Early Women’s Bracketology

From ESPN.com
CremeBy Charlie Creme
Special to ESPN.com

Although the ink on most of those first-semester final exams isn’t even dry yet and, for the most part, conference play hasn’t even begun, some truths about this season appear to be self-evident. A few are laid out here, but the unknowns always outnumber the knowns at this point in any season. So let this serve as something of a checkpoint on the journey to Selection Monday and then to San Antonio.

The No. 1 seeds

We know Connecticut and Stanford will be No. 1 seeds come March 15th. Only an act of God (global warming melting all the snow at once and turning Storrs into a cross between Atlantis and Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld”) or at least Santa showing up at your house next week (don’t let the kids read this) will prevent the Huskies from being the top seed in Dayton.

Stanford is in the midst of as tough a scheduling week as any team can play. The Cardinal meet Duke, Tennessee and UConn all within eight days. The pasting of the Blue Devils on Tuesday night illustrated that Tara VanDerveer’s club is more than equipped to handle it. Given the relative weakness of the Pac-10 this season, the majority of the Cardinal nights after Christmas will be relatively comfortable.

We don’t know who will be the other two top seeds. Tennessee looks to be a good bet at this stage for one, but it’s a simple fact that after the Huskies and Cardinal, a significant drop-off exists. That’s not to disparage the rest of the country. Those two schools are just that exceptional.

The Lady Vols should be in a large mix that includes Notre Dame, Duke, Baylor, Ohio State, LSU and, perhaps, Texas A&M, Florida State and North Carolina for those final two No. 1 seeds. This time around, Tennessee and Notre Dame were relatively easy choices because they are the two most accomplished among the unbeatens.

Conference call

We know the West is weak. The first trip to bracketville for the 2009-10 season produced just two Pac-10 teams and one Mountain West club in the field. That should change by March, but probably not by much. Both conferences are down. Cal isn’t as good as in recent years, yet not one from the group of USC, UCLA and Oregon is clearly ready to leapfrog the Bears to become the Pac-10’s third-best team. In the MWC, San Diego State hasn’t played to expectations, Utah appears to be rebuilding and New Mexico has only one victory that approaches a quality win.

We don’t know which teams might be able to take advantage. Temple, Dayton and St. Bonaventure all joined Xavier from the Atlantic 10 in this week’s bracket. Vermont also made it as an at-large.

None of the other mid-major leagues appear to have at-large possibilities at this point. Keep an eye on the MAC and Colonial, though. Gonzaga, South Dakota State and Wisconsin-Green Bay are the individual teams that could be in the conversation at season’s end in case they don’t win their league tournaments, although the Zags and Jackrabbits will regret not doing a bit more in the non-conference season.

The Big Ten and Big 12 are also deep (even if not as high quality as in years past in the case of the Big 12) and should have clubs on the tournament fence all season.

Baylor bits

We know Baylor freshman Brittney Griner is a major impact player already. Not that this is a total surprise, but the acceleration of the learning curve might be. At first, Griner’s impact was mostly on the defensive end. In the opener at Tennessee, she took just eight shots. At Madison Square Garden on Sunday against Boston College, Griner had 24 field goal attempts, three times as many as any other Baylor player. The improvement has been quick and noticeable.

We don’t know how much better she might get from January to March. Now that Griner is established as the Lady Bears’ top offensive option and as a defender opposing coaches have to specifically game plan against, the extent of her continued improvement might just be exactly proportional to how substantial Baylor’s postseason success will be.

Unpredictable journey, predictable ending?

We know that after UConn and Stanford, this season has equity. Michigan State beats North Carolina, then loses to Indiana, then beats Xavier. Mississippi State dumped Maryland by 29. The Terps trounced Minnesota by 21. Yet the Gophers were good enough to beat TCU, which upset Texas A&M. Don’t forget the Aggies beat Duke by 18.

What does it mean? That on any given day, anyone appears to have a chance as long as that anyone isn’t playing Connecticut or Stanford.

We don’t know if the story can still be entertaining even if the ending is predictable.That equity makes for plenty of great moments over the next three-plus months. Yet the 800-pound gorilla in the room is the match-up for this season’s title that nearly everyone felt to be inevitable the second the Huskies and Cardinal concluded their national semifinal game last April in St. Louis.

Just how much better?

We know Tennessee is a different team than last season and really good. Pat Summitt might actually have something in this club that she hasn’t had in years, if ever — the most improved team in the country. The Lady Vols have played their typically challenging early season schedule. At this time a year ago, they had already lost twice. This season, they have yet to even really be challenged.

We don’t know if the upgrade in Knoxville will translate into preventing the above UConn-Stanford scenario. This one doesn’t take long to get an answer as Tennessee travels to take on Stanford on Saturday. If the Lady Vols don’t fare any better than Duke at Maples, then one of two things happens. Either fans of the Huskies and Cardinal can call ahead and extend their hotel reservations in San Antonio to Monday and Tuesday, or teams like Tennessee, Duke, Notre Dame, Ohio State, North Carolina, LSU and Arizona State — all of which play both UConn and Stanford this season — will know exactly the ground that needs to be made up between now and their crack at the two powerhouses.

Now to a little housekeeping

As with any of the early season brackets, questions arise because of the limited data available. It doesn’t make Bracketology any less fun, but doesn’t lend itself to more gray area. So keep a few things in mind.

• The records listed include games against Division I opponents only, since that’s all the NCAA tournament committee considers.

• The automatic qualifiers from the traditional one-bid leagues are those clubs leading their respective conferences as of Tuesday — and not a prediction of who will finish first. Since conference play is either really early or hasn’t begun at all, the chosen teams from those leagues are the highest-rated as long as the overall record is .500 or above. This is merely one of those “for the purpose of this exercise” concepts.

• Teams must be assigned to their home floors for the first- and second-round games, but can’t play at home during the regionals. So in this bracket’s scenario, Dayton would be excluded from playing in that regional, but Tennessee, for instance, is automatically assigned to Knoxville for the sub-regional.


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