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Contenders and pretenders in women’s college basketball

Sam Thomas and Bendu Yeaney talk during Arizona's win over Oregon State on Sunday. (Rebecca Noble/Getty Images)

With Selection Sunday (yes, Sunday this year) basically a month away, talk is heating up around seeding and who could make a March run. The NCAA Selection Committee recently revealed its top 16 seeds, and ESPN’s Charlie Creme has been updating his bracketology regularly.

But every year, there are at least one or two teams that sneak up to those better seed lines thanks to fortunate resumes that perhaps oversell their true standing in the national landscape. We’ve taken a look at a handful of the teams Creme has had on the No. 2 or No. 3 line to find who those teams might be.

Obviously, everyone in this group is a contender in some way. You don’t get to this point without at least having a shot to make the Final Four. But who are the teams that have a truly realistic chance at knocking off a No. 1 seed and making the Final Four? And who are the teams that could be headed for a first-weekend exit at the hands of a No. 6 or No. 7?

Arizona: Contender

Dawn Staley has to be the frontrunner for Coach of the Year, but it’s hard to ignore the job Adia Barnes has done in keeping this team in the top ten despite losing the face of the rebuild in Aari McDonald. Arizona has ridden the momentum of last year’s enthralling postseason run and is in position to do it again this March.

Under Barnes, the Wildcats have become one of the nation’s premier defensive units by forcing turnovers without getting out of rebounding position. It’s rare for a team to be able to accomplish both. Rare enough, in fact, that Arizona is the only team that has rebounded over 70 percent of opponent misses and turned opponents over on over 22 percent of their possessions in each of the last two seasons.

The scariest part for the rest of the country? The Wildcat defense is doing this despite some bad luck this season. As Ken Pomeroy has pointed out in the past, defenses have minimal control over whether an opponent’s 3-pointers go in. The scouting report on shooters generally isn’t “force them to miss 3s;” it’s “force them to put the ball on the floor instead of taking 3s in the first place.” This is the concept driving Arizona’s defensive misfortune: Their opponent 3-point percentage is in the bottom half of the country even though they have a top-30 2-point defense and rank in the top quarter of teams in opponent 3-point rate.

At some point, Arizona’s opponents are going to start missing 3s. When that happens, watch out.

Michigan: Contender

This answer may have been different a month ago when Michigan was coming off of a 21-point loss to Nebraska. To that point, the Wolverines’ only road tests against tournament-level competition had resulted in blowout defeats, which left them with a lot of questions.

Since then, they’ve rattled off eight straight wins, including drubbings of Maryland and Ohio State on the road. The Wolverines will have to get used to life without Leigha Brown for a while, but that didn’t phase them in their most recent win over Iowa on Sunday. The way freshman Laila Phelia (24 points) and sophomore Cameron Williams (8 points on 4-of-5 shooting) played in that one goes to show that this team may be deeper than they’ve gotten credit for.

A quick look at Michigan’s remaining schedule shows that they’ll be favored in every game until the return trip to Iowa in their regular season finale. Already atop the Big Ten standings, they have to be considered the favorites to win the league, and the No. 3 seed they were given in the first NCAA seeding reveal should turn into a No. 2 the next time around.

If Michigan can finish off the Big Ten regular season championship and win the conference tournament as well, they still may have a path to a No. 1 seed. With all the seniors on this roster starting to play with a sense of urgency, this is a team that could make some serious noise next month.

Tennessee: Pretender

Our first pretender on the board fell to a No. 3 seed in Creme’s most recent bracketology. What Kellie Harper has accomplished in Year 3 in Knoxville has been commendable, especially when you consider that she spent the better part of two months going 11-1 without leading returning scorer Rae Burrell.

But Rocky Top has been living on the edge all season. They are 7-0 in games decided by single digits, and they’ve pulled out both of their overtime games so far. Losses in the last two weeks to Auburn by 10, Florida by 25 and UConn by 19 have given us a pretty good indication that this team has a long way to go if it wants to be worthy of a No. 2 seed.

There are shades of last year’s Texas A&M team all over this profile. You may recall that those Aggies rode their close-game magic into the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, when they narrowly avoided upsets to No. 15 seed Troy and No. 7 seed Iowa State, but they still became the first No. 2 seed to fall after losing to Arizona in the Sweet 16. Don’t be surprised to see a similar fate for the Lady Vols.

Texas: Pretender

Vic Schaefer’s pressure defense has been effective all season: The Longhorns are holding opponents below 60 points per game for the first time in six years. It’s a defense that limited scoring juggernaut Iowa State (albeit without Ashley and Aubrey Joens) and Kansas State to under 50 points, and held Ayoka Lee to a human 45 percent from the field.

So why are they pretenders? Their three-game losing streak and .500 record in conference play raise some small red flags, but ultimately it comes down to how they score the ball. Much of the Longhorns’ offense comes from their ability to generate turnovers and get out and run. In the halfcourt, they rely on getting the ball on the rim and crashing the glass. When Texas goes up against teams who take care of the ball and have enough frontcourt size to keep them off the offensive boards, they run into trouble.

