League play has dramatic impact
Most conference seasons are just three weeks old, but for a number of teams, those early league games have dramatically impacted their seasons. For some, it was the turnaround they needed. For others, losses killed momentum. Here is a look at some of the teams most notably affected by conference play and how those games might have changed some tournament outlooks.
South Carolina: It's not as if the Gamecocks struggled in the nonconference portion of their season. They won 12 of 13 games. However, only one of those wins was against a top-100 RPI opponent. The bar was low and it was difficult to tell just how good South Carolina really was. But with a much-improved offense and the emergence of freshman Alaina Coates, Dawn Staley's bunch ripped off four straight victories to start the SEC season, including wins over top-20 RPI foes Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Despite a loss to Texas A&M on Thursday, the Gamecocks, picked in the preseason to finish seventh, are still in position to compete for an SEC title and a No. 2 overall seed.
Texas A&M: As impressive as South Carolina's flip of the switch might have been, the Aggies' turnaround was better. They lost more than the Gamecocks in the pre-SEC season and have done a better job (mainly because of a win in a head-to-head meeting) since conference play opened. A&M took on a difficult early-season schedule, but failed to beat anyone of quality. In the SEC, the Aggies have beaten everyone. More challenges are to come in a league that offers them nearly nightly, but as of now, A&M is a top-four seed, thanks to a 5-0 SEC start.
Dayton: The Flyers began the season in the top 20 and that was the last good news for a while. At one point Dayton lost four out of five and wasn't defending anyone. Iowa (97 points), Michigan (96), Vanderbilt (82) and Central Michigan (94) all torched the Flyers. Even in the lone win during that stretch, Akron, which is now a sub-.500 team, put up 80 points. The defense improved a bit in December and a turnaround began. Some revenge in a return game against CMU and a "looks-better-now" win over Washington State set the stage for Dayton's quick beginning to Atlantic 10 play that has included three blowouts. The Flyers once again look like the clear favorite in the conference, with the ability to be as high as a No. 7 or No. 8 seed.
Michigan State: The Spartans lost to IPFW and Virginia Tech in December. The résumé was not at all special. Then the pieces started to fit for Suzy Merchant and her team right at the beginning of 2014 as Big Ten play opened. Freshman Aerial Powers' consistency emerged and Michigan State ran off four straight victories, three by double figures, before falling Sunday to Penn State. At one point, the Spartans were a borderline tournament team. Now they are in position to battle for a top-5 to top-6 seed.
Georgia: The Lady Dogs were picked sixth in the SEC as Andy Landers undertook the task of replacing three longtime and productive starters. Somewhat surprisingly, Georgia jumped to an 11-0 start, including wins over Ohio State, George Washington and Georgia Tech. Then came SEC play and an about-face. Turnovers and shooting woes crippled the offense, and the Lady Dogs were quickly 0-4 in the league and out of the predicted field. They have come back to win their last two, but without any sustained success in the SEC, Georgia is looking at a trip to the WNIT.
Colorado: Perhaps no team in the country has hit the conference free fall as hard as the Buffaloes. Two weeks before Christmas, Colorado was unbeaten and ranked No. 11 in the country. Now they have lost four straight games and five out of six in the Pac-12 to fall completely out of the field. Even worse, the conference skid brought more attention to the fact that the Buffs have only two remotely decent wins this season (Iowa, UCLA).
Florida State: Given their youth (two freshmen and a sophomore start), the Seminoles' surge to begin the season bordered on shocking, so maybe the recent ACC troubles are more a matter of evening things out. Not to mention that 2-3 in the ACC can be overcome. The problem might lie with how Florida State has lost those games. The last two were by 23 points at NC State and, even worse, by 17 points at 9-9 Virginia. So perhaps the early-season run was too good to be true and the Seminoles will struggle to maintain the No. 6-7 seed range they have been in the last two weeks.
Minnesota: The Golden Gophers didn't exactly come out of the gates in epic form, but there were some good wins along the way. They certainly looked like a tournament team once it was established that freshman center Amanda Zahui B. could really play. With Zahui B. alongside Rachel Banham, Minnesota has an inside-outside duo whose talent is hard to match. However, once Big Ten play got going, the pair was about all the Gophers had. Offensive balance is absent, and at 1-4 in the conference, it might already be too late for Minnesota to get back into any serious tournament talk.
So where, you might ask, does Duke fall? The Blue Devils have been dominant both in and out of conference and are a clear-cut No. 1 seed. But last weekend, for the second straight year, they lost their point guard and leader, Chelsea Gray, to a season-ending knee injury. The questions immediately poured in as to how this impacted Duke's seed. Are the Blue Devils still a No. 1? Fortunately for the committee, there is still plenty of time to see Duke play without Gray and thus evaluate that version of the team.
On the flip side, Bracketology is week-to-week, a look at what the tournament field would look like should the season end today. So one week after Gray's injury, Duke is still a No. 1 seed.
There are a few reasons not to immediately rip the Blue Devils off the top line.
Gray, while an outstanding player, had not become vital to Duke's success. Her absence will hurt, no doubt (Duke did struggle with some end-of-game situations in a harder-than-it-should-have-been Sunday win at Virginia Tech). But the Blue Devils did this last year without Gray, losing only two of their final 11 games, one of which was the Elite Eight meeting with Notre Dame, and winning the ACC tournament. A precedent was set. This is not Cincinnati losing Kenyon Martin in March 2000. Last year's scenario created something to evaluate.
Alexis Jones provides roughly the same production as Gray in similar minutes. That is why Duke didn't miss much from a tangible nature 11 months ago. The Blue Devils were among Teams 5-8 with or without Gray, and they remain among Teams 1-4 this season without her.
That being said, given the injury I did drop Duke from the No. 2 overall team to the No. 4 overall team. There just isn't anyone else yet ready to jump up to that top seed line to supplant Duke, Gray or no Gray. Of course, if the Blue Devils stumble along the way and don't play as well as they did a year ago without their All-American, then the story changes. But as of today, even without Gray, Duke remains a No. 1 seed.