Which women's college basketball teams have the most to prove heading into March?

Tennessee (19-9) has played in every women's NCAA tournament, and freshman Jordan Horston looks to help keep that streak alive Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire

If ever a season needed an extra day before March, this is it. Thank goodness for leap years because we still have so many questions.

As Baylor, Oregon and South Carolina keep winning, are they really the teams to beat? Which teams have the most to prove with less than three weeks to go before Selection Monday?

With Duke on a roll and NC State stumbling, do we really know the identity of the Triangle's best team? What about the Chicago area, as Northwestern rises and DePaul tries to finish off the Big East?

As Championship Week arrives, can we apply for a 30th day in February to figure out all of this?

ESPN.com reporters Mechelle Voepel, Graham Hays and Charlie Creme address some of the hottest topics in women's college basketball this week.

The Mountain West tournament tips off March 1, and many conference tournaments get underway shortly after. Give us a team with something to prove when Championship Week opens?

Mechelle Voepel: The five games in a row Tennessee lost from Feb. 2 to 20 were all against really good teams, four of them were ranked, two in the top 10. So that has to be taken into consideration. Still, it was a five-game losing streak in February. Tennessee's only victory over a ranked team hardly counts: vs. then-No. 15 Notre Dame in November, when it wasn't quite fully evident the Irish were nowhere near a Top 25 team.

The Lady Vols beat Ole Miss on Thursday -- a loss in that game would have been disastrous -- but they'll have a tough regular-season finale at Auburn on Sunday when they go for their 20th victory. Tennessee has never missed the NCAA tournament, and a win over the Tigers and some signs of vitality in the SEC tournament could really help the Lady Vols.

Speaking of vitality, Texas A&M didn't have it Thursday in a loss to Alabama. Credit the Crimson Tide for back-to-back wins over Mississippi State and Texas A&M, but the Aggies looked lethargic in their home finale, and now head into their regular-season finale at South Carolina. Unless they can hand the Gamecocks their first SEC loss of the season, the Aggies will go into the SEC tournament on a two-game skid and needing a boost.

Graham Hays: Is Stanford really a title contender or the best of the teams not quite good enough to win it all? To me, that is still unresolved. Losing at home to Oregon earlier this week moves the Cardinal to 0-3 against the other two teams atop the Pac-12. And in addition to a loss to Texas, Stanford doesn't have any wins against teams in the top echelon. The Cardinal are plenty good -- this isn't an attempt to discount beating Oregon State twice, Gonzaga and Mississippi State. But for a team ranked No. 4 despite losing two big pieces to injury in DiJonai Carrington and Haley Jones (which would sink most contenders), let's see a statement game. Let's see the Cardinal beat UCLA if the two meet in a Pac-12 tournament semifinal and then push Oregon to the wire or beyond in a final.

Charlie Creme: NC State is either in a slump or has already peaked. The ACC tournament will determine which it is. For most of the season it appeared NC State was in that next group of teams behind South Carolina, Baylor and Oregon. There was some question as to the number of truly big wins, but the Wolfpack were a good team that had a number of different ways to win. Things have gotten a bit blurrier the past two weeks. Over a recent span of three losses in four games, NC State made just 23.7% of its 3-point attempts. Ball and player movement have stagnated and the Wolfpack have relied too much on Elissa Cunane inside. NC State needs a reboot that, at this point, only the ACC tournament can provide.

South Carolina is No. 1 in the AP poll, Oregon is No. 1 in the RPI and Baylor is unbeaten with Lauren Cox. If you can only pick one, which is really the team to beat?

Hays: Baylor and South Carolina haven't done anything to diminish themselves, but Oregon convinced me in February. All three teams beat UConn, but Oregon winning by 18 points at Gampel Pavilion was the most impressive result of 2019-20. It was Oregon's third game in five days (spanning thousands of miles) -- coming on the heels of back-to-back rivalry games against Oregon State a week earlier. That was almost scheduling a built-in loss, except the Ducks didn't lose. And while the first part of Sabrina Ionescu's day this past Monday was of infinitely more consequence than the basketball game that followed in the evening, her ability to compartmentalize and perform in the win at Stanford -- and the team's ability to follow her lead -- shows something about how well the Ducks take on challenges.

The 3s are falling again for Satou Sabally and Oregon's offense is a sight to behold, but this is also a vastly improved defensive team. Maybe not as good as Baylor or South Carolina but more than good enough to complement the offense en route to a championship.


