Selection Sunday: Biggest questions for NCAA tournament include No. 1 seeds after South Carolina; Big Ten's dominance

It’s South Carolina and everyone else when it comes to determining the field for the 2023 NCAA women’s basketball tournament that concludes with the Final Four in Dallas beginning on March 31. Upsets in the final week of the regular season and into the conference tournaments have jumbled the teams at the top and created questions for the committee about No. 1 seeds, as well as what to do about LSU, how to slot in all the Big Ten talent and how many bubble teams can make the field.

Who will be a No. 1 seed behind South Carolina?

South Carolina (32-0) is a lock for the No. 1 overall seed after an undefeated regular season and SEC tournament championship. But below the Gamecocks, chaos ensued over championship weekend. Indiana, Stanford and Utah were the NCAA women’s basketball selection committee’s No. 1 seeds on Feb. 23, and none made it to its conference title game. It opened the door for upward movement from Virginia Tech and Iowa, as well as potentially Maryland and even UConn.

Indiana (27-3) is believed to be a lock by bracketologists as the second No. 1 seed. The Hoosiers are ranked fifth in NET and ninth in overall strength of schedule. They’re 6-2 against teams in the NET top 25 with only one loss outside of it to Michigan State (NET 46, 5-point margin). Their other losses are over the past week to Iowa (NET 6, -1) and Ohio State (NET 16, -4). Unlike the rest of the teams on the potential list outside of Utah, Indiana does not have a loss to any team below the NET 50.

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That leaves two open spots on the top-seed line and multiple potential programs to fill it.

Virginia Tech | 27-4, 17-4 ACC | NET: 9 | vs. NET top 25: 10-2 | SOS: 31

Notable wins: Duke (NET 10, 2-1 series), at Tennessee (NET 15, +3) | Bad losses: at Clemson (NET 58, -5)

Virginia Tech has the second-best winning percentage in Quad 1 (NET top-25 teams) behind South Carolina’s perfect 9-0 mark. (Middle Tennessee is also undefeated, but at 1-0.) Its 10 wins is tied with UConn for most of any school in the nation and includes top-10 NET teams in Notre Dame (1-0) and Duke (2-1 season series). The Hokies won the ACC tournament title and are on an 11-game winning streak dating back to Jan. 26.

Iowa | 26-6, 18-3 Big Ten | NET: 6 | vs. NET top 25: 6-4 | SOS: 12

Notable wins: Indiana (NET 5, split season series), Maryland (NET 13, won series 2-1), Ohio State (NET 16, 2-0) | Bad losses: at Kansas State (NET 66, -1)

Iowa took three early losses against Kansas State, UConn (by 7) and NC State (-13) in the early weeks of the season, but found more of an identity defensively to lose only three games since Dec. 1. Playing in the strong Big Ten has helped as it is 6-4 in Quad 1 wins, which includes Indiana, two against Maryland and two against Ohio State. Illinois was a surprisingly strong squad this season (look out for them in your bracket) and the most glaring loss is to Kansas State. Its average opponent NET ranking was eighth, trailing only that of UConn (1) and Stanford (6) on this list.

The Iowa Hawkeyes women's basketball team celebrates its victory in the Big Ten tournament championship game at Target Center in Minneapolis on March 5, 2023. (David Berding/Getty Images)
The Iowa Hawkeyes women's basketball team celebrates its victory in the Big Ten tournament championship game at Target Center in Minneapolis on March 5, 2023. (David Berding/Getty Images)

Stanford | 28-5, 16-4 Pac-12 | NET: 4 | vs. NET top 25: 9-3 | SOS: 3

Notable wins: Utah (NET 7, 1-1 series), vs. Tennessee (NET 15, +7), vs. Creighton (NET 18, +13), Oregon (NET 19, 2-0) | Bad losses: at Washington (NET 68, -5)

The Cardinal are tied with South Carolina for second-most wins in Quad 1, but took that bad loss to Washington on Feb. 5. If recency bias comes into play, Stanford has lost two of its last three — albeit to Utah (NET 7) by 6 in the regular season finale and UCLA (NET 22) by 4 in the Pac-12 semifinals. When the committee placed Utah in the final No. 1 spot last month, it showed its belief in the strength of that conference and might mean Stanford stays on the 1-seed line.

Utah | 25-4, 14-4 Pac-12 | NET 7 | vs. NET top 25: 5-2 | SOS: 37

Notable wins: Stanford (NET 4, series 1-1), Oregon (NET 19, +8) | Worst loss: Washington State (NET 31, -8, won series 2-1)

Utah’s worst loss in terms of NET came in the Pac-12 quarterfinals to Washington State (NET 31), an early Cinderella pick for its first conference title and embracement of Shania Twain. Its other losses are Stanford, Colorado (NET 23) and Arizona (NET 27).

