How do we sort out the teams on the cusp of the elite in NCAA women's basketball?

Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I started compiling data on a cluster of teams that appeared to be "pretty much interchangeable when it comes to rankings, talent, and what they have to offer" in an attempt to begin sorting them out. Then three of them lost. Nevertheless, the matchups between these three teams is still interesting enough to warrant a discussion about which of these teams has the best shot to make it out of the Sweet 16 in the 2013 NCAA Tournament and play for a shot to go to the Final Four.

Over the past two weeks or so as fans have seen their teams tested against the nation's elite, a couple of articles from SB Nation writers turned attention to how close their teams are to being "elite".

  • norcalnick of California Golden Blogs explored the question of how good the Cal Golden Bears could be at their peak, which triggered a discussion about how close they are to being elite.
  • After the Kentucky Wildcats made it as high as #4/5 in the national polls, Greg Alan Edwards of A Sea of Blue explored the question of whether they're really that good and set out to demonstrate that they have moved into elite status.

However, the thing that really stood out to me about Edwards' article - and the thing that really inspired this line of discussion here - was his point that "...the truth being that the top 7-10 schools in the country are pretty much interchangeable when it comes to rankings, talent, and what they have to offer."

The fact is that once you begin talking about Cal or Kentucky as "elite", there are a whole bunch of other teams that you almost have to insert into the discussion.

While Cal is the only team in this group to knock off a top five team, a matchup with Maryland would be really intriguing: how would they respond to the Terps, also a dominant rebounding team and feature All-American guard in Alyssa Thomas on the perimeter? How would either do against Kentucky, which can also rebound and has the athletes to frustrate even the best perimeter players with their uptempo style? How would any of them do against Penn State, which probably doesn't get enough credit for having one of the top backcourt duos in the nation in the slashing Alex Bentley and sharp shooting Maggie Lucas? While Tennessee might be considered a step behind the others, they have athletes at every position that can go toe to toe with just about anyone when they're focused (and healthy).

Naturally, the place college basketball fans look to sort out these sort of things when polls can't necessarily provide a clear answer is other rating systems. However, one of the most intriguing “dilemmas” - far less combative or resolute than a debate – is a cluster of teams that has spent most of its time in the top 10 this season: California, Kentucky, Maryland, Penn State, and Tennessee. As it turns out, when you look across various ratings, there have actually been five teams this season that have consistently been difficult to sort out.

Team

AP

USA Today Coaches *

CBN

Massey

WBB State

Omni Rankings (micro)

Cal

6

6

8

6

6

11

Kentucky

10

7

9

9

11

7

Maryland

7

9

6

7

9

5

Penn State

8

8

11

10

10

9

Tennessee

12

10

10

11

15

10

Various women's college basketball rankings as of 2/5/13. Click here to see all of those rankings yourself.
*USA Today Coaches poll from Jan. 28

As Myron Medcalf of ESPN.com recently wrote, “College hoops polls might be inconsequential noise, but that doesn't make the arguments any less fun.” And in this case, the matchups between the teams in this cluster of teams might be a significant factor in explaining which would emerge victorious rather than any particular rating or aspect of their "tournament resume".

Cal has separated themselves a bit over the last week or so because they're the only team with a win over a "top five" team (Stanford) and Kentucky, Penn State and Tennessee all took some tough losses last week that affected their rankings/ratings.

And there are a few teams missing from this discussion that could easily be included:

  • I don't normally put much stock in the national polls until late in the season for the reasons that Clay Kallam of Full Court Press has already alluded to previously, but Texas A&M has not been in the group Edwards was referring to for the majority of the season so I've omitted them (for now).

  • You could easily just throw Stanford in here given that they lost to Cal. But they did beat Cal at home, which is no small feat, not to mention going to Knoxville to knock of the Lady Vols. So there's a consensus about them being in the top five a way that there isn't even about Cal's position in the national landscape.
  • Georgia certainly deserves mention after ending Kentucky's home winning streak on Sunday, but hasn't ranked quite as highly as in any of the ratings until that point.

Nevertheless, Charlie Creme's latest bracketology had that group of teams above occupying 2 and 3 seeds in the 2013 NCAA tournament and even with a few of them suffering some tough losses over the last seven days it's quite possible they'll still end up in that range. As such, there's a very good chance a few of these teams will fill out the Elite Eight (depending on what their draw looks like) - single game outcomes against different opponents, particularly those on the road in a couple of cases, don't do a particularly good job of illustrating which team is best.

In any event, even if some of these teams in our cluster of interest fall off a bit (and there's good reason to believe that the Lady Vols might) this group that we might call "sub-elite" or, more charitably, "on the cusp of elite" will be interesting to follow for the remainder of the season to see if any of them clearly separate themselves from the pack.

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