Earlier in the season, the rise of the Fordham program from 0-29 in 2007-08 and a five-year program record of 40-109, to a surprising start to the 2012-13 season was noted. While the Rams are now 11-5 this season, they are but one of several rags to riches program stories being played out across the country.
Consider Youngstown State, which has been down for most of the last decade and endured an 0-30 season in 2009-10. The Penguins have been steadily improving during the past two-plus years under coach Bob Boldon and are currently off to their best start in 15 years at 10-4. They were 53rd in the NCAA’s initial RPI release last week, which is their highest ranking since the 1997-98 season. Perhaps the most astonishing indicator in the turnaround is in scoring margin. Youngstown State was minus 25.8 in 2009-10 and is plus 8.0 through 14 games this year, for an almost-34-point improvement. The resurgence has been led by Brandi Brown, who was a freshman on that 0-30 team. Now a senior, Brown is a Horizon League Player of the Year candidate and ranked among the top 20 in the nation in both scoring (20.1 ppg) and rebounding (11.1 rpg). Next up for the Penguins is a Jan. 17 home game against Milwaukee.
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IUPUI, 9-7 overall and 3-1 in Summit League play, is another team that has risen from the ashes to contend for a conference championship. In the two previous seasons, the Jaguars were 17-43 overall and 9-27 in conference play. A 60-49 win against Nebraska-Omaha on Jan. 10 has IUPUI in second place in the league standings behind South Dakota State, with the two teams meeting for the first time on Jan. 19 in Brookings, S.D. Coached by third-year head coach Austin Parkinson, the Jaguars are led by junior DeAirra Goss, a 5-10 junior transfer from Western Michigan who is averaging 13.6 points per game. Goss, from Indianapolis, is the older sister of Bria Goss, a standout freshman at Kentucky.
Atop the West Division of the Sun Belt Conference is North Texas with a 5-2 conference record, 6-10 overall. Recent times have not been as kind to the Mean Green, who went 5-25 in 2010-11 while improving to 15-16 in 2011-12 with a 7-9 conference record. Included in the five conference wins this season was a victory against Arkansas-Little Rock. Coached by former Wake Forest head coach Mike Petersen, who is in his first season at North Texas, the Mean Green feature a balanced attack with four players averaging in double figures, led by freshman forward Alexis Hyder with 12.9 points per game.
With a 2-1 mark in league play, Evansville is off to its best start in Missouri Valley Conference action since the 2006-07 season, when it started 3-0 and finished with an 11-7 mark in the Valley. The two conference wins for the Aces this year match their total from a year ago. The last time an Evansville team won more than four league games was in the 2007-08 season. Second-year head coach Oties Epps has led Evansville to conference wins against Drake and Southern Illinois. Next up for the Aces is a Jan. 17 game at Illinois State.
While still working its way up the conference ladder, the San Francisco Dons are no longer an easy out in the West Coast Conference. The Dons are 8-9 overall and 1-3 in league play. The eight wins this season are one victory shy of the nine total wins scored by the program during the last two seasons combined. Included in the wins are victories against Hawaii, UC Davis, UTSA, Boise State and San Jose State. San Francisco went 5-25 in 2011-12 and 4-25 in 2010-11, but have made huge strides in year three under head coach and former Stanford All-American Jennifer Azzi. The Dons are led by 5-9 senior guard Mel Khlok, who is averaging a team-high 15.7 points per game while dishing out 50 assists.
Streaking in the Valley
The Missouri Valley Conference has three players with consecutive free-throws-made streaks of 20 or more, including Evansville’s Mallory Ladd (37), Bradley’s Catie O’Leary (28) and Wichita State’s Jessica Diamond (22). The Valley has owned some of the nation’s top free-throw shooters in recent years, as six of the top seven streaks for consecutive free throws made by Valley players have come in the past three seasons.
Undefeated in Seattle
In its first season as a member of the Western Athletic Conference, Seattle is atop the league standings with a 5-0 record and is two games in front of Lousiana Tech, Idaho and Utah State in the league standings. Winners of five in a row, the Red Hawks host Texas-Arlington on Jan. 17 and Lousiana Tech on Jan. 19.
Villanova out of the gates quickly
Villanova’s 3-0 Big East Conference start is the team’s best conference start since the 2002-03 season when the Wildcats also started league play at 3-0. The 2003 season is the last time Villanova won the Big East Tournament Championship. Villanova (13-2) will return to conference action on Jan. 19 at home against South Florida.
Speaking of South Florida
The play of South Florida senior forward Andrea Smith continues to be one of the Big East Conference’s early surprises. Named Big East Player of the Week, Smith averaged a double-double with 34.0 points and 10.5 rebounds per game for the Bulls in two tough losses last week. In an overtime loss to Notre Dame, Smith led USF with 33 points and 11 rebounds. In a loss to DePaul, Smith garnered a career-high 35 points to go along with 10 rebounds. For the season she is averaging 18.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game for the Bulls.
Megan Herbert watch
In Central Arkansas’ 72-56 win against Nicholls State on Jan. 3, Megan Herbert became the Southland Conference’s all-time leader in free throws made. Herbert hit eight free throws to help her surpass UTSA’s Angel Singleton’s (1995-98) mark of 553 and currently resides at 556. Herbert keeps etching her name in the records books as she scored her 2,000th career point against Northwestern State on Jan. 12. By reaching that milestone, she became only one of two current Division I women’s basketball players with 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds, joining Baylor’s Brittney Griner. Herbert also become the 57th Division I women’s player to reach 2,000 points and 1,200 rebounds, joining two former Southland players, Pat Jean (1880-83) and Joskeen Garner (1992-96). Currently, Herbert has 2,020 points and 1,263 rebounds in her career at UCA. Along with setting conference records, Herbert continues to climb in the NCAA record book in career double-double’s. Herbert’s 71 career double-doubles is the most among active players and places her tied for seventh in Division I history with Southern Cal’s Cheryl Miller and Duke’s Chris Moreland.
Youth is served
Tennessee freshman Bashaara Graves continues to excel. During the weekend she recorded her seventh double-double of the season, scoring 17 points with 12 rebounds, four assists and two steals in the Lady Vols overtime road win at Florida. Her seven double-double’s ranks her second in the Southeastern Conference in that category this season. Tennessee, 13-3 overall and 4-0 in SEC play, will be back in action on Jan. 17 at Auburn.