The women’s basketball season has reached the halfway mark. There have been many changes from the past (Tennessee is out of the top ten for the first time in 12 years), several surprises (Oklahoma erasing a 26-point halftime deficit against Cal and Tennessee coming back from 23 down at Rutgers) and some new faces (South Dakota State ready to make its first NCAA tournament).
But for all the changes, some things stay the same. Connecticut is the unanimous number one and has been all but anointed as this year’s champion. Courtney Paris has continued her incredible streak of 107 consecutive double-doubles. And the chasm between the top conferences and the rest has continued to grow. Of the 73 teams in the six major conferences, only four (Washington and Oregon out of the Pac 10 and Illinois and Northwestern from the Big 10) entered conference play with losing records. (Providence was at .500 at the start of the Big East season, but lost a non-conference game to Rhode Island to slip to 6-7 non-conference.)
In two months 64 teams will be slotted into brackets to try to make their way to St. Louis for the Final Four on April 5 and 7. While there is a long way to go, it is time to make a first assessment of who those teams will be. Thirty-one slots will go to conference winners, and for most of them their reward will be a double-digit seed and a quick trip to some far-flung destination to act as a sacrificial lamb. The thirty-three at-large slots will go predominantly to the power conferences.
The Big East may not be the best conference in the country, but it should receive the most bids. At least eight teams will probably get the nod, but since there are 16 teams that is only half of the conference. Connecticut has won every game by more than 10 and has an average winning margin of 33.6. The Huskies had their toughest test Monday at Chapel Hill, facing one of the only two other undefeated teams in the country (Auburn is the other). Connecticut not only emerged unscathed, but chalked up yet another blowout, pasting previously unbeaten North Carolina by 30 points on national TV. The win puts UConn in position to go undefeated, as their two toughest conference games, against Louisville and Notre Dame, are both at home.
Along with the top three teams, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, DePaul, Marquette and South Florida are the most likely to make the grade, although only one of the this latter group (Marquette) currently has a winning record in conference. Syracuse, St. John’s, Cincinnati and Georgetown could also contend.
The Big Twelve is the best conference this season, and should get seven or eight bids. The South has all six teams in the top 64 in the country, but once they finish beating each other up at least one and possibly two will be left out. Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Baylor would all appear to be in, which leaves Texas Tech and Oklahoma State as the possible odd teams out. Texas Tech had a bad trip to the Virgin Islands, losing three games in three days to Iowa, California and South Florida. Moreover, the Lady Raiders have not had a signature win out of conference. But the Texas Tech started the conference season with a win over Texas. Oklahoma State played a weak non-conference schedule and despite being ranked in the top 25 has yet to show its form from last year. Andrea Riley is as exciting as anyone in the country with her long-range threes, but the the Cowgirls will need to beat some of the top teams when they come to Stillwater to get back to the Big Dance.
In the North, Kansas State and Iowa State are at the top of the pack and should be in the tourney. Either could actually contend for a conference championship if the South beats up on itself enough. Kansas and Nebraska will probably battle for the last invite. The Jayhawks beat Iowa, and Nebraska beat Arizona State out of conference, but either team will need at least a .500 record in the Big 12 for a ticket to the dance.
The ACC should get seven teams into the Tournament. North Carolina, Duke, Maryland, Virginia and Florida State all look solid. The Seminoles are one of the most confounding teams in the country with wins over Texas A&M and LSU but losses to Washington and Valparaiso. Georgia Tech, Boston College and Wake Forest should contend for the last two spots. None of the three had a signature non-conference win (BC’s win over TCU is the best) but a .500 record in the ACC should get them a nod.
Gone are the days when the SEC was the best conference in the country. Still, the conference is in line for five or six berths. Auburn is one of only three undefeated teams but the Tigers are only ranked sixth and eighth in the national polls. Perhaps this is because of a very weak schedule and only one non-conference win of note -- an overtime victory at home over Ohio State. Tennessee, Florida and Vanderbilt will all join Auburn in the Big Dance. Despite five non-conference losses, LSU should also get a nod. None of the other seven teams has a win over a top-50 team. Mississippi State, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Arkansas could all still improve their resumes enough to make it in, but gone are the days when .500 in the SEC would make you a lock. Eight wins (out of 14) and a first-round victory in the SEC tourney will be necessary to get a bid.