Similar to Indiana, it has not lost a game to a team NET 50 or higher (14-0). But in the grouping, it is tied with Maryland for the fewest number of wins in Quad 1. It has an overall and nonconference SOS similar to Virginia Tech, but not enough victories to push it past the Hokies.

Maryland | 25-6, 16-4 Big Ten | NET 13 | vs. NET top 25: 5-4 | SOS: 7

Notable wins: UConn (NET 2, +7), Notre Dame (NET 8, +2), vs. Iowa (NET 6, 1-2 season series), Ohio State (NET 16, 2-0) | Bad losses: DePaul (NET 63, -9), vs. Nebraska (NET 44, -23)

Maryland has the worst Quad 1 record of any of these teams, tying Utah for fewest wins and Iowa for most losses. But its average opponent NET ranking of fifth is second behind UConn, and the Terps have one of the tougher schedules in the group. They lost by 25 to South Carolina in the second game of the season, but have those noncon wins over Notre Dame and UConn, though the Huskies were without Azzi Fudd and point guard Nika Mühl. Iowa would have the upper hand in a head-to-head since it went 2-1 in the series and also had that dominating Big Ten title game.

UConn | 28-5, 20-2 Big East | NET 2 | vs. NET top 25: 10-3 | SOS: 2

Notable wins: Iowa (NET 6, +7), Duke (NET 10, +28), Villanova (NET 12, 3-0 record), at Tennessee (NET 15, +17) | Bad losses: vs. Marquette (NET 42, -7), at St. John’s (NET 55, -5)

UConn was on a downslide in February with too many close calls in Big East play, including a nine-point close call against Xavier, which went winless in conference play. In the final committee ranking, UConn dropped to No. 7 overall and in danger of dropping down further to a 3-seed.

It is tied with the most wins in Quad 1, but unlike Virginia Tech has taken three of its losses in the past month. The complication is how to balance UConn’s season considering its unprecedented injury stretch.

Its outlook will change from the last reveal to Selection Sunday because Fudd, an early National Player of the Year contender, is back from a knee injury. All of its losses came without her and other key pieces, including losses to Notre Dame (NET 8), Maryland (NET 13) and a tighter-than-expected four-point loss to South Carolina (NET 1).

What to do about LSU?

LSU | 28-2, 16-2 SEC | NET 3 | vs. NET top 25: 2-2 | SOS: 83

Notable wins: Tennessee (NET 15, split series 1-1), Ole Miss (NET 25)

LSU is creating a conundrum for the committee because of the juxtaposition of its record with its nonconference schedule. The committee, which put LSU as a 2-seed at No. 5 overall last month, confirmed as much to ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme after the last reveal. The Tigers are third in NET rankings and have only two losses all season. But their nonconference schedule left a lot to be desired and they are 2-2 against teams in Quad 1. The basketball world hasn’t seen a scenario where a team with the talent of LSU has played so far down its NET level on a regular basis.

Its NET nonconference SOS ranking is 319th out of 361 schools. Of teams in the top 25 NET rankings, only SEC foe Ole Miss (NET 25) comes close at 203 SOS. The next teams in the SOS 300s after LSU: Illinois (NET 41, SOS 305), Virginia (NET 52, SOS 340) and St. John’s (NET 55, SOS 333).

To further put LSU’s noncon schedule in perspective, it played Mississippi State (NET 359, third worst) and Western Carolina (NET 350, 12th worst). Those wins look good because the Tigers won by 70 and 73, respectively. Only two teams they faced finished in the top 100 NET and only one is in the Power Six group — but even then, that team finished below .500.

The rest of LSU’s noncon schedule with NET rankings in parentheses: Bellarmine (288), Houston Christian (305), Northwestern State (323), George Mason (177), UAB (199), Southeastern Louisiana (159), Tulane (91), New Orleans (316), Lamar (196), Montana State (123) and Oregon State (54). Its 9-0 mark against teams ranked 150 and below is the most games until Ole Miss at 10-0.

LSU's Angel Reese, right, drives to the basket against Tennessee's Rickea Jackson in the SEC tournament in Greenville, South Carolina, on March 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)
LSU's Angel Reese, right, drives to the basket against Tennessee's Rickea Jackson in the SEC tournament in Greenville, South Carolina, on March 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)

The SEC didn’t provide as many opportunities as previous seasons and the Tigers split those four games, joining Texas (NET 11, 1-3), Middle Tennessee (NET 28, 1-0) and South Florida (NET 30, 1-3) as having played the fewest top 25 games of the top 30 ranked teams. The stretch of January to early February was particularly difficult with single-digit wins against Arkansas (NET 48), Tennessee (NET 15), Georgia (NET 34), Texas A&M (NET 109) and Ole Miss (NET 25).

And the Tigers lost by 24 to South Carolina, a margin of victory that ranked in the middle-third of the Gamecocks’ dominating season. Ole Miss, Georgia (twice), Tennessee (twice) and Alabama were among the teams that fared better. LSU’s last time out was a final-possession loss to Tennessee in the SEC tournament semifinal.

