Women’s basketball Bracket Watch: South Carolina dominates. Who else deserves No. 1 seed? – The Athletic

By Mark SchindlerMar 5, 2024Supported By

Editor’s note: This is part of the Bracket Central Series, an inside look at the run-up to the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments, along with analysis and picks during the tournaments.

In a season defined by parity and competitiveness at the top — 15 teams entering the top five of the Associated Press poll throughout the year — South Carolina stands alone.

Sitting at 29-0 after the end of the SEC regular season, no other team matched South Carolina’s undefeated record, marking back-to-back undefeated regular seasons for Dawn Staley’s squad.

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To add some context to this hallmark season, the Gamecocks played the nation’s 22nd-ranked strength of schedule with the 27th-hardest nonconference schedule. For reference, Ohio State finished 24th in strength of schedule and Texas finished 26th, with Tennessee playing the hardest overall in Division I. Per CBB Analytics’ adjusted metrics, which account for strength of schedule and opposition, South Carolina finished third in the country in adjusted offensive rating (behind Iowa and Gonzaga, respectively) and first in adjusted defensive rating.

The Gamecocks finished with a 68.6 adjusted defensive rating. In other words, on average they allowed just 68.6 points per 100 possessions, a stifling mark. Kansas State finished second in the country in that category at 74.8. Only 14 teams finished below 80.

That’s a wildly impressive mark.

South Carolina did all of that while also returning only 33.8 percent of total rotation minutes played last season and only 33.5 percent of total points scored.

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The Gamecocks are talented, but they’re also cohesive. This is a young group, as Staley has harped on throughout the season, but Raven Johnson’s steadying hand has been pivotal. She sets the tone with her defensive pressure and tenacity. She’s a throwback pure point guard who has become only more sure of herself after her freshman season. Johnson thrives establishing sets in the half court, dictating with pace in transition and facilitating in a way that blends creativity and effectiveness, sporting a 2.84 assist-to-turnover ratio, in the 99th percentile of Division I.

The current top overall seed in March Madness — with seemingly a lock on that position despite any upsets in the SEC tournament — South Carolina has been a force despite so much change. Applause is deserved.

First Four Columbia 16 Sacred Heart 16 UT Martin Raleigh 11 Maryland 11 Arizona Palo Alto 16 Boston 16 High Point Baton Rouge 11 Michigan 11 Washington State Albany 1 Columbia 1 South Carolina 16 Sacred Heart UT Martin Columbia 8 Iowa State 9 UNLV Boulder 4 Colorado 13 Fairfield Boulder 5 Oklahoma 12 FGCU Raleigh 3 NC State 14 Cal Baptist Raleigh 6 Creighton 11 Maryland Arizona Los Angeles 2 USC 15 Chattanooga Los Angeles 7 Michigan State 10 Mississippi State Portland 2 Palo Alto 1 Stanford 16 Boston High Point Palo Alto 8 Ole Miss 9 Nebraska Bloomington 4 Indiana 13 South Dakota State Bloomington 5 Kansas State 12 Toledo Baton Rouge 3 LSU 14 North Texas Baton Rouge 6 Duke 11 Michigan Washington State Blacksburg 2 Virginia Tech 15 Stony Brook Blacksburg 7 West Virginia 10 Auburn Portland 3 Columbus 1 UCLA 16 Hawaii Columbus 8 Alabama 9 Marquette South Bend 4 Notre Dame 13 Eastern Washington South Bend 5 Baylor 12 Richmond Corvallis 3 Oregon State 14 Cleveland State Corvallis 6 Louisville 11 Columbia Austin 2 Texas 15 Maine Austin 7 Princeton 10 Vanderbilt Albany 4 Los Angeles 1 Ohio State 16 Norfolk State Los Angeles 8 North Carolina 9 Tennessee Spokane 4 Gonzaga 13 Marshall Spokane 5 Syracuse 12 Drake Storrs 3 UConn 14 Jackson State Storrs 6 Utah 11 Middle Tennessee Iowa City 2 Iowa 15 Lamar Iowa City 7 Florida State 10 Kansas

Last four in First four out Next four out Last four byes
Maryland Green Bay Villanova Vanderbilt
Washington State Texas A&M George Mason Auburn
Michigan VCU Penn State Mississippi State
Arizona Saint Joseph’s Washington Columbia

Multi-bid conferences

Conference Bids
ACC 8
Pac-12 8
SEC 8
Big 12 7
Big Ten 6
Big East 3
Ivy 2

Who’s No. 1?

