From the files of the strange but true, no team has learned more from a loss this season than one of only 11 teams that remain unbeaten.
Dayton opened practice this fall without the seven seniors who made up more than half of last season's roster, a group that included four multiyear starters and key components of three consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament. In their place came seven freshmen, as well as six returning players with just 35 career starts among them (all but 10 of which belonged to one player, sophomore Andrea Hoover). Flyers coach Jim Jabir hoped the returnees would take ownership of the program, hoped the freshmen would live up to the reputations that made the class one of the highest rated outside BCS conferences. But hope in October is a long way from certainty in November.
That was the team that took the court for an exhibition game against Ashland University, an Ohio school that reached the Division II championship game last season. Dayton lost 79-77 on a last-second 3-pointer by the visitors.
"Clearly, they're experienced, and their veterans showed up that day," Jabir said of the current No. 1 team in Division II. "But we literally looked like deer in the headlights. Our freshmen, you could tell it was their first college game. We just looked so scared and ineffective. That week after that game was probably the most critical week of the season because we really buckled down and really isolated things we had to get better at, and the kids really listened."
The record since speaks for itself. No wonder Jabir said, perhaps only slightly in jest, that he has already asked to get Ashland on the schedule again next season.
Dayton is 10-0 in games that count for the first time since the program moved to Division I more than 25 years ago, and it's not a record inflated by soft scheduling. In their most recent game, the Flyers trailed Michigan State by as many as 12 points in the first half but rallied for a 60-53 win against the previously unbeaten Big Ten team. That result came on the heels of victories against DePaul and Arizona State, each on that respective team's home court, as well as against Vanderbilt and a one-loss Toledo team. In fact, excluding their shared losses against the Flyers, Dayton's opponents are 46-28 this season.
The freshmen, led by starter Amber Deane, are doing their part, but it's the returnees who do, in fact, own the surprising climb to No. 17 in the AP Top 25. They created the chemistry that bound the roster together even before the game against Ashland, and they are most responsible for an on-court product that sees the Flyers shooting 45 percent while limiting opponents to 35 percent and winning the rebound battle by more than 11 rebounds per game.
Balance on the order of hockey lines remains a trademark of Jabir's teams. Nine players average double-digit minutes per game this season; if Hoover maintains her current pace of 30.8 minutes per game, she would become the first player to play at least 30 minutes per game in the past four seasons. Senior Samantha MacKay is averaging five assists per game with a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in her first season as a starter. Junior Cassie Sant starred against Michigan State, the 6-foot-3 post scoring 19 points. Senior Olivia Applewhite is averaging 5.2 rebounds in just 13.9 minutes per game. And Hoover, the lone returning starter, remains the backbone.
It's the whole package that explains why Dayton is where it is. But if you're looking for one reason this isn't just a hot start sure to lose steam, it might be sophomore Ally Malott.
A McDonald's All-American who stayed close to home, Malott experienced her share of ups and downs as a freshman. An agile 6-4 forward whom Jabir said has the best range and 3-point shot on the roster, she spent a considerable amount of time at small forward a season ago. Now a nightmare matchup for opposing power forwards, Malott is averaging a team-best 13.8 points per game on 50 percent shooting from the field and 47 percent shooting from the 3-point line, in addition to leading the team with 7.2 rebounds per game. She is only scratching the surface of her potential, which might mean her team is in a similar position.
"Even in high school or on her AAU team, she always deferred," Jabir said. "We talked about it -- when she was in high school we had conversations about, 'You have to take control sometimes. Your team needs you to take that shot.' And she was never really comfortable with it. We've talked since, and she can't tell me exactly why she feels comfortable now, maybe it's just maturation or growth, but I'm really glad she got comfortable because it's made a really big difference."
Now on to the rankings.
1. Dayton (10-0): The Flyers now deal with the role of favorites, and do so in the potentially tricky setting of road trips during the holiday season, when it's easy for attention to waver. Trips to Akron, Siena and Bowling Green close out December.
2. Gonzaga (9-2): The Stanford game didn't go so well, Gonzaga absorbing a 69-41 defeat at home and shooting 25 percent in the process. Three wins followed against teams the Bulldogs should beat -- Eastern Washington, Portland State and Cal State Fullerton -- setting up next Monday's home game against Ohio State. This might be getting ahead of the story, but any hopes of an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament probably depend on a win against the Buckeyes. Intriguing prospect Sunny Greinacher is averaging 7.4 points per game for the season but scored 16 points in two of the past three games.
