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. 26.
We in the land of Bracketology spend many an hour analyzing and comparing teams to find out who's in and who's out or where any particular team should be seeded.
But as we get closer to Selection Monday, one major question has emerged that might have more to do with how the tournament unfolds than any question about the bubble or the difference between an 11 and 12 seed: the Bridgeport and Cleveland regionals and the campus proximity of a pair of potential No. 2 seeds to those sites.
In this week's bracket, Connecticut and Ohio State landed as No. 2 seeds. Since neither the Huskies in Bridgeport nor the Buckeyes in Cleveland are the actual hosts, no rule exists that they have to be placed in those cities. If either or both were No. 1 seeds, they would unquestionably be headed to the regional close to home, but as 2s, the question becomes, should they?
The answer is -- and I wish I could do better -- I don't know for sure. However, I think I have a pretty good idea. Here's why.
Historically, the committee has done everything it can to get the marquee attendance draws as close to home as possible to maximize crowds and the gate, thus making the game look more appealing on television. Yet, slowly (some would say very slowly) the trend has been to make an attempt to get closer to the men's tournament and not have so many obvious geographical advantages built into the draw.
In 2004, Penn State fans were not happy when, as a top seed, the Lady Lions were placed in Hartford with UConn at the other end of their bracket as the No. 2 seed. Now, the Huskies were not the host of the regional that year (the Big East Conference was), so UConn could have gone elsewhere. It didn't seem fair at the time, especially after Connecticut beat Penn State in the regional finals and went on to win the national championship.
However, it might actually have been fair, and unless you received a degree from State College, you'll see why shortly.
Let's move forward to last year when Chattanooga hosted a regional and, to the surprise of some, No. 1-seeded Tennessee was not there. The Lady Vols were placed in Philadelphia. Stanford, a two-seed, was also placed away from Pac-10 country in the Tempe Region. Instead, the Cardinal landed in Kansas City.
Two tournaments just one year apart and seemingly two completely different stances were taken by the committee. But not quite. In actuality, it was the same stance, substantiating what the committee has always proclaimed -- but few completely bought. That is that the integrity and balance of the bracket and S-curve takes precedence over all else.
A closer examination of the 2004 Penn State-UConn issue reveals that the Lady Lions were very likely the fourth No. 1 and Connecticut was the top No. 2 seed (four and five on the S-curve). That meant they would have to be paired together, and the rules of geographical placement dictated that Penn State go to the regional closest. In this case it was Hartford. Not to mention that if any No. 1 happened to be "disadvantaged" it would have to be the team lowest on the S-curve.
Last season, LSU was clearly ahead of Tennessee on the S-curve, so the Lady Tigers got preference and stayed as close to home as possible (Chattanooga). Stanford had to have been the fifth team in the S-curve rankings, thus placed with the weakest of the No. 1 seeds. That meant going wherever Michigan State went to keep the bracket balanced and fair.
So in 2004 and 2005, the committee showed a great deal of consistency, leading me to believe it will do the same in 2006. That is why I wrote above that I didn't know for sure if either Connecticut or Ohio State or both would be playing near home. This might seem like backtracking from previous weeks on my part, because UConn has been in the Bridgeport Regional since I began forecasting this season. But this reexamination has led me to believe that the Huskies being kept in the Nutmeg State is not a guarantee.
In this week's bracket I don't have either of them there. To help explain, here's the top eight of my S-curve:
(Oklahoma is right behind)
By placing North Carolina in Bridgeport, Ohio State has to go there to in order to follow the rules of balancing the bracket. The top team goes with the eighth-rated team. Now, UNC could just as easily be placed in Cleveland because the distances between Chapel Hill and Bridgeport and Chapel Hill and Cleveland are virtually the same. This fact does afford the committee the opportunity to prevent putting the top overall seed in a de facto road game in the regional final and still keep everything else fair and balanced.
You might then ask, "Why is UConn matched with LSU?" Since Tennessee and LSU are both from the SEC and therefore cannot be placed in the same regional as No. 1 and 2 seeds by rule, then a switch does have to occur. Hence, the Huskies in San Antonio with the Lady Tigers.
That part of the equation is predicated on the Lady Vols staying at a No. 2 seed. The SEC tournament becomes the Lady Vols' ultimate litmus test. Sunday's loss to Florida, like the Georgia win, showed Tennessee's vulnerability without Alexis Hornbuckle. This time it actually cost Pat Summitt's club. Tennessee's status as No. 1 in the RPI and the top of the SOS rankings gives it a chance to regain a top seed with a strong showing in Little Rock (although it might take winning the tourney depending on what happens in the ACC and Big East). Losing in the semis or earlier would likely confirm to the committee what many of us already suspect -- that this is not the same team that built the gaudy power numbers -- and the Lady Vols could even slip to a No. 3. Tennessee is easily the least stable of the top clubs and should be the one to watch most closely when evaluating the goings on in the other league tournaments.
North Carolina, Duke and LSU are pretty well set as No. 1 seeds, barring anything really unusual happening next week. Even a Duke loss to Maryland in the semis shouldn't cost the Blue Devils a top seed.
Thanks to the early conclusions of the SEC and ACC tournaments (both conference tournament finals are Sunday), this time next week we'll know the answer to those questions. We will also be seven days closer to Christmas morning -- or as some of you know it, Selection Monday.
Charlie Creme can be reached at email@example.com.