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NCAA reveals first top-16 tournament ranking of the season

Baylor, Louisville, Oregon and Mississippi State would be one-seeds in the NCAA Tournament if the season ended today. Here’s how each region looks at this early stage of decision-making.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Kansas State at Baylor
If the season ended today, Kalani Brown and the Baylor Lady Bears would be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Last night during halftime of the South Carolina-UConn game, the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Committee revealed the top 16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament if the season were to end today. Matched to their regions, Baylor, Louisville, Oregon and Mississippi State lead the pack as the current one-seeds (in that order).

One more top-16 reveal is scheduled for March 4 during halftime of the UConn-South Florida game. The full bracket will be announced on Selection Monday — March 18. Until then, let’s take a closer look at who the Committee thinks these teams should match up against come March Madness:

Albany region

  1. Mississippi State
  2. UConn
  3. Oregon State
  4. Miami (FL)

This region is an interesting mix of teams in different situations. There’s Mississippi State, the likely winner of the SEC; UConn, a mid-major looking to cruise to a sixth consecutive American Athletic Conference title; and Oregon State and Miami: teams strong enough to earn their respective seeds, yet unlikely to win their conference tournaments.

Of course, the downside of having two Southern schools in the overall top-four seeds is that there’s only one Southern regional location — Greensboro — and the overall No. 1 seed, Baylor, is already assigned there. That’s not to say Mississippi State can’t thrive in the Albany region come the later rounds. But Albany has been a hot location for UConn in recent seasons — after the 2013-14 season, the Huskies have either been assigned to Albany or nearby Bridgeport, Connecticut every year — so, they know the venue well, and the fans will travel there to support them.

Finally, it’s nice to see Oregon State given a seed they deserve considering much of the recent focus in the Pac-12 has been on Oregon and Stanford. The Beavers received the Pac-12’s automatic bid as recently as 2016, and with a big home-and-home this weekend against the Oregon Ducks, coming out with a win could even get them onto the two-line.

Portland region

  1. Oregon
  2. NC State
  3. Iowa
  4. Gonzaga

No matter where they’re seeded in the NCAA Tournament, it never seems that Gonzaga is playing far from home. In 2017 it was Seattle, in 2015 it was Corvallis, Oregon and in 2011, 2012 and 2013 the Zags opened play on their home court despite being the lower seed all three times. If this seeding holds, they’d again host the opening two rounds — but with their highest seed ever — before heading six hours southwest to Portland.

But Portland, of course, is just two hours from the University of Oregon campus, making this region by far the friendliest toward its top seed. Fresh off a historic road blowout of Stanford, the Ducks are looking to take a spotless Pac-12 record — and a second consecutive conference tournament title — into the NCAA Tournament. The way things are going now, this particular seeding (and location) appears to be among the safest in the bunch.

The current three-seed, Iowa, hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2015 — meaning the Hawkeyes have never won an NCAA Tournament game with reigning Big Ten Player of the Year (among a laundry list of other accolades) Megan Gustafson on the roster. This seeding — and the home games it comes with — seems the best way to get them a tournament win, with hopes that it could even help them make a deep run in the tournament.

Of all the teams in this end of the bracket, NC State’s place is the most uncertain, but it is fitting that they’re ranked No. 8 in the top-16 — as the last possible two-seed. After peaking at No. 7 in the AP Poll without facing many real challenges, they’ve since fallen to unranked North Carolina for their first loss of the year and then to then-No. 24 Florida State, in their first meeting with a ranked team all season. With games against No. 16 Syracuse, No. 6 Notre Dame, No. 2 Louisville and No. 20 Miami approaching — not to mention rematches with North Carolina and Wake Forest (who the Wolfpack beat by just nine points) — NC State is going to have to win a handful of those contests to keep their two-seed, much less be assured of a top-four seed at all.

