Naturally, in any college sport, we tend to pay more attention to the squads ranked in the top 25 of any respective poll. But in Division I women’s basketball, 64 teams make the NCAA tournament. And each season, it seems like one of those top 25 teams gets upset in this first or second round by a team that flew a bit under the radar.
In 2019, 11th seeded Missouri State knocked off No. 6 DePaul and No. 3 Iowa State en route to a Sweet 16 appearance. No. 10 seeds in Indiana and Buffalo took out No. 6’s in Texas and Rutgers.
We’re still a little more than a month away from the NCAA tournament, but between now and then, there’s a handful of teams outside of the AP Top 25 Poll you need to keep an eye on. And when it’s time to fill out your bracket, look for these teams and keep them in mind as potential busters.
Dear Associated Press voting body: Watch Princeton. The Tigers should absolutely be ranked. For what it’s worth, the Tigers are close to cracking the poll, finishing 26th in total votes this past week. Nevertheless, Princeton is having an impressive season and should be feared when March rolls around.
As of this writing on Feb. 4, Carla Berube’s team has the top defense in all of Division I women’s basketball, as it’s allowing just 49.3 points per-game. Princeton is also 21st in assist-turnover ratio (+1.22), second in fewest turnovers (192), 16th in field goal percentage defense (34.3%), 24th in rebounding margin (+8.1) and 14th in turnover margin (+6.69).
The Tigers are also 19th in the RPI rankings. Princeton has been rolling through Ivy League play and also posted non-conference wins over Seton Hall, Florida Gulf Coast, Penn State and Missouri. The Tigers’ lone loss so far this season came on the road by two points to No. 20 Iowa in overtime.
Leading the Tigers on the court is an exceptionally talented senior, Bella Alaire. The 6-foot-4 native of Bethesda, Maryland leads Princeton in scoring, rebounding and rim protection, averaging 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per-game. She’s also shooting 49.7 percent from the field, 51.9 percent from three-point range and 78.7 percent from the charity stripe. One-on-one, Alaire can match skills with any other player in the country.
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Princeton’s former head coach, Courtney Banghart, is off to a solid start in her first season at the helm of the Tar Heels. In the transition from Sylvia Hatchell, North Carolina hasn’t missed a beat. They’re 16-6 on the season and 6-4 in ACC play, one of the top conferences in women’s basketball.
UNC doesn’t have one star. All five starters are averaging double-digits in points. The Tar Heels rank first in the ACC in scoring offense with 75.8 points per-game, third in three-point percentage (35.4%), third in free throw percentage (73.6%) and first in assist-turnover ratio (+1.29). The Tar Heels are also 12th in the nation in free throws made with 321.
Other than that, the Tar Heels’ success is a bit unquantifiable, but they’ve proven they can hang with anyone. It’s best to let Banghart explain.
“I got a bunch of fighters,” Banghart said earlier this season. “We’re going to fight until the end. That’s what we do. That’s what we’ve done all year… What you’re going to see with the guys in blue is, they’re going to give you everything they’ve got for the whole 40 minutes.”
If there’s one player who epitomizes the identity UNC has taken this year, it's bruising forward Janelle Bailey. The 6-foot-4 native of Charlotte, North Carolina, was named to the preseason watchlist for the Leslie Award and is averaging 15.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per-game this season. Bailey is second in the ACC in rebounding, eighth in scoring and 10th in blocks. On Jan. 9, she was a big reason why UNC was able to upset in-state rival No. 7 N.C. State, as Bailey bottled up Naismith candidate Elissa Cunane, holding the talented sophomore to eight points on 11 shots.
After that game, Bailey complimented Cunane as “one of the best post players in the league.” Banghart interrupted Bailey and said, “so are you.” Indeed, Bailey was named ACC Player of the Week on Feb. 3 after totaling 46 points, 26 rebounds and six blocks in wins over Virginia and Clemson.
“Janelle was just a grown woman in the second half and we were able to play through her a bit,” Banghart told NCAA.com after UNC’s home win over Virginia. “Every team is different, and unfortunately we can’t make Janelle bigger than she is, but she had a real advantage in the post. I thought she played through contact and was so efficient.”
Florida Gulf Coast
If there’s one unranked team out there that might be able to beat anyone else on a given night, it might be Florida Gulf Coast. The reason is that FGCU is the deadliest three-point shooting team in all of Division I women’s basketball this season.
The Eagles lead the nation in three’s made with 273 and three-pointers made per-game with 11.9. FGCU is taking three’s at a ridiculous rate, firing up 814 attempts this season. The only other team in the country with more than 670 attempts is DePaul.
But FGCU shines in other areas of the game too. They’re third in the nation in assist-turnover ratio (+1.60) and first in the nation in turnover margin (+10.83).
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Leading the charge for FGCU this season is Keri Jewett-Giles and Davion Wingate, the latter of whom is the daughter of former Georgetown men’s basketball champion David Wingate. Jewett-Giles is averaging 16.5 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists per-game this season, while Wingate is averaging 15.7 points and shooting 55.9 percent from the floor and 44.9 percent from three-point range.
The Eagles are 22-2 this season and have won 11 games in a row. Their only two losses came to Princeton and LSU. FGCU has also posted non-conference wins over Duke, USF, Notre Dame and UCF.