in the Lobos' first conference road game wasn't an entirely convincing answer to questions about how this team will fare away from Albuquerque. (Last ranking: 8)

10. Toledo (9-3, 2-1 MAC)

The MAC is already quite the repository of mid-major talent, but might Toledo's Nakiah Black be joining the list of names to know? With leading scorer Kaayla McIntyre playing through some foul trouble in their MAC opener against Ball State, the Rockets instead turned to Black. Her 19 points, including five 3-pointers, proved plenty. In her first season at Toledo as a junior college transfer, Black moved into the starting lineup three games ago and scored 18, 12 and 19 points in her first three starts against Stony Brook, Detroit Mercy and Ball State, respectively. (Last ranking: 10)