Oregon's ball movement sets up Moore for the 3

Oregon uses good ball movement and gets it to Minyon Moore, who knocks down a 3-pointer from the corner.

Voepel: Oregon is the obvious answer, and likely the right one for all the reasons Graham points out. Still, let's make quick cases for the Gamecocks and the Lady Bears. For one thing, the most pressure to win it all isn't on South Carolina or Baylor, both of which have won recent NCAA titles. It's on Oregon, which hasn't done that.

Both South Carolina and Baylor are undefeated in conference play, and while no one would say that the SEC or Big 12 are as tough as the Pac-12, it still means the Gamecocks and Lady Bears have successfully navigated the teams that know them best.

It might not seem right to call South Carolina a pleasant surprise, considering all the talent on the Gamecocks. But even coach Dawn Staley has said she didn't know how well they would come together, especially with three freshmen starting. South Carolina can score in a number of ways, it has a senior point guard in Tyasha Harris who has been a terrific leader this year, and the freshmen all have played beyond their years. You could see this group being the perfect mix of youthful zeal and veteran experience to get to an NCAA title.

For Baylor, being somewhat under the radar nationally -- as much as a No. 2-ranked defending champion can be -- plays into the Lady Bears' hands. When Baylor was trying to defend its NCAA title in 2013 after a 40-0 season, that team was considered the favorite and seemed to become overconfident. Then Louisville upset Baylor in the Sweet 16. This is a very different group of personalities, and they seem to be flourishing even if the national spotlight isn't as much on them. They're also very strong defensively and have an offense that is spread out among multiple players, and both are conducive to making another title run.

Creme: As good as Baylor and South Carolina have been, making this answer a consensus was easy. The Ducks have beaten five ranked teams this month. The Lady Bears and Gamecocks have combined to beat three. Oregon has simply done more against better competition more recently.

Who has turned out to be the season's most valuable transfer?

Hays: There are candidates below the radar who are worth mentioning, Samford's Sarah Myers and Texas Southern's Ciani Cryor front and center. There are transfers who are going to influence the championship -- Louisville's Elizabeth Balogun, Baylor's Te'a Cooper and Oregon's Minyon Moore all come to mind. But I'm not sure any transfer has been as indispensable at the highest level of competition as Arizona State's Ja'Tavia Tapley.

This was the wrong year to be shorthanded in the Pac-12, and the Sun Devils faced that possibility after saying goodbye to three starters in a deep rotation that is central to how Charli Turner Thorne wants to play. Stepping in as a graduate transfer from USC, Tapley leads Arizona State in points, rebounds, blocks and steals. She is even fifth in assists despite doing much of the dirty work in the post. In a system that doesn't prioritize individual achievement, it's still a remarkable effort from someone who averaged just six points and five rebounds per game in her most productive season at USC.

Creme: My nod goes to a transfer tandem at Kentucky. Sabrina Haines (Arizona State) and Chasity Patterson (Texas) have given national player of the year candidate Rhyne Howard the kind of assistance that has not only helped make Howard more efficient, but also given the Wildcats the balance that is necessary to compete in the SEC. Patterson joined the team after the first semester and is Kentucky's second-leading scorer. Haines is the conference's third-most accurate 3-point shooter. Howard missed two games after breaking a finger in her nonshooting hand against Missouri and has been playing with a small cast ever since, yet Kentucky is still in contention for a top-four SEC finish and the coveted double-bye in the conference tournament. That doesn't happen without Haines and Patterson showing up in Lexington.


Cooper shoves her way through traffic for and-1

Baylor's Te'a Cooper cuts through a pair of Oklahoma State defenders and lays in a shot plus the foul in the first half.

Voepel: Graduate transfers have become pretty commonplace, but it's interesting that the success of one at Baylor led coach Kim Mulkey to change her overall philosophy about that option. Chloe Jackson was such a success last season -- she was the most outstanding player at the Final Four as Baylor won its third NCAA title -- Mulkey was willing to use the same formula this season. Jackson was not a so-called true point guard, but learned on the job very well. Her replacement, Te'a Cooper, sees herself as a true point guard, and was eager to fill that role. And she has fit in well. She's second on the team in scoring and assists, as Baylor has won its 10th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title. In her one season in Waco, Cooper is proving to be just what the Lady Bears need, and is probably helping herself in the WNBA draft, too.

