By: Jeffrey Newholm
Now that conference play is underway, I’d like to try my hand at mid season bracketology, starting with the women’s game. I can’t hope to compete against ESPNW’s Charlie Creme, the creme de la creme of bracketology, but I will list the top eight seeds in order and then the last four hosts (the top sixteen seeds host the opening weekend in women’s basketball). I have a pretty good idea of the #1 seeds at this point, but jockeying for positioning is extremely important in women’s basketball. Since the top few teams are so good and so unlikely to be upset, the underdogs would prefer not to be in the same bracket as a powerhouse and be on the opposite side of the #1 overall seed, who rarely loses. And there’s a bit of a surprise at #1:
#1 overall seed: Uconn-South Carolina winner
The surprise is that UConn, winner of 51 straight games and already with three top ten wins, isn’t a shoo in for the #1 spot. And since they have never lost an American conference game, there seems to be little left to trip the Huskies up. But I’m still not going to hand them the top spot until they can pass a test fans had circled on their calendar before the season started: February 8th in Columbia, South Carolina. The Gamecocks, coming off their first final four appearance, are also undefeated, have a 40 game home winning streak, already have four wins against ranked opponents and could have five more between now and then. Granted, it’s unlikely the Gamecocks go all the way through the tough SEC without any losses. But if they can beat Uconn, the committee could overlook a few good losses considering South Florida is the only other ranked team in the American. The Husky-Gamecock matchup could be the game of the year and is not to be missed.
#3 Seed: Notre Dame
The lady Irish’s only loss was to Uconn in Storrs-the Huskies’ closest win of the season. And Notre Dame didn’t even have their best player in Brianna Turner, who is now back and playing well. The Irish already have two top ten wins and have a strong history of success in the ACC, where would-be challengers Duke and Florida State are underachieving this year. Apart from a non-conference clash against Tennessee and a February road trip to improving Louisville, the Irish have a great chance to cruise to yet another #1 seed and a sixth straight appearance in the final four.
#4 Seed: Texas
The surprising Longhorns are the only unbeaten team apart from UConn and South Carolina, but I hesitate to put them too high seeing as they haven’t played either of their regular season games against Baylor. Also, two of their three wins against ranked teams (Stanford and Tennessee) are against schools with big names but without great resumes this year. Oklahoma is the only other ranked Big 12 team, so Texas has to make sure not to slip up against a lesser team like Baylor has several times lately. If the Longhorns finish the year 2-1 against Baylor and don’t pick up any bad losses, they could move up as high as two. To move up to one, they would either have to go undefeated or hope Uconn loses to a feisty South Florida team in Connecticut.
#5 Seed (first #2): Maryland
Being a #1 seed is always preferred, but #5 is still pretty good because the last #1 may not be quite the strongest, whereas I think the top three seeds will all be outstanding this year. This was a close call between Maryland and Baylor, but I give the nod to the Terps because their two losses were to top ten teams while the Bear’s loss was a head-scratcher (more on that later). Maryland blew through their non-conference schedule by an average margin of 40 points a game, then gave the Huskies a huge scare for 39 minutes before little used Saniya Chong hit a dagger three. The Terps didn’t play very well in a loss to #9 Ohio State, but have bounced back with two huge wins, including ending Iowa’s 25 game home winning streak in resounding fashion. With Northwestern crashing back down to earth, the only teams that should have Maryland worried are a second matchup with the Buckeyes and perhaps Michigan State. A #1 seed is still possible, but the teams ahead of Maryland are so good they can’t afford more than one additional loss.
#6 Seed: Baylor
The Lady Bears were cruising along undefeated with three top 25 wins when catastrophe struck with a loss to the unranked Oklahoma State Cowgirls. Granted superstar point guard Niya Johnson didn’t play, but it was losses like that that put the Bears as the #2 seed in the Notre Dame regional the last two years, making for an elite eight matchup too difficult to overcome. At least two match-ups with Texas remain to bolster the Bear’s resume, so there’s no need to panic yet, but Baylor has to be careful not to pick up any more curious losses. Baylor could easily still be a #1 seed, but could also fall down even further if they can’t beat the Longhorns.
#7 Seed: Kentucky
There’s a pretty big difference between the #7 and #8 seeds. In three of the last four years, the Wildcats were a #2 seed in the Husky regional, a virtual death sentence. Mr. Creme has them there again right now, but I think they rank a notch higher than Ohio State. The Wildcats have a win on the road against potential host Arizona State, and while blowing a 17 point lead to unranked Auburn really hurts, it’s too early to put them in the #1 seed’s regional with six ranked teams ahead of them on the schedule. This Kentucky team has been tested with numerous players transferring out, and we’ll see what they’re made of when they get into the heart of SEC play.
#8 Seed: Ohio State
It may be surprising to see a #2 seed with three quick losses, but considering those three losses were to Uconn, South Carolina and Notre Dame, it’s actually a credit for scheduling tough. The Buckeyes picked up a huge win by handing the Terps their first ever Big Ten loss, but Maryland had numerous bad turnovers in that game and it struck me as somewhat of a fluke. If the Buckeyes can pick up a second win against Maryland, they could move up several places, which I would strongly recommend because the #1 overall seed rarely loses in the regionals. Granted Kentucky’s loss was worse than any of Ohio State’s, but I think three good losses outweigh one bad one.
Last four hosts
#13 Seed: Stanford
This is where you’ll see some significant differences between my bracketology and Mr. Creme’s because there’s been some important results since his last bracket on January 4th. Stanford seemed to be improving with five straight wins, including a big win over Tennessee, but then were demolished 49-31 by Arizona State, the fewest points ever scored by the Cardinal. With six ranked teams ahead, there’s plenty of opportunities to move up, and I find it unlikely Stanford moves down to a five. But clearly the #1 seeds the team got so frequently in the Ogwumike sister era is out of the question this year. Since all five starters are Juniors, I could see the Cardinal being back next year, but this is another rebuilding year.
#14 Seed: UCLA
The Bruins had the #1 ranked recruiting class last year, and it seems the team is hitting its stride with eight wins in nine tries, including a 20 point rout of #11 ranked Oregon State. All three Bruin losses are to ranked teams, and their setbacks against the Irish and Gamecocks were fiercely contested. UCLA has a rich tradition in men’s basketball, and the ladies’ team may soon be adding some hardware of their own. For now I think being a host would be a good starting goal.
#15 Seed: Texas A&M
The Aggies do have odd losses to BYU and Arkansas, but they still have three top 25 wins on their resume, which is more than the other team on the hosting bubble can say. Like the other SEC teams in this bracketology, the Aggies haven’t played the tough teams in the SEC yet, so they can either make hosting a sure thing or, at worse, fall out of the discussion entirely.
#16 Seed and final host: Syracuse
This was a tough call between the Orange, South Florida and Florida State, but in the end I picked the Orange as the final host in the big dance. They have the only win against a top 25 team among the three, and it was a dozy, blowing out Duke by 36. It also helps the team’s losses to Tennessee and Arizona State were by single digits. I think the team with the biggest opportunity to move up is the South Florida Bulls, however. I had to hold off on this bracketology to make sure they didn’t upset UConn in Tampa, and while they couldn’t quite pull it off this time, I feel optimistic they could do it either in Storrs or in the conference tournament in Uncasville. A key Bulls starter was held out, and Courtney Williams, one of my ten players to watch, was far from the goat with 26 points and 13 rebounds. So if you’re looking for something to throw a wrench into women’s basketball season, pay special attention to the Uconn-South Carolina and South Florida games.