4 big decisions facing the NCAA women's tournament selection committee

Jeff Eisenberg
·7-min read

On Monday evening at 7 p.m. ET, ESPN will unveil the NCAA women’s basketball tournament bracket. Here’s a look at four of the biggest decisions the NCAA women’s basketball committee must make between now and then:

1. Who is the No. 1 overall seed?

In both of the NCAA women’s basketball committee’s early bracket reveals last month, UConn claimed the No. 1 overall seed. The Huskies haven’t lost since then, yet their inferior strength of schedule has given others an opportunity to overtake them.

While UConn (24-1) has the fewest losses of any No. 1 seed contender and the best margin of victory per 100 possessions, the Huskies also have the fewest quality wins. The inferiority of the Big East relative to other power conferences helps explain how UConn is just 2-1 against the top 25 in the NCAA’s NET rankings and just 6-1 against the top 50.

UConn (24-1, 18-0 Big East, NET: 2)

  • Record vs. NET top 25: 2-1

  • Record vs. NET top 50: 5-1

  • Losses: at Arkansas (18)

Stanford, by contrast, has a similarly gaudy record, a 6-1 record against the NET top 25 and a 10-1 record against the NET top 50. All but six of the Cardinal’s 25 victories came away from home too because of Santa Clara County COVID-19 guidelines that prevented the team from playing on campus until late January.

Stanford (25-2, 19-2 Pac-12, NET: 1)

  • Record vs. NET top 25: 6-1

  • Record vs. NET top 50: 10-1

  • Losses: UCLA (8), at Colorado (51)

In the Pac-12 tournament, Stanford obliterated top 100 USC by 39, top 50 Oregon State by 34 and top 10 UCLA by 20. UConn’s margin of victory was no less impressive in three Big East tournament blowouts, but once again the level of competition was not so high.

In what is a very tight race for the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, Stanford appears to have a slight edge. Either way, look for the Cardinal and Huskies to avoid the strongest No. 2 seeds and to be on opposite sides of the bracket.

Mar 8, 2021; Uncasville, Connecticut, USA; UConn Huskies guard Paige Bueckers (5) celebrates after defeating the Marquette Golden Eagles in the Big East Championship game at Mohegan Sun. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Paige Bueckers and UConn stormed to a Big East tournament title, but will it be enough to earn the NCAA tournament's overall No. 1 seed? (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)

2. Which other teams will join Stanford and UConn as No. 1 seeds?

The race for the final two No. 1 seeds looks like a four-team battle. South Carolina, Texas A&M, NC State and Maryland can each make a case for why they’re deserving.

The team with the strongest collection of marquee wins is clearly South Carolina, which placed second in the nation’s strongest conference and then stormed to the SEC tournament title. Nineteen of the Gamecocks' 26 games this season came against opponents in the top 50 of the NET rankings. They went 15-4, including a victory over previously surging Georgia to conclude their SEC tournament title run.

South Carolina (22-4, 14-2 SEC, NET 4)

  • Record vs. NET top 25: 7-4

  • Record vs. NET top 50: 15-4

  • Losses: at UConn (1), NC State (7), at Texas A&M (11), at Tennessee (14)

The argument against South Carolina is that the Gamecocks have twice as many losses as any other No. 1 seed hopeful and that Texas A&M and NC State both beat them head-to-head. The Aggies won the regular season title in an SEC that features 10 teams in the top 50 in the NET rankings. The Wolfpack defeated two different teams when they were ranked No. 1 and swept the ACC regular season and tournament titles.

Texas A&M (23-2, 13-1 SEC, NET 11)

  • Record vs. NET top 25: 6-1

  • Record vs. NET top 50: 11-1

  • Losses: Georgia (13), at LSU (62)

NC State (20-2, 12-2 ACC, NET 7)

  • Record vs. NET top 25: 3-0

  • Record vs. NET top 50: 11-2

  • Losses: at Virginia Tech (29), at North Carolina (35)

Maryland’s demolition of the Big Ten also merits a closer look. No one has come within single digits of the Terps since their most recent loss on January 25. They rolled Northwestern and Iowa in the Big Ten semifinals and finals by a combined 53 points.

Maryland (23-2, 17-1 Big Ten, NET 5)

  • Record vs. NET top 25: 6-2

  • Record vs. NET top 50: 10-2

  • Losses: at Ohio State (21), Missouri State (20)

While the margin among these four teams once again is negligible, the strength of the SEC gives South Carolina and Texas A&M an edge. How can you not reward a Gamecocks team with 15 wins over the top 50? Or one that beat the Gamecocks to win the SEC outright?

3. Which team that wasn’t in the committee’s most recent top 16 will be there Monday?

Scroll through the list of teams that were part of the committee’s top 16 on February 28, and it’s easy to find one that no longer belongs.

That’s Oregon, which some would argue didn’t belong in the first place.

A Ducks team that the committee ranked 15th dropped its only two games since that bracket reveal. They fell at home to rival Oregon State in their regular season finale on Feb. 28 and then dropped a second straight to the Beavers four days later in the Pac-12 quarterfinals.

At 13-8 overall with a 1-8 record against the four best teams in its conference, Oregon has no business being anywhere near the No. 4 line on Monday. Therefore, the big question is who will jump up to replace the Ducks.

The strongest candidate is West Virginia, which validated its second-place regular season finish in the Big 12 by advancing to the league’s tournament title game on Sunday. The Mountaineers (20-5) also toppled a pair of SEC teams in non-league play, Tennessee and LSU.

Even if West Virginia falls to favored Baylor on Sunday for a third time this season, it will still be worthy of a No. 4 seed. And of course the Mountaineers could climb even higher if they were to pull the upset.

4. Is Notre Dame in or out?

With 22nd-ranked Ohio State ineligible for the postseason and the Ivy League on the sidelines due to the pandemic, there are two more at-large bids available than usual to the women’s NCAA tournament.

That’s about all that’s preserving hope of Notre Dame extending its streak of 24 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.

A Notre Dame team ranked 22nd in the preseason AP Top 25 struggled to live up to expectations in coach Niele Ivey’s debut season. The Irish suffered a stunning loss at Ohio in their season opener, endured a two-week COVID pause in February and never were able to generate consistency.

On the one hand, they notched a few top-50 victories over the likes of Georgia Tech, Florida State and Wake Forest. On the other hand, they also took losses to Clemson and Boston College, two of the ACC’s worst teams.

Needing to put together a run in the ACC tournament to feel better about its chances, Notre Dame didn’t survive its opening game. The Irish fell again to Clemson, leaving their fate in the hands of the women’s NCAA tournament committee.

At 10-10 overall and without a Top 25 victory all season, Notre Dame’s chances of making the NCAA tournament field appear slim. They’re one of a half dozen teams in contention for one of the final at-large bids, along with Wake Forest, BYU, Washington State, DePaul and Mississippi State. That’s unfamiliar company for a Notre Dame program only two years removed from its last Final Four and only three years removed from its last championship.

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