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Sure, Connecticut is scary good. In fact, it's hard to remember the last time team sports saw such dominance. But have we gotten to the point that other teams are actually scared? Intimidation is one thing, but much of the rest of the country spent last week playing as if it was trying to avoid the NCAA tournament -- perhaps because that would mean a potential meeting with the Huskies machine even for those smart enough not to schedule Geno Auriemma's juggernaut.
All sarcasm aside, it was a rough week for contenders. Of the 61 teams considered to be in the at-large pool, 39 lost at least one game from Jan. 10 through 17. In eight days, nearly two-thirds of the teams playing for seeds or bids lost.
That includes six of the top 11 teams on the S-curve (in fairness to Notre Dame and Duke, their losses were to UConn) and every team ranked 21st through 28th. Of course, when everyone loses in these groups of teams, little changes -- unless the loss was by a big margin (see Georgia Tech) or a big upset (see North Carolina).
Of the final 10 teams to make this week's field as at-large contenders, each one except Temple dropped a game. Of course, those clubs stayed in the field because six of the next seven teams also lost.
While it remains early, that's no way to play your way into the tournament. If this keeps up, finding a list of 33 worthy at-large invites will be quite a chore. At the same time, opportunity opens for teams that can avoid the losing bug. A small winning streak in the next two weeks could now be huge in gaining some separation in a crowded pool.
Temple and Southern California are perfect examples. By stringing together just a couple of victories, they're both in. If so much carnage hadn't occurred in front of them, each still would be on the outside looking in.
|Suzy Merchant's Michigan State Spartans have dropped three straight games, falling to 2-5 in the Big Ten.|
The worst of the losses at that end of the pool were by Oregon (twice on the Arizona swing) and Miami (to Wake Forest). Each forfeited its spot in the field because it lost to teams lower in the RPI. Vermont nearly cost itself a spot when it fell to Boston University on Monday. The Catamounts, who had just moved into the AP poll for the first time in 17 years, now have no margin for error the rest of the season.
But no one had a rougher week than Michigan State. The Spartans, still somehow in the RPI top 20, lost twice in that eight-day span and have dropped three straight overall. Wins over Xavier and North Carolina seem further and further away with each failed offensive possession. Michigan State needs to right the ship quickly, as more than just the Big Ten race is getting away from Suzy Merchant's club.
Among those who did avoid the week of failure, Nebraska, Oklahoma State and West Virginia were the biggest winners. The Cornhuskers beat two top-20 teams (Texas and Baylor), solidifying themselves as the biggest surprise of the season and as legitimate contenders for at least a No. 2 seed. A No. 1 remains a real possibility if Notre Dame should stumble to anyone other than Connecticut.
Nebraska hosts Oklahoma State on Feb. 3, and a win over the Cowgirls also would have to be part of that equation. The Cowgirls are winners of 11 straight, and more importantly have road wins at Vermont, New Mexico and Kansas. Winning in Lawrence this week cemented the fact that Oklahoma State is probably here to stay in the Big 12 race.
The Mountaineers aren't always pretty, but in a week in which both wins came without them scoring 70 points, they established themselves as the Big East's third-best team.
This should have been the perfect season for the Mountain West to grab some of the West Coast attention from the Pac-10. After Stanford, the latter conference is way down. Cal and Arizona State, regulars in the postseason the past few seasons, don't at all look like tournament teams. USC and UCLA both are in right now, but their hold isn't strong. Oregon might have been propped up by its exciting style and plenty of home games.
Unfortunately, the MWC doesn't have the horses to steal away any attention or bids. More than half the league is outside the RPI top 100. TCU and San Diego State are the only teams that look remotely tournament worthy, and even the Aztecs' résumé is a bit lacking. And the soft underbelly of the league isn't going to help San Diego State's cause, either.
Teams from the Colonial, America East and Atlantic 10 probably are the most likely to take advantage of the not-so-wild West.
A few key contests in the coming week likely to affect the bracket:
Wednesday: Kansas at Iowa State: The Jayhawks desperately need a substantial road win and would be all but eliminated from a shot at the Big 12 crown with another loss this soon.
Thursday: Hartford at Boston University: The Hawks need to avoid what happened to Vermont on Monday. The Terriers would be in the America East driver's seat with a win.
Thursday: Tennessee at Georgia: If the Lady Vols emerge victorious here and at LSU on Sunday, the race in the SEC over the final month and a half will be for second place. Georgia would have a firm hold on a No. 2 seed with a win.
Saturday: Eastern Michigan at Bowling Green: If anyone is going to threaten the Falcons in the MAC, it's the Eagles.
Saturday: DePaul at Georgetown: The Blue Demons are hanging by a thread and really could use a road win over a top-20 opponent. A loss, and they are gone from the field.
Sunday: VCU at Drexel: The Rams also host Delaware earlier in the week. This is the Dragons' chance to get back to the top of the CAA.
Sunday: West Virginia at Notre Dame: Losing to UConn didn't cost the Irish their No. 1 seed, but losing to the Mountaineers would, especially with Ohio State and Nebraska awaiting their chance at a top seed.
Charlie Creme can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/CharlieCreme.