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Monday, February 20, 2006
Hornbuckle's injury further muddies the waters

By Charlie Creme
Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: Charlie Creme will project the 2006 NCAA Tournament bracket several more times before Selection Monday on March 13. Click here for this month's field of 64 Women's Bracketology and Charlie's team-by-team analysis. This projection includes games through Feb. 19.

Some seasons, the No. 1 seeds make themselves obvious. Most seasons, variables like injures are nothing more than a minor issue for the committee to consider. Eight days ago when Tennessee point guard Alexis Hornbuckle suffered a broken right wrist, those two ideas crashed head on into one another like those rams in the old Dodge commercials.

LANGHORNE VS. DUKE LAST SEASON
GAME FG PTS REB
April 4, 2006
Maryland 78, Duke 75
4-6 12 7
March 4, 2006
Maryland 78, Duke 70
4-8 13 10
Feb. 13, 2006
Duke 90, Maryland 80
7-7 16 6
Jan. 8, 2006
Duke 86, Maryland 68
4-5 10 0

With Hornbuckle out for the season, the entire evaluation of Tennessee changes. Its impressive résumé built with Hornbuckle running the show has to be looked at differently because she is not part of the team the Lady Vols will be bringing to the NCAA Tournament.

But how much does it change? How differently does the committee look at Tennessee now?

Tennessee had No. 1 seed credentials before the injury and that will not be discounted. But what will likely be more important as to whether this is ultimately a 1 or 2 seed is how the Lady Vols perform post-Hornbuckle.

They already have started 2-0, but the Alabama win was not much of a measuring stick and the game against Georgia unfortunately sent mixed messages to anyone watching. The bottom line is that Tennessee won a game on the road against an outstanding opponent. However, that victory came more from guts and defense than steady play on the offensive end. At times, the Lady Vols looked downright awful trying to get into their sets. Many of the 19 turnovers were clearly the result of not having experience at the point.

Perhaps that is what Tennessee will become: A gritty club that keeps winning ugly. And it's hard to argue with winning. The other factor to consider is the November victory over Maryland. The Terrapins are one of those clubs primed possibly to take over a No. 1 spot. Although just a small piece, that victory was a check mark in the Tennessee column when comparing the two. Yet, since that victory was with Hornbuckle, and Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood (who has transferred to Maryland, ironically enough), it can't be viewed exactly the same way, carrying even less weight.

The conclusion here is that we'll need to see more. Watch Tennessee closely against Florida, which having beaten LSU is certainly capable. My feeling is the committee will also keep an even closer eye on the SEC tournament. The Lady Vols are still a No. 1 seed if they run the table from now until the end of the season and capture a conference tournament title. An early-round loss in the SEC tournament, even with regular-season wins over Auburn and Florida to cap the regular season, might change that.

And of course, it all depends on what else happens. Remember, almost nothing in formulating the field happens independently of all else. If Maryland, Rutgers, Connecticut, Oklahoma and Ohio State slip up, Tennessee might not need to do as much as win the SEC tournament. If some or all of those teams finish strong, anything short of 5-0 the rest of the way might not be enough for the Lady Vols.

In the world of bracketology, Tennessee is still a No. 1 seed this week. No one knows what will happen in the next two weeks (the SEC final is March 5). But the previously built résumé still carries its top-seed worthy credibility because the win in Athens, aesthetically pleasing or not, was over a top-25 RPI opponent on the road. A loss to Georgia certainly would have dropped the Lady Vols, but for now they stay on the top seed line. For now.

In the Pitt

A number of e-mails on Pittsburgh -- all of which took exception with the Panthers' exclusion from the latest projection -- poured in after the mailbag was completed last week, so let's address it here.

Let's dispel one misconception right away: Pitt's nine Big East wins don't guarantee anything (nor should they), no matter what you might be hearing now or do hear in the next three weeks . It's certainly something to note, but just finishing over .500 in the Big East is not enough.

And we don't have to look far to find the proof. Villanova finished last season 10-6 in the conference and went to the WNIT. In fact, most of Villanova's profile from a year ago is better than that of Pittsburgh's in 2006. The Wildcats had a better RPI (both overall and nonconference) than Pitt has now (in the 60s), a stronger schedule than the Panthers have played (in the 90s), and two top-25 wins to Pittsburgh's zero. Both have three top-50 wins.

The one advantage Pitt holds is that Villanova lost two games outside the RPI-100. The Panthers don't have any bad losses, despite coming close this week with less-than-tournament-ready performances in last-second wins over 6-18 Seton Hall and a West Virginia team without its best player.

Of course, each season is different and really it comes down to the teams Pittsburgh is competing against right now. However, history tells plenty as to how the committee views a team's credentials. And Pittsburgh's aren't even as good as a Villanova team left out a year ago.

Charlie Creme can be reached at cwcreme@yahoo.com.