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View from the top changes again

Editor's note: Charlie Creme will project the 2005 NCAA Tournament bracket several more times before Selection Sunday. Click here for a glance at this month's field of 64, and be sure to check out Creme's first-round pairings. This projection includes games through Feb. 27.

On Sunday evening, as I gazed deeply into my 13-inch Zenith and the magnificently intense regular-season finale between North Carolina and Duke, something became all too evident: As the most unpredictable women's basketball season in years is winding to a close, little is settled and more questions remain than answers.

Every year, the "who's in, who's out" debate rages from Valentine's Day through mid-March. Usually, however, defining the best of the best is a relatively easy call. This time around, though, no one has to look too far down the S-curve because all of the uncertainty is right at the top.

With less than two weeks to go before Selection Sunday, LSU is the only clear-cut, indisputable No. 1 seed. In fact, a sheet of Saran Wrap is thicker than the differences between teams 2-9. So obviously the upcoming conference tournaments are must-see events.

While I'm supremely confident in LSU, Michigan State, Tennessee and Stanford as this projection's top seeds, a case could be made for Duke, Ohio State, North Carolina, Baylor and Rutgers.

The Scarlet Knights do have wins over LSU, Tennessee, Texas, Notre Dame and UConn, but they also have five losses. That's more than any other team listed here, and combined with the other criteria, just enough to push Rutgers out of the top eight.

Despite the two losses to North Carolina, Duke's profile is still excellent, and, honestly, the Blue Devils could be the choice over Stanford. A win on Sunday and they would have been. As well as the Cardinal have played all season, Stanford's strength of schedule (45) and number of high-quality wins (just 2-1 vs. RPI top-25) aren't at the level as the others. Stanford could even win the Pac-10 tournament and slip to a No. 2 seed. Right now, however, the consistency and gaudy 26-2 mark are enough.

Plus, the big question I've had about the entire ACC this whole season must also apply to Duke: Has each team helped prop the others up? Maryland and Virginia Tech, and to a lesser extent Virginia and Florida State, appear to have inflated RPI numbers. Because the nonconference win quotients seem to be a bit spotty, the only explanation would be that by playing one another for that last month, the SOS numbers for all these ACC clubs have stayed high. That would also help explain North Carolina's 21-spot, one-week jump in the SOS rankings by playing Virginia and Duke.

That in turn has had me questioning why North Carolina's schedule numbers were so low all season. The Tar Heels somehow didn't get the same help their ACC sisters did just by being in the league. The fact is, UNC had many "nights off" in its nonconference schedule, and that's the chief reason the Tar Heels are not a No. 1 seed.

On the other hand, Tennessee never had a night off. I have had people dispute the Lady Vols as a No. 1 seed all season, but they have 14 top-50 wins and play the nation's toughest schedule. That kind of success against all comers is enough to excuse one more loss than Duke, Ohio State, North Carolina or Baylor.

With the line among these teams being so fine, the easiest question to ask is, "Who did you beat and where did you beat them?" Boiling it down even further, and trying to eliminate some of the conference inequities -- such as my view on the ACC and the fact that overall, the SEC appears to be down this season -- I focused that question on nonconference games. That's where Michigan State stood out.

Wins at Notre Dame and Connecticut, against Utah on a neutral floor, and home against Boston College when Jess Deveny was healthy make for a better mini-résumé than Baylor, UNC, Ohio State or Stanford has.

The difference maker in all of this, of course, will be the conference tournaments. If Duke wins in the ACC, the Blue Devils are likely back to top-seed status. If the Buckeyes win a season tiebreaker with Michigan State in the Big Ten final, they'll probably be No. 1 again. Tennessee might have to reach the SEC championship to hold on to its top seed.

So, watch and enjoy. I just hope your TV is bigger than mine.

Last four in: Old Dominion, Purdue, Southern California, Nebraska.

Last four out: Houston, Auburn, Oklahoma, George Washington.

Next four out: Xavier, Florida, UCLA, Rice.

Charlie Creme can be reached at cwcreme@hotmail.com. RPI and SOS ratings courtesy of collegerpi.com.