In some ways, Selection Monday looked like it always did. Teams are expecting their places in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament from conference venues and arenas across the country, and their anxieties and celebrations are being shared with ESPN’s audience.
However, more than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, it was hard to watch without being reminded of a giant Zoom call to commemorate a milestone from a distance. And making the 64-team NCAA Tournament this year is a big milestone, even for programs that would normally be shocking not to have been chosen.
When Stanford was generally announced as the number 1 seed, the players’ cheers were expressed on the track that their smile, hidden behind masks, could not. The cardinal, led by senior guard Kiana Williams, knew what it was like not to have the chance to take part in the tournament, which was canceled last year.
The Cardinal won the Pac-12 tournament for the first time since 2014 with a 20-point victory over UCLA on March 7 after just two losses during the regular season, including nine weeks of practice and play in Las Vegas.
Santa Clara County, California, which includes the Stanford campus, has begun the restriction of sports participation late last year due to the coronavirus, the cardinal made their home base in UNLV’s arena, the Thomas & Mack Center, until the restrictions were lifted.
Yet they have managed to develop one of their most competitive teams in years.
In December, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer became the coach with the most wins ever in Division I women’s college basketball, surpassing the late Pat Summitt of Tennessee with her 1,099 victory. Now VanDerveer and the Cardinal are in a strong position to compete for their third NCAA title and their first since 1992.
The rest of the number 1 seed was UConn, South Carolina and North Carolina.
There were quite a few surprises among the 33 selections on a large scale and 31 automatic bids for the tournament which starts on Sunday with the round of 64.
Hours before the field was unveiled, UConn announced that its coach, Geno Auriemma, had tested positive for the coronavirus and would not immediately travel with the rest of his team to Texas, where the tournament is being hosted.
“I feel good, but disappointed that I will not be with the team for the next few days,” said Auriemma, who has won 11 national championships with the Huskies.
Since all the matches were hosted in one state, rather than being spread across the country, the group seemed to have a smoother ranking of the teams, 1-64, than in a year in which geographical considerations would gain more weight . The four regions that divided the bracket were named after San Antonio landmarks: Alamo, Hemisfair, Mercado and River Walk.
The most difficult region is possibly the top 1 of UConn and Baylor no. Placing defending champions Baylor and an eternal favorite, UConn, in the same region is the best way for the selection committee to continue what has become something of a rival over the past decade. As it stands now, each team beat the other four times. Also in the region, the No. 3 seeded Tennessee and No. 4 seeded Kentucky were both tested thanks to their battle through the Southeastern Conference, where both scored nine victories that put their respective stars Rennia Davis and Rhyne Howard in the spotlight.
Some of the seedlings followed with the changes in the criteria used by the NCAA selection committee to judge teams. The committee used the NCAA’s composite NET rankings for women for the first time this year as one of the 14 criteria that determine the teams’ suitability and seed. Although the measure was intended to provide transparency, it also gave fans more fuel for grievances. Rutgers fans, for example, may wonder how, according to NET, a team was ranked 12th overall as number 6.
The bottom seed also shows the limits of even the most advanced analysis. High Point, Bradley and Stony Brook will all be taking part in the Division I tournament for the first time, as well as Utah Valley, which has been selected in place of the California Baptist to represent the Western Athletic Conference. California Baptist became undefeated and won the WAC tournament, but is only in participating in his third year at Division I level and not yet eligible.
Wyoming, who won his first Mountain West title last week while becoming the first number 7 team to win the conference tournament, made the field only for the second time in the history of the program, thanks to a great defense that recovers 74 percent of its opponents’ setbacks, Haar Hoop Stats. Wyoming selected a number 14. Virginia Commonwealth University, a number 13 player, also earned his second tournament bid thanks to a title run in the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament, which he won for the first time, despite being ranked as no. 5.
After spending a lot of time on the bubble, Wake Forest deserves a number 9 seed. Brigham Young University achieved a number 11 series, even after losing the West Coast Conference match 43-42 to Gonzaga.
Four key teams were left off the field: Houston, DePaul, Notre Dame and Oklahoma. Notre Dame, who played his first season after the retirement of longtime coach Muffet McGraw, missed the tournament for the first time since 1995. DePaul was included in the NCAA’s first revelation of the top 16 teams in February, but lost three of his last four regular-season games.
Still, one or more of the teams could end the competition if the virus forces one of the current 64 teams off the field by 6pm on Tuesday night. Eastern deadline set by the NCAA. due to contact detection or positive tests will be automatically disqualified and their opponent will advance to the next round.
The hope, of course, is that it will not get there, and that players and staff can finally show their hard skills on the sport’s biggest stage.
“With all the protocols, we’re going to an area that’s never been occupied before – just like the other 63 teams,” Auriemma said shortly after his team won the Big East tournament, but before his positive test. “I have no idea what’s going to happen. I usually have a good idea what’s going on in the NCAA Tournament, but this year is different than any other year. ”