Bracketology's biggest challenge: Which teams will get to host early-round games?

Richard C. Lewis/Icon Sportswire

The most perplexing part of producing Bracketology each week has been which teams should constitute the all-important top-16 seeds.

The NCAA Division I women's basketball committee has released two reveals -- the third comes Feb. 19 -- but the insight those snapshots provide changes within days of being released. For instance, since that most recent reveal on Feb. 1, teams 12-16 on the committee's list combined to go just 11-8 through Sunday, and that includes Maryland's 4-0 mark in that time. Assessing which teams still merit top-16 inclusion and which will have to spend the next month fighting to get in was the most vexing challenge of this week's bracket.

Selecting which team should be No. 16 took more time than anything else involved in the process. Ultimately, NC State won that coveted last spot for the right to host first- and second-round games. The debate was between the Wolfpack, DePaul, Texas A&M and even Ohio State, which lost by 19 to South Florida on Sunday.

And it appears the smallest of margins will determine these decisions. This week NC State had the best balance of RPI (Ratings Percentage Index), strength of schedule (SOS), recent performance, season-long consistency and quality wins.

Texas A&M was included in both reveals, but the Aggies haven't been quite as consistent. They lost again Sunday, and their biggest win of the season -- beating Tennessee -- was somewhat offset by a 15-point loss to the Lady Vols the night of the last reveal.

The Blue Demons might have been the choice for the last spot in the top 16 had DePaul not struggled so mightily with 9-17 Xavier on Sunday. That's how close this was. A shaky performance even in a win hurts. The Blue Demons are on a six-game winning streak, but because of the nature of the Big East, four of those six are against teams outside the RPI top 100.

The Buckeyes are the most interesting case and came in at No. 19 on the overall board this week. They were not included in the last reveal, but then returned to the top 16 four days later in last week's bracket. All of the numbers -- No. 6 in the RPI, the third-toughest schedule in the country, six top-50 RPI wins -- scream top-16 team. However, Ohio State also recently suffered through a bewildering three-game losing streak that included losses by 30 and 14 points. The Buckeyes appeared to have recovered, but then on Sunday they stumbled in a noncompetitive 19-point loss at South Florida. They simply don't look the part of a team worthy of hosting NCAA tournament games right now.

Interestingly, Stanford -- a team the Buckeyes beat twice earlier this season -- is the chief beneficiary of Ohio State's fall (as well as stumbles by Michigan and Texas A&M). The Cardinal went from a 6-6 team to the co-leaders of the Pac-12 and now in the top 16 (No. 4 seed). With four games left in the regular season (Stanford should be considered a solid favorite in each) and a good run in the Pac-12 tournament, the Cardinal have the potential to climb as high as a No. 3 seed should teams in front of them stumble at all.

Stanford's Pac-12 mate, Southern California, was the answer to the second-biggest riddle in this week's bracket: Which team should be the last team in the field? The bubble is competitive, if not deep, this year, with most of the contenders stymied by bad nonconference scheduling.

USC, Nebraska, Minnesota, Buffalo and TCU all played nonleague slates that rank 188 or lower. Based on the past few seasons of tournament selection committee decisions, that is not a good recipe for making the field. A few of the other bubble teams -- Purdue, Creighton and South Dakota State -- challenged themselves more, and that was the overriding factor as to why they are on the right side of the bubble.

The Women of Troy's win Friday over Arizona State, plus their one-point, buzzer-beating loss earlier this season to Texas A&M, were the tipping points.

One of the committee's criteria for selection is a team's ability to elevate. Although none of the contenders had a significant nonconference win, USC's performance against the Aggies was tournament-worthy. The win over the Sun Devils was also the best conference win among the group of bubble teams. Each illustrates that the Women of Troy have the best chance of competing against NCAA tournament-caliber competition, making them the choice -- at least for this week.