Like everything else this women’s college basketball season, the bubble has taken on a slightly different look. With the NCAA allowing teams with sub-.500 records to be eligible as at-large selections, the door is open a bit wider than usual for middle-of-the-road Power 5 teams.
Plus, there are two more at-large spots that normally wouldn’t exist because the Ivy League isn’t competing this season and due to Ohio State’s self-imposed postseason ban. And with such a limited nonconference season, most mid-majors didn’t have the opportunity to build up the kind of résumé that can compete even with an eighth- or ninth-place team in one of the Power 5 conferences.
That’s why teams such as an 8-11 LSU or 10-10 Clemson are still in the mix this season. The one thing that isn’t different about 2020-21 is how important a role conference tournaments will play in separating the last few teams on the bubble. Here are the three that should play the biggest role in those decisions.
When/where: March 3-7 in Greensboro, North Carolina
Anyone who has followed Bracketology all season is familiar with the ACC’s close relationship with the bubble. This week, four teams from the conference (North Carolina, Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Clemson) are either among the “Last Four In” or the “First Four Out.” Those four plus Virginia Tech and Florida State have flirted with the cut line since the early part of January. Some call that mediocre. Others see it as ultra-competitive. The play in Greensboro might provide that answer and will likely decide which of these teams makes the field. This week, seven ACC teams are included in the 64-team projection.
The Hokies, who have won five straight, and the Seminoles, who just knocked off Louisville, feel fairly safe to make the field now. The other four will have to win a game or two, possibly against one another, for a chance to see their name on Selection Monday. The ACC tournament could be especially useful to the 9-8 Irish, who just played their first game in two weeks and had lost three in a row before beating Pittsburgh on Monday. If Notre Dame can’t upset either Florida State or Louisville to finish the regular season, a deep run in Greensboro will be essential.
Louisville and NC State are at the other end of the spectrum. Winning the ACC tournament is a must if either the Cardinals or Wolfpack look to remain in the discussion as a possible No. 1 seed.
When/where: March 3-7 in Las Vegas
From top to bottom, the Pac-12 probably needs more regular-season games more than it needs a conference tournament where some teams will only play one or two games. That’s especially true for the league’s bubble teams, and Washington State, Oregon State and USC must win some games in Las Vegas.
The Beavers’ schedule was hit especially hard with COVID-19-related postponements. They might only play 13 of their originally scheduled 22 Pac-12 games. That could make Oregon State the most interesting test case for the committee, which made it clear in its first top-16 reveal earlier this month that it prefers to see more games for the evaluation process.
While the Beavers are only 7-6, they have won five of their last six games and have looked like a different team since point guard Talia Von Oelhoffen joined the roster. (She is among a number of 2021 signees across the country to enroll in classes and join their college team; because of the NCAA’s eligibility waiver this season, these freshman will still have four years of eligibility left.) Von Oelhoffen’s seven-game college career has coincided with a résumé turnaround that has Oregon State in the field right now as the last team in but still needs the work that a semifinals or finals appearance in the Pac-12 tournament could provide.
Washington State needs wins of any kind. The Cougars, hoping for their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1991, have upset wins over UCLA and Arizona, but are also only 8-10. Yes, the NCAA is allowing teams with losing records to be eligible, but Washington State shouldn’t count on that.
USC (8-9) and Colorado (8-8) will only get serious consideration by the selection committee with big performances in Las Vegas. Their postseason hopes rest almost entirely on next week.
When/where: March 3-7 in Greenville, South Carolina
For most of the teams in the SEC, the conference tournament is mostly about seeding. Eight teams from the league are all but locked in to making the NCAA tournament field.
The fate of LSU — currently among the “Next Four Out” — should become clearer in Greenville. The Lady Tigers have beaten Texas A&M and Georgia, and they twice played South Carolina tough. That sounds like an NCAA tournament team.
But LSU also went 2-4 outside the SEC, has now lost four in a row and has one of the least productive offenses in the country (59.8 PPG). That doesn’t sound like a tournament team.
So which is it for the Tigers? That answer should come at the SEC tournament.