What is parity exactly?
Season after season, we hear that term. Some wonder whether the women's game has enough -- or any at all. Is there more now than there used to be? Or is it less? Does Connecticut's dominance mean parity doesn't exist? Or does the definition have to be applied deeper and with the Huskies absent from the conversation to truly get an understanding? Because when the term is applied broadly and includes UConn, the answer is an emphatic no, that there is not parity in women's basketball.
"Why even follow the women that closely?" the casual fan asks rhetorically. "You know who is going to win every year -- Connecticut or Tennessee."
Who doesn't hear that refrain each time a conversation begins with someone less evolved in the ways of the women's game? But it's a point that is hard to argue given recent history. This season is no different, and 2010 might in fact make the argument even stronger.
While taking Connecticut out of an analysis of women's basketball would be like taking Republicans off Fox News, let's do it anyway, just for kicks. Heck, while we're at it, let's take out Stanford, too.
When that happens, it begins to look like parity exists. It's even alive and well.
In other words, take out the top two teams (because they have proved to be much better than anyone else to this point), and as much balance resides in the game today as ever. Ohio State just lost two of three. Nebraska and Oklahoma State lead the country's best conference, although neither was picked to finish in the Big 12's top five in the preseason. West Virginia and Georgetown are a combined 37-5, while the more traditional Rutgers and Michigan State (participants in fairly recent title games) are just 25-16.
On a smaller level, look at Sunday's results as a snapshot. Ten games involving Top 25 teams were played. In five of them, the lower-ranked or unranked team won. Certainly, it would be an exaggeration to say that happens all the time, but it does happen plenty, indicating the gap between ranked and unranked isn't that vast. In this very space two weeks ago, we examined how much losing by teams deemed tournament-worthy was occurring. Much of that was to teams not in the bracket discussion.
Notice what's happening in the Big 12 or the Big Ten. Who is really the favorite and who's the underdog when these schools get together? Ask LSU and Georgia about Auburn, but then ask Auburn about South Carolina and Florida. And the Tigers, Gamecocks and Gators aren't even tournament-ready yet.
All this makes putting the bracket together extremely difficult. It's hard to separate teams that cannot separate themselves. That's also what takes the analysis further and makes the process more fun.
So where does the parity end? By definition, can it end? In the world of women's college basketball, the answer to the second question is yes. This season, the answer to the first question seems to be somewhere just before all 33 of the truly worthy at-large teams.
The rungs on the ladder from team No. 3 on the S-curve board (Nebraska) to team No. 42 (Temple) seem to be quite close together; there are automatic qualifiers mixed into that group to explain how it gets all the way to 42. Therein lies the parity by the 2010 definition -- it's within that group for the most part that teams are beating each other and simply exchanging places in the field with each new bracket.
The final three at-large teams in this field -- Mississippi, Rutgers and DePaul -- are not included in the parity group because in any given season, their résumés wouldn't be enough for inclusion in the field (however, there is some kind of mandate about having 64 teams).
So, getting back to the original question ... parity means balance and equity, and yes, the 2009-10 women's basketball season has it. You just might have to look a little deeper or close one eye or have a more open mind to find it.
What it all means as we get real and bring UConn and Stanford back into our world is that the destination might be obvious, but it doesn't have to make the journey any less enjoyable.
Games to watch
A few key contests in the coming week that are likely to affect the bracket:
St. John's at Georgetown (Tuesday): This could be the feather the Red Storm really could use. The Hoyas still have some doubters as well.
Oklahoma State at Nebraska (Wednesday): Every night the Big 12 laces them up, it seems there is a big game, but who would have guessed this would be the biggest game of the year and a battle for first place?
BYU at TCU (Wednesday): The Cougars keep hanging around at or near the top of the Mountain West. This could be the Frogs' shot at beginning to put them away, or BYU might be in it the entire season.
LSU at Georgia (Thursday): This is a meeting of two fading SEC powers. LSU really could use a meaningful win in the league. Georgia, loser of three straight games, needs to figure out what has gone suddenly wrong the past two weeks.
James Madison at VCU (Thursday): The Rams sit tied atop the Colonial standings, but winning the league tournament will be their only chance to earn a trip to the NCAA tournament. The Dukes are in the at-large hunt but can't afford a loss here.
Georgia Tech at Maryland (Friday): The loser will find itself in the bottom half of the ACC.
Marquette at Syracuse (Saturday): Both teams are battling on the wrong side of the bubble right now. The Orange really need a good win. A victory won't get the Eagles in but a loss certainly will continue to keep them out.
USC at Stanford (Sunday): Stanford has nothing to gain as it continues to fight off the rest of a weakened Pac-10. Meanwhile, the Trojans have everything to gain and could solidify a bid with a huge upset.
Charlie Creme can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/CharlieCreme.