- Charlie Creme, Women's College Basketball
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After Baylor's victory over Texas A&M on Sunday, grouping teams has become relatively easy. This season essentially has five teams in the discussion for No. 1 seeds -- the Lady Bears, Connecticut, Duke, Tennessee and Stanford -- and the national champion is highly likely to come from this group.
The Aggies have been close enough in their losses to Duke and Baylor to give them a chance at a top seed in March, but it seems they are a notch below. That puts A&M in a pile with Xavier, DePaul, UCLA, Notre Dame, Michigan State, West Virginia and, perhaps, Miami, Georgetown and Florida State. That group would make up most of the top four seeds in each region.
These 15 teams are the schools that get discussed the most, get the most attention on television and will be the focus come Selection Monday.
Connecticut's status in the NCAA tournament is already determined: The Huskies are probably 90-95 percent certain of being a No. 1 seed. But at the other end of the spectrum lies the bubble. Call it the fence. These are the teams that are either just in or just out right now. None are making the Final Four. Few of them will even survive the first four days of the tournament. But for these schools, every game moving forward really matters. Any contest could make the difference between a thumbs up or a thumbs down from the committee.
A closer look at the biggest bubble teams:
Louisville (in): Perhaps the hottest tournament topic over on the men's side has been the number of teams the Big East could get into the field. The idea of 10 or 11 schools from one conference in the new expanded field is unprecedented. Of course, the women's tournament doesn't have the extra four teams, but the inclusion of the Cardinals and Rutgers this week brings the Big East's number to nine in the women's tournament. Neither team was even in the conversation a month ago, but each should remain in consideration for the rest of the season, creating the real possibility that one league could go nine-deep. The Cardinals actually have five top-50 RPI wins and have become a much more consistent team since the start of the new year, especially with Monique Reid scoring more. Much work still needs to be done, but the résumé so far puts Louisville's chance at the NCAA tournament at 50-50. The Cardinals have the luxury of upcoming games against Georgetown, West Virginia and DePaul at the new KFC Yum! Center, where they have lost just once this season.
Rutgers (in): This is as soft a grip on the final spot in the tournament as a team could possibly have. The Scarlet Knights are merely 11-8 and have lost two in a row. The reason they make the field this time after being off the radar completely until two weeks ago is because, of all the other teams under consideration, Rutgers has the best win (Georgetown). Most of the competition just hasn't done anything of note. This script has been written by C. Vivian Stringer's bunch before -- tough early start against an impossibly difficult schedule, followed by finding a little more offensive punch during the conference season to squeak in. Some rugged road games await, so the hole might have ultimately been too deep. Louisville's chances seem better and it's more likely the Big East will get seven or eight bids rather than nine.
Charlotte (out): The story here is much the same as it always is for the 49ers. The nonconference schedule isn't that strong and none of the victories in it were significant. Once the Atlantic 10 season begins, Charlotte beats the teams it should so the record looks good, but it seems to never pull a surprise, so none of those victories are truly that meaningful, either. That exact scenario is now playing itself out again. Charlotte has just one top-50 regular-season win in the past three seasons. Dayton and Duquesne are the only chances left on the schedule. The 49ers might need them both. Jennifer Hailey and Kendria Holmes are having good seasons, but this looks like WNIT material again.
Dayton (in): Charlotte's A-10 friend is in because it does have at least one good win (and a road victory at that): over Boston College. The Flyers still need to do more, probably much more to hold this spot, but the current four-game winning streak is a good start.
Texas (out): The Longhorns routinely schedule up and this season wasn't too different with Tennessee, Stanford and Michigan State on the slate. The problem is that Texas had the big injury to Cokie Reed and isn't supremely talented. Subsequently, the Longhorns weren't close in any of those games. A four-game losing streak to start the Big 12 season also didn't help. Texas is coming up, though. The RPI has crept up after a couple of league victories. However, the Longhorns could be staring at a rare season without an NCAA tournament if they don't do something major the rest of the way. Texas Tech cannot remain their biggest victory.
Texas Tech (out): Speaking of the Lady Raiders, this is another team that doesn't supply much of a résumé. Texas Tech was in the field two weeks ago thanks to a solid record and a quick Big 12 start, but a four-game losing streak eliminated both of those. With Kansas State as the top victory, worthiness is lacking, and now the Lady Raiders have better odds of a WNIT berth than an NCAA tournament appearance. Most notable, however, is that with Texas Tech dropping out and Texas not quite getting there, the Big 12 put just four teams in the field. Usually the league has more balance than it does right now. This year, the Big 12 is the college basketball equivalent of a candy apple -- very top heavy. Five or six bids is still possible, but so is the current four -- and that would be strange to see.
Syracuse (out): The Orange have the victory over Ohio State and, more recently, the upset of Marquette -- but almost nothing else. The home loss to Rutgers is the difference between being in and being out. The Orange would actually be the 10th team from the Big East if they catch a hot streak. The advantage of playing in that league this year is the opportunity it presents: Syracuse has plenty of games left on the schedule to have some control of its fate.
LSU (in): The Lady Tigers' games are rarely pretty. See their two most significant victories: In wins at UCLA and at home over Georgia, they averaged 51 points. Yet those are both bigger conquests than nearly anyone else on this list. Like Louisville, Rutgers and Syracuse, LSU has a chance to play itself solidly into the field with the competition in the SEC. Of course, enough potential losses also exist on the schedule.
TCU (out): The Horned Frogs should clearly be the best team in the Mountain West, but right now they aren't. Trailing in the league standings by a game, TCU should still be considered the favorite come conference tournament time, but the way it sets up now, if the Frogs don't deliver then, the NCAA tournament committee won't deliver for them. Consecutive losses to New Mexico and Air Force removed TCU from the field; the losses, particularly the one to the Falcons, are inexcusable. They trump the collateral the Jan. 2 victory over Oklahoma once provided. With an RPI in the high 60s and February upon us, time is running out on the Horned Frogs to make this the season it was supposed to be.
Northwestern (out): The bottom line: A four-game losing streak at this point in the season is a deal breaker. It would be nice for the country to get a closer look at Amy Jaeschke, but the likelihood of that happening took a crushing blow in the past two weeks.
Missouri State (out): The record looks good. The RPI looks good. But the quality victories just aren't there. The reality of the situation for teams like the Lady Bears is that even in leagues like the Missouri Valley, two or three conference losses and failing to win a regular-season title spells doom to at-large chances. Louisiana Tech just can't be the best win. Had the Lady Bears not fallen at Creighton last week, they probably would have snuck into that last spot. However, if Missouri State is out now, it will be out down the line, too. With no top-50 and just three top-100 games left on the schedule, the opportunity to make up ground just isn't there.
Middle Tennessee (out): See immediately above. In this case, the best victory is Kansas State (not nearly enough) and the Blue Raiders also have that most recent crummy loss to Florida International. Dropping that game kept them from getting the Sun Belt's automatic bid.
Charlie Creme can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.