Texas also heavily eschews the 3-point line, ranking 326th in 3-point attempt rate. It’s another reason lengthy teams give them trouble — with so much of their scoring coming in the paint, good rim protectors can have a greater impact. Kansas’ Taiyanna Jackson and Tennessee’s Alexus Dye each had four blocks in wins over Texas, and Dye’s teammate, Tamari Key, racked up an incredible 10 blocks.

To be contenders, you have to be able to compete with South Carolina. With all the length and shot blocking ability the Gamecocks have, it’d be tough to imagine Texas scoring enough to win that matchup. Add in the fact that they rank 299th in free-throw percentage, and the odds of them holding a late-game lead over a pesky lower seed are even lower.

Indiana and UConn: It depends

This may be a bit of a cop-out, but the correct answer for each of these teams hinges on health and player availability.

For Indiana, that comes down to when Mackenzie Holmes can return. The Hoosiers weren’t deep even before she went down with a knee injury, but at full strength their starting five can compete with just about anybody in the country. Sans Holmes, Indiana has looked frighteningly beatable.

They’ve gone 4-1, but that includes three scares against non-tournament teams — an overtime win and a seven-point win over Purdue, and a win over Minnesota in which they trailed at the fourth-quarter media timeout — and a beatdown at the hands of Michigan. The Wolverines exposed the vulnerability of what’s left of Indiana’s frontcourt by out-rebounding the Hoosiers by a whopping 32.

According to CBB Analytics, Indiana has outscored opponents by 27.6 points per 100 possessions with Holmes on the court this year and just 7.9 without her, basically the equivalent of dropping from North Carolina to Fairfield. If Holmes is back, the Hoosiers can build on their Elite Eight run last year and make their first ever Final Four. Without her, don’t count on the Sweet 16.

Azzi Fudd has provided UConn with a boost since she returned two weeks ago. (M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

From UConn’s perspective, Paige Bueckers is the obvious name that comes to mind, but health has been an issue up and down the roster all season. Azzi Fudd, Christyn Williams, Dorka Juhasz and Nika Mühl have all missed time at various points.

Like Indiana, the Huskies have been able to avoid too much damage in the loss column; Geno Auriemma’s squad has just one loss since Christmas. But like Indiana, UConn has looked human in some of its wins — something we aren’t used to seeing from this team in conference play. The Huskies have already won three Big East games by single digits, including an uninspiring eight-point win over sub-.500 Providence. And in that one loss, they had just six rotation players available and had no answer for Oregon.

The good news for UConn is that the last two wins have been dominant ones against quality competition, and Fudd finally looked like the No. 1 recruit in their 19-point win over Tennessee on Sunday. But even when Bueckers comes back, this team will have a lot of gelling to do before it’s at its peak. This is a program that hasn’t missed the Final Four since Android phones came out, but it’s important to remember that South Carolina ran away from them in their November matchup with Bueckers still on the court. The recent returns are promising, but to get back into that No. 1 conversation, they’ll need Bueckers at full strength.

Oregon: Contender

Oregon has dealt with as many personnel issues as UConn has, but the key for the Ducks is timing. Oregon has its rotation back, and, knock on wood, should have its full complement of stars for the final month of the regular season and into the postseason.

Upon getting healthy, Oregon went on an impressive run that included multiple top-ten victories to vault themselves back into the AP Poll top 20. That stretch says a lot about this team’s ceiling. The Ducks didn’t look the part in their Arizona trip this past weekend, but a combined 7-for-33 mark from 3 isn’t the type of performance that we should expect going forward.

Those two games are a good reminder that Oregon is still going to have ups and downs throughout the next month — it’s a group that had to wait until a few weeks ago to all play together, after all. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Kelly Graves going back to his time with Gonzaga, it’s that he knows how to have his teams playing their best basketball at the right time. When the calendar flips to March, look for the version of Oregon that knocked off two top-ten teams in one week.

Iowa State: Contender

In our championship betting preview last month, we wrote that we’d know a lot more about Iowa State after their games against Texas and Baylor. Turns out, all we really know is that the Joens sisters are critical to their team’s success.

Both Ashley and Aubrey missed their game against Texas due to COVID-19 protocols, and the Cyclones managed just 48 points in an 18-point defeat. The sisters returned against Baylor, but their shooting didn’t — they combined to hit just four of their 16 shots. Again, the Cyclones were on the wrong end of a lopsided score.

Iowa State has gotten back on track since, winning all four of their games by at least 15. It’s fair to wonder how they’d fare against the top of the Big 12 with their starters on the court and hitting shots. We’ll have to wait until the rematches later this month for that. For now, the metrics still love this team, as the Her Hoop Stats ratings and the Massey Ratings each have them in the top ten. Given how dangerous they’ve looked in all but one week this season, it’s hard to view the Cyclones as anything but contenders.

Calvin Wetzel is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering basketball and betting. He also contributes to Her Hoop Stats and Bet Her. Follow him on Twitter at @cwetzel31.