Though South Carolina has built itself into a certainty for the overall top seed, that’s about it for No. 1s.

The Pac-12 has continued to chew itself up at the top. The ACC might be in danger of not even receiving a No. 1 seed. Round 3 of Iowa against Ohio State would be one of the biggest games of the season, with the consequence of determining a top seed if we get this matchup in the Big Ten tourney.

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So, who else is even still in play for one of the top four seeds?

Part of the fun in this is the sheer range with which the committee has seemed to approach recent stretches of play. During last Thursday’s Top 16 reveal (the final reveal before Selection Sunday), Virginia Tech maintained the fifth spot overall — for the top No. 2 seed — boosted by a 10-game winning streak. Oklahoma entered the fold at No. 16, its first appearance, after a similar run through the Big 12. Both teams had some questions concerning their play outside of the conference, particularly with the Sooners, but the committee has shown it values who is putting it together closer to March.

Yet, there’s a pretty unprecedented number of teams available to take a No. 1 seed.

• The Pac-12 seems like it has a shot to snag two No. 1 seeds. Stanford has maintained a top spot for much of the season, currently holding the best all-around resume in the conference, and boosted back up to the second overall ranking in my bracket projections after Ohio State lost Sunday at Iowa.

Let’s say Stanford makes it to the Pac-12 championship but loses in a close game. I’m fairly certain the Cardinal would earn a No. 1 seed. If they were to lose in the semifinals, it would get dicier, but they would still be in play if their opponent went on to win the conference tournament title. The biggest question would be how the committee views that winner. Barring something unforeseen, Colorado is out of the running for a No. 1 seed, even if it runs the table. But Oregon State could create a compelling case if it beats the winner of Colorado-Oregon, Stanford and then whoever comes off the other side of the bracket.

Essentially, the top four teams in the Pac-12 are still in the hunt for a No. 1 seed, making the conference tournament arguably the most important factor in determining this season’s four No. 1 seeds.

• That brings us to the Big Ten, where things feel a bit more solidified. Given that Ohio State and Iowa traded wins on home court, the winner of a potential conference tournament title game between the two is more than likely to earn a No. 1 seed. Things get a bit more jumbled if Indiana throws its hat in the ring or Ohio State and Iowa bow out before the title game. That raises the question: Can Indiana earn a top seed if it wins the Big Ten tournament championship?

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As we’ve ascertained, anything is in the mix. I wouldn’t rule it out, but given how Stanford handled Indiana earlier this season, it would be tough to see how the Hoosiers could elevate that high unless something wild happens in the Pac-12 tournament. Head-to-head doesn’t seem to factor in for the committee until it’s splitting hairs on a seed line, and a 32-point loss to another team vying for a top spot, no matter how long ago it was, matters.

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• Moving to the Big 12, Texas is the only team in the running for a No. 1 seed, and I’d estimate the Longhorns have to win out the conference tourney to earn it. Even then, much is up to chance given the scenarios already ushered forth. Before the Top 16 reveal, I would’ve given Kansas State a small chance to shake things up if it won the conference tournament. However, because the Wildcats were dropped from the last reveal, I’d go out on a limb and say there’s too much ground to be made up by the Cats in the committee’s eyes.

• In the SEC, we’ve already hit on South Carolina, but what about LSU? It’s ridiculous to call the reigning national champs a sleeper, but if the Tigers were to win the SEC tournament, including a victory over the Gamecocks, they’d be a contender for a No. 1 seed.

They’d likely need some assistance (aka chaos) in the Pac-12, but that seems like a reasonable scenario given how the conference has been all season. It does become tougher, however, because the Big Ten champ is a likely shoo-in for a No. 1 seed. Let’s say Virginia Tech wins the ACC tournament and LSU wins the SEC tournament. LSU’s convincing head-to-head win, much like Stanford’s over Indiana, would likely be a deciding factor.

• That wraps us up with the ACC. I have about as much confidence in what will happen in the ACC tournament as I do in having consistent weather in the Midwest.

Virginia Tech and NC State have the potential if they win out the ACC tournament but with fates tied to other conference results. Much as with LSU, if there isn’t some shakeup in the Pac-12, it seems unlikely, but anything is possible. Late-season losses from the Hokies and Wolfpack diminish the likelihood of a No. 1 seed for the ACC considerably but don’t erase it entirely.

With more than a healthy handful of teams all in play, conference tournaments starting up this week and the unpredictability that March brings, it’s time to buckle up.

Will Notre Dame host?

The Fighting Irish were not part of this most recent reveal from the committee, but that was mere hours before beating Virginia Tech, which they followed up with a win against Louisville over the weekend — a combined 29-point win margin in marquee games.

