Final exams have arrived. And while the tests on the court are just beginning, most of the women's college basketball world is getting its biggest tests this week in the classroom.
However, one major exam with just a single question -- "Who will be the No. 1 seeds in March?" -- might already have been handed in and corrected without anyone realizing it. The question is easy to answer now and likely won't get any more difficult in a few months.
Nothing should be viewed as a lock in December, but the No. 1 seeds as of now -- Stanford, Connecticut, Baylor and Duke -- are good bets to maintain that position all season right into Selection Monday on March 18. This isn't to say the Cardinal, Huskies, Lady Bears and Blue Devils are invincible, but which teams below them appear capable of stealing a seat at the table of the big four? The group of contenders is small -- and some of the results so far already have made the task of bumping off one of the powerhouse programs very difficult.
Kentucky wasn't even competitive with Baylor when the two met in mid-November. Notre Dame had its shot at the Lady Bears at home and came up short. Maryland and Penn State were overwhelmed by Connecticut. Those schools, along with Georgia and Louisville, were the most likely candidates to move up to a No. 1 seed and replace Stanford, Connecticut, Baylor or Duke. Instead, the best chances to create a bigger pool of potential No. 1 seeds have come and gone. What remains is a small window of opportunity.
Notre Dame and Louisville have a combined three shots at the Huskies. But if an upset were to happen, that team would in turn have to be pretty close to perfect the rest of the way to secure a No. 1 seed.
Since UConn also still has to play each of the other current No. 1 seeds, the Huskies seem to have the greatest chance to fall. But while UConn easily has the toughest schedule the rest of the way, the reality is that the Huskies are just too good to lose enough of those games to fall. Even if UConn lost one or two games to the other current No. 1 seeds, it wouldn't be enough to drop the Huskies from their top-line status.
Two other factors are important to keep in mind. First, thanks in part to the shifting landscape of college sports, Baylor and Duke are both playing in weakened conferences. Also, the ACL epidemic seems to be even worse than ever in 2012 and has affected many teams.
The Big 12, without Texas A&M, isn't as deep as it was the past two years. New addition West Virginia might have been a threat to the Lady Bears on any given night with center Asya Bussie, but she suffered a season-ending knee injury on the team's second day of practice. Oklahoma was everyone's choice for second place in the conference and as a legitimate challenge to Baylor. That seems unlikely now that heart-and-soul veteran guard Whitney Hand's season is over after her second ACL tear, which occurred last week against North Texas. Kansas' two best players -- Angel Goodrich and Carolyn Davis -- already play on surgically repaired knees. Assuming the Lady Bears can buck the odds and stay completely healthy, they're the easy favorite to go unbeaten in league play again.
Duke has seen Miami and Georgia Tech take steps back, while North Carolina and Virginia haven't improved enough. Maryland was a clear threat to the Blue Devils and a strong part of the pool in contention for a No. 1 seed two months ago, but injuries took the Terps out of that group before even getting to December. Brenda Frese lost her starting backcourt (Brene Moseley and Laurin Mincy) to ACL tears and is down to an eight-player roster. That won't cut it as the Terps try to get through the now 18-game ACC schedule and keep pace with Duke. Maryland is still a top NCAA tournament team, but a No. 1 seed is almost impossible now.
The Blue Devils might well fall apart against UConn as they seem to annually, but that alone won't be enough to kill Duke's No. 1 status -- unless something truly special is happening elsewhere.
The Pac-12 is the one place where the competition has improved, thus putting Stanford at some risk. Prior to the season, the Cardinal were expected to come back down to earth a bit, but upsetting Baylor in Hawaii seems to indicate otherwise. However, the gap between Stanford and the rest of the Pac-12 has gotten smaller because California and UCLA are better. Still, it will take more than one loss in Stanford's four combined meetings with the Bears and Bruins to knock the Cardinal off their perch.
Ultimately, getting any change at the top will require a combination of some losses by the top dogs, with someone else having the kind of season worthy of seizing that opportunity. But right now, it seems just as unlikely for anyone else in the top 20 to emerge as it does for Stanford, UConn, Baylor or Duke to fall off.
And, as exam week proves, there are always more questions to ask. What else might impact what the No. 1 seeds look like?
Is Georgia good enough to go through the entire season with just one or two losses?
Will Notre Dame knock off UConn at least once and then dominate the rest of the Big East?
Can Kentucky be a runaway winner of the SEC? How about Tennessee, or does the loss to Chattanooga already eliminate the Lady Vols?
Can Penn State get through the rest of the season with just one or two more losses?
If the answer to any of those questions is "no," then that team is eliminated from true consideration for a No. 1 seed. Obviously, the more "no" answers you have, the shallower the pool. If all the answers are "no," then we are already looking at our No. 1 seeds three months in advance.
Charlie Creme can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.