I come here not to bury the NCAA women's selection committee, nor to praise it. More to say, "This 2017 bracket has some flaws."
It seemed kind of a step backward after a good run of brackets that appeared to add up, if you will, for the past few years. There was a time when that wasn't the case. Looking back to the early to mid-2000s, there sometimes were more questions about the committee's decisions than there were good answers.
To its credit, the NCAA really worked on this, meeting with journalists who covered the sport in 2007 to talk frankly about what both sides were seeing as problems and how to try to solve them. Then the mock-bracket opportunities with both coaches and media, which started in 2008, helped clarify the process. There is no doubt the NCAA has improved its women's basketball brackets in the past decade.
However, this 2017 bracket has just enough head-scratchers to puzzle you. Part of this, we understand, is that the women's committee faces one big issue that the men's committee doesn't really worry about: attendance.
The men's tournament is a cultural event; it owns a month. The men might occasionally have some concerns with ticket sales at specific sites, but that's not something that is really debated over by its committee.
It is a big issue for the women, who have tried several different formats -- including predetermined early-round sites, eight-team pods for early rounds, regionals on campus sites -- in an attempt to maximize attendance. And to make for the so-called "best student-athlete experience," which is hard to specifically define and really can't be done for everybody.
To a degree, the women's committee can be hamstrung by geography, like this year, when a regional is in Stockton, California, but there's no No. 1 seed that's near there; three are from the Eastern time zone, one from the Central.
The committee attempts to put the No. 1 seeds in geographical regions that are closest to it by order of the S-curve, and the committee acknowledged that was UConn, Notre Dame, South Carolina and Baylor. Technically, this should have meant that Baylor -- the only one of the top seeds that did not win its conference tournament -- was in Stockton. Instead, South Carolina is in that West region.
So much for the Gamecocks being the nation's attendance leaders; only the most die-hard of the Garnet and Black are likely to make that trip if South Carolina advances to the Sweet 16.
This is the third time in the past six years, in fact, that the Gamecocks have been placed in a regional in California. They were in Fresno in 2012 and Stanford in 2014. Last year, they were Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
The committee will point out that South Carolina got to be in the regional in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 2015, and advanced to its first Final Four through that location. It was just a three-hour drive from the Gamecocks' campus.
Committee chair Terry Gawlik ultimately said the decision to keep Baylor in the Oklahoma City Regional came down to "common sense." Meaning that South Carolina was going to have to fly to Oklahoma City if they advance, so why not just make it Stockton? Meanwhile, Baylor is a little over a four hours' drive from Oklahoma City, so why not just potentially capitalize on more of the Lady Bears' fans being able to get there?
Then why didn't the committee make Stanford, which is roughly 80 miles from Stockton, the No. 2 seed there? If attendance due to proximity was considered a "common sense" factor in Oklahoma City -- and a justifiable reason to keep Baylor there -- then why didn't the committee instead put Oregon State as the No. 2 in Lexington, Kentucky, and keep Stanford close to home? Corvallis is 565 miles from Stockton -- almost a nine-hour drive.
South Carolina is higher on the seed line than Baylor, but the Gamecocks will have to cross three time zones should they advance to the regional, while the Lady Bears can stay in the Central time zone as long as they're in the tournament.
Just for point of reference, UConn's regional has been in the Eastern time zone 12 of the past 15 years. Have the Huskies earned that advantage with their results? Yes. But South Carolina earned a shorter trip than to Stockton this season with its results.
Maybe none of this seems like a big deal -- some coaches will say, "You gotta win no matter whom or where you play" -- but it reminds us of the inconsistencies that used to regularly plague the bracket. The committee had largely gotten away from that.
There are some other nagging concerns with this bracket. For example, how did Drake end up on the same seeding line as Northern Iowa, despite the Bulldogs finishing three games better than the Panthers in the Missouri Valley Conference and beating them three times?
Was Syracuse really four seeds lower than Miami, despite finishing a game ahead of the Hurricanes in the ACC standings and beating them by 33 points in their head-to-head matchup?
Was Cal, which was 6-12 in the Pac-12 and lost six of its past eight games, actually a No. 9 seed? Did Marquette, which hosted the Big East tournament, deserve a No. 5 seed for winning that, while DePaul and Creighton, which both finished three games ahead of Marquette in the Big East regular season, both got No. 7 seeds?
Does the conference regular season not mean much of anything? Or does it depend on the conference? Was the committee sending a clear message to the Big Ten by leaving out a bubble team such as Michigan and making just one league team, No. 3 Maryland, part of the top 16 seeds?
Or can we take any clear messages from this bracket? Did it just come down to some puzzle pieces that didn't fit well, so the committee had to make them fit? Maybe so. And again, it's not an easy job to do, by any means. But ...
In recent years, the bracket hasn't left us with a nagging feeling that the committee ended up with conflicting answers to some of the same questions -- and no really airtight answer to others. This year, it did.