The Big Ten has been revitalized this season and should get at least five and possibly six bids. Ohio State, Purdue and Minnesota appear to be in, but Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin all have strong cases and Michigan and Michigan State could also still make a statement. Indiana had a weak non-conference schedule, but has started 5-1 in conference including wins over Iowa and Wisconsin. Iowa beat Iowa State non-conference and opened up conference play with a win at Wisconsin. Wisconsin had the best non-conference wins, beating Baylor in the Virgin Islands and Marquette, but has stumbled to a 3-4 conference mark. Michigan has been very strong at home with wins over Notre Dame and Vanderbilt but has stumbled on the road against Akron and USC. At 2-4 in the conference the Wolverines are on the outside looking in now, but with their non-conference victories, a finish over .500 in the Big Ten could be enough. Michigan State is the reverse -- no good wins outside the conference and a troubling loss at St. Bonaventure, but the Spartans are 4-2 in the Big 10 with road wins over Purdue and Michigan. With eight teams vying for 5-6 slots, the Big 10 will be very interesting for the next two months.
The Pac 10 showed early promise this season, but it is looking as if there will only be three bids for the conference going to Stanford, California and Arizona State. Oregon State was 9-1 non-conference with their only loss being by four to North Carolina. But the Beavers have seen their bubble burst, losing four of five to begin the conference. That leaves only USC and UCLA beyond the top three with any real hope of making the NCAA, and both would have to be strong down the stretch. Either team would have to win 11 games in the Pac 10, and would have to pull off at least one or two upsets against the top three.
Only two other conferences can make a claim to multiple bids, the Atlantic Ten and the Mountain West. The Atlantic Ten has three teams in contention -- Xavier, Richmond and Temple. Xavier is the strongest with wins over Indiana, LSU, Michigan State and Kentucky. Richmond beat Wake Forest and Virginia Commonwealth, but suffered troubling losses to Ball State and Towson. Temple gave itself four chances against Top 25 teams but lost all four, and also slipped up against Villanova. If Xavier doesn’t get the automatic bid, the Musketeers will still be dancing, but the Owls and Spiders will need a second-place finish in the regular season and, at a minimum, a loss in the conference final to expect an at-large berth.
The Mountain West has five teams in the mix. Utah, New Mexico, BYU, TCU and San Diego State all have the talent to make a run. Utah has a win at Marquette, but back-to-back losses against Weber State and Mississippi State mean that the Utes will probably need at least a regular season title to make their claim. New Mexico has the strongest case right now with a win over DePaul and only two losses, at Stanford and at Texas A&M. BYU opened up with an inexplicable loss at Portland State, but has only lost to Connecticut since then, and won at TCU in their last outing. Their weak non-conference schedule will work against the Cougars, but 11-5 in the MWC would be hard to overlook. TCU is the most difficult team to figure. The Horned Frogs have beaten two Top 5 teams this season (Maryland in the season opener and at California) but it also has losses to Fresno State and SMU. San Diego State put itself into the mix with a big win over Texas, but the Aztecs will have to atone for a loss to San Diego earlier in the season. In the end three of the five teams will probably make it, but it is very hard to guess who those teams will be.
The Colonial Conference has two teams that could hope for bids, but it would be a distinct long shot for both to get them. Old Dominion played its normal tough schedule and beat Virginia, but also lost to Mississippi. Virginia Commonwealth only lost to North Carolina and Richmond non-conference, but had no good wins. If both teams go undefeated the rest of the way and split their two remaining games against each other, perhaps they could both get in, but it is far more likely that the Colonial will only get its automatic bid.
Five other teams could steal at-large berths if they are upset in their conference tournaments. South Dakota State was good enough to get in last year but they weren’t eligible. This season the Jackrabbits have beaten Wisconsin, Minnesota, Utah and Gonzaga while losing only twice, to Maryland and Oakland. Playing in the Summit Conference is a problem as their RPI rating will slide even if they go undefeated. Still, as long as they don’t lose more than twice more, they should get a bid. Marist is the class of the MAAC and should win going away. But if they are upset in their tourney, they should still get a bid as long as they have no more than three losses. Middle Tennessee State beat Indiana and LSU. The Blue Raiders should win the Sun Belt and if they win the regular season, they may not need to win the automatic bid to get in. Gonzaga is the class of the West Coast Conference and showed they have talent when they beat Utah and Virginia in Milwaukee earlier this season. A regular season title with no more than one loss should be enough to get a bid. Bowling Green opened up the season with two losses at Temple and at Valparaiso, but won their last 13. If the Falcons can win their next 13 they will enter the Mid American Tournament undefeated and the NCAA Tournament Committee would probably overlook an upset.