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Regular-season races all over the country are over or will be ending this week (did this season fly by or what?).
That means the bracket really begins to take shape into something that should closely resemble what the committee produces on March 15. However, with two weeks until Selection Monday, questions obviously remain. So let's hit on some that seem to be at the forefront coming out of the regular season's final full weekend.
The Tar Heels and their recent struggles have been a hot topic and for good reason. When a program as exceptional as North Carolina loses seven of eight games, it is news. But it wasn't reason to panic about the Tar Heels' NCAA tournament chances. Even before UNC's emotionally charged upset of Duke on Sunday, Sylvia Hatchell's bunch was in the tournament for two reasons.
The first will be important to remember throughout the next two weeks for more teams than just UNC: Teams are evaluated on their entire body of work. One losing stretch, a big win here or there, or a hot streak to end the season as individual criteria alone won't get a team in or knock it out. The committee examines the entire season with those and many more elements as part of the process.
Even before beating Duke, the Tar Heels had four top-50 wins (4-8). That's more than Dayton (3-3), TCU (3-3), Temple (1-5), James Madison (2-1), UCLA (2-7) and DePaul (2-7). North Carolina also has a higher RPI than Dayton, TCU, Temple, USC, NC State and Mississippi State. While at 3-7 the Tar Heels have not been good away from home, DePaul is merely 5-8 on the road, NC State is 3-9 and Texas Tech is 3-6. These are all teams around the Tar Heels on the S-curve and UNC compares more than favorably in at least two key evaluators.
Also, just ask a few questions: Is Wisconsin better than North Carolina? Is Vermont? How about Temple or Dayton or Middle Tennessee? If the answer to most of those is "no," then Carolina was never truly in jeopardy.
Which brings us to the second reason. Sixty-four teams play this thing called the NCAA tournament. If North Carolina might not be in, then who is? Not to mention that in the last decade no ACC team with an RPI at least in the 30s has failed to reach the NCAA tournament. History also has the Tar Heels' back.
None of the last seven spots is being held down by an anchor, but the list of candidates ready to pounce is running thin. Just look at the First Four Out: Kansas, Michigan, Maryland, Boston College.
Kansas' youngsters have played admirably since the injury to Danielle McCray, but the fact is, they aren't getting results. The Jayhawks are 15-12, have lost five of six and don't have a quality win since Dec. 3. Worse, they finish the regular season against Baylor and Texas A&M. Kansas will probably end up closer to being denied a WNIT bid than getting one to the NCAA tournament.
Maryland had its opportunity, but if Sunday's trouncing by Florida State is any indication, it appears the young Terrapins have run out of gas. The nonconference schedule was never good and Maryland was merely 7-10 against competition within the RPI top 100. Two wins in the ACC tournament could make a difference. Three would likely do it, because that would mean three against top-50 teams. However, the Terps have shown no signs that kind of ACC tourney run would be possible.
Boston College's opportunities were even greater. The Eagles are their own worst enemy -- three top-50 wins negated by three bad losses; after beating Duke and North Carolina in consecutive games, they lost four out of five to finish. Sunday's loss to Miami was especially crippling. Amazingly, the door is still open a crack, so if the Eagles can get to the weekend games of the ACC tournament and get a little help, hope remains.
Michigan hasn't faded quite as badly as the Eagles (although it was close) and might have a slightly better chance to win games in the Big Ten tournament. The Wolverines' predicament is much like that of BC's, but Michigan does have wins over the Eagles and Iowa if it came down to something that close.
Middle-of-the-pack SEC clubs Mississippi and South Carolina have garnered some discussion, but each would have to be classified as a long shot, both because of their résumés to this point and because making up ground in the SEC tournament is a tall order. Ole Miss has won two games in a month and has an RPI hovering around 90.
The Gamecocks' scenario is even simpler. Teams with .500 records don't get at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. Not that there is a rule against it; they just don't. It doesn't happen. Right now, South Carolina is 14-14. Any conversation about the Gamecocks before they win at least two games in the SEC tournament is moot.
The Scarlet Knights are, in fact, the beneficiary of an extremely weak bubble. They haven't beaten a truly good team in two months and are just 15-13. In any number of seasons, C. Vivian Stringer's refusal to play in the WNIT would not have been a hypothetical. But this season, Rutgers' top-five schedule, four top-50 wins (BC, USC, Princeton and DePaul) and a winning Big East record might just be enough.
Like North Carolina, Rutgers also has history on its side. Just twice in the last decade has a major conference team with an RPI as high as 30 not been invited (Texas in 2007 and Florida in 2000).
This one has come up in e-mail once or twice. In many ways, the Lady Dogs are like North Carolina -- a once highly rated team fallen on hard times. And also like the Tar Heels, with Georgia it's important to remember the phrase "entire body of work." Granted, today's Georgia is not the same Georgia team that beat Tennessee. But over their entire season, the Lady Dogs have gone 7-2 against the top 50, have a winning record in both the SEC and on the road, and don't have a bad loss. That all goes into the mix with the final-month struggles -- and what comes out is a No. 5 or 6 seed.
Maybe. Duke might have lost the North Carolina contest and an outright ACC regular-season championship, but not its hold on a No. 2. The Blue Devils' credentials across the board are better than any of their pursuers, especially their 11 wins against the top 50.
Notre Dame seems like a good bet, as well. The Irish have lost just once all season with the lineup (which includes Lindsay Schrader) they will be bringing into the NCAA tournament, and that was at Connecticut. Even with another loss to the Huskies in the regular-season finale on Monday, a No. 2 seed remains secure for Notre Dame. Only an early exit from the Big East tournament could derail that. Schrader's two-game absence (losses to St. John's and Georgetown) can't and won't be dismissed, but the Irish have done nothing but win again upon her return. In some respects, they are to be considered just a one-loss team at this point.
No. 2 seeds for Ohio State and West Virginia are much less secure. Any unexpected losses in their respective conference tournaments coupled with good runs by Xavier, Florida State, Oklahoma and even possibly Texas A&M could result in some S-curve movement. That's as deep as the No. 2 pool goes, though. There are no more contenders.
The Musketeers won't get to play the high-quality competition that the rest of their 2-seed competition will see, so anything short of an Atlantic 10 tournament title will probably knock them out of consideration for a No. 2 seed. If Florida State delivers at the ACC tournament, the Seminoles should slide up. Oklahoma has some good power numbers (RPI, SOS), but the Sooners also have eight losses. While not all win-loss records are created equally, that is still at least three more losses than anyone else in the mix -- and just too many when the competition is so tight. The Aggies need some help and a Big 12 tournament win.
Charlie Creme can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.