Some parts of bracket come into focus
Some things are obvious by now. That seems to be the case every college basketball season when the nonconference season ends and league play begins. The games have a slightly different feel, partly because the opponents are more familiar, but also because we've figured out a few things. Liking hitting the midway point of a book, we now know enough to explain what has happened -- but not quite enough to detect exactly where it is going.
Still, there's enough data to start taking some educated guesses.
Baylor is the best team -- period
The Lady Bears have beaten UConn and Notre Dame, two of their three closest competitors for the nation's top spot, and no one else has been close. Odyssey Sims and Brittney Griner are a devastating point-post combo that no other team can match. That being said, regarding the two voters who still voted UConn No. 1 in last week's coaches' poll, it is fair to ask -- what sport are they watching? So let this be a plea: No more emails about what the polls say as it relates to seeding. They can't be taken too seriously because it's clear that some people who vote in them don't take their voting seriously.
Let's put Baylor's likelihood of being a No. 1 seed come March 12 at 90-95 percent. The Lady Bears are the best now and are playing in a Big 12 that isn't as deep with quality as it has been in recent seasons. They should remain such into the spring.
Does that translate to being the best team on April 3? It doesn't, but this Baylor team already knows it can beat the best of what the rest of the country has to offer. The bitter disappointment of not even making it to the Final Four last season should probably work as decent motivation, as well. The Lady Bears felt the sting of letting a No. 1 seed go to waste last March. It's hard to believe they'll do the same this time around. No stopping 'til Denver for this Baylor team.
Nneka Ogwumike is amazing
Yes, that statement is from the file labeled obvious. The stats Ogwumike recorded against Tennessee in a game five days before Christmas -- 42 points, 17 rebounds, 19-of-27 shooting, three assists -- might go down as the signature performance of the season. Talk on the Farm of where to place Ogwumike in the history of the Stanford program has certainly begun already.
The Cardinal senior has actually outscored and outrebounded Brittney Griner to this point, and ESPN.com's Graham Hays will offer more debate on Tuesday regarding the race for player of the year. Ogwumike obviously is more focused on winning her final game after three straight empty trips to the Final Four. Getting there might be a little more difficult this season, however, and there is nothing Ogwumike can do about that. Stanford is bound for the road for at least the first two rounds in this year's NCAA tournament. That could easily mean a game on the opponent's home floor (as this week's projection illustrates) or extensive travel -- maybe to Ames or Little Rock. The only way that Ogwumike and her Cardinal teammates won't have to change their clocks would be a potential second-round matchup with Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash. Given that the teams met in last spring's Elite Eight and again this regular season, that seems quite unlikely.
A trio that's better than expected
Who would have guessed that this trio of teams would reach the second week of January with a combined two losses?
Some expectations did exist in College Park, but Maryland is unbeaten. The Terrapins have shown a toughness and refusal to lose that some might have felt was still a year away. After just a season and a half, Alyssa Thomas is already on the cusp of stardom. Meanwhile, Ohio State was supposed to take a step back given the loss of Jantel Lavender. Instead, the Buckeyes are better. And they would be the undisputed favorites in the Big Ten if Nebraska hadn't showed up. The Cornhuskers were supposed to need some time to adjust to the surroundings of a new conference, but that hasn't been necessary. Lindsey Moore and Jordan Hooper are proving that big games are big games regardless of the league. Now, if either one could just help us explain to the non-college sports fans how it could be that the Big Ten has 12 teams and the Big 12 has 10.
But are the Terps, Buckeyes or Huskers capable of conference championships? The Virginia men went to the Final Four the year after Ralph Sampson graduated. Tennessee said goodbye to Peyton Manning and then won the national championship. That kind of history suggests that Ohio State could at least be in line for a run at the Big Ten title. Maryland's two games with Duke will probably determine the ACC's top team, and after the Terps' fortitude bubbled up against Georgia Tech and North Carolina, this team definitely seems ready for the big moments. And the Huskers? If they're playing a little above their skills right now, then perhaps not. But they are in the running much more than was expected two months ago. Big Ten title or not, Nebraska's chances for an NCAA tournament bid are above an 80 percent probability. And that certainly could not have been said two months ago.
