Women’s basketball Bracket Watch: Why NC State still deserves a No. 1 seed – The Athletic

By Mark Schindler4h agoSupported 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.)

The SEC has been an absolute blast this year. South Carolina has set the pace for the entire country … and no one has been able to keep up. LSU rode the waves of significant tweaks and roster overhaul post-national championship, but the Tigers also are showing the potential dominance they hope takes them to a second straight Final Four.

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But the rest of the conference is jarringly on par. It’s like playing Pokemon. X team is awesome against Y team, a fire type taking on a grass Pokemon. But X turns around and gets absolutely run off the court by Z, who’s 5-7 in the league but just plays a style you’re always going to struggle against.

All eyes will be on Greenville, S.C., starting March 6 as we get an undoubtedly raucous five days of play by the conference that has held the national title for two of the three seasons since the pandemic-canceled postseason.

Even if South Carolina were to win just one game over the final four regular-season contests, it would still win the regular-season SEC title. After the Gamecocks in the standings, there are 2 1/2 games separating teams 2-6. Add a half game on and make that the second- through ninth-placed teams in the conference, which is truly wild. As much as the league has seemed set in stone (understandably) due to dominance from its top team, very little is cemented for conference standing and, in turn, seeding in March Madness.

Tennessee is tied for second in the SEC with LSU, sporting a 9-4 record, but it faces LSU on Sunday for the first time this season before taking on Texas A&M and South Carolina. That’s foreboding considering the Lady Vols just lost by 15 to the Aggies a month ago, and they haven’t beaten the Gamecocks in Columbia since 2018. I’m higher on them with respect to their total body of work than most, but this stretch will put them to the test, altering how they get seeded for the SEC tournament, and we could see them falling quite a bit prior to Selection Sunday.

This resonates for every team in the SEC. No one has an easy ride over the final two weeks, and if the league keeps up its inconsistencies, that puts it in a very tough spot come NCAA Tournament time. I placed seven SEC teams making the field, but five of them are not fully locked in, slotted between the No. 7 and No. 10 seeds. Two other squads are the first four out of the field.

Who will separate themselves before the end of the season or during the conference tourney? Can anyone?

First Four Columbia 16 Eastern Illinois 16 Sacred Heart Palo Alto 16 Holy Cross 16 High Point Manhattan 11 Green Bay 11 Penn State Austin 11 Kansas 11 Maryland Albany 1 Columbia 1 South Carolina 16 Eastern Illinois Sacred Heart Columbia 8 Nebraska 9 Marquette Syracuse 4 Syracuse 13 South Dakota State Syracuse 5 Indiana 12 Fairfield Manhattan 3 Kansas State 14 Chattanooga Manhattan 6 Duke 11 Green Bay Penn State Los Angeles 2 USC 15 Stony Brook Los Angeles 7 Princeton 10 Miami Portland 2 Palo Alto 1 Stanford 16 Holy Cross High Point Palo Alto 8 Tennessee 9 North Carolina Boulder 4 Colorado 13 Jackson State Boulder 5 Notre Dame 12 Florida Gulf Coast Blacksburg 3 Virginia Tech 14 Grand Canyon Blacksburg 6 Creighton 11 Kansas Maryland Austin 2 Texas 15 Northern Arizona Austin 7 Florida State 10 Texas A&M Albany 2 Columbus 1 Ohio State 16 Hawaii Columbus 8 Mississippi State 9 Iowa State Baton Rouge 4 LSU 13 Ball State Baton Rouge 5 Louisville 12 Middle Tennessee Spokane 3 Gonzaga 14 Cleveland State Spokane 6 West Virginia 11 UNLV Los Angeles 2 UCLA 15 Lamar Los Angeles 7 Alabama 10 St. Joseph’s Portland 1 Raleigh 1 North Carolina State 16 Albany Raleigh 8 Michigan State 9 Ole Miss Storrs 4 UConn 13 Marshall Storrs 5 Utah 12 Drake Corvallis 3 Oregon State 14 North Texas Corvallis 6 Baylor 11 Richmond Iowa City 2 Iowa 15 Norfolk State Iowa City 7 Oklahoma 10 Washington State

Last four in First four out Next four out Last four byes
Maryland Michigan Auburn Texas A&M
Penn State Villanova Columbia Washington State
Kansas Vanderbilt Arizona St. Joseph’s
Green Bay George Mason Arkansas Miami

Multi-bid conferences

Conference Bids
ACC 9
Big Ten 7
Big 12 7
Pac-12 7
SEC 7
Big East 3
Atlantic-10 2
Horizon 2

Why is NC State a top seed?

