Let's get this out of the way: Notre Dame is still a No. 1 seed.
Sunday's upset loss to North Carolina in Chapel Hill was damaging, but keeping the Irish on the top line was an easy call. Over the last decade, every team that ranks No. 1 in the RPI come Selection Monday has been a No. 1 seed.
Bracketology is about taking a snapshot of the season, applying the principles and procedures of the selection committee, and trying to best determine how the committee would choose, seed and place teams in the bracket. The best way to predict future decisions is to analyze the recent history of how similar scenarios were assessed.
Notre Dame remains the top-rated team in the RPI. The Irish also still boast the nation's top schedule and have more group one (top-50 RPI) wins than any team in the country. Notre Dame's five wins against teams in the top-25 RPI also leads the country (Baylor, Louisville and Oregon have four each). History has shown that teams with that kind of résumé are No. 1 seeds.
And Notre Dame's loss Sunday wasn't as bad as North Carolina's 12-9 overall record might indicate. The Tar Heels have been a top-50 RPI team nearly all season and have been competitive against the best teams on their schedule. Yes, this is the worst loss of any team in contention for a top seed this season, but it doesn't come close to falling into the "bad loss" category.
Lastly, it must be noted that Notre Dame played Sunday without Jackie Young, the team's third-best scorer and assist leader who suffered a sprained ankle in Saturday's practice. When the committee evaluates wins and losses, an injury like this is absolutely considered. Young was coming off a triple-double against Tennessee, is the team's most efficient offensive player and, arguably, its most important. Her absence mattered Sunday and will matter in the full evaluation of Notre Dame and this loss.
While keeping the Irish as a No. 1 seed wasn't difficult, evaluating the bottom of the at-large selections was. Two decisions in particular stood out and were the most time-consuming of this week's process:
Tennessee is the last team in the field
How can the Lady Vols still be in the field after their recent six-game losing streak? It's a reasonable question. The answer lies not so much with Tennessee, but with the teams the Lady Vols are competing with for a spot in the field.
The committee groups teams and then ranks the teams within those groups by a series of votes. That's how the overall ranking of teams 1-64 comes to be. Rarely are just two teams compared. This week the final spot in the field came down to this group: Tennessee, Butler, Georgia Tech, West Virginia, Arizona, Auburn, Kansas State and LSU.
Tennessee's recent losing streak (which it ended Sunday with a win over LSU) has been well-documented, but most of these teams have had similar issues of late. Arizona has lost four of its last five. Butler, Georgia Tech, Auburn and LSU have all lost three of their last four. Kansas State and West Virginia have fared better recently, but the Wildcats are coming off a 30-point loss to those Mountaineers, and West Virginia is still dealing with the effects of an awful nonconference schedule. The Mountaineers have won five of their last six, but an RPI of 79 is not good enough to get an at-large bid.
Arizona has three top-50 wins, the most in the group, and one more than the Lady Vols, but its recent losing is nearly as bad as that of Tennessee -- and the Wildcats don't have the RPI (65) or schedule strength (323 in the nonconference) to help their cause.
The Lady Vols' RPI of 52 is hardly breathtaking, but when all of these factors are added together, Tennessee's résumé is the best of this undistinguished group. It doesn't make the Lady Vols a great choice for the final at-large spot. It just makes them a necessary choice.
UCLA and North Carolina are in the field for the first time this season
The Bruins and Tar Heels are beneficiaries of the same factors that got Tennessee in. The difference is that the Lady Vols have been in the field all season. UCLA and North Carolina each have some decent wins, but they also have suffered some troubling losses. The Tar Heels took a huge leap by beating the No. 1 team in the country. The Bruins got two road wins, at Arizona State and Arizona, this past weekend that were under the radar but also huge. The metrics for both teams have been decent all season. The win-loss record has been the issue.
Again, including both UCLA and North Carolina in this week's field is partially based on history. Last year's committee, which is similar in makeup to this season's, showed it wasn't afraid to include a team that was merely two games above .500 when Oklahoma (16-14) was selected for an at-large bid.
The Tar Heels sit at 12-9 with a win far meatier than anything the Sooners had a year ago. The Bruins are 11-9 with one more top-50 win than Oklahoma had all of last year. Committees don't compare the résumés of teams they put in one year against those under consideration in another, but the decision a year ago gives some context to the idea of UCLA and North Carolina being in this week's bracket.
The opportunity is there because the competition for those last few spots is getting weaker.