Don't underestimate Southern California
The Trojans -- the best .500 or near-.500 team in the country -- have battled injury (losing guard Jacki Gemelos to a fifth ACL tear reduced some to tears) and the nation's second-toughest schedule. They didn't thrive, but did survive, playing a handful of good teams on the road tough and collecting a solid résumé of wins. A relatively weak group of teams with whom the Trojans are competing for those final NCAA tournament spots also helps. USC has actually won four of five games since Gemelos went down, and the results seem to be equaling the talent.
Can the Trojans elevate beyond that now to be a tournament team? The Pac-12 isn't particularly tough and, even at 8-6, USC looks like the conference's second-best team. By no means does that alone make the Trojans tournament-worthy, but their credentials are right there with anyone else on the bubble. They've beaten Gonzaga on the road and played close games with Texas A&M, Stanford and Georgia. The margin for error isn't much, but USC is in position to avoid getting squeezed out as it was last season.
After Delaware, what about rest of CAA?
Delaware is on the national scene to stay in 2012. Elena Della Donne has lifted the Blue Hens program in an amazing way. Now the goal shouldn't be just to earn a bid. Winning some games in March is very possible.
Can the CAA pick up another bid or two? That might also be up to Delaware. The Hens are a virtual lock for an at-large bid if they need it, so losing in the CAA tournament would open the door for someone else to grab the automatic bid. That might not be the only shot at multiple bids, though. Hofstra (in) and James Madison (out) were strongly considered for the latest projection. Whichever team can stay right on Delaware's heels would stay in the conversation.
The Gonzaga conundrum
Just like Delaware above, the Zags are a solid bet to make the NCAA tournament unless something completely unforeseen occurs. Even with the graduation losses that coach Kelly Graves' team suffered after last season's amazing Elite Eight run, there's no reason Gonzaga won't continue to dominate the WCC. The addition of BYU to the league makes it a little more interesting, giving Gonzaga at least one sparring partner, but the Zags are still the better team and program. Anything more than one loss the rest of the way would be shocking.
Where will they be seeded? Once again, Gonzaga is a first-round host and, just like last year, that creates a dilemma for the committee. A No. 11 seed (last year's seed and the seed in the latest projection) seems a bit low, but an 8-9 seed means a No. 1 seed would be going on the road in the second round. As it stands now with Baylor, Notre Dame, Stanford and UConn as No. 1 seeds, that scenario seems unlikely. The Irish will host the first two rounds, and while the Huskies are not the host in Bridgeport, Conn., does anyone really believe they won't be playing there if they have earned top-seed status?
No. 1 seeds have had to play second-round games in the opponents' home gym before (Duke in 2009; North Carolina in 2006), but doing that to Baylor, the clear-cut No. 1 overall seed, also doesn't seem probable (although don't discount that one entirely -- it isn't impossible). Putting Gonzaga with Stanford creates a rematch scenario.
Similar problems exist with Gonzaga as a No. 7 or 10 seed. A handful of teams in that range right now -- Oklahoma, LSU, Vanderbilt -- are already hosts. Maryland -- as a No. 2 and a host -- also falls into that subregional of the 2, 7, 10, 15, limiting Gonzaga's placement once again. A scenario could exist where Tennessee, if the Lady Vols remain on the No. 2 line, could be sent to the Northwest, as Texas A&M was two years ago, but I can't see that becoming a reality just yet. These are exactly the kind of puzzles that are unique to the women's tournament and add a big wrinkle in the bracketing process.
Princeton is still the Ivy's elite by a wide margin. The Tigers have won the last two league titles, with just one loss along the way. With the Ivy's best player, Niveen Rasheed, back from last season's knee injury, any losses from here on out would be news. Princeton joins Green Bay and Gonzaga as mid-majors that are near locks to win their conferences.
Can the Tigers win an NCAA tournament game? They have earned No. 11 and No. 12 seeds the last two seasons, playing a pair of Big East opponents (St. John's and Georgetown) admirably for a while but eventually losing each game by double figures. Expect a similar seed in two months. The No. 9 that the Tigers earned in the latest projection will likely begin to drop as other teams pick up higher quality wins and Princeton is relegated to Ivy League competition. An opening-round win (which would be the program's first-ever NCAA tournament victory) would be a much bigger task, but Princeton should be on that list of possible upsets.
Charlie Creme can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.