In her first media day press conference last month, Missouri State Lady Bears head coach Amaka “Mox” Agugua-Hamilton felt her team was slighted after being predicted to finish second in the Missouri Valley Conference preseason polls.
“I think we were a little disrespected,” Mox said. “We kinda have a chip on our shoulder. I think we have to prove ourselves.”
After all, this is a team that is fresh off a run to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament and lost only one player.
So far this season, the Lady Bears have silenced the doubters by getting off to their best start since 1997. With a 4-1 record, Missouri State already has several quality wins on its resume with victories over No. 23 Minnesota, Boise State and Oklahoma.
The Lady Bears also held their own at No. 7 Oregon State, falling 80-69 in the championship game of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament on Nov. 17.
Mox had one big takeaway from the WNIT.
“I think we are a Top 25 team, for sure,” Mox said in her postgame radio interview after the Oregon State game.
Missouri State has the fifth-highest RPI, a quantity used to rank teams based on their wins and losses and strength of schedule, in the nation and are still fighting for respect — in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.
For the second straight week, the Lady Bears fell just short of a ranking, settling at No. 30 in the AP poll released on Nov. 18. But it should be noted that Missouri State is receiving more recognition from coaches around the country.
On Nov. 19, USA Today released its coaches poll with the Lady Bears coming in at No. 22. That’s the first time the program has been ranked since 2004.
Steve Gress covers Oregon State women’s basketball for Corvallis Gazette-Times and has been voting on the AP poll for three years. Gress, who had the Lady Bears in his ballot at No. 23 this week, said mid-major teams tend to get overlooked early in the season because there isn’t a body of work for the season and voters may not be as familiar with them.
“It might just be people haven’t seen them play,” Gress said. “In my case, they were in the same bracket as Oregon State for the preseason WNIT, I tracked them. I was impressed with their win over Boise State having seen Boise play Oregon State in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year.
“I knew they had a pretty good team coming back. I had them ranked before playing Oklahoma. When I saw how well they played against Oregon State, I knew they needed to stay in my rankings.”
Another voter, Kent Youngblood, covers the Minnesota women’s basketball for the Star-Tribune. He had Missouri State in his Top 25 ballot last week, but took them out after the loss to Oregon State.
“Even though it was a ‘good loss,’ I think it's more difficult, especially early in the season, to identify good teams from smaller conferences,” Youngblood said.
Doug Feinberg, who is a national women’s basketball writer for AP, has compiled the voting polls for 12 years. Feinberg said mid-majors have a smaller room for error to reach the Top 25, especially in conference play when the competition is typically not as strong.
“That said, I think we have a pretty diverse voting board including some from mid-major areas, and I trust the voting board,” Feinberg said.
All of the writers agreed that Power 5 teams compared mid-majors get the benefit of the doubt because they have a track record of success. For example, Notre Dame has a 12-year run of being nationally-ranked, but fell out of the Top 25 after losing to Tennessee and No. 16 Michigan State this week.
“I think coaching is a big reason,” Gress said. “In the case of Notre Dame, head coach Muffet McGraw has proven she can mold a team quickly. That hasn’t been the case this year.”
For Graham Hays, who covers NCAA women’s basketball for ESPN, he said Missouri State just needs to keep proving themselves and fighting for that recognition.
“(The Lady Bears) don't get the benefit of the doubt until voters see them continue to win,
Hays said. “So even for a program coming off a Sweet 16 run, and with Missouri State's overall rich history in women's basketball, it takes time.”