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Wayne Cavadi | NCAA.com | October 4, 2019

DII women's basketball rankings: The preseason top 25, projected

Lubbock Christian claims the 2019 Women's DII Basketball Championship

The reigning DII women's basketball national champion Lubbock Christian Lady Chaps open their title defense Nov. 8. As the 39th official season prepares to commence, and before the WBCA preseason poll is released, let's take a look at how the top 25 could look.

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First, let's explain how we got to these 25 teams.

I followed the same criteria I used when formulating our DII men's basketball top 25. The way things ended last season figured heavily into my rankings. After studying rosters, stats and the 2019 DII women's basketball bracket, I came up with 35 teams I thought should be in the preseason top 25 poll. I then contacted those coaches and SIDs to find out more about under-the-radar freshmen or transfers expected to make an impact. That helped shape where the teams fell into place and was well worth it to come up with what we believe is a fair and sensible top 25.

Here's a look at the top 25 and how all 35 teams considered ranked.

DII women's basketball preseason top 25: The top 5 

No. 1 Lubbock Christian

File under, "well, duh." Here's what head coach Steve Gomez has accomplished in the past four years: two national championships, three trips to the Elite Eight, one undefeated season. But why are we only looking at the past four seasons?

Because that's how long Lubbock Christian has been an official DII program.

Gomez has built an absolute powerhouse. They are a perennial threat to the title, capable of winning 30 games and sometimes make it feel like they didn't even break a sweat. He returns three starters from last year's championship. The two starters the Lady Chapperals lost have younger sisters on the roster, so those championship bloodlines are running strong. One of them, senior forward Maddi Chitsey, is a player-of-the-year candidate and has Lubbock Christian looking strong before the ball is tipped.

No. 2 Drury

Head coach Molly Miller took over in 2014-15 at Drury and has cemented herself as one of the best DII women's basketball has to offer. Her Panthers have gone 148-17 over that span, with five trips to the NCAA DII tournament and four straight trips to the round of 16. Last year, Drury finally figured out the tricky Midwest Region and advanced to the Elite Eight where it fell in the semifinals. That was the Panthers first loss of the season.

You can be sure the eight returning starters remember that. Daejah Bernard is the ideal floor general, leading the Drury charge offensively while being one of the best defenders in DII. Hailey Diestelkamp has looked unstoppable plenty a time in her career and has become a perennial player-of-the-year candidate. Miller has shown she's not afraid to trust her freshmen in the past, so it will be interesting to see what Sydney Benning, Mia Henderson, and Alana Findley have to offer. Kelsey Winfrey is also an interesting transfer to keep eyes on.

No. 3 Azusa Pacific

This may be a bit aggressive for the Cougars, but it is well deserved. This team made it to the Elite Eight last season on the heels of their best season as a DII program, reeling off 28 wins. Azusa Pacific returns eight key players from that run, including seven student-athletes that started at least eight games. 

The big "addition" will be the return of All-PacWest guard Zoe March, who missed all but 12 games due to injury. She led DII in assist-to-turnover ratio the season prior and is a sharpshooter. Savanna Hanson continues to blossom into one of the premier post players in the West Region, leading the Cougars in scoring and rebounding last season. Daylee Hanson is one of the best defenders in the West and earned West Regional Tournament MOP honors last year.

The Cardiac Cougars were a fun team to watch last year, coming from behind three times in the NCAA DII tournament to reach the Elite Eight. This team is once again loaded, and while the West is tricky, the Cougars have the experience to make another impressive run.

No. 4 Ashland

Last year was a down season by Ashland standards, as the Eagles amassed a whopping three losses, the same total they had over the previous three seasons. What the rest of the top 25 would give to consider a three-loss season a down year, huh?

It was a bit of a learning curve last season. Kari Pickens — one of Ashland's all-time greats and longtime assistant — took over for Robyn Fralick as head coach and the Eagles lost two of the programs three 2,000-point scorers in history. And they still went 29-3.

Jodi Johnson is a big reason I have Ashland this high. Johnson is amongst the best in DII women's basketball, earning GLIAC freshman of the year honors in 2017 before winning national player of the year in 2018. Simply put, she does everything well, from scoring to rebounding to stealing and is a special player. But what makes Ashland so dangerous is that they have a second player-of-the-year possibility in Sara Loomis as well as a tournament-tested Renee Stimpert. The Eagles return plenty in 2019-20 and should be on everyone's radars once again.

