UConn's run of 12 consecutive NCAA tournaments as a No. 1 seed came to an end last season. And after Monday's loss to South Carolina, it's highly unlikely the Huskies will return to the top line the rest of this season.
The Huskies are a No. 2 seed in the latest bracket projection and the No. 6 team overall. With only American Athletic Conference teams left to play in its final six games, and none rated in the RPI top 50, the opportunity for UConn to play itself back to a No. 1 seed is slim.
South Carolina, Baylor and Oregon -- the three teams that have beaten UConn -- are clear-cut No. 1 seeds and have separated themselves from the rest of the country. So there's just one No. 1 seed up for grabs, but the Huskies have no way to build the résumé at this point and their chances to get back into the top four overall are about finished.
But does it matter?
It didn't seem to last year. The Huskies still played in familiar territory in Albany as a No. 2 seed and ultimately reached their 12th straight Final Four. Geography -- where UConn is placed in the bracket -- and seeding might not ultimately be an issue this year, either, if the Huskies win four games to advance to New Orleans and the national semifinals, but they will have to hit the road in the regional.
There is no nearby Albany or Bridgeport or Hartford regional this season. Fort Wayne is the closest, but it's a lengthy drive (775 miles) for the dedicated fan base. What's more, if the current alignment holds, UConn would wind up in the Portland Regional, where Oregon is the No. 1 seed. The Huskies could still avoid that scenario by being at least the No. 4 or No. 5 overall team, but that likely won't happen without significant help from other teams.
Through Monday's games, NC State (No. 4 overall) and Maryland (No. 5) are just ahead of the Huskies. The Wolfpack and Terps each have challenging games on their schedules that they could lose, which would open the door for someone to move up. But because UConn can't add any good wins the rest of the way, teams such as UCLA, Stanford, Louisville and Mississippi State -- which have a combined 10 games against the RPI top 50 left in the regular season -- are more likely to make the move.
And with Oregon closing in on clinching the top seed in Portland, and multiple other Pac-12 teams then needing to be placed in other regions based on the committee's attempt to separate top-four seeds from the same conference, the opportunity for UConn to play in either Fort Wayne or Greenville as a No. 2 seed is small.
Still, there are two reasons the door isn't completely closed on UConn as a No. 1 seed. If UCLA, Stanford, Louisville or Mississippi State suffer multiple losses, their case for a top seed becomes less compelling. Stanford, for example, has four games left on the schedule that it could lose. Maryland plays Iowa and NC State hosts Louisville on Thursday night. UCLA plays the Oregon schools this weekend in Los Angeles. And that doesn't even account for the respective conference tournaments. One or two teams could seize the opportunity -- or none of them could, which would keep UConn's hopes alive for a No. 1 seed.
The other reason is a bit more speculative. During the NCAA women's basketball selection committee's first reveal of its top 16 last week, committee chair Diane Turnham more than once mentioned the quality of a team's losses as a deciding piece of criteria in determining the order of the 16 teams. Yes, UConn's losses have been by an average of over 17 points, but they occurred against the unquestioned three best teams in the country. If the committee keeps to that line of thinking and no other team has distinguished itself from a pack that at that point would still include the Huskies, UConn would have the "quality of losses" component on its side.
Not to be forgotten: The Gamecocks' 70-52 victory Monday completely ended any speculation, if there still was any, about who might be the top team in the country. South Carolina now has 11 top-50 and four top-25 RPI wins, ranks No. 1 in the RPI and is beating opponents by an average of 26.7 points per game. Interestingly enough, those are the kind of numbers we are used to seeing from UConn.
So who is the fourth No. 1 seed?
This difficult debate comes down to two teams that three weeks ago would not have even been in the conversation: NC State and Maryland.
Both are the beneficiaries of a wild four days in which Louisville lost twice and failed to score 60 points in either game, UCLA beat Stanford but then needed overtime to beat Cal, and Arizona beat Oregon State two days after getting blown out by Oregon.
After two days of internal debate the Wolfpack get the nod for the final No. 1. Riding a nine-game winning streak, the Terps might be the hottest team in the country that isn't named South Carolina, Baylor or Oregon. Maryland ranks No. 3 in the RPI and has nine top 50 RPI wins. NC State has just six of those top-50 wins, two in the top-25, and is No. 13 in the RPI.
However, one of those wins for the 22-1 Wolfpack was against Maryland. While the committee seemed to ignore or minimize head-to-head when ranking the teams in its top 16 reveal, I don't think it would overlook that here. The disregard would be too glaring.
In many ways, Maryland's résumé is better. The Terps are a different team than the one that lost 66-59 to NC State on Dec. 5. But that result is still significant and doesn't give the Wolfpack immunity. Should they lose to Louisville on Thursday, and if Maryland beats Iowa, the evaluation, like so much this season, immediately changes.