LSU was a 2-seed in each of the committee’s two reveals, which covered the stretch of single-digit wins and South Carolina loss, and it’s unclear if the committee will be swayed downward by its last game. ESPN dropped the Tigers to a 3-seed as of Tuesday and that seems a fair ceiling.

In contrast to the other top-NET, high-SOS teams, Illinois (1-5 vs. NET top 25) at least has a win against Iowa and tight losses against some of the nation’s best playing in the Big Ten. St. John’s (2-4) took down mighty UConn, which was only without Fudd at the time, and Creighton (NET 18). And Virginia (1-10) is the outlier with only a win over NC State (NET 17) similar to LSU’s over Tennessee.

How to handle the Big Ten overload up top

Four Big Ten teams are projected to be on the top-four seed lines and hosting games at their home courts in the first and second round. This could create some movement for the committee, which in an ideal world creates the bracket using an “s curve” through the 68-team field. That results in regions with overall seed lines of 1-8-9-16, 2-7-10-15, 3-6-11-14, and 4-5-12-13. But it could look different.

The selection committee follows specific rules and procedures with a goal of providing comparable competition and avoiding early conference matchups. Conference foes know the most about each other after having played up to three times in a season and the committee wants it to be as fair as possible to teams (though it notes “balance does not mean equal”).

These rules will come into play when designating the Big Ten teams since four teams are likely to be in top 16, with three teams likely in the top eight and two potential No. 1 seeds. The guidelines:

  • Each of the first four teams selected from a conference are placed in different regional pods if they are all on the top-four seed lines.

  • Teams from the same conference will not meet prior to the regional final if they have played each other three or more times (this would apply to Iowa and Maryland, for example, as well as Indiana and Ohio State). Overall, the committee will attempt to keep conference teams from meeting until the regional final.

  • A team outside of the top-four seed lines can move one bracket line (example: from a 13 seed to a 12) if it is necessary to meet the principles.

In addition, the committee attempts to avoid rematches of regular season games in the First Four and first two rounds as well as rematches of previous years’ tournament games in those rounds. In the last reveal, then-seventh-ranked Iowa was moved out of No. 2 Indiana’s region down into No. 3 Stanford’s, swapping places with Utah as it had the same issue. The ACC could also have four in the top 16 between Virginia Tech, Duke, Notre Dame and North Carolina.

Not as much of a consideration for the committee this year will be geography since there are two regional final sites rather than four in the past. The committee is asked to take into account “distance from a site, mode of transportation and accessibility by fans.” The sites are Greenville, South Carolina, and Seattle.

Which bubble teams should be in the field?

The bubble is already collapsing as mid-major tournaments continue this week. Portland upset Gonzaga (27-3, 17-1 WCC) to win the West Coast Conference tournament and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Zags are ranked No. 16 in the Associated Press poll and at NET 43 are viewed as a lock for the field with noncon wins over Louisville and Tennessee. That will kick one bubble team out.

Wichita State’s upset of South Florida (26-5, 15-1) in the AAC quarterfinals also takes away a spot for those bubble teams. The Shockers became the first team in AAC tournament history to defeat the No. 1 team, taking a 65-53 win on Tuesday. South Florida (NET 30) is a projected 7-seed by ESPN with a win over Texas and an overtime loss to Ohio State, and was expected to win that automatic bid.

The strongest bubble teams in ESPN’s bracketology consist of Miami (19-12, 12-8 ACC, NET 50), Marquette (21-10, 14-8 Big East, NET 42), Purdue (19-10, 10-9 Big Ten, NET 49), Princeton (21-5, 12-2 Ivy, NET 40), St. John’s (22-8, 13-8 Big East, NET 55), West Virginia (19-10, 10-8 Big 12, NET 61) and Oregon (17-14, 8-12 Pac-12, NET 19). The next four out are Syracuse, Nebraska, Kansas State and Washington.

Miami, Purdue, St. John’s and Marquette have the advantage of signature conference wins against some of the nation’s best in Virginia Tech (for Miami), UConn (for Marquette and St. John’s) and Ohio State (Purdue). Marquette won the season series against St. John’s, 2-1, including in the Big East tournament.

Princeton and West Virginia are still playing in their conference tournaments. The Tigers have the best shot at an automatic bid as the No. 1 seed in the Ivy, though they shared the regular season title with Columbia. Columbia is the projected winner and Princeton is “last four in,” per ESPN.

Princeton earned the top seed because of its better NET ranking, as per Ivy League policies. The four-team tournament begins Friday (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+) and the championship game is Saturday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN News).

West Virginia is the No. 5 seed in the Big 12 tournament tipping off on Thursday. Oregon has the best NET of any bubble team, but is 0-8 against quad 1 teams.