The 2020-21 women's college basketball season tipped off amidst a lot of uncertainty and has been a bumpy ride at times. So much is still unknown, and most programs are operating on a day-to-day basis. More games were postponed on Sunday and it seems likely that COVID-19 pauses and cancellations will continue to happen right through the final games of the regular season.
But we'll be one step closer to March Madness on Monday night, when the NCAA women's basketball selection committee unveils its top-16 teams during halftime of the Stanford-Oregon game (ESPN2/ESPN App, 7 p.m. ET).
With Selection Monday exactly one month away, here are the biggest questions that might be answered in the reveal.
How are the NET ratings applied?
Even if this season had been played without a pandemic hanging over it, it still would have been the first one in which the committee used the NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool) instead of the RPI as its foundational evaluation system. Which teams are included, and how they are ranked, in Monday's reveal will offer the first insights into how the committee will utilize the NET.
My rankings for women's Bracketology all season have been built on the idea that the NET will be used just as the RPI always was: as an organizing tool and starting point for comparing teams.
The NET isn't perfect; no metric-based system is. That might be especially true this season. For instance, road wins are weighted more heavily in the NET than home wins. With few or no fans at every game this season, being on the road shouldn't be viewed the same way this year. The math can't account for that.
But the NET appears to be better than the RPI, and it's an improvement the selection process needed. The NET measures offensive and defensive efficiency and isn't merely results-based like the RPI. For example, Bucknell (8-0) is currently the No. 1-ranked team in the RPI, but No. 31 in the NET. And it stands to reason that most evaluators would be happier with a system that is much more closely reflective what the poll voters have established on a weekly basis.
Given its imperfections, don't expect the committee to strictly follow the NET rankings, but they figure to be a big part of the considerations. How big is the question. Stanford and UConn are Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the NET rankings. Will either or both be No. 1 seeds? (The Huskies are the No. 1 overall seed and Stanford is a No. 2 seed in this week's women's Bracketology.)
Despite being 19-1, Texas A&M is No. 13 in the NET. How much, if at all, will that impact the Aggies' seed? (They have been a No. 2 seed for the past two weeks in Bracketology.) Those are the things to look for to start to understand the impact of the NET.
How does the committee view Michigan and South Florida?
In broader terms, this is a question about how the committee is going to rate teams that have played far fewer games than others. The Wolverines (nine games canceled/postponed) and Bulls (eight games) have just come off long COVID-19 pauses and are the highest-rated teams of those that have missed a significant amount of time. What kind of evaluation the committee gives Michigan and South Florida is likely the best indication of how it will assess the discrepancy in games played.
On the court, results suggest that Michigan (11-1) and South Florida (11-1) are at least worthy of strong consideration for the top 16. Both returned to action this week with impressive wins -- the Wolverines beat Purdue 62-49 and the Bulls topped Tulsa 67-46 -- that seemed to reassert their status among the best teams in the country, even if the opponents didn't represent NCAA tournament-level competition. Those wins, however, are the only game for either team that the committee members have to look at since mid-January. So the question that gets answered Monday night will be if the committee feels there is enough to evaluate to put either or both in its initial top 16.
What will we learn about the "eye test"?
The term has become such a part of the lexicon this time of year. It's regularly used as a definitive way to describe a team's worth. Teams seem to either pass or fail the eye test. But in truth, nothing is more subjective. There is no one way to describe the eye test because everyone's interpretations are different.
Every team is viewed through a different lens, which is why we have tools like the NET, RPI and schedule strength rankings. Numbers don't tell the whole story, of course, but if the selection process were left merely to the eye test it might take until August to select a tournament field.
This year is different. With fewer games, especially with the lack of nonconference contests that often differentiate teams from the same leagues or provide more insight into the relative strength of a non-Power 5 team, committee members might have to rely on their own instinctive insights when voting on teams for spots in the field or seeds.
In any year committee members are balancing the numbers and their own basketball instincts when making their decisions, but with data that will look incomplete even at season's end and fewer games to even watch, this top-16 reveal (and the next one on March 1) should provide some insight into how that balancing act is going.
What's the order of the top eight teams?
By mid-February in most seasons, the decision on who the No. 1 seeds should be is typically down to five teams. Parsing through the minute details as to who should be No. 4 on the board and which team is No. 5 is usually all that is left. And that often gets worked out pretty definitely in the preceding month.
That's not the case this year. Perhaps it is the lack of games that hasn't given teams enough time to separate or that the national stage is just more balanced at the top this season, but a case could still be made for seven or eight teams to be on the top line.
Things will continue to take shape as the rest of the regular season plays out, but on Monday, the order of the top-eight teams could make sense in any number of permutations. Still, while Monday's reveal is regarded as a snapshot of the season right now, we'll see -- in the minds of the 10-member committee -- which teams have built the best foundations to their résumé.