Florida Gulf Coast takes over top spot in mid-major rankings

Florida Gulf Coast and Maya Moore made their Division I debuts the same season. South Dakota State won a Division II national championship the same season Diana Taurasi won the second of three championships in a row at the Division I level. When you look at the top two spots in these rankings, and at the program yet again entrenched atop the AP top 25, you'll find these mid-major schools.

1. Florida Gulf Coast (15-3, 1-0 Atlantic Sun)

Circumstances helped Florida Gulf Coast ascend to No. 1, as the previous occupant lost its grip, but the Eagles made a case on their own merit with an 87-78 win against South Dakota State. This might not be the stingiest defense in the program's brief history. The Eagles haven't allowed opponents to shoot 40 percent from the field for a full season since 2008-09, but they are currently well above that mark (after the more difficult half of the schedule, to be fair). South Dakota State shot 54 percent for the game, with offensive production from all three of its main assets. But as was true in victories against DePaul and Kentucky, FGCU had both the cornerstone in Rosemarie Julien and the depth of options around her to outscore other postseason-caliber offenses.

Last week: No. 4

2. South Dakota State (12-4, 2-0 Summit)

Did we mention how good a game the Jackrabbits and Eagles played? Seriously, go back and watch it. You won't regret investing the time. So call it too kind or too stubborn to place the losers in this spot, but much like the narrow home loss to Louisville, South Dakota State showed more in defeat than a lot of peers show in piling up wins against lesser opponents. Madison Guebert is the player to watch at the moment and the biggest reason for sleepless nights in the Summit League. The junior is averaging 21.3 points per game over the past four games and hit 18 of 28 3-point attempts in that span. She presumably won't keep up that superhuman pace, but having both Guebert and Macy Miller in fifth gear is the dream scenario in Brookings.

Last week: No. 3

3. Green Bay (12-2, 2-1 Horizon)

Northern Kentucky took the court against Green Bay with one win all season against a Division I opponent -- and without one of its regular starters and leading rebounders. But on the strength of a season-high 10 3-pointers, Northern Kentucky won the Dec. 30 game and knocked Green Bay out of the AP top 25 and the No. 1 spot in these rankings. And it's that result -- not winning a difficult road game days earlier at Wright State or subsequently holding Milwaukee to 29 points -- that will resonate. Such is a mid-major's life. Green Bay's brilliant defense has won the season-long battle against the team's spotty 3-point shooting and propensity for turnovers, but it's a thin margin for error. A visit to new Horizon member and top-10 contender IUPUI looms Monday.

Last week: No. 1

4. Rice (12-2, 2-0 Conference USA)

Which Ogwumike sister do you want at the free throw line with the game in the balance? Erica Ogwumike has some compelling evidence on her side after she hit two free throws with 1.1 seconds to play in a 50-49 win against North Texas on Jan. 5. Tack on a subsequent victory against UTSA and Rice has seven consecutive wins since a six-point loss at Texas A&M. All of those victories came without Olivia Ogwumike, Rice's third-leading scorer who remains out indefinitely. The toughest part of the conference schedule comes later, but Rice will play three consecutive road games before the next rankings.

Last week: No. 5

5. Ball State (13-1, 2-1 Mid-American)

As stumbles go, Ball State's first loss was a tame one. Sure, if the unbeaten run had to end, the Cardinals would have preferred it end away from home, but opening MAC play against Central Michigan and its frenetic pace was always going to be tricky. Ball State managed to get off 81 shots, more than in any other game against a Division I opponent, but it made just 26, its second fewest all season. The Cardinals missed 27 of 32 3-point attempts and 10 of 18 free throw attempts. It was a bad day. Jasmin Samz had as rough a time as the rest of her teammates, but the Saint Louis transfer is otherwise emerging as a quality scoring complement in her first season.

Last week: No. 2

6. Belmont (14-3, 4-0 Ohio Valley)

The scale of Belmont's four wins since the most recent mid-major rankings is not particularly impressive, especially by the standard of what the Bruins usually do to OVC opponents. The context is important. Belmont, which played without post Sally McCabe for a stretch this season, won all four of the past games without leading scorer Kylee Smith (19.6 PPG) or fellow starter Maura Muensterman. Those absences would be alarming if they were long term, but both are expected back in the near future. As long as that's the case, winning without them is a positive sign. It helps that McCabe averaged 18.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in the four victories.

Last week: No. 8

7. Mercer (15-2, 2-0 Southern)

There aren't many new additions to the list. It's difficult to understand why. All that is needed is beating a former national champion on the road and matching an NCAA Division I record for 3-pointers. Easy, right? Mercer managed both of those feats, independent of each other, over the past two weeks. First came a 97-86 win at North Carolina behind 39 points and 13 rebounds from Kahlia Lawrence. Then KeKe Calloway piled up 40 points and those record-tying 12 3-pointers in a win against Furman. The Tar Heels aren't the measuring stick of old, to be sure, but putting up 90-plus points in back-to-back games against both North Carolina and Charlotte is impressive.

Last week: NR

8. Duquesne (13-3, 3-0 Atlantic 10)

How much can a game against Connecticut skew numbers? Duquesne is outscoring opponents by an average of 9.1 points per game through 16 games. But take out just those 40 minutes against the Huskies, minutes the Dukes would indeed love to forget, and the scoring advantage jumps to 13.2 points per game -- in line with most of those on this list. That game counted, of course, and the outcome said something about where both teams fit in the pecking order, but Duquesne is still in the midst of an excellent season. A Jan. 21 visit from George Mason, itself a contender for the top 10, is a game to watch in early A-10 play.

Last week: No. 9

9. Central Michigan (11-3, 3-0 MAC)

The Chippewas have been at this basketball thing for a long time, and it's not like they just started playing a fast tempo for Sue Guevara. So it says something about the challenge other defenses face that three current Central Michigan players -- Cassie Breen, Presley Hudson and Tinara Moore -- will likely finish their careers ranked among the top 10 in career points. And that list doesn't even include junior Reyna Frost, who is doing things like piling up 23 points and 19 rebounds in the aforementioned win at Ball State. Keep an eye out for Central Michigan's visit to Northern Illinois on Jan. 17, a matchup of two of the nation's highest scoring offenses.

Last week: NR

10. New Mexico (15-2, 3-1 Mountain West)

With a game at Wyoming on Wednesday, this ranking has the quickest expiration date. But good luck guessing if it will be too high or too low by Thursday. There is a lot to like about the Lobos, the kind of team that can get 20 points from anyone in the starting lineup -- and has. But after a loss at San Jose State, they are 12-0 at home and just 3-2 on the road. Those five road opponents shot 44 percent, while opponents are shooting 38 percent in Albuquerque. At its best, New Mexico is much better than No. 10. It still needs to be close to its best away from home.

Last week: No. 7

Dropped out: Western Illinois, Wright State

Previous polls: Nov. 15 | Nov. 29 | Dec. 13 | Dec. 28