No. 5 Southwestern Oklahoma State 

The Bulldogs get this spot thanks to their big run to the national semifinals last season. This will be a much different team minus two of the program's all-time greats in Hailey Tucker and Hayden Priddy. But SWOSU also has a strong nucleus returning that should see them stay competitive.

Bethany Franks has been solid since her freshman year and a force down low. She is the star power on this team and it's her turn to shine, so don't be surprised to hear her name in player-of-the-year talks. Tyra Aska and Taber Beer also return so there is plenty of experience from the past two successful seasons. 

It won't be easy for SWOSU, but getting that far in the tournament two years in a row seldom is. Expect this team to go through some bumps and bruises early on, but SWOSU should be able to pump out wins.

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DII women's basketball preseason top 25: The next 5

No. 6 Fort Hays State 

The Tigers won 32 games a year ago before succumbing to Southwestern Oklahoma State in the Central Region finals. Lanie Page, Belle Barbieri, and Kacey Kennett started every game last season and were also three of the top four scorers on the team. All three return as does key pieces like Whitney Randall and Taylor Rolfs who both appeared in all 34 games and averaged more than15 combined points per game last year.

No. 7 West Texas A&M

Head coach Kristen Mattio has built a Lone Star Conference power in her tenure in Canyon. Since taking over the Lady Buffs four seasons ago, her teams have gone 112-23 with one Elite Eight appearance and at least one NCAA DII tournament win in every season. Lexy Hightower — who should be on your player-of-the-year watchlist as well — leads a solid core of returners including the 2018 LSC tournament MOP (Megan Gamble) and 2019 MOP (Abby Spurgin).

No. 8 Grand Valley State

Cassidy Boensch exploded onto the scene last season for the Lakers, averaging a double-double and capturing the GLIAC player of the year. The seemingly ever-improving Lakers not only get their star player back for another run in 2019-20 but three other starters — Jenn Deboer, Maddie Dailey, and Victoria Hedemark — as well. Taryn Taugher, a transfer from Northern Kentucky, should add some depth as does an intriguing trio of freshmen. Grand Valley State fell just short of the Elite Eight last season with 29 wins. A 30-win season isn't out of the question this year.

No. 9  Alaska Anchorage

Head coach Ryan McCarthy coaches winners, with three 30-win seasons in the last five years, never winning less than 27 games over that span. Despite losing a lot of offensive firepower, the Seawolves return three players who played in all 33 games last year, including Yazmeen Goo, the last remaining holdover from the Seawolves run to the title game in 2016. Three intriguing transfers make Alaska Anchorage a team to watch.

No. 10 Virginia Union

AnnMarie Gilbert is another DII women's basketball coach that seemingly hates to lose. The Panthers return wonder twins Shareka and Shameka McNeill — the former VUU's leading scorer last year — as well as starter Jasmine Carter and key reserve Ifunanya Okoye. Virginia Union has proven that it can overcome losing star power over the past three years, so to have a core of returners like this makes them dangerous. 

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How the rest of the DII women's basketball top 25 unfolds: Nos. 11-25

This is where it gets tricky and the hardest part of the whole top 25. The next 15 teams are all super competitive and could fall anywhere into the mix. Here is the rest of the top 25 with a caveat that I predict a lot more movement here than in the top 10.

No. 11 Indiana (PA): The Crimson Hawks have been to the last two Elite Eights, reaching the semifinals both times. Most of those players are gone, but intriguing transfers Justine Mascaro (Delaware) and Kiara Wade (Wheeling), as well as freshman Maria Cerro, could mesh with the experienced returners and get IUP back to the top of the rankings once again.

No. 12 Northwest Nazarene: The Nighthawks lose a bit but return two all-conference players in Marina Valles and Avery Albrecht, the latter a contend for GNAC player of the year. Northwest Nazarene has six freshmen ready to go and make an impact. While they may be younger than last year's 29-win squad, the Nighthawks could be equally exciting. 

No. 13 University of the Sciences: We'll certainly find out if the Devils are back, as they have six teams from the East Region of the NCAA tournament on their schedule. USciences returns nine players from last year's 30-win squad, including Irisa Ye, the Devils' leading scorer.

No. 14 North Georiga: These Nighthawks lose a bit as well, but return starters Julianne Sutton and Abbie Franklin from an Elite Eight, 30-win team a year ago. Those two will be joined by interesting DI transfers Kyra Davis (Campbell) and Deja Mitchell (Georgia State) that should help replace what was lost. 

