Big weekend produces big change
With four of the major conference tournaments complete (two more will be decided Monday), the shape of the bracket is beginning to firm up. But that doesn't mean the biggest weekend of the season did not produce some changes.
Tennessee now a No. 1: The biggest change came right at the top, where the Lady Vols, behind their 17th SEC tournament championship, replaced South Carolina on the top line. Tennessee had to get through three NCAA tournament-caliber teams -- LSU, Texas A&M and Kentucky -- to capture the crown. It wasn't always pretty in Duluth, Ga. (Tennessee trailed much of the title game to the Wildcats in an extremely intense, physical game), but it gave the Lady Vols a seven-game winning streak and 13 top-50 RPI wins, more than anyone in the country other than Notre Dame. The Gamecocks suffered a semifinal loss to Kentucky and were hurt in the fine-line evaluation of No. 1 seeds by losing two of their past three. The competition for the final two No. 1 seeds behind Connecticut and Notre Dame is extremely tight, so South Carolina's stumble to the finish, plus its unimpressive nonconference strength of schedule, relegates the Gamecocks to a No. 2 seed.
Louisville's case for a top seed: The Cardinals are still in the race for a No. 1, but it now likely requires a win over Connecticut in Monday's American title game (ESPN/WatchESPN, 7 p.m. ET). With Stanford's loss to Southern California in the Pac-12 semis, some immediately questioned whether Louisville could supplant the Cardinal as a No. 1 seed. Then Louisville nearly lost to South Florida. The comparison against Stanford for a No. 1 seed already was not particularly strong -- and it isn't just the weakness of the American that hurts the Cardinals. Stanford's nonconference schedule was significantly stronger and Stanford has 10 more top-50 and three more top-25 wins than Louisville. The two "bad" losses Stanford suffered -- to Washington and USC -- aren't bad at all. Both teams are in the top 100, which means those defeats aren't evaluated as bad losses. Not to mention that USC is a NCAA tournament team now. If the Louisville beats UConn or even performs very well Monday, the evaluation might change. But to this point, it is extremely hard to justify Louisville over Stanford as a No. 1 seed.
Duke supplants West Virginia as the final No. 2 seed: This isn't to say the Mountaineers did anything wrong. However, they have struggled some since winning at Baylor, while Duke played its best basketball since losing Alexis Jones for the season. The Blue Devils' overall résumé is much better than West Virginia's. Granted, much of the Duke credential list was compiled with a different-looking team, but the Blue Devils played well enough against North Carolina and Notre Dame in the ACC tournament to push them ahead in the race. Call it the eye test perhaps, but Duke looked like the better team over the weekend.
A Big 12 tournament title for the Mountaineers could change that yet again and put West Virginia back on the No. 2 line. What hurts both West Virginia and Baylor the most in their quest for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed? Not only did neither do much of note in the nonconference, but this season, the Big 12 is not as strong as it has been in recent seasons. People have pondered all year just how good the Big 12 is. The best answer probably is that the Big 12 was good but not great this season and not at the level of the SEC or ACC.
Notre Dame is in Baton Rouge: This scenario is not ideal. Preferably, the Irish would be in neutral site Toledo and eventually that might be possible. Having a No. 1 seed potentially playing a true road game in the second round is not what anyone wants, especially when Muffett McGraw's team did it last year at Iowa. However, the way the seeds break right now, there really isn't much choice. LSU, as the host in Baton Rouge, is 31 on the board, a No. 8 seed. Plotting the Lady Tigers with Connecticut or Tennessee can't happen because they too are hosts. Stanford wouldn't make geographic sense.
Just move LSU to a No. 7 seed as the rules allow, you say. That doesn't work, either.
As No. 2 seeds, Duke and Baylor would be placed in the same sub-regional in which a No. 7 is placed. But the Blue Devils and Lady Bears are also hosts. Placing the Lady Tigers with South Carolina can't happen because both are in the SEC. That leaves Louisville as the only remaining No. 2 seed. Iowa State is also a No. 7 seed, so if LSU was placed with Louisville, the Cyclones would have to go with South Carolina.
Seems reasonable, right? No, actually, because West Virginia, Iowa State's Big 12 companion, is already in that half of the bracket as the No. 3 and has to go there. Iowa State and West Virginia can't be placed in the same half of the bracket, so that scenario is a no-go. Under the current seeding and S-curve alignment, that leaves no other spot for LSU and its hosting duties to be placed other than with Notre Dame.
Fortunately, this will no longer be an issue next season when the tournament returns to all higher-seeded teams serving as hosts. The great angst that this current format of predetermined sites has caused will be gone.
Bid stealing: It is already well under way. Fordham and USC came into the weekend on the outside looking in and then ran the table in the Atlantic 10 and Pac-12 tournaments, respectively, to not only climb the board, but then take automatic bids. That meant two would-be at-large spots disappeared. Goodbye to Minnesota and Rutgers. Neither have particularly good résumés with a combined 2-14 record against the RPI top-50, and were just average in recent weeks. Rutgers hung around longer because it had the better win, but Minnesota might ultimately have the better chance of inclusion. However, neither the Golden Gophers or Scarlet Knights are likely to be happy come next Monday.
USC and Fordham can rest easy knowing they will be playing in the NCAA tournament. Meanwhile, the rest of the bubble teams need to root for James Madison (CAA), Middle Tennessee (C-USA) and either Gonzaga or BYU (WCC) to prevail in their leagues, or the stealing won't be done yet.
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