Well, nobody saw it coming--that Winona State and Moorhead State would struggle so mightily in 2011-2012. And nobody foresaw that Mankato State, Mary, Bemidji, UM-Crookston and Southwest State would play as well as they have.
Winona State was coming off the post-season championship a year ago with its 2 sparkplugs returning in Michelle McDonald and Katie Wolff. Great things were expected. Instead, the Warriors lost their 1st 2 home games to Bemidji and UMD and have not recovered. They're 3-5 in a tie for 9th place. McDonald has played well enough with 15 ppg and 7 boards on 55 percent shooting. Wolff has not at 10 ppg on 37 percent shooting, with 4 assists and 3 turnovers. Winona has started 11 different players, in no small part due to a variety of injuries. But with a win last night over Concordia (St. Paul) 64-51, there is plenty of time to move from 9th into a playoff position where a repeat of last year's run is not out of the question.
Moorhead entered 2011-12 with the intriguing duo of senior all-conference forward Angie Jetvig and sophomore D1 transfer Angela Christianson. It's all gone south as the Dragons are now 1-7 and in sole possession of 13th place. Christianson did not play until the 4th game and she has yet to start. Rather she's playing 10 minutes per game and scoring 4 points on 30 percent shooting. Not what was expected from a player who scored 8 ppg last year at D1 Drake. Jetvig's shooting has fallen off to 40 percent though she's scoring 17 points with 9.5 boards. Returning starters Haley Thomforde and Marissa Yernatich also missed time to injuries. And suddenly it's too late to think about the 2012 playoffs. The Dragons are now looking ahead to next year. The talent is here but the chemistry is a mess.
Mankato has been in decline since its 2009 national championship--or, had been, right up until 3 weeks ago. The Mavs were picked for 9th place by the coaches and obliged by starting the conference season 0-3. Then came 3 December wins--all at home--and now 3 January wins--all on the road--for a 6-game winning streak, a 6-3 conference record and sole possession of 4th place. Seniors Jenny Noreen and Laura Weber have led the way with 23 points and 13 boards between them. Still, you could characterize the Mavs resurgence as a youth movement. Freshman forward Jamie Bresnahan has moved into starting lineup and is contributing 8 points and 6 boards. Freshman guard Aubrey Davis is scoring 10 ppg and is the team's assist leader with 36. Still the Mavs shoot 39 percent from the field and 64 percent from the line, so how long can this go on? A pair of road trips to Winona, UMD and Bemidji later this month will tell the tale.
Minnesota-Crookston has been a Cinderella story ever since coach Mike Roysland came on the scene. An absolute doormat for too many years, they've become competitive and would be in the playoffs as of today at 4-4 and 7th place. The coaches picked them for 11th. Point guard Brittani Wiese is the tent-pole here with 17 ppg and 4 assists, but Megan Eul adds 13 points and 6 boards. Their 39 FG percentage is pretty typical, but they're a good FT shooting team at 74 percent, but they get out-rebounding. So .500 and 7th place is a worthy goal for this over-achieving program.
Not much was expected of Southwest State, either, and granted, they're only 4-5, so let's not make too much of this. Still, picked for 12th, they're now in 8th place. How did it happen? Can it continue? This is a classic two tent-pole team. Senior post Abby Kenneally and sophomore guard Bree Holleman lead the way, Kenneally with 15 points (and just 4 boards) on 50 percent shooting, Holleman with 11.5 points, 4 boards and 2+ assists. So, no, I don't think the talent runs deep enough to persevere the rest of the way.
Bemidji was picked to finish 13th and right now they're in that logjam for 9th place at 3-5. What's the upside? Well, there's no depth beyond the starting 5. They shoot 40 percent from the field, but a stellar 80 percent from the line. However, they don't get to the line as much as their opponents, they get out-rebounded and they've turned the ball over 4 times per game more than their opponents. So there is no margin of error here. 3-5 and 9th place is pretty representative of the ball they've played.
Finally, the big surprise: Mary, picked for 8th, currently tied for 2nd at 7-2. To tell the truth, I don't follow the non-Minnesota teams so much, so I have no idea how this happened. But I see now that they've won at home (4-2) and away (6-1) and they have a signature win--1st place Wayne's only loss 72-64. And where this is another lousy shooting team (38 percent) they are perhaps the best rebounding team in the league with an average margin of 44-36. 5 players score 8 ppg or more, and Linda Murray, Shauna Knife and Kaitlyn Haag scarf up 20 rebounds a game among them. I think they're for real. Putting the ball in the basket off the offensive glass counts for 2 points, same as your initial offense.
So those are your surprises, accounting for about half the conference. Performing more as expected are the following.
1. Wayne State--picked #1 by the coaches, only #4 by me, but 8-1 in 1st place
2T. Augustana--picked #2 by the coaches, only #7 by me, tied with Mary at 7-2
5. UMD--picked #5 by the coaches, #2 by me, 5-3, 5th place
6. Northern--right where the coaches and I picked 'em
9T. Concordia (St. Paul)--picked 7th by the coaches, 5th by me--now 3-5
9T. St. Cloud--picked for 10th by the coaches and 11th by me, also 3-5
14. Upper Iowa--right where picked--0-8
Common sense says everybody trends toward the mean. Mankato and Mary aren't as good as they've looked, Winona is better, whereas for Wayne, well, the mean is just that good. And clearly I was way too gung-ho for the Minnesota women's teams in the NSIC this year.
1. Wayne--playoff semi-finalist
3. UMD--playoff semi-finalist
4. Mary--playoff semi-finalist
7. Winona--playoff semi-finalist
9. UM Crookston
10. St. Cloud
13. Southwest St.
14. Upper Iowa
Ashley Arlen, Wayne
Katrina Newman, UMD
Michelle McDonald, Winona
Brittani Wiese, UMC
Angie Jetvig, Moorhead
Krista Rabenberg, Northern
Molly Hayes, Augustana
Shelley Stemper, UMD
Alex Feeney, Augustana
Abby Kenneally, SW State
Jenny Noreen, Mankato
Megan Eul, UMC
Linda Murray, Mary
Shauna Knife, Mary
Anika Whiting, Concordia