Cal Women's Basketball: The quest for a #1 seed

Lindsay Gottlieb and Brittany Boyd have the Bears poised for the unprecedented. - Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, it's reasonable to speculate about the chances of Lindsay Gottlieb's crew earning a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. No, you're not dreaming.

To be honest, this post has been written for a week or two. Ever since Cal beat Stanford I started thinking in my head about what it would take for the Bears to earn a top seed. But it just felt like bad mojo to publish it until Cal successfully completed the L.A. road trip. Now there are just four games left in the regular season, and the Bears will be heavy favorites in at least three of those games. Of course, now it looks like I'm a bit late to the party, as everybody is speculating about Cal's chances. March is just around the corner, and speculation is no longer premature, for superstitious reasons or otherwise.

It will be a tough trick for the Bears to pull off. Women's basketball can tend towards top heaviness, and this year is no different. Because the top teams are so rarely upset, there's very little opportunity to move up. But the fact that Cal is even in the conversation is a wonderful, amazing thing.

But it's that top-heaviness that makes a #1 seed so critically important. Last year, the four #1 seeds were head-and-shoulders above everybody else, and all four cruised to the final four without much of a challenge. Earning a #1 seed means that you can't face Baylor, UConn or Notre Dame until the Final Four, and that's huge.

As that previous sentence foreshadowed, I'm working off of the following assumption: Baylor, Notre Dame and UConn are all locks for a #1 seed. Except for Baylor's close loss to Stanford with their All-American point guard out injured, none of those three teams have lost to anybody but each other, and all have played legitimately brutal schedules. They have earned their inevitable #1 seeds. That leaves one spot left, and there are only a few teams that have a shot at it:

Stanford, Duke, Cal, Kentucky, Maryland, & Penn State

Frankly, I think I'm being generous including Kentucky, Maryland and Penn State. Kentucky has more losses and a weaker strength of schedule, and they don't have enough tough games left to make up the distance. Maryland's record vs. the RPI top 50 is mediocre, and potential wins over Duke will be marred by a recent injury (more on that later). Penn State has an impressive RPI and strength of schedule, but they also have that ugly loss to RPI 100+ Wisconsin, a blemish that nobody else on this list has. I believe that all three would require Cal, Stanford and Duke to all slip up to have a chance, and only then if they ran the table. But I've included them so that you can make up your own mind.

All RPI data courtesy of RealTimeRPI.com, and current as of Tuesday night.

Team

RPI

SOS

Record vs. top 50

Losses (RPI)

Games remaining vs. RPI top 50

Duke

9

64

7-1

UConn (3)

3

Stanford

2

3

10-2

UConn (3), Cal (5)

0

Cal

5

15

8-2

Duke(9), Stanford (2)

0

Kentucky

7

23

7-3

Baylor (1), S. Carolina (12), Georgia (16)

1

Maryland

10

31

4-4

St. Joe's (43), UConn (3), UNC (17), Duke (9)

2

Penn State

6

17

7-2

Miami (53), UConn (3), Wisconsin (104)

2


Note that this chart doesn't include the potential impact of conference tournaments. Each team could earn another win or two over RPI top 50 opposition in their respective conference tournaments. Potential games between Cal/Stanford and Duke/Maryland could be pivotal.

I didn't seriously consider anybody else. Tennessee and Texas A&M have impressive RPIs, but too many losses. Dayton doesn't have enough quality wins. Nobody else has a resume that can reasonably stack up with the top contenders for the final 1 seed.

Cal and Stanford have the two best resumes thus far. But Kentucky and particularly Duke have stronger schedules over the last two weeks of the regular season and can make up some of that gap if they continue winning. But that also means that Cal and Stanford are significantly less likely to stub their toe. Will Kentucky avoid losing to a tough Tennesse squad, and survive the SEC tournament?

What would it take for Cal to grab the last #1 seed?

