The four biggest questions facing the women’s NCAA tournament committee

The four biggest questions facing the women’s NCAA tournament committee

    Charlie Creme projects the women’s NCAA tournament bracket for ESPN.com.

Last year, we missed out not only on the women’s NCAA tournament but on the intrigue that Selection Monday brings. It’s thrilling to know that in less than 24 hours, we’ll have a bracket in hand for the 2021 women’s basketball tournament and games scheduled in San Antonio.

All the debate and speculation that disappeared in an instant 12 months ago are back in full force. We could be in store for one of the most unpredictable NCAA tournaments.

But before then, the women’s NCAA selection committee continues to pick through all the data, the games, the criteria and the impact of COVID-19. A lot of questions remain. Here are some of the most pressing as Selection Monday and the Women’s Selection Special (ESPN/ESPN App, 7 p.m. ET) arrive.

What will be the order of the top eight teams?

Competitively, this might be the most wide-open tournament in years, as perhaps eight or nine teams could win the national championship. Stanford, UConn, Texas A&M, South Carolina, NC State, Maryland and Baylor all have résumés worthy of a No. 1 seed.

There is typically a distinct cutoff at the top, one or two teams that stand out above a small group of the next-best contenders. Last season, for example, the No. 1 seeds — Baylor, South Carolina, Maryland and Oregon — were clear when the 2020 tournament was canceled. At this point in 2019, five teams were in contention for the four No. 1 seeds. This year, all seven of the aforementioned teams — and perhaps Louisville — have a legitimate claim.

Stanford appears to have the best overall résumé. UConn has just one loss and has dominated the Big East just like it did the American. South Carolina and Texas A&M still have the most quality wins (15 and 11 top-50 NET wins, respectively). But more questions than normal will have to be asked about the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds as the selection committee finalizes the bracket.

Will the committee see NC State’s résumé as better than South Carolina’s? Does Maryland, with its Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles, rate better than Texas A&M, which won the SEC regular-season crown but lost in the league’s tournament championship game? Does the SEC being the top-rated conference in the NET and the Big Ten placing fourth play a role in the decision-making? Will Baylor’s Big 12 sweep and move to No. 3 in the NET help the Lady Bears overtake the rest of the competition?

The answers will be apparent in the Monday’s seeding.

How will the committee assess the coronavirus impact on the season?

Some coaches missed games due to COVID-19. Some teams had long pauses in their seasons. Other squads had shorter coronavirus-related breaks but came back to play with little preparation time. And Stanford had a road trip that lasted more than two months.

There’s no denying that the pandemic has impacted programs from coast to coast. And we don’t even know the extent of how things were affected behind the scenes, whether it was the anxiety of playing during a pandemic, practices with just a handful of players or delayed departures for road trips while teams awaited testing results.

So much of the coronavirus impact is immeasurable. How does the committee factor in any or all of that?

By all indications from the two top-16 reveals, the committee will assess teams as objectively as possible. They will be evaluated by their play on the court using the established 14 pieces of criteria. Availability of talent is one of those items and will likely be examined closely when résumés are similar.

In a normal season, the process is about the games, the results, how teams played and who they beat. That will still be the focus.

What to make of the bubble?

Not all bubbles are created equal. While every bubble team from every season has flaws — they wouldn’t be on the bubble if they didn’t — some seasons the bubble teams are stronger than others. This isn’t one of those years. With no Ivy League participant and no Ohio State — which would have been a tournament team if not for a self-imposed postseason ban — essentially two more spots opened up.

That alone softened the bubble, making the committee dig deeper to find 64 teams. Add in that many teams played fewer games and that mid-majors had fewer opportunities to prove themselves and we have a bubble that has teams from Power 5 conferences with records at or around .500 — Washington State, Wake Forest, Mississippi State, Notre Dame, Ole Miss, Oklahoma — or others with a profound scarcity of quality wins (UCF, BYU, Seton Hall, Houston).

Ole Miss showed something by beating Kentucky (twice), Arkansas and Alabama in the past month, but the Rebels still went 4-10 in the SEC’s season and 11-11 overall. That’s hard to overlook.

I have DePaul in the field and don’t feel very good about it. The Blue Demons have lost four of their past five games, one of which was to Butler, which ranks 276th in the NET.

But are the other options discernibly better? The answer is no. When assessing their strengths and weaknesses, most of these teams end up looking the same. The committee has to pick though them and find the four that are in. It hasn’t been easy for the past two months. It won’t be easy in the next few hours, either.

How much will total number of games played impact a team’s résumé?

Oregon State and Rutgers came out of long layoffs and played really well, but those COVID-19 pauses left them with fewer games — 17 for the Beavers and 18 for the Scarlet Knights — than most teams.

South Florida (21 games) and Michigan (19) also had long breaks and weren’t as good after them. Having fewer games gives the committee less to evaluate, along with how a team played after its time off. During the first top-16 reveal in mid-February, the indication was that having less to look at hurt those teams. Now that more games have been played — but still not as many as a team such as Stanford (27) or South Carolina (26) — will the discrepancy matter as much?

How the Scarlet Knights and Beavers are seeded will hold the answer to that question.

Rutgers likely hurt its chance at a top-four seed more by losing to Iowa in the Big Ten tournament than it did playing just 18 games. But after seeing that 73-62 loss against the Hawkeyes, I can’t help but wonder if the evaluation of the Scarlet Knights would have been more complete if they hadn’t missed games against Maryland, Michigan and Indiana.

Oregon State played one nonconference game. A team such as South Dakota State — a projected No. 9 seed, just like the Beavers in our final bracket — played nine. That kind of discrepancy must get sorted out.

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