By Arnie Leshin
Pick a number, 64, 48, 16, and think about the women’s college basketball 2021 NCAA tournament format. That’s what the coronavirus pandemic has brought, brackets in all shapes and sizes.
Games have been postponed, cancelled, moved and rescheduled. It’s a time where every team is unlikely to play a full complement of games. It has altered conference races and the tournament evaluation process. And so come selection time, anything is on the tables, thus those numbers. Bracketology projects not only the usual 64-team field, but also condensed 48- and 16-team versions.
The good thing is that despite the threat of COVID-19, the ladies are playing in this season of confusion. Some schools have cancelled out games against non-conference teams and had to work on rescheduling conference contests. Some schools have gone days and weeks without playing. The virus fear has also limited practices.
This might be why the rankings have scrambled, with the top 25 chart showing changes each week. After a delay, the campaign opened with South Carolina holding down the top spot. Then comes Stanford and Louisville. Now it’s Louisville remaining on top of the heap, followed by North Carolina State and University of Connecticut, which has won a record 11 national championships under the guidance of head coach Geno Auriemma.
The Gamecocks are presently No. 4, with UCLA next, then Stanford after it dropped back-to-back games to Colorado and UCLA. Maryland was at No. 7 when it recently lost to No. 15 Ohio State, and has now traded places with the Buckeyes. Then comes Texas A & M at No. 8, defending national champion Baylor at No. 9, and Arizona rounding out the top 10.
No. 11 is Oregon, next comes previously unbeaten Michigan, South Florida, Kentucky, Maryland,
Indiana, DePaul, Gonzaga, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Filling out the final five are Mississippi State, Georgia, Northwestern, West Virginia, and South Dakota.
One-loss teams are South Carolina, Texas A & M, Michigan, South Florida, and Ohio State. The only teams still sporting unblemished records are the top three, Louisville at 15-0, North Carolina State at 11-0, and UConn at 10-0.
Thursday on ESPN2, Connecticut of the Big East added a non-conference test at Arkansas (10-4) of the SEC.
The SEC also has the most top 25 teams, seven, with the Big 10 listing four, the Pac-12 three, and the ACC, Big East, and Big 12 with two each, the American Athletic Conference with one, and then there’s Gonzaga and South Dakota from their respective conferences.
“It’s a different road we’re taking this year because of the virus,” said Auriemma, “but I think the majority of players do not want the season to shut down.”
Presently, the first four left out of the tournament would be Notre Dame, Brigham Young, Seton Hall and Wake Forest. The last four in would be Rutgers, North Carolina, Oklahoma State and Central Florida.
The way it appears now, the top four in Region I would be South Carolina, Baylor, Arizona and Michigan, with Missouri State, Arkansas, Northwestern, South Dakota State, Florida State. Clemson, Central Florida, South Florida, Dayton, Idaho State, Liberty, and Samford filling out the field.
Then there’s Region 4 with the current top four of NC State, Stanford, Indiana, and Tennessee. The rest of the pack could be Gonzaga, Mississippi State, Iowa State, Michigan State, Arizona State, Marquette, North Carolina, Bucknell, UT Martin, Long Beach State, and St. Francis, Pa.
UConn heads Region 2, followed by Maryland, Texas A & M, and Oregon. The remaining dozen could be Kentucky, Georgia Tech, Texas, Iowa, Florida Gulf Coast, Washington State, Oklahoma State, Delaware, Maine, Troy, Fairfield, and Utah Valley.
Region 3 has Louisville, UCLA, Georgia, and South Florida as the four leading teams, followed by a field that might bring West Virginia, DePaul, Syracuse, Alabama, South Dakota, Rutgers, Rice, Milwaukee, Fresno State, Kent State, High Point, and Jackson State.
That’s the probably 64-team bracket.
If the size of the field gets reduced, it might miss out on Washington State, one of the season’s best stories and most exciting teams.
The Cougars were picked to finish last in the Pac-12, and are 6-4 with an affinity for close games. Four of their last five games have gone to overtime. The one that didn’t — a loss to Oregon — didn’t get decided until the final two minutes. Sunday’s double-overtime win at Oregon State broke a three-game losing streak but wasn’t enough to get the team in what would be a 48-team field.
But it could get Arizona State in as the last team selected.
As for the men, they might also be looking at the same numbers, 64, 48 and 16.