February 15, 2021 

Looking for answers in the selection committee’s seed reveal

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The top-16 reveal will provide clarity in a confusing season

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The NCAA women’s basketball committee’s tradition of teasing its top 16 teams at points during the conference season is meant to drum up discussion within the sport and hopefully shed some light on the committee’s process. It has never meant more than it does in 2021.

In a season like no other, teams cannot be evaluated solely by traditional means. Reduced non-conference schedules have wreaked havoc on the NET. Limited to no fan attendance has changed the meaning of home/road records. COVID-19 pauses and player availability have been contributing factors to odd results.

This means that it is going to be impossible to put together a truly fair field of 64. We have to accept that. Tonight, when the committee releases its top 16 teams as they stand now, we should at least get a clue to what this process is going to look like.

The first of two top-16 reveals will be tonight (Monday) at halftime of the Stanford vs. Oregon game on ESPN2.

Here is what to watch for:

Interpreting the NET

The NET doesn’t work as a metric without a significant amount of data, and with so many teams playing just a handful of non-conference games, it is taking longer than usual for the rankings to start matching reality. In fact, with teams beating each other up in conference play for the remainder of the season, it might not completely normalize at all. I’ve written about how much the committee has relied on the RPI in the past, and we should get a look at whether it will do the same with the NET on Monday.

A couple of signs that the NET will be weighed heavily:

  • If Indiana is in the top 16. The Hoosiers are ranked eighth in the NET and, with some quality wins under their belt, have started to rise in my projection. For now, I have them as a 6 seed. The problem is they don’t have a win against a team projected higher than a 6 seed. 15 of my top 16 seeds do, and the only one that doesn’t is a one-loss Michigan team.

  • If NC State is outside the top 5. The Wolf Pack have beaten the No. 1 team in the country twice this season, and both those wins came on the road (at South Carolina and at Louisville). Their two losses were also on the road and to teams in the tournament mix. They have eight total wins in the top two quadrants. But their NET is 10. If Maryland or Baylor are ahead of NC State, you can blame the NET for that.

Weighing head-to-head

Photo credit: Stephen Slade | UConn Athletics

Right now, I have South Carolina as the No. 1 overall seed and UConn as No. 2. Even though the Huskies are one spot better in the NET (2 overall vs. 3), the Gamecocks play in a much tougher conference and have done more overall. They beat Gonzaga (8 seed), Iowa State (8), Alabama twice (6), Kentucky (4), Arkansas (4), Georgia (3), and Mississippi State (9). UConn’s wins over South Carolina and over Tennessee are excellent and push the Huskies to the 1 line, but its only other wins over tournament teams are against DePaul twice (7) and Marquette (11). If UConn is ahead of South Carolina on the overall seed line, then South Carolina’s inability to make a layup in the final seconds of regulation last week will be why.

Bracket balance

We are almost definitely going to have more than four SEC teams in the top 16. In fact, my projection has six. Bracket rules stipulate that the top four seeds in each region must be from different conferences. This is impossible if there are more teams from the same league than total regions (four). Assuming the committee has to break its rules for the SEC, you will almost definitely see a 1 seed from the SEC (say, South Carolina) paired with a 3 seed (maybe Georgia) or a 2 with a 4. At least that’s what’s logical. We’ve seen in the past that the NCAA has not hesitated to throw out its bracket principles to reduce travel. Well, travel isn’t an issue this year with the entire tournament happening in one city. So instead does the committee do its best to keep conference teams away from each other, or will it look to preserve a balanced bracket, more according to the S-Curve? I asked about this a couple weeks ago and was told the committee would stick to its principles. Given the history of these seed reveals, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Who gets the benefit of the doubt?

Photo credit: Michigan Athletics

Specifically, I’m talking about Michigan. The Wolverines have played just once since Jan. 21, and their cancelled game was a big one — a home showdown with Maryland. Michigan is 11-1, but its only wins over projected tournament teams are against Northwestern (6 seed), Nebraska (9), Notre Dame (11), and Wright State (13). Thankfully, games against Indiana, Ohio State, and Iowa remain, so Michigan will have plenty of chances to play itself into a top-4 seed if it’s not there already. If Michigan’s name shows up, it could be a sign of a few things:

  • How the committee weighs the absence of losses. Their other wins aren’t exactly against world-beaters, but there’s something to be said for not slipping up, particularly against a team like Central Michigan that can still work its way into the field.

  • Margin of victory might matter more. The wins over non-tournament teams have been beat-downs for the Wolverines. For example, while Wisconsin played Iowa, Rutgers, and Maryland tough, Michigan beat the Badgers by 43 points the first time and 29 the second time. Michigan’s closest win over a team not projected in the field is a 13-point triumph at Purdue.

  • The eye test is important. Maybe committee members have watched Michigan play and concluded, “Yeah, that’s a top-four seed and we expect them to prove it over the next few weeks.” All indications are that should happen anyway.

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