During a typical women's college basketball season, the arrival of a new year marks the unofficial start of league play. By now, teams usually would have played 12-15 nonconference games to establish the foundation of an NCAA tournament résumé.
That isn't the case in 2020-21. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and so many games getting canceled or postponed, some teams have played just two or three games outside of their conference. Many of the things that usually start to fall into place by this time of the season remain unknown.
That isn't to say that nothing has been vetted. Not everything is still up for grabs. That includes the teams vying for No. 1 seeds.
The list of teams still in contention for the four top seeds is a bit longer than usual in January, but November and December did their jobs, leaving just enough contenders to make the next few weeks crucial. Here is a look, listed in their current order on the S-curve, at the teams that still have a chance to be on the top line come Selection Monday on March 15.
Stanford: The Cardinal are the current No. 1 overall team in Bracketology and probably have the deepest collection of talent in the country. Stanford also already has beaten two of its top challengers in the Pac-12 (Arizona and UCLA) on the road by double figures.
The "on the road" portion of that sentence could be the only question mark for the Cardinal. Because of COVID-19 restrictions on contact sports in Santa Clara County, Stanford has played just one game at home. Since that Nov. 25 season opener at Maples Pavilion, the Cardinal have played in Las Vegas, Berkeley, Stockton, Los Angeles, Tucson and Tempe. There's a chance they won't play another home game this season, and that kind of burden could eventually take its toll on any team, no matter the depth or ability.
South Carolina: If the schedule holds, the Gamecocks will play six NCAA tournament-quality opponents in the next 25 days thanks to the current depth of the SEC. That doesn't even include next month's trip to UConn (Feb. 8) or South Carolina's lone meeting with Texas A&M (Feb. 28).
That's a tough road to a No. 1 seed, but it also gives South Carolina more cushion than perhaps anyone else on this list. If they stumble, the Gamecocks likely have to wait only a few days before the next opportunity for a quality win arrives. The season is truncated, but a basic concept remains the same: The more good wins on the résumé, the better the seed.
Rhyne Howard's clutch bucket powers Kentucky to OT win
Kentucky's Rhyne Howard grabs an offensive board and gets the follow-up shot to drop plus the foul, powering the Wildcats to a 92-86 victory over Mississippi State.
UConn: Given how easily the Huskies disposed of Villanova and DePaul, it's hard to imagine anyone in the Big East throwing up much of a challenge.
That means that Thursday's game against Baylor (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET) and next month's meeting with South Carolina will likely decide UConn's fate for a top seed. If they win both games, the Huskies will assuredly remain on the top line through Selection Monday. If it wins one of those games, UConn is probably still in good position. If the Huskies lose both, they would need some upsets to happen elsewhere in order to get back to a No. 1 seed.
NC State: In a season in which the eye test will perhaps play a larger role than usual, the Wolfpack might have a difficult time impressing enough committee members to earn a top seed. Yes, NC State is unbeaten (10-0) and currently a No. 1 seed in Bracketology, but the Wolfpack's game hasn't always been aesthetically pleasing this season. The 3-point shooting has been inconsistent (they shot 9 of 29 against their toughest opponents, South Carolina and Georgia Tech) and they have had occasional turnover issues (20 in Sunday's win over Boston College).
Of course, it might not matter if the Wolfpack's romp through the ACC includes a win over Louisville on Jan. 17.
Louisville: That game against NC State might loom even larger for the Cardinals. With COVID-19 protocols wreaking havoc with its schedule, Louisville hasn't played a meaningful game since facing Duke on Dec 9. With the Blue Devils canceling their season, it's hard to gauge how important that road win is.
We know the Cardinals are good, but at some point they need to build a résumé to challenge the teams ahead of them for a No. 1 seed.
Baylor: When it comes to the metrics and quantitative data used in selection and seeding evaluation, the Lady Bears would really benefit from an improved Big 12. The league is making strides. Texas is even better than expected in Vic Schaefer's first season, and Oklahoma State has been a minor surprise.
Baylor's loss to Arkansas early last month knocked the Lady Bears off the top line, and their conference schedule, despite the aforementioned improvements, might still not offer enough potential quality wins to get back there without help and/or a decisive win over UConn on Thursday.
Texas A&M: In a season with almost no certainties, there is something to be said for simply being able to play games. The Aggies' 10 victories are the most in the country (tied with NC State and Arkansas). That 10-0 record, combined with having one of the best shooting and offensively efficient teams in the country, puts the Aggies into the discussion for a No. 1 seed.
How do they stay there? Texas A&M might need to remain unbeaten leading into the regular-season finale against South Carolina, and a minimum of a second-place SEC finish might be required. Texas A&M has already done remarkably well elevating to a No. 2 seed in this week's Bracketology projection and putting itself in contention for a top seed.
Kentucky: The Wildcats stayed in the running with Sunday's thrilling, overtime win at Mississippi State -- and at the same time probably ended the Bulldogs' top-seed aspirations. Thursday's game against Texas A&M (SEC Network, 8:30 p.m. ET) could also be considered a knockout game for the pair of potential No. 1 seeds.
No team in the country is likely to face the eight-day stretch in which Kentucky is currently competing. The Bulldogs and Aggies are followed by South Carolina on Sunday (ESPN2, noon ET). If the Wildcats go 3-0, they would leapfrog a few teams and be on the cusp of a No. 1 seed.
Arizona and Oregon: They're not out of contention yet, but we're putting the Wildcats and Ducks together because both are considered longshots. Arizona struggled with USC and Colorado and wasn't competitive against Stanford, while Oregon lost at home to UCLA on Sunday. That dropped Arizona and Oregon to No. 3 seeds this week.
The Ducks still have two games against Stanford, and Arizona plays the Ducks twice and has a late-February rematch with Stanford. As long as there are no more slipups in league play, those games give each a chance for a top seed, but the quality in the top half of the Pac-12 is more likely to produce another loss or two, which would eliminate the possibility of a No. 1 seed.