A lot of slow starts for some big names
Editor's note: Charlie Creme will project the 2006 NCAA Tournament bracket several more times before Selection Monday. Click here for this month's field of 64 Women's Bracketology and Charlie's team-by-team analysis. This projection includes games through Jan. 10.
OK, that sounds obvious and overly simplistic, but I thought I'd start with an easy one. Once again, the Lady Vols have taken all comers, played on the road, and outside of a few exceptions haven't been supremely challenged. Losing Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood will hurt and Saturday's game against UConn showed Tennessee might be a bit vulnerable, but this is the best team in the country. The Lady Vols will lose. It could be Georgia or Duke or LSU. But Dick Cheney is more likely to show up at an antiwar rally than Tennessee is to end up anything but a No. 1 seed.
Forget any RPI ratings. Those are extremely flawed at this point anyway. LSU has already shown with blowout wins over Michigan State, Ohio State and Minnesota that it could be the Big Ten champion this season. With the possible exception of Baylor, no team in either league can even argue being on the same level as the elite in the SEC and ACC. Duke, North Carolina and Maryland are clear Final Four contenders in the ACC and the SEC has LSU and Tennessee. Right now, neither the Big Ten nor Big 12 have a single club that looks likely to end up in Boston. Texas, Kansas State, Texas Tech and Penn State have all taken steps back. The drop-off at Michigan State, Minnesota and Baylor is less severe, but all three don't appear good enough to reach the extremely high ceiling set last season.
Part of the reason the Big 12 looks down is that only mediocrity seems to exist outside of Baylor and Oklahoma. Kansas (12-2) and Missouri (12-2) could change that perception if either or both prove to be for real. But the jury is still out because the Tigers' upset of Baylor is the only truly credible win on either résumé. Kansas' only losses also happen to be its only road games, which isn't a good sign. Meanwhile, the Lady Raiders' season has been a disaster since blowing a second-half lead against LSU in the opener. The conference season is a fresh start for Texas Tech (6-7), but the vastness of the pre-Big 12 hole dug by the Lady Raiders would make Evel Knievel shudder.
I didn't understand the lofty, top-15 ranking in the preseason, and consecutive losses to start the Big East season against teams not among the league's elite (St. John's and Seton Hall) seem to substantiate that. Surviving overtime Tuesday night against Marquette probably saved Notre Dame's spot in the first edition of Bracketology. The Irish just don't have enough offensive firepower to be a serious contender beyond just fighting for a bid. The 0-2 start is going to make even competing with Connecticut, Rutgers and DePaul a long shot.
This might look a little strange with each coming off impressive wins over Arizona State, but each was supposed to be better than just squeezing into the field in the first bracket projection. Both were supposed to join the Sun Devils as serious challengers to Stanford's Pac-10 supremacy, but both were throttled in Palo Alto. Somehow, with the leadership of three seasoned guards -- Lisa Willis, Nikki Blue, and Noelle Quinn -- the Bruins (9-6 overall) have been terrible on the road (1-5). Perhaps both USC (10-5) and UCLA are now finding their way, but a better first two months would have made the next two a little easier.
This is an entirely different conference without likely NCAA teams DePaul and Louisville. At this point, Conference USA looks like a one-bid league.
Monday's game-winning shot against Oklahoma notwithstanding, Davenport does not look like the same player that earned first-team All-America honors last season. In the Buckeyes' two marquee contests so far, Davenport was dominated by LSU's Sylvia Fowles and Oklahoma's Courtney Paris. Davenport wasn't even the best player on her team during the key portions of the second half against the Sooners. That is when she was on the court. Too often Davenport can manage to disappear. She just hasn't been a dominant player. If Ohio State is going to live up to expectations, she is going to have to start now.
Last season all the rage was that the women's game was growing increasingly deep with more teams capable of challenging the perennial powerhouse programs. I wrote about that very idea in a column almost exactly one year ago. I don't have that same feeling early in 2006. Tennessee, LSU, Duke and North Carolina are the clear top seeds right now. Maryland and Rutgers are contenders. Baylor is still solid and Sophia Young always gives the Lady Bears a chance, but they aren't as good as last season. Ohio State and Connecticut have already shown that they aren't in that group, and Arizona State isn't quite there yet. Plus, the mid-majors are not stepping forward as serious at-large candidates, with the possible exception of Western Kentucky.Of course, time exists for any and all of this to change. We still have two months. Charlie Creme can be reached at email@example.com.