Race for final No. 1 seed heats up
Bubble teams stumbling at inopportune times is like 'game of at-large hot potato'
A week ago in this space, I wrote that there was no shame for Duke in losing to Notre Dame. Nonetheless, the margin of that loss and some other closer-than-expected results last week pushed the Blue Devils to a No. 2 seed, replaced by Louisville as the fourth No. 1.
Seven days later, the Cardinals are coming off a loss for which there is no shame -- 81-64 at Connecticut. But the margin and how that game played out was again enough to flip-flop the two. Duke returns to the top line, and Louisville falls one spot on the S-curve to a No. 2 seed.
Granted, it is hard to penalize a team for losing to the Huskies, who have handled all comers comfortably. And the difference between Duke and Louisville isn't much when all elements are factored in. Not much needs to happen in one direction or another to change who has the lead in what is shaping up to be a compelling race. Louisville losing by 17, even to UConn, was enough. That being said, a Blue Devils loss to North Carolina on Big Monday (ESPN2 and WatchESPN, 7 p.m. ET) could put the Cardinals back on the top line. The margins just might be that narrow for the next month.
It is also notable that Louisville played Sunday's game without starting guard Bria Smith, who is out with knee tendinitis. But UConn, especially when Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis went out for a spell, was also injury-depleted and vulnerable. Louisville didn't capitalize at all. The Huskies controlled the game throughout with about as thin a rotation as imaginable.
That still brings us back to which team should be that final No. 1 seed. By any important measures -- RPI, strength of schedule, top-50 wins, road record -- Duke has the advantage. The Blue Devils' only two losses are to the two best teams in the country. Louisville's other defeat was at the hands of a Kentucky team that isn't as good as most once thought; Sunday, the Wildcats fell to 5-5 in the SEC. However, although both Cardinals losses were on the road, Duke's losses, even against the nation's best, were at home. This is why the margin between the two is so small. It might come down to viewing who the Blue Devils are now versus who they were before Chelsea Gray's season-ending knee injury. At this point, it's too soon to make an absolute determination whether Duke has lost anything tangible.
As subtle as the differences between the two might be, the decision has fairly large ripple effects throughout the rest of the bracket. As stated previously, UConn's placement is first and foremost. Last week, with the Cardinals as a No. 1, the Huskies were placed in the Lincoln Regional. This week, with Duke returning to the top line, the Huskies are back in Louisville, facing a potential Elite Eight matchup with the Cardinals. Ironically, it appears UConn's best chance to play in the only region without a top-two-seeded host would be losing to the Cardinals on March 3 or in a potential American Conference tournament game. That would be a huge boost to Louisville's case for a No. 1 seed and likely would shift the Huskies to the geographically less friendly but potentially more neutral Lincoln Regional (unless they were to meet Nebraska). Duke's regional placement also would be directly based on this decision.
To complicate things just a bit more, Stanford unwillingly threw itself into the conversation by stumbling badly at Washington on Sunday. Among the three -- Duke, Louisville and Stanford, which all have two losses -- the Cardinal obviously has the worst loss. Washington has an RPI in the 90s. Nonetheless, every other piece of analysis says Stanford should keep its No. 1 seed status. The résumé is still slightly better than Duke's, and the Blue Devils' profile is slightly better than Louisville's -- for now.
The other end of the field is even messier, getting increasingly difficult to handicap -- but not because there are too many teams from which to choose. To the contrary, there are too few.
Just when a bubble team gets a big win, it is undercut by a troubling loss (see Georgia, Saint Joe's). A stumble becomes even more puzzling when it's followed by a good win (see Florida). Teams in the throngs of big skids (Florida State, Iowa State) have fallen, but how far can they drop when most of their competition is winning only games against below-average opposition (Indiana, Villanova, Southern California, Saint Mary's, Bowling Green, Rutgers)? In particular, the Seminoles and Cyclones almost appear to be trying to play their way out of the tournament. The problem is, no one is there to snatch the spot. It's like a game of at-large hot potato.
Nebraska is actually the single team to win its way back into the field without help.
The No. 1 seed battle could be something we haven't had in recent years, one that goes right into conference tournament season, especially if Stanford trips up again. Meanwhile, the bubble tends to be something that largely works itself out. However, right now it is a mess for all the wrong reasons.
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