Win out. At one point I was trying to decide if Cal could survive a loss to UCLA, as the Bruins possess an excellent computer profile. Thankfully, the Bears have eliminated the need. But because every other team on regular season schedule will remain outside of the RPI top 50, Cal cannot afford a loss that would be a fatal blemish. And Cal cannot afford to lose in the Pac-12 tournament, which means . . .

Cal must beat Stanford: Obviously. If Stanford beats Cal, with a top RPI and a win over Baylor, then the Cardinal are a stone cold lock for a #1 seed. An argument (a weak one, in my opinion) could be made that Stanford would still have a resume superior to Cal's, but I think winning the season series over the Cardinal would act as a tie break in favor of the Bears.

Duke needs to stumble: And here's where things get messy. If Duke were to win out, their profile would improve, and their win over Cal would probably act as a tie break if the Blue Devils needed it.

But. All everything point guard Chelsea Gray dislocated her knee cap, and it was decided that she will miss the rest of the regular season. It's unfortunate for many reasons, particularly because Duke is entering the most challenging portion of their schedule. After struggling to put away a bad Wake Forest team without her, it seems unlikely that the Blue Devils will finish February unscathed. And since Gray will not return for the tournament, the committee will give them no benefit of the doubt if they lose without her.

Duke still has a ton of talent on their roster, and they might well keep on winning. But it certainly seems less likely now.

A likely scenario

It's selection Sunday. Baylor is announced as the #1 overall seed and gets placed in the Oklahoma City (South) regional. UConn is a 1 seed and gets placed in the Bridgeport (East) regional. Notre Dame is a #1 seed and is placed in the Norfolk (Midwest? South East?) regional. The winner of the Pac-12 tournament* gets the final 1 seed in the Spokane regional. For the sake of our story, let's pretend that it's Stanford (NNNNNOOOOOO!) and that Cal is the top 2 seed according to the S curve. Where would Cal end up? Here are three scenarios:

1. As the strongest 2 seed, Cal is placed in the same bracket as the weakest 1 seed, which would likely be Stanford in the Spokane regional.

Verdict: Unlikely. The selection committee has done something like this before, but they received lots of negative reactions when they placed 1 seed Baylor in the same region as rival 2 seed Texas A&M. I doubt they do it again.

2. They send Cal out east to be the 2 seed across from UConn or Notre Dame

Verdict: Mildly unlikely. The selection committee tries to keep every team as close to home geographically as possible, and that is especially true of high seeds. If it can be avoided, they won't want to send Cal all the way out to the eastern seaboard.

3. They send Cal to the Oklahoma City region, across from the best team in the country, Baylor.

Verdict: Likely. That's what ESPN is currently projecting, and while they're not the end-all-be-all, they aren't dumb either. OKC is the closest region that would also avoid a Pac-12 rematch. Cal's reward for a near 1 seed tournament profile would be getting placed in the same region as one of the most dominant teams in the history of women's basketball. I'll save my rant about how stupid the women's tournament is for sacrificing competitive fairness for ticket sales until something annoying actually happens. You should also be prepared for a rant about how the Bears have to play their first and second round games on the home floor of another team, but again we'll cross that bridge later.

So yeah, the stakes are pretty high. Cal could earn a 1 seed going through Spokane or they could earn a 2 seed going through Baylor. They could earn a 2 seed in Spokane across from 1 seed Stanford. Lots of interesting scenarios are on the table right now. And if a Pac-12 tournament final between Cal and Stanford does come to pass, it might well be the most important game in Cal women's basketball history.

*In case you weren't aware: If Cal and Stanford both tie for 1st in the Pac-12 with a record of 17-1, Stanford will be the #1 seed in the conference tournament by virtue of their one extra non-conference win. As it stands right now, the Bears are likely to be the 2 seed, and will face the winner of the 7 vs. 11 first round game, likely to be a matchup of Oregon State vs. either USC or Washington State. Please, not USC, for god's sake anybody but USC.

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