The Wolfpack remain the third overall No. 1 seed in this iteration of Bracket Watch after putting together a commanding win over Notre Dame and an overtime special against Georgia Tech over the weekend.

I received a great and fair question after last week’s Bracket Watch: Why do you have NC State over Virginia Tech?

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Let me elaborate: Tech has beaten State twice in ACC play and leads the conference with an identical 22-4 record. Virginia Tech is rising (more on this shortly), but an important reminder is that this is all about total resume.

NC State finished 17th in the country in nonconference strength of schedule, contrasted by Virginia Tech finishing 142nd. The Wolfpack beat a healthy UConn squad, catapulting them early in the season, ran roughshod over Colorado on a neutral court, and then put together multiple solid wins over quality mid-major opponents and staged a strong win over Vanderbilt. On the aggregate, the Hokies played a stronger schedule and had marquee wins (some of the best in the ACC), while also not losing prior to conference play.

Head-to-head matters without question, but it will factor in more if the teams get closer to one another on the actual seed list (the rankings of the top 68 teams in the field). You can’t overlook the entirety of the body of play. NC State is still 8-2 in its last month of play, and both losses to the Hokies were close.

When looking ahead to March Madness, the guard trio the Wolfpack starts has a case as perhaps the best in the country when factoring in all facets of the game. They make smart decisions, defend at a high level on and off the ball, and all bring varying blends of athleticism to the table.

Saniya Rivers turns heads as a long and smooth athlete who has grown tremendously as a primary creator and slasher in Raleigh. Her efficiency has dipped in conference play, but she continues to punish defenses with her quickness and vision on both ends of the court.

Aziaha James is a silky and polished scorer and secondary playmaker, expertly playing off Rivers while also leading the offense. She snakes into pull-ups with an effortless and shifty handle and attacks the rim with a craftiness that’s just joyful to watch.

Madison Hayes is an adept shooter, canning 44.8 percent of her 3s, while also bringing a power drive game crashing from the second side of the offense. She crashes the glass with gumption that makes her seem closer to 6 foot 3 than her listed 6 foot, often playing like a power forward but with the skill of a two-guard.

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While Virginia Tech has proved itself a potent and difficult matchup for NC State, the Pack have proved themselves as one of the nation’s most dangerous teams, capable of winning through multiple styles of play. Nothing is guaranteed, as NC State hits the road in Chapel Hill and Durham this week, but the Wolfpack keeps putting in the work to earn one of the tournament’s top seeds.

How the Hokies got rolling

Since being dismantled by Duke 63-46 at Cameron Indoor on Jan. 18, Virginia Tech hasn’t lost a game in nine outings. The Hokies ousted Syracuse, North Carolina State and Louisville by double digits and avenged that loss to Duke back home at Cassell.

Elizabeth Kitley is averaging 24.8 points while shooting 57.6 percent over that stretch, including six games scoring 25 or more. Georgia Amoore is putting up 21 points and 8.5 assists per game while cashing 39 percent of over seven triples per game.

Their two-player game has always been good, but it has legitimately been dominant over the past month.

Replacing the losses of Taylor Soule, Kayana Traylor and D’asia Gregg was going to be more challenging than some expected as that trio was crucial to Tech’s run Final Four last season. However, the Hokies have excelled lately with their size and physicality. Matilda Ekh has hit a groove in ACC play as the third-leading scorer, firing up 3s on volume while seeking out timely cuts and duck-ins. Everyone in the regular nine-player rotation, other than Amoore, is 6 foot or taller, giving the Hokies an immense amount of wiggle room on either end.

They lead the ACC in offensive rebound percentage over the last 10 games, snagging 37.4 percent of their own misses. As a lead guard, Amoore has hit a level that’s just crushing for defenses, creating efficient and easy offense at will. She attacks the paint with tenacity, collapsing and opening up wide-open 3s and swing passes off of rotations for her teammates. They blend that with the post touches and quick pocket passes to Kitley, the main bastion of their offense.

Few opponents have the personnel to keep up. Adding that into the slower pace Tech plays (313th in the country!), and it’s so hard to win the possession battle against their inside-outside yin and yang.

