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Women’s college basketball: Five mid-majors primed to shock your favorite team

PHOENIX, AZ - DECEMBER 20: Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Yvonne Ejim (15) goes for a rebound agaisnt Arizona Wildcats forward Esmery Martinez (12) during the second half of a basketball game between the Arizona Wildcats  and the Gonzaga Bulldogs at the Jerry Colangelo's 2023 Hall of Fame Series on December 20, 2023, at Footprint Center in Phoenix, AZ. (Photo by Zac BonDurant/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Gonzaga forward Yvonne Ejim is one of the top post players in the country. (Photo by Zac BonDurant/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

If you haven’t been paying attention to mid-major basketball, now is the time to start.

Selection Sunday is less than three weeks away, and when the madness starts, mid-majors are likely to be responsible for a large chunk of the craziness.

Here are five teams that could upset your favorite squad in March.

Gonzaga

Calling the Zags a mid-major feels wrong, even though they are one by definition. The WCC squad has been in the Top 25 for most of the season and currently sits at No. 16 in the AP Poll. When March Madness comes around, Gonzaga will likely be a host team, slotting in as a No. 4 seed or above.

The Zags have an impressive resume thus far, with wins over Arizona and Stanford. The knock on this team will always be its conference and the lack of tough opponents, but Gonzaga has found a way to impress in the WCC by dominating in those contests. Its closest margin of victory in conference has been 13 points.

Gonzaga will be dangerous in March for a variety of reasons, starting with its experience. The starting five of Yvonne Ejim, Brynna Maxwell, Kayleigh Truong, Kaylynne Truong and Eliza Hollingsworth are all seniors who have played in multiple NCAA Tournaments.

That experience shows in Gonzaga’s stats. The Zags are smart with the ball, taking high-quality shots and making 49% of those attempts (the sixth-best shooting percentage in the country). They also average 20.1 assists per game (third in the country) compared to just 12.8 turnovers per contest.

The centerpiece to Gonzaga’s success is Ejim, who despite being underrated nationally, is one of the country’s top post players. The Zags play through Ejim, and for good reason. Per 40 minutes of play, Ejim makes 12.9 field goals, which is the most in the NCAA. She is efficient around the rim, making 63.4% of her shots, while scoring in a variety of ways, from jumpers to strong moves and fancy footwork on the block.

UNLV

Third-year head coach Lindy La Rocque has reinvigorated the Rebels in her short tenure, with back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in 2022 and 2023. She’s about to make it three, as UNLV is the favorite to win the Mountain West Tournament and secure an automatic bid. Prior to the Stanford grad taking over the program, UNLV hadn’t made a March Madness appearance since 2002.

La Rocque’s team has yet to make the next step by winning a tournament game, but this could be the year. With two seasons of first-round experience, her roster has all the tools to surprise people in March.

The Rebels have the makeup of a Power 5 team, with an athletic roster that can score in a variety of ways. Their offense starts with leading scorers Desi-Rae Young (21 points per game) and Kiara Jackson (11.4 points per game), who make up a dynamic post and guard duo.

Jackson is quick off the bounce and is able to slice to the basket to finish or find an open teammate. She leads the team in assists at 4.7 and commits just 1.5 turnovers per game. Young is often the recipient of those passes, as she is constantly on the move. The senior can execute off the catch in the post, but she can also create her own shot, driving from the free-throw line or even past the arc. Young can pull up for a jumper and isn’t afraid to step outside for the occasional 3-pointer.

Young and Jackson are at the center of UNLV’s offense, but the Rebels are dangerous because of their balance. Five other players score six or more points per contest, and each are capable of leading the team in scoring on any given night.

La Rocque’s team is also disciplined on the defensive glass. It has an NCAA-leading defensive rebounding rate of 78.5%, meaning opponents rarely get second-chance opportunities.

