As the countdown continues to the start of the 2020-21 women's college basketball season on Nov. 25, ESPN.com's panel of experts is making its predictions. We continue with the mid-majors, where we expect the West Coast Conference's Gonzaga Bulldogs and a three-team race in the Mid-American Conference to dominate. On Thursday, the Ivy League canceled winter sports, including women's basketball, for the 2020-21 season.
Mid-major 2020-21 superlatives
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
Creme: Bre'Amber Scott, Little Rock
Mid-major 2020-21 writer roundtable
What is the best mid-major conference race?
Creme: Ohio senior Cece Hooks, Central Michigan senior Micaela Kelly and Buffalo sophomore Dyaisha Fair all showed up on last week's preseason watch list for the Nancy Lieberman Award, which annually honors the top point guard in women's college basketball. That sets the stage for what should be a fierce competition to be the best point guard in the MAC and serves as the foundation of what should be an intense three-way chase for the MAC championship.
But more is better, and that's why I'm going with the MAC and what should be a race to the final weekend of the regular season.
Buffalo finished at 9-9 in the conference last season, but should elevate with league freshman of the year Fair getting some veteran help from 6-foot-1 Summer Hemphill, who returns after sitting out 2019-20 with an injury. Central Michigan has won five consecutive MAC regular-season titles and has the reigning conference player of the year in Kelly, who is perhaps the most underrated player in the country. Erica Johnson and her 18.9 PPG joins Hooks, the league's defensive player of the year, to give Ohio the MAC's best backcourt.
By Jan. 9, the Chippewas will have played both Ohio and Buffalo in the MAC's Wednesday-Saturday scheduling format for the season, providing an early glimpse at how the race will shape up.
Hays: The MAC is a good answer any season, and this season more than ever for all the reasons Charlie enumerated. But as someone living in the wrong time zone, I'm nonetheless looking forward to keeping some late hours watching the West Coast Conference. Between the WCC and Pac-12, that side of the country might have a monopoly on the most interesting basketball.
We know the WCC has a nationally relevant team. Gonzaga was likely going to host NCAA tournament games as a top-four seed a season ago. And while the Bulldogs weren't immune to the normal graduation attrition, they return the league's player of the year in Jill Townsend, two all-conference-caliber forwards in sisters Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth and add valuable 3-point shooting with grad transfer Abby O'Connor, an all-MVC selection at Loyola a season ago.
Yet unlike a lot of mid-major superpowers, Gonzaga is going to face competition within its conference (which will make things interesting for the NCAA selection committee, given the emphasis on league play this season). Portland won the WCC tournament last spring and returns the Australian dynamic duo of Haylee Andrews and Alex Fowler. Those two combined to average 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 all that has happened since last we saw her on a court, but the BYU guard returns after missing last season with an ACL injury. As a freshman, Gonzales averaged 17 PPG, 5.6 RPG and 4.1 APG for a team that won 26 games. Now she rejoins a roster that still includes Paisley Johnson Harding, last season's leading scorer, and 6-7 Sara Hamson, the NCAA's leading shot blocker last season.
That adds up to three NCAA tournament-caliber teams and a whole lot of interesting games.
Why hasn't a mid-major reached the Final Four since Jackie Stiles and Missouri State in 2001?
Creme: The absence of a mid-major in the Final Four over the last two decades says more about the state of the game than it does mid-major programs. The women's tournament has largely been dominated by higher seeds. In the 18 NCAA tournaments since Missouri State's magical run to St. Louis, only seven teams seeded outside the top three have reached the Final Four, and only Minnesota, a No. 7 seed in 2004, was lower than a top-five seed. It's not just the mid-majors' failure to reach the Final Four; lower seeds just don't get there. Fair or not, mid-majors don't get seeded well enough to get favorable matchups, leaving them with opponents too difficult to overcome.
Only eight times in those same 18 NCAA tournaments has a mid-major team been seeded in the top-five -- and each time it was a No. 5 seed. Six times those schools managed to make the Sweet 16, only to run into the No. 1 seed and lose. Where Missouri State succeeded most in its path was beating No. 1 seed Duke in that regional semifinal round.
It'd be naive not to at least mention it, but you can't overlook the argument that Power 5 schools have advantages in recruiting and scheduling. So I don't think the fact that no mid-majors have reached a Final Four in 20 years is an indictment. In fact, mid-majors are probably as good as they've ever been in the women's game. The difference is probably Stiles. No mid-major program since has had a transformative star quite like Stiles with the ability to carry a team through a four-game run like she did.
Hays: Start with the fact that no team since then had Stiles, although Elena Delle Donne, Amber Harris and Courtney Vandersloot were admittedly darn good college players.
Beyond Stiles being a once in a lifetime phenomenon, I see two parallel factors at work here.
As with so many things in sports, especially when we're dealing with a relatively small sample size, is sheer bad luck. Missouri State was a Final Four-caliber team in 2001, and beat No. 1 seed Duke in the Sweet 16. But the right team isn't always going to catch the right breaks.
