Putting together the bracket is never an easy course. The three-step process of selecting the teams, seeding them and placing them in the bracket also has substeps, rules to follow and never-ending comparisons.
This week, two areas were particularly difficult, and not coincidentally, they are two topics that have generated questions that roll into Bracketology's home office every week: how to group that third level of teams, and who the final teams in/out of the field are. (It's a particularly painstaking task this week).
Let's take the topics one at a time.
Essentially, the teams near the top of the S-curve seem to have fallen into groups. The first two are pretty easy. Group No. 1 is the No. 1 seeds: UConn, Stanford, Baylor and Tennessee. Duke and Texas A&M stand alone as Group No. 2. The teams in Group No. 3 are also easy (alphabetically): DePaul, Miami, Michigan State, Notre Dame, UCLA and Xavier. The hard part is in which order they take on the S-curve. They are all so close with very similar résumés. Yet, each spot could mean the difference in a No. 2 or No. 3 seed, and even where they end up playing. Here's how it shook out this week:
7. Xavier: The Musketeers have more top-50 wins than Notre Dame, DePaul or UCLA, yet none was against the Top 25. For the most part, they have cruised through the Atlantic 10 -- which in reality doesn't look a whole lot different from the Pac-10 -- and are one of only two teams on this list leading their conference. That carries some weight.
8. DePaul: Perhaps the Blue Demons would be doing the same if Connecticut didn't exist, but the Huskies dominated DePaul. That was the Blue Demons' only Big East loss and only defeat since the calendar flipped. They also have a winning record against the top 25 and the top 50 in the RPI, which only Miami can also say. A case could be easily made to put DePaul ahead of Xavier, but ultimately, it wouldn't change where the teams were placed. The Blue Demons still would end up in the Dallas Regional with a trip to Columbus for the first two rounds. That isn't an ideal situation, but it's distinctly possible that because Duke and Xavier will host two rounds, the other two No. 2 seeds will play a second-round game on someone else's home floor. That's the problem with Ohio State (a No. 7 seed this week), Gonzaga (No. 11 seed) and Louisiana Tech (also a No. 11 seed) serving as hosts.
9. Michigan State: The Spartans haven't always dominated their games in the Big Ten this season, and two of their three losses have come in the conference. Yet they are easily the league's best team, leading the standings by two games. Winning at Florida State looks better now than it did when it happened. No one else in this group has a road victory that impressive. Miami, in fact, lost in Tallahassee. On the flip side, losing at Ohio State doesn't look quite as good as most of us would have thought at the outset of the season. The Spartans easily could slide up one spot on the S-curve to grab a No. 2 seed before all is said and done.
10. UCLA: This is where the differences between a couple of spots can make a difference, but dropping might actually be better for the Bruins. It's not always obvious at first glance what is good and what is better. Last week, the Bruins were eighth on the S-curve and a No. 2 seed. That meant being placed in the Dallas Regional and Columbus subregional. Being in Columbus meant a possible second-round meeting with Ohio State at St. John Arena. Dropping two spots and one seed line still puts UCLA in a position of playing on an opponent's home floor, but this time it could be against a lower seed (like Gonzaga) at a destination (Spokane) that is much more travel-friendly. This is where tournament participants enter the seemingly bizarro world in which a better seed isn't always a better scenario.
11. Miami: The Hurricanes are having a season like the program has never seen before. A victory at Boston College didn't change Miami's status at all. The Hurricanes were the only team in the group to hold steady. Although nothing about them is unimpressive, the nonconference schedule didn't supply much of a résumé. Georgetown was the only noteworthy matchup, and to its credit, Miami won that one. It also bears mentioning in light of a 7-3 record against the top 50. Solidly a No. 3 seed, Miami's upside for movement might not be what the others have. A victory either at Florida State or Duke would have changed that.
12. Notre Dame: The Irish slipped a bit, and that might seem unfair given that their only loss in the week was to Connecticut. However, the perceived drop wasn't so much about Notre Dame falling as it was others rising. The Irish have the most losses of the group, and although all five were to good teams, including the aforementioned UCLA, no one else has more than three. That one really big win -- such as DePaul's over Stanford or Michigan State's at Florida State -- is also missing, and it might have made up for the extra losses. However, this again could be an example of a drop helping. Both in this week's bracket and last, Notre Dame was to potentially play at a host school in the second round (at Penn State last week and at Louisiana Tech, a lower seed, this week). Yes, it's a longer flight, but wouldn't that offer a better chance of advancing?
Now to the bubble, where Texas Tech made the leap safely into the field from being on the extended perimeter last week simply by virtue of one victory. Now, it was the huge upset of Baylor that did it, but that illustrates how fine the line is here. Substantial wins go a long way, especially down the stretch, and the Lady Raiders might have turned one tremendous two-hour effort into an invite that likely wouldn't have been there otherwise.
What makes this part of the S-curve so challenging to explain is that there are far more bad things than good to point out about most of the teams involved.
Syracuse (IN): The Orange picked up two huge victories, one at St. John's in the past week, to match Texas Tech and play their way into the bracket. Plenty of holes exist in Syracuse's case for inclusion, but no one in the mix has two road victories the quality of Marquette and St. John's.
Rutgers (OUT): The Scarlet Knights are much closer than they were last week thanks in large part to a 21-point victory at Marquette. And yes, Rutgers has two wins over the aforementioned Syracuse. Still, Rutgers has lost more than it has won since the last week of January, and the Scarlet Knights have a significant volume problem: They don't have enough inventory in the win column. A record of 14-11 (the committee doesn't recognize victories against non-Division I competition) is hard to sell when so few of those 14 came against top-level opposition. Hope still remains for Rutgers, but that's not enough at this point.
South Carolina (IN): The Gamecocks' record is merely one win better than Rutgers', but South Carolina has won more lately, beating tournament-worthy opponents three times in the past three weeks. Therein lies the difference. Far from safe, South Carolina still has work to do.
LSU (IN): A spot in next week's field and the real one in three weeks might come down to the Lady Tigers' trip to Columbia, S.C., this week. LSU has never had a firm hold on a spot, but the grip has loosened even more with two straight losses in which baskets were harder to come by than Tea Party members at a Nancy Pelosi fundraiser. Any significant upsets in the mid-major leagues, and LSU could be in even bigger trouble.
Arkansas (IN): If not for the victory over LSU on Sunday, the Razorbacks would be out. But that gives them two wins over the Lady Tigers and a 5-5 record against the top 50, a better mark than anyone on the bubble.
Texas (IN): The Longhorns appeared to be playing better until just not showing up this past weekend against Oklahoma. That once again placed their NCAA tournament chances into trouble. Texas has played a challenging schedule, and all its losses are to good teams. The problem is that there just might be too few victories. Despite a relatively high RPI, the Longhorns will need to do more or would be relying on everyone else here to falter.
Boston College (OUT): It came down to Texas or BC, and the difference is sidewalk-crack thin. The Eagles have more top-50 wins but haven't beaten a decent team in more than a month and still have a losing record in the ACC.
Duquesne (OUT): The Dukes have been in most of the season but, despite having 20 victories, are cooling off at the wrong time. Duquesne, a loser of four of five, isn't the same team that began 6-1 in the Atlantic 10. One of the biggest games of the week will be the Dukes' visit to Charlotte on Tuesday.
Charlie Creme can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.