While mid-majors make waves, Gamecocks land at No. 8 seed

In the first women's bracketology projection of the season, South Carolina (4-4) is a No. 8 seed and has work to do to improve its spot in the field of 64. AP Photo/Sean Rayford

What better time to kick off another season of Bracketology than the day after the best game of the season so far?

UConn entered Sunday's contest against Notre Dame as an underdog but left once again as the top team in the sport. The Huskies are the No. 1 overall seed in espnW's first bracket projection of the 2018-19 season, and Sunday's showdown laid the foundation for the pecking order of the country's best teams going forward.

Neither the Huskies nor the Irish had anything to gain or lose Sunday. Both were going to be a top seed; UConn is No. 1 in the Albany Regional and Notre Dame tops Chicago. But Sunday's victory gives UConn a cushion during a stretch with six of seven games away from home that kicked off in South Bend, Indiana. That includes visits to Cal and Baylor, a pair of top-15 RPI opponents. Later this season, the Huskies also have a trip to Louisville and a home game against South Carolina. Given the performance Sunday and that the Huskies have won 122 consecutive regular-season games, a cushion might be unnecessary. But even if their lack of depth is exposed in one of these games, the Huskies' No. 1 seed will still be secure.

Cal might not quite be ready to beat UConn when they meet Dec. 22, but the 7-0 Bears have had a solid start to the season, elevating themselves and the rest of the Pac-12. With Cal (No. 3 seed) and Arizona State (No. 4) outperforming their preseason expectations, the conference placed five teams among the top 16 seeds, joining Oregon (No. 1 seed), Oregon State (No. 2) and Stanford (No. 3). The Pac-12 is the second-rated league by the RPI (behind the ACC, which has four teams among the top 16), and took a small hit Sunday when the Cardinal were upset by Gonzaga.

Speaking of mid-majors ...

That win propelled the Zags to a No. 6 seed. Drake, which played Notre Dame solidly and beat South Carolina, is also on the 6-line. South Dakota, which is ninth in the RPI and has a victory over Iowa State, is a 7-seed. South Dakota State, with the country's sixth-toughest schedule, also made the field as an at-large, making this the best mid-major showing at this stage of the season in espnW's Bracketology history. This is coming off a season when Buffalo and Central Michigan each made the Sweet 16.

South Dakota State welcomes Drake to Brookings on Saturday in a game that potentially has big seeding implications. The Jackrabbits then host Oregon four days later. Drake also has Iowa and Iowa State left to play before Christmas, and South Dakota goes to Missouri in two weeks.

This group of mid-majors are the teams to watch as the season progresses, and they have opportunities to build even stronger résumés going forward. Each of them is in position for an at-large bid should they fall short of winning their conference tournaments. Even though Selection Monday is nearly four months away, it's not too early to start talking potential bid-stealers.

Gamecocks in unfamiliar territory

Three of the four aforementioned mid-majors all check in with better seeds than South Carolina. While Bracketology is a snapshot of the season as it currently stands and doesn't project wins and losses down the road, South Carolina still looks like an NCAA tournament team. Nonetheless, it sounds strange to even broach the subject of whether the Gamecocks are tournament-worthy.

Dawn Staley's crew was not competitive in an early-season home loss to Maryland and was even more overmatched by Baylor in Columbia on Sunday. Throw in closer losses to Oregon State and Drake at the Vancouver Showcase and the Gamecocks are 4-4.

They are struggling to find their way without A'ja Wilson, and the offense has been wildly inconsistent. Even though the SEC looks slightly down this season despite having eight teams in this week's projection (it is only the sixth-rated conference by the RPI), South Carolina -- which still has notable nonconference games with Purdue and Duke before starting league play -- has work to do so we aren't having this same conversation a month or two from now.