I remain forever convinced that the 2011 Green Bay team could have reached the Final Four if it didn't have to face Brittney Griner in the Sweet 16. That Baylor team, even though it didn't go on to win the title, was the exact worst matchup for a mid-major, and a poor first half doomed the Phoenix. Or take Xavier's run to the Elite Eight a year before that and Dee Dee Jernigan's heartbreaking missed layups. There wasn't anything structural that kept Xavier out of the Final Four that year. It was just bad luck.
But the other factor is structural. It's getting more difficult to be a mid-major.
As much time has passed since Stiles made the Final Four in 2001 as had passed between that accomplishment and the last AIAW championship in 1982. It was a new century but it was also in some ways still the end of an old era when programs such as Missouri State, Old Dominion or Louisiana Tech could compete for national championships because they respected the sport more than schools with bigger athletic departments or football pedigrees.
Now it isn't just a handful of Power 5 programs pouring both resources and commitment into the sports, it's 30 to 40 of those programs -- programs that have built-in advantages when it comes to at-large bids and seeding in the NCAA tournament and aren't losing players early to the pros.
I agree with Charlie; mid-majors today are better than they've ever been. Final Four real estate is just that much more difficult to claim.
Which mid-major coach would most seamlessly make the move to a Power 5 school?
Creme: The résumé says Drake's Jennie Baranczyk is ready for a Power 5 job. Under Baranczyk, the Bulldogs have won 20 or more games six seasons in a row, and Drake would have made its fourth straight NCAA tournament had COVID-19 not forced its cancellation. The Bulldogs went unbeaten in the MVC in consecutive seasons (2016-17 and 2017-18), including two MVC tournament titles, the only times that has been accomplished in league history. Perhaps most significant, Drake has beaten seven Power 5 opponents in the last two seasons, including South Carolina in November 2018.
The biggest question with Baranczyk doesn't seem to be her readiness, but rather her willingness to leave. By all accounts the Des Moines native seems happy at Drake. Any decision to leave her hometown for a bigger program might be a few years away.
Hays It is notable that only one of the high-profile jobs open this offseason went to a mid-major coach. And even that one came with something of an asterisk given new Mississippi State coach Nikki McCray-Penson's own established high profile within the sport.
The carousel that brought Notre Dame's Niele Ivey and Duke's Kara Lawson back from NBA sojourns is a good development. Expanded opportunities for women across basketball means more avenues to coaching jobs and a more diverse pool of candidates. But there are also plenty of mid-major coaches who would excel in any conference.
Missouri State's Amaka Agugua-Hamilton is near the top of that list, along with her MVC counterpart Baranczyk.
Despite losing the team's leading scorer and only first-team all-conference selection from a Sweet 16 run under Kellie Harper in 2018-19, Agugua-Hamilton led Missouri State to arguably an even more impressive regular season in 2019-20. Hers was a more efficient offensive team, despite playing a more difficult schedule. She has major conference experience as an associate coach at Michigan State and has shown an ability to thrive across regions, presumably building contacts across the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast and Midwest along the way.
With its history and fan base, Missouri State doesn't have to be a short-term stepping stone. Agugua-Hamilton could settle in for a Kelly Graves-like run (or now a Lisa Fortier-like run) with a program that has at least the potential to float between the mid-major and major labels. But she could make herself at home anywhere.
What's the biggest Bracketology question in the mid-major conferences?
Creme: How will the mid-majors produce tournament-worthy at-large résumés without having nonconference opportunities against Power 5 schools?
The NCAA tournament evaluation process is going to be different this season and probably not in a good way for mid-majors. For years they have had a difficult time establishing at-large bid credentials to compete with those of the Power 5 schools, with their best chances coming in November and December games against those same bigger-name programs. Few or none of those will exist this year.
For a Gonzaga or Missouri State, the chances for a quality NCAA tournament seed might come down to how they each look in just one game over Thanksgiving weekend. Gonzaga plays South Carolina in an event in South Dakota. Missouri State plays Maryland in Florida in what could be the Lady Bears' one shot at proving top-20 worthy. Other mid-majors won't even have that one game and instead will play 20-22 games against competition that is typically not worthy of NCAA tournament consideration. Anything short of complete dominance leaves plenty of question marks around the mid-major case for an at-large selection, whereas many Power 5 schools will have regular seasons full of that kind of competition right in their own league.
One likely difference this year that could help the mid-majors: The metrics (this year for the first time the NET is the foundational measurement) shouldn't have as much meaning with a smaller sample size of games and a higher percentage of games for everyone being in-conference. That could bring much of the committee members' evaluation back to the vague and uncertain "eye test." Should a Fresno State, for instance, completely dominate the Mountain West in the regular season but falter in the conference tournament (assuming those ultimately exist this season), perhaps that regular season would be enough to earn an at-large bid.
The bottom line is that the selection process will be as confusing and unclear as it has ever been, and all traditional signs point to that not being a good thing for the mid-majors.