3. Chattanooga (7-1): The early win against Tennessee is starting to look even more impressive. When the Lady Mocs beat the Lady Vols, Ashlen Dewart played just 16 minutes for the surprise winners. The 6-3 redshirt junior, who sat out last season as a transfer after she was an all-conference pick for Appalachian State in 2010-11, is now the team's leading scorer. Since the last rankings, Dewart scored 19 against Alabama, 21 against Furman and 29 against Wofford, all wins. It makes waiting for Faith Dupree's return from a torn MCL a little easier. A trip to Auburn on Dec. 19 gives Chattanooga a chance to finish the nonconference season 3-0 against the SEC.
4. Delaware (5-2): Elena Delle Donne's initial return to the lineup was unfortunately brief, but the rest of the Blue Hens are holding down the fort well enough to keep hedging bets. Wins against rebuilding St. Bonaventure and struggling Rhode Island were necessities, but a 59-58 win against a Princeton team that played with UCLA and routed Rutgers marked the best result of the young season. When you don't have the game's most complete offensive player, you do it with defense. Princeton shot 41.8 percent in the loss and became the first opponent to top 40 percent. Next up is Maryland at home on Dec. 20.
5. Creighton (5-2): Creighton is 3-0 since the last rankings, a stretch that includes a win against BYU in Utah (although not in Provo) and a home win last week against Nebraska. On both occasions, freshman Marissa Janning led the Bluejays with 19 points off the bench, suggesting last year's Miss Basketball in Minnesota is settling in just fine at the college level. She's shooting 48 percent from the 3-point line for an offense with five players averaging between 7.4 and 10.6 points per game. Challenges await against Miami (Ohio), South Florida and Minnesota before the end of the calendar year.
6. Middle Tennessee (6-4): Scheduling matters, and there are a lot of teams out there with one or two losses (or none, for that matter) that haven't done anything as impressive as lose competitive games against Iowa, Kentucky and Tennessee, or even venture to a tough environment at South Dakota State. So here the Blue Raiders stay. The loss at Kentucky last weekend was not as competitive as overtime defeats at Iowa and Tennessee, so perhaps that schedule is taking a toll, but Rick Insell's team plays just two more games, both conference tilts, before Jan. 2.
7. Duquesne (8-1): With apologies to Belma Nurkic, who scored a game-high 18 points, the best line for Duquesne in a 70-61 win against city rival Pittsburgh might be the one rebound in six minutes turned in by Vanessa Abel. Those were the first minutes Abel played since an injury ended her campaign after 15 games last season, and the minutes came shortly after she was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA that extended her career. A point guard who led the team in assists and had a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio last season, she makes a deep team that much deeper.
8. Boston University (8-3): The Terriers don't play again until Dec. 29, so they're allowed to rest on their laurels. They hit the break after overtime wins against Marist and Harvard, the former a rare win for the visiting team in Poughkeepsie and the latter ending a three-year losing streak against the Crimson. But the big victory since the last top 10 poll came in a 66-49 decision against a St. John's team ranked at the time. Add that to wins against Richmond and Boston College and competitive losses against West Virginia and Michigan, and here are the Terriers. A Jan. 5 America East game at Hartford looms large.
9. UTEP (8-1): If there were an option for about a five-way tie for the final two spots, I'd gladly take it. The hole in the UTEP résumé is the lack of road wins -- both of its wins away from home came on neutral courts, and UTEP lost its only true road game at New Mexico State (though it did respond by beating New Mexico State by 22 points in a return game in El Paso). But the victories against Arizona State and Arizona match up with other contenders like Green Bay (Marquette, Missouri); Princeton (Rutgers); and San Diego State (Auburn, USC). A defense forcing 20 turnovers per game and limiting opponents to 33 percent shooting is an asset.
10. Arkansas-Little Rock (8-1): There isn't a signature win on the résumé, but UALR distinguishes itself from its peers in a similar position through statistical dominance. The Trojans are among the nation's leaders in field goal defense and one of a handful of teams still holding opponents below 30 percent. That includes holding two players at the time ranked in the top 10 nationally in scoring, Kevi Luper of Oral Roberts and Nicole Dickson of Memphis, to 12 and 10 points, respectively.
Next five: Green Bay (6-2), Princeton (6-3), San Diego State (5-3), Hartford (7-2), Quinnipiac (7-0)