Momentum is big with March just around the corner. Which teams seem to be peaking at the right time, and which are perhaps heading in the wrong direction?

Charlie Creme: Two teams I'm starting to worry about are Florida State and Mississippi State. As recently as three weeks ago each looked like good bets to host first- and second-round NCAA tournament games. Now it might not happen for either. The Seminoles, good enough to beat Louisville on Feb. 6, have since lost to both Duke and Georgia Tech. The offense is struggling to find a rhythm, which is odd for a veteran team this time of year. The Bulldogs are in better shape than Florida State at this point, but they have also been scoring-challenged in a pair of recent losses to Kentucky and Alabama. Freshman Rickea Jackson and sophomore Jessika Carter are still delivering. It's veterans Jordan Danberry and Chole Bibby who are struggling down the stretch, hurting the momentum of a team that before this recent skid had lost one game -- a narrow two-point defeat at South Carolina -- since Dec. 8.

Maryland, on the other hand, is steamrolling. The Terps have won 12 consecutive games with a 24.8-point average margin of victory. Lofty preseason expectations were put in doubt when Maryland looked out of sync in early losses to NC State and Florida State. Now the Terps are meeting that preseason outlook and then some. Despite the presence and good profile of Northwestern, the way Maryland has played the past six weeks make the Terps the heavy favorite in the Big Ten tournament and to seal up that final No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament.


Gorecki's clutch layup seals Duke's upset win

With under 30 seconds to play, Haley Gorecki drives into the teeth of the defense and scores in traffic to clinch Duke's 70-62 win over No. 8 NC State.

Mechelle Voepel: Monday's Duke-NC State matchup seemed like a case of teams passing each other on the stairwell: The Blue Devils were headed up, and the Wolfpack down. NC State got as high as the No. 4 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 poll on Feb. 10, but then lost three of the next four, all at home, and needed a late jumper to edge Miami by a basket on the road. In that stretch, the Wolfpack averaged just 58.8 points. Meanwhile, Monday's win over the Wolfpack was Duke's 10th victory in its past 12 games.

But then look what happened on Thursday: NC State had a strong home finale, beating Syracuse 69-60 and clinching the No. 2 seed in the ACC tournament. Duke went cold from the 3-point line and lost at Virginia Tech. The Wolfpack close the regular season at Virginia on Sunday, while the Blue Devils finish with the rivalry rematch against North Carolina. The Tar Heels are on a six-game losing skid, but they could salvage some good vibes if they can beat the Blue Devils.

So right now, the mojo is more with the Wolfpack, and has faded a bit for the Blue Devils. We'll see if that's still the case after Sunday's games.

Graham Hays: DePaul is one of the most enjoyable teams in the country to watch, so solely from a basketball appreciation standpoint, I hope the Blue Demons didn't peak too soon. It's not so much panic about last week's admittedly lopsided loss against Villanova -- Doug Bruno had to imagine he would get one more frustrating present from Harry Perretta on his way out the door. But it's the imprecision in that loss combined with not knowing if the Big East has prepared the Blue Demons for what looked at times like a legitimate Elite Eight run. The Blue Demons shoot hot-and-cold for a team that takes a ton of 3-pointers, and they've been getting less and less accurate throughout conference play.

Because some conference tournaments don't start for more than week, what are the biggest regular-season races to watch that impact Bracketology and bubble teams?

Creme: Perhaps the single biggest game left on the regular-season schedule after this weekend will be played in Conference USA. Rice and Old Dominion are set to meet in Houston on March 7, and the winner is likely to win the regular season title outright. A win by the Owls and they would be the league's automatic bid for Bracketology purposes. The Monarchs and Western Kentucky would remain in the field as at-large selections. Rice would not be an at-large team should it lose, so that is the difference between Conference USA getting two teams in the projected field or three. By taking that extra spot, the Owls knock out another potential bubble team and one fewer at-large spot would be available.

All that leads to the bigger picture of possible bid stealers. Non-Power 5 teams such as Central Michigan, Gonzaga, Missouri State, Princeton and South Dakota are all going to make the NCAA tournament. If any of them lose in their conference tournaments, then that league picks up an extra team in the field, stealing a potential at-large bid from someone else. Georgia Tech, UCF, West Virginia, Iowa State, Purdue and Tennessee should be watching those teams and conferences closely -- and rooting hard for the favorites to win.