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With key matchups against North Carolina and Notre Dame coming up, Virginia Tech controls its destiny. The Hokies’ nonconference schedule is a slight ding on their resume, but rolling through the ACC as they have with some additional wins and a potential outright win of the ACC tourney puts them within reach of even higher heights than the No. 3 seed.

The Pac-12 race for No. 2

There’s a three-way second-place tie in the Pac-12, and five teams are separated by one game in the standings for the same spot. If you haven’t already, do whatever you can to get Pac-12 Network for the final few weeks of the season because we are in for an absolute barnburner if the season so far has been any indication.

USC holds the tiebreakers for the second spot behind Stanford. The Trojans also own a six-game winning streak but have two massive upcoming games — hosting Colorado and Utah this weekend at the Galen Center. Win these, and the Trojans have a shot to lock up the No. 2 seed in the Pac-12 tournament and put themselves in play for a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed. Drop one game, and they maintain course. Drop both, and we’re likely looking at Southern Cal on the No. 4 line.

Colorado has struggled lately, and the Buffaloes head out to Los Angeles this weekend for a matchup with USC before a Monday night prime-time meeting against UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. With a sweep, the Buffs would slide into third in the conference if Oregon State holds serve on its Washington road trip but would ratchet itself potentially to a No. 2 NCAA Tournament seed.

UCLA hosts Utah and Colorado, with a chance to even its series with the Utes and shore up one of the losses on its resume. A sweep of the series with Colorado would do a ton in the committee’s eyes to keep the Bruins in the top 16 seeds. It would also push them higher into bye range for the conference tournament.

This week is crucial for each Pac-12 team … and also the conference. If the top of the league continues to beat itself up, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see teams in some of the weaker power conferences rise up as the regular season closes.

Look out for West Virginia

In coach Mark Kellogg’s first season in Morgantown, he’s riding high at 22-3 and sitting in second in the Big 12.

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The Mountaineers have been an absolute delight to watch all season — and an absolute nightmare for opponents to match up against. They force a steal on 19.7 percent of the defensive possessions, which leads Division I. WVU swarms with a high pressure style; four of the top five players in the conference in steal percentage wear the blue and gold.

Outside of a win over Penn State earlier this season, the Mountaineers had yet to establish a marquee win for their tournament projection, especially considering their 278th-ranked nonconference schedule. That changed as they took down Oklahoma in Morgantown this weekend, ousting the Big 12 regular-season leader and earning the most significant win of their season.

Ja’Naiya “JJ” Quinerly is crafting a compelling case for Big 12 player of the year. With two more opportunities against ranked opponents this week (Baylor and Kansas State), the junior and her teammates can make an even louder statement.

WVU doesn’t have a bad loss, but showcasing additional high-value wins will be critical to build on its resume.

Seed list

Seed Team Automatic Qualifier
1 South Carolina AQ
2 Stanford AQ
3 NC State
4 Ohio State AQ
5 Iowa
6 UCLA
7 Texas
8 USC
9 Kansas State
10 Gonzaga AQ
11 Oregon State
12 Virginia Tech AQ
13 LSU
14 Colorado
15 UConn AQ
16 Syracuse
17 Louisville
18 Notre Dame
19 Indiana
20 Utah
21 Baylor
22 Creighton
23 Duke
24 West Virginia
25 Princeton AQ
26 Oklahoma AQ
27 Florida State
28 Alabama
29 Michigan State
30 Mississippi State
31 Nebraska
32 Tennessee
33 North Carolina
34 Ole Miss
35 Iowa State
36 Marquette
37 Texas A&M
38 Washington State
39 St. Joseph’s
40 Miami
41 Maryland
42 Penn State
43 Kansas
44 Green Bay
45 UNLV AQ
46 Richmond AQ
47 Middle Tennessee AQ
48 Drake AQ
49 FGCU AQ
50 Fairfield AQ
51 South Dakota State AQ
52 Jackson State AQ
53 Marshall AQ
54 Ball State AQ
55 Cleveland State AQ
56 North Texas AQ
57 Grand Canyon AQ
58 Chattanooga AQ
59 Stony Brook AQ
60 Northern Arizona AQ
61 Norfolk State AQ
62 Lamar AQ
63 Albany AQ
64 Hawaii AQ
65 Holy Cross AQ
66 High Point AQ
67 Eastern Illinois AQ
68 Sacred Heart 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 Saniya Rivers: Lance King / Getty Images)

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