Supersized leagues cause supersized questions

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. 24.

Wasn't Duke and Tennessee great?

OK, not so much. The game itself was a huge letdown. Yet, what is great is that these teams even played. The anticipation of a No. 1 vs. No. 2 was enough. Plus, games like this give us answers, spell it out clearly. Right now, and at least until Sunday, Duke is the best team in the land. We all know that for sure.

It should also be noted that, while great for pollsters, ratings and bragging rights, the outcome of that contest has little bearing on the ultimate goal -- getting a No. 1 seed and making the path to a national title as easy as possible. Tennessee could have lost to Duke by 150 points (at times it seemed like the Lady Vols might have been trying to do that) and still held on to its top seed. In a season in which only five teams at this point can stake any claim to a No. 1 seed, Tennessee would have to do something significantly more startling than lose to the Blue Devils to end up anywhere but on that top line on Selection Monday on March 13.

What's far more mysterious is what is going on below Tennessee and LSU in the SEC and Duke and North Carolina in the ACC as well as in the middle of the Big East and Big 12.

This season, few non-BCS conference schools are emerging as viable at-large candidates, so the pool is even larger for the bigs. Yet that doesn't mean they will all make it, and differentiating between them can be difficult. The SEC is probably the least jumbled. In fact, this might even be considered a down year with regard to numbers. Two years ago, the SEC sent seven teams to the tournament. In 2006, with little resistance from the mid-majors, no more than six will get in. But there is some uncertainty among the second group of three behind Tennessee, LSU and Georgia.

While Florida, Kentucky and Vanderbilt all look good for bids now, they are all just above .500 in the league without a truly significant win among them. Weak résumés abound, and each of them actually trails Arkansas in the SEC. That's a Razorback team with an RPI upwards of 120.

Two weeks ago, Kansas and Missouri looked like breakthrough teams in the Big 12. Now they are both scrambling to regain traction. Out of those shadows stepped Texas A&M and old friend Texas. In two more weeks, Texas Tech might finally find itself. It's unlikely to happen, but in what is generally considered a down year in the Big 12 because of the lack of a dominant title threat (the defending champion Baylor Lady Bears are currently tied for seventh), the league should have eight teams under serious tournament consideration.

The toughest read is the ACC for a number of reasons, beginning with slow starters Virginia Tech and Boston College. Most of the numbers and the naked eye say the Hokies and Eagles are tournament teams. However, they are a combined 1-8 in the league. That's quite a hole to dig out of when conference record is a key measuring stick used by the selection committee. That hole also could get a little deeper, because Virginia Tech still has two meetings with Duke and one with North Carolina, and the Eagles must go to College Park and Chapel Hill.

Miami and Virginia have a slight edge today, but especially in the case of the Hurricanes, the résum´e is not strong, just modestly better than Florida State's. In other words, nine ACC teams (Duke, North Carolina, Maryland and N.C. State already counted as locks) are legitimate contenders. It doesn't help that the by-product of these super conferences is imbalanced schedules. Now the comparison isn't even apples to oranges. It is apples to elephants.

And in order to keep it simple from a national perspective, fans from those BCS schools need to look outside the house, because these are some of the neighbors they should be spying on:

Mountain West: With TCU's presence and BYU's emergence, the MWC has four contenders, making it deeper than it has ever been.

WAC: If Louisiana Tech wins the league, that's probably a one-bid scenario. If the Lady Techsters don't win the conference title, they could steal an at-large bid that might have gone to a Kansas, Miami or South Florida.

Atlantic 10: The same form would hold if George Washington or Temple floundered. Marquette and Missouri fans need to keep an eye on Saint Joseph's or Charlotte.

Enough other oddities occur in early March to make it unlikely that we'll see nine from the ACC, eight from the Big 12 or eight more from the Big East getting into the tournament. But in the days of supersized conferences, the possibility is always present. We have yet another nuance to follow and debate. In the meantime, give me more Duke-Tennessee games. And while we're at it, how about more Florida State-Louisville and Missouri-Vanderbilt type games, too.

Charlie Creme can be reached at cwcreme@yahoo.com.