After maneuvering through the most challenging season in women's college basketball history, Selection Monday arrived with a collective thanks that a 2021 women's NCAA tournament is on the horizon.
COVID-19 presented its challenges to get through the season and in the 2021 bracket selection process for the 64-team field. The committee's already difficult task was made even harder with all the havoc that testing protocols, missed games, coronavirus pauses and imbalanced schedules contributed to the season.
Yet the committee came out of it with a job well done. While there certainly are differences from my final tournament field in Bracketology, they are minor. The committee wrestled with the same issues I did, and our views were only slightly different. Of course, those do need to be addressed, so here are the key observations now that the 64-team field is set.
NC State -- not Texas A&M -- is a No. 1 seed
As the season wound to a close and the selection committee began getting to work, it was clear that seven teams had résumés worthy of being called a No. 1 seed. In the final bracket projection, NC State was on the 2-line and Texas A&M was a No. 1. The committee disagreed. The Wolfpack are a No. 1 seed.
And not only is NC State a 1-seed, the Wolfpack are No. 3 overall. The Aggies are No. 6 overall, with South Carolina and Maryland in between. The committee seemed to like NC State's 11 top-50 NET wins (the same as Texas A&M), specifically the Wolfpack's big ones -- two over Louisville and one at South Carolina. But what really seemed to make the most difference, according to committee chair Nina King, was that NC State won the ACC tournament and Texas A&M lost in the semifinals of the SEC tournament.
Conference tournaments seemed to play a big role in the placement of the top teams. The top five -- Stanford, UConn, NC State, South Carolina and Maryland -- were all tournament champions. It turns out the Wolfpack holding on to beat Louisville in the ACC championship game was the difference between a No. 1 and a No. 2 seed, and Texas A&M likely cost itself a 1-seed with its loss to Georgia in the SEC semifinals. When as many as seven teams look the part, one game can make the difference.
BYU gets last at-large spot
As competitive as the top of the bracket was, the bottom might have been even harder to figure out. But for very different reasons. The teams at the end of the committee's list for tournament inclusion were extremely flawed. There were plenty of reasons to leave any of them out, and it's difficult to build a strong case for any bubble team's inclusion.
That's why it was a bit of a surprise to see the Cougars in the field. BYU played only three games against NET top-50 teams all season -- all versus Gonzaga, against whom the Cougars went 1-2. Their strength of schedule was rated 140.
The committee liked BYU's 18 wins despite the schedule it came against and the fact the Cougars played Gonzaga to a one-point thriller in the WCC championship game before losing at the buzzer. Making that game a positive is where I differ from the committee and why I left BYU out of the final Bracketology. The final score of that game was 43-42. The Cougars led by 13 in the third quarter and let it slip away. Most importantly, they were playing against a depleted Zags team. Six Gonzaga players were stricken with a stomach flu. Some couldn't play. Some played limited, weary minutes. BYU should have won that game going away.
The question then: Who should have replaced the Cougars? The reality is the other candidates were not slam dunks, either. The First Four Out were Houston, DePaul, Notre Dame and Oklahoma. The Fighting Irish and Sooners had a much better collection of wins, but were 10-10 and 12-12, respectively. DePaul had 14 wins but really struggled at the end of the season. Houston put up 16 wins against the No. 97-rated schedule. Houston or Notre Dame might have been better choices.
Even Mississippi State -- my first team out but not on the committee's list at all -- might have been a better choice. The alternatives still weren't good ones, so it's hard to quibble too much with the selection of BYU -- this year's benefactors of a watered-down bubble.
The Big East not well-regarded
UConn's jump from the American Athletic Conference to the Big East was supposed to improve both the Huskies' competition and the Big East's strength. According to the committee, at least for this year, it didn't do either.
Just like in the AAC, UConn was not hurt by the conference as the No. 2 overall team in the field. But with DePaul left out of the field, and with 10th-seeded Marquette among the Last Four In, the Big East didn't fare much better than the AAC has over the past seven years. In fact, the Big East was only one spot better in the NET conference rankings than the AAC.
Put UConn back in the AAC and that likely would have flipped. This year's field had two from each conference. When the season began, the Big East was hoping for more with the addition of UConn. The committee didn't seem to like what it saw.
ACC or SEC?
Which is the best conference? The ACC got eight teams in the field, and the SEC got seven. That doesn't tell the entire story. Six of those SEC teams were among the top 16 teams in the bracket. The ACC only had two such teams -- NC State and Louisville. The ACC also had four teams that were No. 9 seeds or lower. Alabama, a No. 7 seed, was the only SEC team not in the top 16. Only three ACC teams were seeded higher than the last SEC program in the bracket. The SEC also was the highest-rated league in the NET all season, and based on the committee's choices was the best conference in the country in 2021.