Four of the Power 5 conference tournaments are complete, and the Big East wraps up Monday night. So it’s a good time to reassess the women’s Bracketology landscape with less than a week to go before Selection Sunday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App).
The ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC tournaments in some ways were a microcosm of the season: unexpected results, parity and close games everywhere, except where South Carolina is concerned. The Gamecocks, who have now gone a full calendar year without a loss, thoroughly dominated the SEC tournament just like they have the rest of the season, and might have separated themselves even more from the rest of the country.
In the other three leagues, the tournament’s No. 1 seeds all failed to reach the championship game. Those results mixed up the bracket considerably. The No. 1 seeds heading into the weekend — Indiana, Stanford and Utah — all lost early in their tournaments. But so did projected 2-seeds Maryland — which made a brief appearance as a No. 1 — and LSU. That allowed Virginia Tech, which made an impressive run through the ACC tournament, to grab a No. 1 seed on Sunday night. Iowa’s dismantling of Ohio State in the Big Ten final might have been the weekend’s most eye-popping event, and the Hawkeyes are now knocking on the door of a No. 1 seed.
All of this has set the stage for what should be an eventful Selection Sunday, yet the week ahead could provide even more drama. The Big 12 will have plenty to say about how the bracket settles. Some mid-major conferences will, too, as Championship Week continues. Here’s a road map of everything to watch in the final days before the 2023 women’s NCAA tournament bracket is revealed.
The battle for No. 1 seeds
Virginia Tech wins first ACC championship in program history
Elizabeth Kitley and Georgia Amoore combine to score 45 points as Virginia Tech defeats Louisville 75-67 in the ACC championship game.
All the contenders for the top line have played their final games before Selection Sunday, but it doesn’t close the book on the debate about which teams should get the final two No. 1 seeds. South Carolina and Indiana are locks, but Stanford, Virginia Tech and Iowa are competing for the final two spots. The Cardinal and Hokies are 1-seeds in Sunday’s Bracketology, but all three teams make a compelling case.
The Hokies and Hawkeyes just won conference tournament titles. Stanford is the only one with a regular-season championship. Virginia Tech (10-2 against the NET top 25) and Stanford (9-3 against the top 25 and 15-4 against the top 50, which ties South Carolina for the most wins in that category) have the best overall résumés. Iowa and Stanford have top-10-rated schedules. Virginia Tech’s is outside the top 30, and its nonconference slate ranks 129th.
What will be a stronger component: full body of work or recent play? The committee will have that and more to sort out.
In the most recent top-16 reveal, the committee seemed to lean more heavily on recent results. That would give the edge to the Hokies, winners of 11 straight, and Iowa, which has won seven of its past eight games. The Hawkeyes also have something else: two indelible wins on consecutive Sundays on national TV. First came Caitlin Clark’s twisting 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Indiana. Then it was the 105-72 Big Ten title game devastation of the Buckeyes, in which Clark left another lasting impression with a 30-point, 17-assist, 10-rebound triple-double. How will committee members weigh Iowa losses to Kansas State and Illinois, as well as a 28-point pounding by Maryland?
Stanford’s overall results are better than Iowa’s, but the Cardinal also lost two of their last three games. I’m sticking with Stanford and Virginia Tech, but the committee could have a different perspective. This is the rare year in which there might not be a wrong answer.
What happens in the WCC, Summit and C-USA tournaments?
Two or three leagues emerge every season as bid stealers — conferences with a definitive regular-season champion that is certain to receive an at-large invite but fails to win the tournament. That means two bids from a league that was anticipated to only have one, reducing the number of at-large bids available to bubble teams.
Gonzaga has been a fixture among the top eight seeds in Bracketology and will make the NCAA tournament win or lose in the WCC tournament, which concludes Tuesday in Las Vegas. If someone upsets the Zags, the WCC’s automatic bid goes to that team and Gonzaga takes an at-large bid that might be currently designated for a bubble team like West Virginia or St. John’s.
If Middle Tennessee makes the Conference USA championship game, the Lady Raiders should make the NCAA field as an at-large — and another bubble team would be out. South Dakota State dominated the Summit all season and is also a good at-large candidate. Should UNLV fail to cap an unbeaten Mountain West season with a tournament title, the Lady Rebels would become a bubble team.
The Ivy League is another conference to watch, perhaps for the opposite reason. If Princeton or Columbia fail to win their semifinal games Friday, they would fall out of the field. That could open a spot in the bracket for another team. This is the best scenario for a team currently on the outside to move up without playing a game.
The availability of key players
Olivia Miles in apparent pain with knee injury
Notre Dame’s Olivia Miles exited the game with a knee injury in the second quarter and would not return.
Injuries have played a significant role the entire season. From UConn’s stream of injuries to Texas’ slow start with Rori Harmon on the sidelines, from some key North Carolina players missing time to Indiana’s ability to withstand a lengthy Grace Berger absence, player health was a constant talking point. Now that the season is reaching its crescendo, the status of two ACC point guards — Notre Dame’s Olivia Miles and NC State’s Diamond Johnson — will be a question all week.
While not a factor in whether a team is included in the NCAA tournament field, player availability is one of the criteria the committee considers as it relates to seeding. If Miles and Johnson, who each missed the ACC tournament, don’t return, the committee might factor it into their teams’ seedings. It’s unlikely the Irish, the ACC regular-season champs, would fall out of the top 16 — a place they have resided all season — but a No. 3 seed could turn into a No. 4 if Miles, Notre Dame’s best player and catalyst, can’t go.
The Irish were able to beat the Johnson-less Wolfpack in the ACC quarterfinals, but Notre Dame looked lost on offense against Louisville without Miles. It seemed clear NC State was negatively impacted by Johnson’s absence as well. Given how the Wolfpack played without her, their seed could take a hit as well if Johnson can’t return.
Teams are supposed to inform the committee what the realistic prognosis is for an injured player ahead of Selection Sunday. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, leaving the committee members to speculate or not consider the injury at all.
It should also be noted this committee didn’t seem to account for injuries and player availability that strongly during its two top-16 reveals. UConn is the best example. The Huskies were seeded No. 1 in the first reveal. The résumé looked like a No. 1 seed, but much of it was built with Azzi Fudd playing. She wasn’t available at the time of either reveal, but the committee seemed to downplay the significance. If the committee does the same with Miles and Johnson, the Irish and Wolfpack (projected as a No. 7 seed) shouldn’t have a problem with their seeds.
How either team performs in the NCAA tournament without its most important player is another story.
The Big 12 tournament’s role in shaping the top 16 and bubble
Oklahoma, a No. 5 seed, could still get into the top 16. Texas, currently a 4-seed, could still rise to a higher seed. West Virginia, the “last team in,” is fighting for a spot in the field. And all that gets settled in Kansas City this weekend.
Because of Miles’ injury and Duke’s struggles toward the end of the season, Texas might be in line for a No. 3 seed with a good showing in the Big 12 tournament. That’s significant because it would mean avoiding the No. 1 seed in the region until a potential Elite Eight game.
The Sooners have a few teams to pass, but a Big 12 championship should be enough to do it. Anything short of a title, and the Sooners won’t be hosting first- and second-round NCAA tournament games.
West Virginia is still probably a couple of wins away from securing a bid. If the Mountaineers beat Oklahoma State in their first game and then Oklahoma in the semifinals, a bid should be coming. A loss to the Cowgirls, and it won’t. A 1-1 showing also won’t likely be enough if any of those bid stealers make an appearance.
A jump in seeding wouldn’t be as significant for Baylor and Kansas, but for two teams that sputtered in February, a long stay in Kansas City could do wonders for their confidence.