The biggest polling jumps, examined
This season has been littered with upsets of AP Top 25 teams in women’s basketball, but no team sent a stronger message than Arizona State. Charli Turner Thorne’s then-unranked squad beat No. 2 Oregon 72-66 on January 10, and they followed that up with a 55-47 win over No. 3 Oregon State on January 12.
For that accomplishment, and amid the rest of the college basketball chaos, AP voters welcomed the Sun Devils back in to the poll in a big way, landing them at No. 18 after having fallen out for the past eight weeks.
While that’s a major leap back in to the AP’s rankings, it is still a few spots off the biggest entrance in to the Division I rankings. In honor of Arizona State’s big jump, let’s take a look back at the five biggest entrances in to the AP poll since the 1976-1977 season.
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Note: All AP poll data is based on the Across the Timeline AP rankings database and only includes entrances in to the second poll of the season or later.
Honorable Mention: UNLV (1976-1977)
I hate to start with an exception, but this one was far too similar to Arizona State’s situation to pass up. More than 40 years ago, UNLV made the biggest in-season rise in the poll, though they were ranked both weeks.
In the first poll of the 1976-1977 season, UNLV was ranked No. 17 in the then-Top 20. They opened their season in the UNLV/Nike Tournament of Champions, where they tipped off their season in a huge way. On December 3, they beat the three-time AIAW champions and second-ranked Immaculata 92-85, and they followed that up the next day with a 82-76 win over No. 1 Delta State, the two-time defending champions.
That result earned them a bump up to No. 4 in the next AP poll, a 13-place rise that hasn’t been matched since. They had a tougher time with the remainder of their schedule, finishing the season 14-4 in head coach Dan Ayala’s second season. Delta State went on to complete the AIAW three-peat, and Immaculata lost in the third-place game.
LSU: No. 11 in Top 20 (1976-1977)
This entrance came at the end of the season. Despite having beaten No. 11 UNLV, No. 19 Baylor, and No. 15 Southeastern Louisiana earlier in the season, LSU remained unranked until the final poll of the season.
After finishing the regular season 23-7, LSU made a strong run in the AIAW Regional Tournament. On March 10, they demolished No. 10 Texas 95-67, and they followed that up with a 76-63 win over No. 5 Stephen F. Austin the next day. After beating previously-ranked Baylor 92-76, they moved up to a No. 11 ranking in the March 16 poll.
Led by future All Americans Julie Gross and Maree Jackson (mother of Lauren Jackson), LSU ended up advancing to the AIAW Final Four, where they took down No. 2 Immaculata 74-68 before falling to Margaret Wade’s Delta State squad 68-55 in the championship game.
Northwestern: No. 16 in Top 25 (1991-1992)
The Wildcats entered the 1991-1992 season unranked. They were without one of the Big Ten’s assists and steals leaders in Nancy Kennelly, but they had another pair of 1,000-point scorers in action.
Behind the play of Maureen Holohan — she went on to score over 1,600 points in her college career — and three-time All Big Ten honoree Michele Savage, Northwestern opened with a 89-77 win over Texas A&M, followed the next day by a 73-49 trouncing of No. 11 Auburn.
That start pushed them in to the No. 16 spot in the AP Top 25 on November 24. The season turned out to be more of a struggle than the early start indicated; head coach Don Perrelli’s team finished 17-10 and 10-8 (4th) in the Big Ten, falling out of the Top 25 and missing postseason play.
George Washington: No. 16 in Top 25 (1991-1992)
Just a week after Northwestern’s move, George Washington followed suit. The Colonials opened the season ranked No. 25 to match their ranking at the end of the previous season, but having not played a game until after the second poll, they fell out of the rankings entirely on November 24.
Then they made their case to re-enter the poll at the 7-Up Desert Classic. On back-to-back days they beat No. 10 Texas 70-62 and then lost to No. 5 Stanford in a competitive matchup 74-71. On December 1, George Washington was back in the Top 25 at No. 16.
Led by four eventual 1,000-point scorers in Darlene Saar, Debbie Hemery, Jennifer Shasky, and Mary Nordling, the Colonials had a successful season, finishing 25-7 and 11-5 (2nd) in the Atlantic 10 Conference. They rose as high as No. 6 through most of January before regressing back to No. 16 by the end of the season.
They went on to win their conference tournament to earn a spot as an 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. After opening with a 70-69 win over Vermont, George Washington’s season came to an end after a 97-58 loss to No. 1 Virginia, who ended up advancing to the Final Four behind the play of Dawn Staley.
Colorado State: No. 16 in Top 25 (1998-1999)
The Rams had never been ranked prior to Becky Hammon’s senior season. They remained that way for the first two weeks of the 1998-1999 season before a trio of games caught the attention of the national voters.
On November 16, Colorado State beat Oregon 72-70. Though the Ducks weren’t ranked at the time, they were on the cusp, and they would enter the Top 25 later in the season. They followed that up with a 80-65 win over No. 20 Florida, and the next day they beat No. 10 Rutgers 71-60 to win the Preseason WNIT.
That sequence earned them a spot at No. 16 in the November 23 Top 25. The Rams would get another Top 25 win by beating No. 25 Santa Clara later in the season on the way to a 33-3 finish overall and 14-0 in the Western Athletic Conference.
The efforts of Hammon and fellow Colorado State legends Katie Cronin and defensive specialist Roxanne Manning moved Colorado State as high as a No. 4 ranking by March. They entered the NCAA Tournament as a two seed, beating Cal State-Northridge 71-59 and Southwestern Missouri State 86-70 before falling to UCLA 77-68 in the program’s only Sweet Sixteen appearance.
Kansas State: No. 14 in Top 25 (2001-2002)
The biggest AP poll entrance belongs to the Wildcats of Kansas State. Having gone unranked since March 1984, they spent the first eight weeks of the 2001-2002 season the same way.
By the second week of January, Kansas State was 14-1 behind future WNBA draftees Nicole Ohlde and Megan Mahoney. Interestingly, considering the context, their only loss came at the hands of No. 21 Arizona State. On January 2, the Wildcats got a 69-63 win over No. 4 Iowa State, following that with a 89-75 win over No. 7 Baylor to stay perfect in the Big 12. That earned them the No. 14 spot in the next AP Top 25.
Longtime head coach Deb Patterson guided her squad to wins over No. 21 Colorado and Nebraska to move up to No. 9, but they struggled through a tough Big 12 to finish 11-5, third in the conference.
The Wildcats earned a three seed in the NCAA Tournament, their first appearance in five years, where they advanced past Kent State (93-65) and Arkansas (82-68) to get to their first Sweet Sixteen since 1984. Their season ended in an upset as seven seed Old Dominion took them down 82-62.
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