No. 15 Bentley: As long as head coach Barbara Stevens is at the helm, the Falcons are a top-25 team. Aside from an anomaly of a 2014-15 season, her teams have won at least 26 games every year this decade including the 2014 national championship. Bentley gets some nice returners and transfer Kari Brekke, the 2018-19 America East freshman of the year. 

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No. 16 St. Anselm: The Hawks ran all the way to the Elite Eight last season and return quite the big three, including top two scorers Shannon Ryan and Peyton Steinman as well as Sara Messler who started all but one game for St. Anselm last season. 

No. 17 Angelo State: De'Anira Moore returns along with Asia Davis in the starting lineup, but this team brought in three big transfers — including Angela Hayden from Texas Tech — as well as freshman Sawyer Lloyd who are expected to make immediate impacts and keep the Belles rolling in arguably the toughest conference of DII women's basketball.

No. 18 Anderson (SC): The Trojans return SAC player of the year Alexy Mollenhaur, who averaged a double-double last season. Along with Madison Baggett, Anderson should compete once again. 

No. 19 Nova Southeastern: This may seem like an odd slot for a Sharks team that loses as much as they do. But the Sharks return two starters, add three big transfers and get two players back from injury. This is a new-look team but it could be just as strong as last year. 

No. 20 Union: Union is another team that loses a lot on the roster, but Union is also a team that wins. Jada Smith, the team's second-leading scorer last year, is back as is Emily Beard, a key reserve. It may be transfer Jalencia Williams who makes the biggest impact and keeps Union's winning ways this season. 

No. 21 UC San Diego: The Tritons put up a 30-1 season last year, but lose four starters from that team and 54.0 points per game. Julia Macabuhay and Sydney Sharp return with starting experience as well as three transfers and a couple of freshmen that could help fill the void. 

No. 22 Glenville State: The Pioneers scored an absurd 102.3 points per game last season, and four of their top five scorers are back, including Emily Stoller and ReShawna Stone.

No. 23 Lewis: The Flyers lose Jessica Kelliher who was a double-double machine in her tenure with Lewis. Morgan Glatczak will look to become that presence in the paint, already a big shot-blocker, but now taking on an expanded role. Rachel Hinders should hold the offense together and transfer Madison Mallory (Youngstown State) should make an instant impact.

No. 24 Colorado Mesa: The Mavericks return three starters from last year's squad, including Sydni Brandon, who should be an RMAC player of the year candidate in 2019-20. Expect Ellie Waters and Savannah Domgaard to make an instant impact.

No. 25 (tie) Lander: Lander made a run to the Sweet 16 and return four of the starters that made it possible, including reigning PBC player of the year Jessica Harris. 

No. 25 (tie) Florida Southern: The Mocs were the No. 1 seed in the South Region before getting stunned by Nova Southeastern in the round of 16. They'll lose some of the pieces that got them there, but there is just enough returning to keep them in the preseason top 25. 

HISTORY: Programs with the most DII women's basketball titles

Just missed the cut (in alphabetical order):

Benedict: The Lady Tigers are a total wild card, but Benedict improved from 10 wins in 2018 to 20 in 2019. That's in large part due to the play of Ay'Anna Bey who may be the best player you've never heard of in DII women's basketball.

California (Pa): The Vulcans lose their top three scoring starters, including Seairra Barrett who led the team in scoring and rebounding. Still, two starters return and Cal always seems to find its way into both the win column and top 25. The Vulcans could very well be there before too long. 

Carson-Newman: The Eagles lose Haris Price and Mika Webster — their two top scorers — but Kayla Marosites, who has become such a force in the paint returns with plenty of familiar faces to the lineup. 

Central Washington: I'll be honest. The Cougars were an 18-win team last year and didn't make the tournament and weren't originally on my radar. But word is that they may be the team to beat in the West this year. This is probably a super aggressive ranking right now and more of a mid-season mark than preseason, but with the Cougars returning the bulk of their roster, they should be on your radar. 

Jefferson: The Rams had a strong 2019, but lost three big starters from that team. Despite that, Caitlyn Cunningham and Jessica Kaminski are the two starters that return, and they combined for 31.2 points per game. The Rams could be a top 25 team before long. 

The final four: Central Missouri, Le Moyne, Minnesota Duluth, Wingate.

Teams to watch: Edinboro, Northern Michigan, Tarleton State, Westminster, Western Washington.

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