BOWLING GREEN, OH - MARCH 29: Abbey Hsu #35 of the Columbia Lions shoots the ball against Lexi Fleming #25 of the Bowling Green Falcons during the first quarter of a Fab 4 Round game of the Women's NIT tournament at Stroh Center at Stroh Center on March 29, 2023 in Bowling Green, Ohio. (Photo by Isaiah Vazquez/Getty Images)
Abbey Hsu of Columbia shoots over Lexi Fleming of Bowling Green during the first quarter of the Fab 4 Round of the Women's NIT at Stroh Center on March 29, 2023, in Bowling Green, Ohio. (Photo by Isaiah Vazquez/Getty Images)

Columbia

When it comes to Ivy League hoops, all eyes are typically on Princeton, especially after the Tigers advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2022 and 2023. But Columbia just topped Princeton 67-65 on Saturday, and the two teams will likely meet in the Ivy League Tournament, with the winner earning an automatic bid to the tourney. If Columbia gets a bid, it could spell trouble for its first-round opponent.

Leading the way is senior guard Abbey Hsu, who averages 20.8 points, 7 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. The senior is one of the best 3-point shooters in the country, making 39.8% of her attempts and averaging over three made 3s per game. Hsu and Gonzaga’s Ejim are on the Naismith Award Midseason Watch List.

Cecelia Collins is Columbia’s second-leading scorer at 13.9 points per game, and Kitty Henderson averages 11.5, providing two other quality scoring options as defenses lock in on Hsu.

As a team, the Lions are dangerous on offense. They score 77 points per game and shoot 45.8% from the field, both of which rank 25th in the NCAA. Columbia is also efficient on the offensive glass, grabbing 14.3 per game to give its shooters more looks.

After narrowly missing out on a bid last season, Columbia will be hungry to win the Ivy League Tournament and earn the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance.

Green Bay

From 1994-2018, the Green Bay Phoenix were a mainstay in the NCAA Tournament, making 18 appearances in that span. Because of Green Bay’s history, the Phoenix’s six-year tourney absence has been unexpected, but this year they could break in once again.

Green Bay is currently battling with Cleveland State for the top of the Horizon League standings and the top seed in its conference tournament. The Phoenix will need to win that tournament to secure an automatic bid, but if they do make the field, the team is a perfect candidate to pull off an early-round upset.

The Phoenix made noise early in the season with a 65-53 win over No. 23 Creighton in November and followed that up by beating No. 23 Washington State 59-48 in a Thanksgiving tournament. It’s clear Green Bay knows how to pull off an upset.

This is a disciplined club that doesn’t make mistakes and rarely gets rattled — something that bodes well for the postseason. The Phoenix have the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the country at 1.70, while shooting 47.2% from the field (14th in the country), 78.7% from the free throw line (11th) and 53.4% from 2-point range (18th in the country).

They also boast a balanced offense, with three double-digit scorers and a starting five that each averages 7.9 points or more per contest.

Fairfield

After South Carolina, it’s hard to find a more consistent team in college basketball than Fiarfield. The Stags are 24-1, with their only loss coming Nov. 12 in a 73-70 defeat against Vanderbilt. Since then, they’ve won the rest of their contests by an average of 16.8 points.

There has been plenty of talk this season about talented freshmen, and the Stags have one of their own. Meghan Anderson leads her team in scoring (19 points per game), rebounds (5.3), and blocks (1.2). The forward has also been consistent in her production, being held to single digits just four times this season. Anderson can score at all three levels and is shooting 67.1% from 2-point range, 38.9% from beyond the arc and 85.4% from the free-throw line.

After Anderson, the next player to watch is Jenelle Brown. The 5-foot-6 guard averages 14.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. Her shot selection and finishing is excellent, as the guard makes 59.6% of her attempts (the 17th-best mark in the NCAA). Like Anderson, she is efficient from beyond the arc (49.3%) and from the free-throw line (83.9%).

As a team, Fairfield is able to limit its opponents to 36.1% shooting and just 0.69 points per play. Defense is a strength overall for the Stags, as they force 18.6 turnovers per game and hold opponents to just 10.1 assists per contest.