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Sitting at 23-6, ranked eighth in the NET and winners of five straight, the Irish are positioning themselves remarkably well for a postseason run.

Those wins, as well as Oklahoma’s loss to Kansas, elevate Notre Dame into the Top 16, in position to host the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Securing a double bye in the ACC tournament and another potential meeting with Louisville this Friday, the Irish have an opportunity to ride the wave and control their fate. By getting hot late, there’s an opportunity to impress the committee and play themselves into a much stronger position.

Hannah Hidalgo has continued to grow and learn throughout the season. She has the athleticism, skill, passion and talent, but she has started to see the court differently over the past few weeks. She’s mixing in more change of pace and wrinkles to how she attacks and, in turn, sets up her teammates. Her growth as a point guard has been crucial to the Irish finding their stride.

Sonia Citron dominated this weekend’s slate, guarding across the board at a high level, effectively running backup point and attacking the rim with ferocity.

Since the NC State loss, the trio of Hidalgo, Citron and Maddy Westbeld have played their most cohesive stretch of basketball, and it’s starting to pay dividends. When the Irish play a full 40 minutes committed to and focused on the game plan, few teams are better. With the ACC tournament ahead, Niele Ivey’s program is poised to stake its claim.

Pre-tourney buzz

• Michigan State has been a delight during coach Robyn Fralick’s first season in East Lansing. The Spartans don’t lose games outside of top competition — Minnesota was quite good before Mara Braun’s injury — and they rarely get blown out. They have played Iowa, Indiana and Ohio State tight during the season. Michigan State sits as a No. 7 seed, but if it can put together a strong run in the Big Ten tournament, adding a win or two against the top of the league would raise the ceiling of how the Spartans get seeded.

• The Horizon League has looked like a two-bid conference for much of the season. Green Bay played outside the league with wins over Washington State and Creighton. However, the Phoenix are now the first team out after losing to UW Milwaukee. Winning out the Horizon League Tournament is paramount to securing an automatic bid, and Cleveland State is no slouch.

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• Keep an eye out for the American games on Tuesday and Wednesday. There’s a three-way tie for first among North Texas, Tulsa and Temple, and Tulsa has the tie-breakers. There’s been great basketball in this league from top to bottom, and with one last regular-season game before the conference postseason, there could be fireworks with how the seedings are jostled around. Oh, and there’s a six-way tie (yes, six!) for fourth place.

Seed Team Automatic qualifier
1 South Carolina AQ
2 Stanford AQ
3 Ohio State AQ
4 UCLA
5 Iowa
6 Texas
7 USC
8 Virginia Tech AQ
9 LSU
10 NC State
11 UCONN AQ
12 Oregon State
13 Indiana
14 Gonzaga
15 Colorado
16 Notre Dame
17 Oklahoma AQ
18 Kansas State
19 Baylor
20 Syracuse
21 Utah
22 Louisville
23 Duke
24 Creighton
25 Michigan State
26 West Virginia
27 Princeton AQ
28 Florida State
29 North Carolina
30 Alabama
31 Ole Miss
32 Iowa State
33 Tennessee
34 Nebraska
35 UNLV AQ
36 Marquette
37 Kansas
38 Vanderbilt
39 Auburn
40 Mississippi State
41 Columbia
42 Maryland
43 Washington State
44 Michigan
45 Arizona
46 Middle Tennessee AQ
47 Drake AQ
48 Richmond AQ
49 Toledo AQ
50 FGCU AQ
51 Fairfield AQ
52 South Dakota State AQ
53 Marshall AQ
54 Eastern Washington AQ
55 Cleveland State AQ
56 Jackson State AQ
57 North Texas AQ
58 Cal Baptist AQ
59 Chattanooga AQ
60 Stony Brook AQ
61 Maine AQ
62 Lamar AQ
63 Norfolk State AQ
64 Hawaii AQ
65 Boston AQ
66 High Point AQ
67 Sacred Heart AQ
68 Tennessee Martin AQ

The Bracket Central series is part of a partnership with E*TRADE.
The Athletic maintains full editorial independence. Partners have no control over or input into the reporting or editing process and do not review stories before publication.

(Photo of Ashlyn Watkins: Lance King / Getty Images)

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Mark Schindler is a 2021 graduate of the University of Toledo and has been working in basketball in a scouting and writing capacity since 2019. Alongside his current Bracket Watch and Bubble Watch series at The Athletic, you can find his work with Seven Star Digital covering all things basketball.

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