The Missouri State Lady Bears have come full circle since last year.
Missouri State went 1-7 through its first eight games in 2018. Fast forward a year later, the Lady Bears have flipped that win loss record around to 7-1 and are off to one of their best starts in program history.
That culminated into Missouri State’s first national ranking since 2004. The Lady Bears are the No. 22 team in the country, according to this week’s AP Top 25 poll.
“It’s a great accomplishment being a mid-major and getting recognized in the AP poll,” head coach Amaka “Mox” Agugua-Hamilton said in a statement on Dec. 2. “We had a goal of doing that, get ranked and gain more respect. We’ve got to stay there and not get complicit or satisfied.”
In her first media day press conference last month, Mox 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.
Missouri State already has several quality wins on its resume. They have victories over No. 23 Minnesota, Boise State, Oklahoma and South Dakota, who was the No. 1 ranked mid-major team in the country entering two weeks ago, according to College Insider.
The Lady Bears also had a competitive loss at No. 7 Oregon State, falling 80-69 in the championship game of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament on Nov. 17.
The Lady Bears had to fight and earn respect from the media. They’ve had the second-highest RPI, a quantity used to rank teams based on their wins and losses and strength of schedule, for two weeks now.
Missouri State fell just short of the AP poll the last three weeks. But it should be noted that the Lady Bears have received more recognition from the coaches around the country, coming in at No. 19 on Nov. 25.
Steve Gress covers Oregon State women’s basketball for Corvallis Gazette-Times and has voted on the AP poll for three years. Gress said last week 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 two weeks ago, 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 to 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 three weeks ago.
“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.”
Graham Hays, who covers NCAA women’s basketball for ESPN, said Missouri State didn’t get the benefit of the doubt until voters saw them consistently win.
He also compiles top mid-major rankings for ESPN every week. He ranked the Lady Bears as the new top-ranked mid-major in the country on Nov. 27.
“The Lady Bears are the rare mid-major that can afford to put their feet up at Thanksgiving with their resume work nearly complete,” Hays wrote.