Six questions that will shape women’s Bracketology in March


This has been the season of exceeding expectations. Of the preseason No. 1 seeds in ESPN’s women’s Bracketology, only UCLA remains on the top line.

No one outside of Columbia conceived of South Carolina — with a nearly entirely new rotation — returning to the top of the rankings just one week into the 2023-24 season.

NC State wasn’t on any radar for a No. 1 seed, but the Wolfpack have earned their way to the top line with an 13-0 record which includes dominant victories over UConn and Colorado.

That was the only blemish for the Buffaloes, who with a veteran team were supposed to be good — but this good? The same holds for USC. Freshman JuJu Watkins has played even better than expected and has pulled the Trojans into the top 10 along with her.

Baylor is still undefeated and has steadily improved its status every week. Kansas State has only a loss to top-seeded Iowa — and the Wildcats also have a win over the Hawkeyes.

All of it — along with as much balanced across the country as the sport has ever seen — has made this the most difficult season in years to size up. And in many ways it leaves more questions than answers as the calendar turns to 2024.

Which storylines will most shape Bracketology for the next 11 weeks before March Madness arrives?

How solid are the No. 1 seeds?



UCLA Bruins vs. USC Trojans – Game Highlights

Watch the Game Highlights from UCLA Bruins vs. USC Trojans, 12/30/2023

The first two spots on the top line look like South Carolina’s and UCLA’s to lose. They have established themselves as the two best teams in the country. After that, things are still up for grabs.

The current stakeholders — Iowa and NC State — will have plenty of challenges to navigate in the deep Big Ten and ACC. If Stanford, Colorado or USC can establish themselves as the Pac-12’s second-best team behind the Bruins, they would be a prime No. 1 seed candidate.

LSU and UConn, the preseason’s top two teams, can’t be counted out. The Tigers have a manageable SEC schedule, with just one game each against South Carolina, Mississippi State, Ole Mis and Tennessee. The Huskies sent a loud message in Sunday’s win over Marquette that they could be back in the conversation.

The Rori Harmon injury seems to have taken Texas out of the mix, but Baylor, which won at Austin on Saturday, is beginning to look the part. Expect plenty of changes for the overall Nos. 3 and 4 spots before Selection Sunday.

Can the Pac-12 hold on to five teams in the top 16?

USC’s performance at UCLA on Saturday, even in a loss, was a good sign for the Pac-12. The Bruins are one of the country’s best teams and the Trojans went toe-to-toe, confirming they will have a long stay in the top 16.

Stanford is No. 2 in the NET, and Colorado’s win over Utah on Saturday reaffirmed how good the Buffaloes are. Neither the Cardinal nor Colorado are going anywhere anytime soon.

The Utes are the wild card for that fifth team. With losses to every meaningful opponent on its schedule so far, and still dealing with the loss of Gianna Kneepkens, Utah’s spot as a potential host for first- and second-round NCAA tournament games is teetering. The Utes are now a No. 4 seed and likely need a win over Stanford on Jan. 12 or USC on Jan. 19 to avoid falling from a No. 5 seed or worse.

Will UConn be a top-4 seed?



Ashlynn Shade hits back-to-back 3s to help UConn pour it on

Freshman Ashlynn Shade connects on consecutive triples to put UConn up by 28 in the fourth quarter.

There was legitimate reason for concern for UConn fans after the Huskies lost their third game before the holiday shopping season began. Sure, all three came against top-10 teams, but they were each by double figures. Something wasn’t right in Storrs — but it seems to be just fine now.

In less than a month, the freshmen — KK Arnold and Ashlynn Shade, in particular — have made major strides, and stars Aaliyah Edwards and Paige Bueckers have played to their All-American billing. The Huskies completely flipped the script with three top-25 wins — North Carolina, Louisville and Marquette — by double figures.

This looks like a completely different team than that one that looked so overmatched at Texas on Dec. 3 when UConn initially fell out of the top 16. The Huskies are now firmly back in as a No. 3 seed this week, and it appears likely that Storrs will host NCAA tournament games after all.

How many teams will the ACC get?

With Clemson no longer leading the league and qualifying as the ACC’s automatic bid, the ACC is down to nine teams after 10 were included in projections the last two weeks. That still tops the country and seems like a realistic number come Selection Sunday.

Duke, the ACC’s ninth team, is comfortably in the field this week. Syracuse’s surprising play has given the ACC more depth, and the Orange’s win over Notre Dame on New Year’s Eve was a boost to the conference in the bigger NCAA tournament picture. Duke, Miami and North Carolina will be the teams to watch most closely in the next few weeks to best forecast the postseason hopes for the country’s deepest conference.

Where might the bid stealing come from?

Gonzaga is a sure-thing NCAA tournament team. UNLV is nearly a lock. Barring an unforeseen collapse during conference play even if either or both fail to win their respective league tournaments, they will receive an at-large bid. In that scenario, the WCC and Mountain West would be two-bid leagues, which would shrink the rest of the at-large pool.

But that might not be the end of the bid-stealing. Green Bay, one of the best shooting teams in the country, is currently in the field as the Horizon League’s automatic qualifier. Just a week ago, the Phoenix were in as an at-large and the Horizon had two bids. Should Green Bay dominate the conference but come up short at the tournament, that could also be the case in March.

Potential bubble teams can already start rooting for chalk in the WCC, MWC and Horizon come Championship Week.

Who could be this year’s Virginia Tech?

Last year at this time Virginia Tech was a No. 4 seed, already had two ACC losses and were considered to only have an outside chance at winning the conference. Then, starting at the end of January, Virginia Tech got red-hot, won 15 straight, cruised to an ACC tournament title and reached the program’s first Final Four.

Is there a current team on the fringes of the top 16 that could end up in Cleveland? The first team that comes to mind is, well, the Hokies. The 2024 version, also currently a No. 4 seed, is strikingly similar to 2023. They are 10-2 vs. last year’s 11-2 and have suffered from a lack of consistency that also plagued them last December. But Kenny Brooks still has the same two stars in Elizabeth Kitley and Georgia Amoore to lean on, and no one else in the ACC looks prepared to take hold of the league race.

Don’t rule out the Hokies as an outside contender for a top seed.

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