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Women’s mid-majors could be poised for breakthrough tourney

Mid-major women’s basketball programs historically have much less success in the NCAA Tournament than their counterparts on the men’s side.

Perhaps this is the year that changes.

The latest Top 25 includes four mid-majors ranked 20th or higher: No. 13 Princeton, No. 17 Chattanooga, No. 19 George Washington and No. 20 Florida Gulf Coast. Gonzaga, Green Bay, James Madison and Western Kentucky also have appeared in the Top 25 this season.

“We just want to win and want to prove to people we can compete in March,” said Princeton guard Blake Dietrick.

All mid-majors share her sentiment, but few have been able to make a tournament run.

Only five schools from outside the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, Big East or the American Athletic Conference have reached the regional semifinals over the last four years: Gonzaga in 2011 and 2012, Green Bay in 2011, St. Bonaventure in 2012, Delaware in 2013 and BYU in 2014. The lone regional finalist was Gonzaga in 2011.

On the men’s side, where there seems to be more parity, five teams from outside those conferences advanced to the regional semifinals in 2011 alone, with Butler reaching the national championship game that year as a Horizon League member and VCU getting to the Final Four out of the Colonial Athletic Association. The last women’s mid-major to reach a Final Four was Southwest Missouri State in 2001.

The mid-majors currently in the Top 25 have the ability to change that.

Princeton and Florida Gulf Coast feature 3-point attacks that can wreak havoc on any team. Princeton leads the nation in 3-point percentage (.406). Florida Gulf Coast entered the week ranked third nationally in 3-pointers per game (9.8).

Princeton also already has dealt with tournament-style pressure and attention because of its status as the nation’s lone unbeaten women’s team.

“When you play in a conference that isn’t on TV every night and doesn’t have press conferences every week… the NCAA Tournament can be a distraction because of all the wonderful media requests and people wanting to share your story,” Princeton coach Courtney Banghart said. “This is a team that’s been sharing its story for weeks. I think it’s absolutely a major help.”

Princeton and Chattanooga both play the type of defense that should make them competitive, even if their shots aren’t falling. Princeton ranks second nationally in field-goal percentage defense (.333), and Chattanooga is second in scoring defense (50.4).

Chattanooga, which has won 25 straight, won’t be easily intimidated. The Mocs beat Tennessee and Stanford when both were ranked in the top 10.

“We played the right schedule and we’ve had the success to be a better team, and we are a better team because we’re a more versatile team,” Chattanooga coach Jim Foster said. “We’re still a young team. We hang our hat on our defense because our offense can disappear for periods of time.”

While Chattanooga’s defense has helped the Mocs withstand a negative rebound margin, George Washington is dominant on the boards. The Colonials lead the nation with a plus-13.9 rebound margin, and junior forward Jonquel Jones ranks sixth individually with 12.4 rebounds per game.

“It’s a special group,” George Washington coach Jonathan Tsipis said. “We’re led by a pretty unassuming superstar in Jonquel Jones, who would rather not talk about anything individually and just wants the sum of the parts to be greater.”

These schools realize the hurdles facing women’s mid-majors.

Whereas mid-majors in the men’s tournament often have an edge in experience because so many top players from big-name programs leave early for the NBA, the best women’s players generally stay all four years. Because the NCAA allows women’s teams to hand out 15 scholarships, while restricting men’s teams to 13 scholarships, women’s major-conference programs can give an extra two scholarships to players who otherwise might have landed with mid-majors.

And often tournament seedings for mid-majors don’t reflect their Top 25 rankings. Middle Tennessee was ranked 22nd and got a No. 8 seed last year. Green Bay was ranked 20th and was a No. 11 seed in 2013.

But mid-majors could make a statement with a breakthrough performance.

“I think it would be huge for the women’s game,” Jones said. “A lot of times high school players step into situations that probably wouldn’t be the best situations for them because they focus on the names of the schools versus the fit, what the chemistry of the team would be and how they’d fit in with everybody.

“I think it would be good for them to see you can have success no matter what level you go to.”

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