Building the bracket is never as easy as who's in and who's out. The what (seed) and the where (geographical placement) are also essential. Those are the elements that create the matchups that set the entire excitement of the tournament in motion.
And this year, on the eve of Selection Monday, we have a bracketology shuffle on the bubble, some debate over who gets to host, and what to do with Baylor -- all of which make up the five biggest questions the NCAA committee will answer when the 2017 NCAA tournament bracket is unveiled on the Women's Selection Special (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).
1. Where does Baylor go?
The Lady Bears carry the biggest questions of any one team. It starts with which region should they be placed.
As the fourth No. 1 seed, Baylor would be the last of the 1-seeds placed in the bracket. Stockton would be the last available regional after the other No. 1 seeds are placed in the closest available regions. However, Oklahoma City is a bus ride from Waco, and the NCAA likes to keep as many team off planes as possible. South Carolina, the third overall team, has to get on a plane whether the Gamecocks are sent to Oklahoma City or Stockton. That was why Notre Dame went to Lexington a year ago and South Carolina went to Sioux Falls -- despite the Gamecocks being higher on the S-curve. It was about drivability.
So why is Baylor projected to go to Stockton this year? Shouldn't it be going to Oklahoma City? Maybe. But South Carolina going to Stockton would mean traveling across three time zones. That would be the big issue.
It would mark the third time in four years that the Gamecocks are sent to the farthest possible regional and the second time in that span it was a West Coast trip.
The NCAA also tries to avoid the same team year after year being so significantly shifted out of its natural area. Frankly, South Carolina going to Stockton this year is just unfair after the Gamecocks earned the right to be closer, and more importantly only one time zone away. It's next to impossible to make a case that Baylor should be ahead of South Carolina in the 1-64 rankings to justify another long trip for the Gamecocks.
Here's something else to consider: A primary goal in putting the bracket together is to provide the most equitable distribution of the top-four seeds in each region, while also following all the bracketing principles and procedures. When doing two brackets side-by-side, one with Baylor in Oklahoma City and one with South Carolina there, it was clear that placing the Gamecocks in Oklahoma City ultimately leads to a better, more balanced bracket. That setup also allows two Big 12 schools, Oklahoma and Texas, to be in Oklahoma City if attendance is a consideration.
2. How is Alexis Jones' knee?
The health of Baylor's Alexis Jones could be the wrinkle in the above issue. The senior combo guard -- Baylor's second-leading scorer at 13.9 PPG -- suffered a bone bruise to her knee during a Feb. 20 win over Texas and has missed all five games since.
If she isn't expected to play in the tournament, or least in the early stages of it, the committee could move the Lady Bears down to the No. 2 line. Player availability is a piece of criteria the committee considers. Baylor was still able to beat tournament teams Texas, Kansas State and Oklahoma without Jones, so dropping to a No. 2 seed seems unlikely. But it's a possibility nonetheless.
If Baylor is a No. 2 seed, the issue of geographical placement is solved. Baylor could go to Oklahoma City as the No. 2 seed and South Carolina would be the No. 1 there, traveling to the closet region available (Notre Dame as the No. 2 overall team earned the right to go to Lexington).
3. How to break down the bubble?
George Washington, Iowa State, Virginia, Auburn, Cal, Indiana. Who gets in? Who doesn't? Each of these six teams have significant holes in their résumés -- Auburn lost seven of its last nine, Cal went just 6-12 in the Pac-12 with a relatively weak nonconference schedule, Indiana has just one top-50 RPI win, Iowa State has an RPI of 60, and Virginia has a nonconference schedule strength rating of 247.
This decision has caused some sleepless nights. And just as the committee lays downs its 64 teams and then scrubs and re-scrubs (which means does deeper comparisons of teams close to each other on the list), I've done the same -- and made a change: Auburn is now in the field and George Washington is out.
When splitting hairs like this, the change came down to one of the committee's stated criterion: winnability. That is a team's ability to compete in the tournament, playing the country's best teams. What better measure than looking at a team's regular-season record against those very teams?
The Tigers have a 3-8 record against the at-large teams in the field. That's the second-best among this group. Iowa State has the best at 4-7, which is why the Cyclones should be more safely in the field (they are currently projected as a No. 10 seed).
The Colonials were just 1-2 (also reflective of a down year in the Atlantic 10). Some of their other metrics were better than the other teams in this group, but can they reasonably be expected to win in the tournament? The answer is that it's less likely than Auburn, or even Cal (3-9).
Auburn's résumé is similar to theirs last year when the Tigers made it as a No. 9 seed. Year-to-year comparisons are not made by the committee. Last year does not matter this time around. But it shows that a résumé like that is NCAA tournament-worthy.
In the 11th hour I've decided GW's is not.
4. Who will be the last host school?
The first 15 seeds should be established based on the committee's three top-16 reveals and how the season finished. That last position isn't as clear-cut. The difference between being the No. 16 team on the committee's board and No. 17 is numerically small and often minuscule on the court -- but enormous in result.
Ohio State and DePaul seem to be the chief competitors for the final spot in the top 16 seeds. Both won a regular-season conference title, but fell short in the tournament. The Buckeyes exited the Big Ten in the semifinals, while the Blue Demons lost to Marquette in the Big East final. The small separation on their résumés could come with Ohio State's win over Maryland, the best victory either club had. That's why the Buckeyes are the choice and a No. 4 seed in our final projection.
NC State was also in the mix. The committee had the Wolfpack in the top 16 in the second reveal because of wins over Notre Dame and Florida State, but losses to North Carolina and Wake Forest likely ended any realistic chance of early-round games in Raleigh, North Carolina.
5. Who will host Stanford's sub-regional?
The Cardinal are projected as a No. 2 seed, but they can't host because their home court, Maples Pavilion, is being used for the Pac-12 gymnastics championships. That means the privilege will go to the highest seed within Stanford's pod. In this case that's the No. 7 seed with Stanford. The No. 7 seeds in the final projection are West Virginia, Marquette, Tennessee and Arizona State.
It won't be the Sun Devils because they are in the Pac-12 with Stanford. Tennessee is unlikely because it played the Cardinal in the regular season. The Mountaineers can't be placed in the Oklahoma City Regional because of the presence of Texas as the No. 3 seed, so Marquette would have to go there. That leaves West Virginia as the only choice for the committee to place with Stanford, which is projected in Bridgeport.
Of course, once one difference is made in the seeding or bracketing, a domino effect can take place, changing a number of options.
For instance, Stanford is the final No. 2 seed (and projected behind UConn in the Bridgeport Regional, the part of the bracket every coach wants to avoid). If the Cardinal happen to be one spot lower on the committee's board and are a No. 3, some other possible hosts could be Texas A&M, Missouri and Kansas State. NC State, Oklahoma, and Miami could also be in the mix, depending on where they fall on the board.