Greensboro region

  1. Baylor (No. 1 overall seed)
  2. Notre Dame
  3. Maryland
  4. South Carolina

Though the Chicago region (discussed below) puts up a good fight, the Greensboro region is probably the most difficult top-four in this version of the tournament because:

Baylor doesn’t really have much of a home-court advantage here because Chicago is technically closer than Greensboro, but the connection to the South is probably what landed them there. South Carolina, however, certainly would attract big home arena-style crowds if they were to advance and meet Baylor in the Sweet Sixteen. The Gamecocks have led the nation in per-game attendance for the past four seasons, and fans will make the trip to see them.

In fact, this region is the highest-attended in this top-16, with all four teams making the top 12 of last season’s attendance numbers. Third-seeded Maryland, coming in at No. 12, had a per-game average of 5,537 fans last season, ranging all the way up the Gamecocks’ 13,239 fans per game. If this region were to play out as suggested here, with these teams in the Sweet Sixteen, Greensboro would be positively overflowing with women’s hoops lovers.

But something else might trigger fans with no ties to these teams to see these games: This region’s current setup suggests a meeting with current No. 1 Baylor and previous No. 1 Notre Dame, who both often share top-quality opponents year-to-year. This season, for example, Baylor and Notre Dame have both played UConn, but they haven’t played each other since the 2015 NCAA Tournament (a meeting the Fighting Irish won, 77-68).

Chicago region

  1. Louisville
  2. Stanford
  3. Marquette
  4. Iowa State

Like the Greensboro region, there’s a power-conference team potentially en route to winning their conference (Louisville), an AP top-10 mid-major that has a clear path to their conference title (Marquette) and two solid teams in even better conferences that might not be in a spot to win their respective tournaments, but still deserve their respective seeds (Stanford, Iowa State).

Louisville’s position as a one-seed (or, considering how the season finishes, a two-seed) could be safe here even if they don’t win the ACC because their biggest competition in the conference is second-seeded Notre Dame — a team they’ve already lost to in their sole meeting this season. Winning the ACC Tournament would all but assure the Cardinals of their one-seed. But hoping for yet another team to upset Notre Dame in conference play to help Louisville along should they come up short would work just as well.

Having made 31 straight NCAA Tournaments (and 11 straight Sweet Sixteens), second-seeded Stanford is no stranger to the postseason, and their current seed reflects this. While their home loss to Oregon earlier this week certainly raised some questions about the team’s consistency — considering the Cardinal have wins against top-10 opponents Oregon State and Baylor (as well as then-No. 9 Tennessee in Knoxville) — even finishing second in the Pac-12 would be no small feat.

The wild-card teams here, Marquette and Iowa State, are such for different reasons. Marquette, while being the No. 8 team in the country and undefeated in the Big East, has just one top-25 win against then-No. 24 DePaul — their top conference competition that isn’t ranked anymore. Iowa State, meanwhile, is third in the Big 12 following a dismal season that ended with no postseason tournament. The Cyclones, who haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2013, are currently on a four-game winning streak after losing three of four (including to Baylor and Texas, the latter of whom didn’t make this field of 16).

Thus, should all four of these teams advance to the Sweet Sixteen, Marquette, Louisville and Iowa State would have rather short plane trips to Chicago (and so would their fans — it’s only a six-hour drive from Ames, Iowa to Chicago, perfect for a day trip, so the Midwest stereotype goes).

AP top-16 teams left out

Looking at the most recent AP Poll, No. 15 Texas and No. 16 Syracuse are the only two teams who don’t appear in this version of the top-16 tournament seeds. Instead, No. 18 Iowa State and No. 20 Miami were awarded four-seeds.

There are good arguments for any of these teams being in the top-16.

Syracuse, for example, is No. 9 in the RPI, the highest-ranked of the four. Meanwhile, Texas has a half-game lead over Iowa State in the battle for second place in the Big 12, though their No. 29 RPI compared to Iowa State’s No. 11 probably made the decision to leave out the Longhorns easier than it could have been. And Miami still holds a half-game lead over two-seed NC State in the ACC, with a crucial win over Notre Dame on their record.

But don’t fret, Orange and Longhorns fans: The top-16 that was released today, while an interesting look at where the decision-makers see things now, is not going to be the final top-16. Though for teams just barely left off, it could still function as a checklist — knock off these teams in conference play, or beat them in the conference tournament, and you might find yourself in the mix, too.