The construction of this week's bracket was probably the most difficult in the 10 years since this bracketologist started projecting what the real bracket will look like on Selection Monday. That makes me think that this year's selection committee has an even bigger challenge than usual.
Picking the 64-team field isn't the mountain to climb (although that part could never be called simple). The seeding process won't be the big issue. It's the actual bracketing that could push at least a few members to order up some Advil to go along with those legendary ice cream breaks.
I've discussed in this space before the unique nature of this year's field, with 15 of the 16 subregionals containing host schools. That many host schools making the field hasn't happened since the NCAA went back to 16 predetermined sites in 2009. That doesn't offer much flexibility. Keeping the integrity of the seeds and, at the same time, following all the proper procedures creates huge challenges. There is always more than one way to piece together a bracket, but the number of options gets smaller under these circumstances.
Enough complaining, though, let's get to some of those core problems. The biggest dilemma is how to best protect the top seeds from potential road games. The committee would prefer a No. 1 seed not have any games on its opponent's home floor, but with only one available "neutral" site, that becomes an issue. Notre Dame, of course, is the top seed without host responsibility protection this year, and Columbus, Ohio, is the only available noncommitted site. So the goal in this week's bracket was to match Notre Dame with Columbus.
Sounds simple enough.
But then there's the way teams fell along the S-curve, combined with geographical considerations to follow. The only way I found to put Notre Dame in Columbus was to do something I had never done before -- use the rule that allows for moving a team one seed line to accommodate bracketing and apply it to a top-four seed. That is not something I wanted to do, nor is it desirable in any way. But after three attempts at assembling the bracket, the only conclusion was either Notre Dame getting a possible road game or Maryland coming off the No. 3 seed line. There was no alternative without violating the integrity of the seeds or the geographical requirements therein.
I decided it was more important to keep the Fighting Irish on a completely neutral court for the first two rounds than it was to keep Maryland as the No. 3 seed it naturally should have been.
With a week before Selection Monday, a few things could change that won't make that necessary. But since all the teams involved in that area of the S-curve won't play again until the NCAA tournament, it's hard to see that dilemma changing.
Another decision the committee members will have to make is whether to put either Cal or UCLA in the same region as Stanford. Following the rules of geographical preference, one of them really has to end up in the Spokane Regional. However, after making many fans and coaches upset in 2011 by putting conference foes together (No. 1 Baylor and No. 2 Texas A&M both in Dallas and No. 1 Stanford and No. 3 UCLA both in Spokane, Wash.), the committee went against that idea last year. Geographically speaking, the Aggies should have been sent to Des Moines, Iowa -- with Baylor again -- as a No. 3 seed. Instead, they went to Raleigh, N.C. Only time will tell which way the committee will lean on that issue this time around.
Miami's placement in the Stanford subregional is one of the other problems from this week's projection. Last year, the Hurricanes were sent to Spokane for their first two games. That's two years in a row of cross-country travel, something the committee is loath to do. However, in this case I couldn't find an alternative without disrupting some other bracketing rule or procedure.
The pieces can always fit, but not always as tightly as one might like.
No two teams helped themselves more than Saint Joseph's and South Florida. Both were teetering on the bubble; the Hawks were just out and the Bulls just in. Then Saint Joseph's beat Duquesne in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals to get in the field and then upset Dayton, which had just one loss all season, in the semifinals to get in with room to spare. It certainly helped that the Hawks were playing on their home floor, but the win still came at the right time and was the biggest for the program in years.
South Florida didn't come up with the upset, but got close to a much bigger one. The Bulls gave Notre Dame a scare for the second time this season. That was enough to push them up a few spots on the S-curve and have them in more comfortably. South Florida doesn't have any bad losses, but also has few good wins. However, only Baylor and UConn have played Notre Dame as well this season, and Sunday's performance, albeit in a loss, might be enough to secure a spot.
Texas A&M and UCLA also did themselves big favors over the weekend. The Aggies, after a tough finish to the regular season, were staring at a No. 4 seed, but ran through three ranked teams -- South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky -- to claim the SEC crown. UCLA blasted Cal on Saturday and also jumped onto the No. 3 line. That will have to be solace for the disappointment of not finishing the job when the Bruins had Stanford on the ropes in the Pac-12 championship game.
What to watch for
Teams on the bubble really don't have much to fear behind them because everyone on the First Four Out list is done playing. That's what is unique to the women's game in the week leading up to Selection Monday. With so much of the action done, there isn't anything those teams on the outside can do to help themselves. Where the likes of West Virginia, Charlotte and Creighton should be looking is in front of them. The places where their spots could be taken are in conferences like the CAA and Horizon. It has been a bit of a down season on the mid-major front, but Delaware (CAA) and Green Bay (Horizon) are both going to make the field regardless of the outcomes in their respective conference tournaments later this week. But if neither wins, each of those leagues gets an extra bid. Each extra bid has to come from somewhere and that somewhere is the bottom of the tournament at-large pool. Any changes to the bracket will come from there, not the First Four Out.