The level of congruence between the last two Maryland women’s basketball seasons is notably absurd. The teams entered the NCAA Tournament 30-3 and 30-2, respectively, with every one of those losses coming to Ohio State (3) or Connecticut (2). Both squads won at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season title, and both won the conference title without having to face the Buckeyes again.
Yet, while the 2016 team earned the No. 6 overall seed in the tournament, the 2017 incarnation was slotted at No. 9.
That doesn’t make sense.
Maryland received a No. 3 seed on Selection Monday, despite winning 30 games and a Power 5 conference tournament. The logic, of course, is that the Terps’ schedule was too soft, their conference was too thin and they didn’t record enough “quality wins.” They were No. 9 in the selection committee’s first two projections and No. 7 in the third one before losing to Ohio State. The message has been clear for a while.
But the message isn’t quite right.
Looking at Maryland’s non-conference schedule each of the past two seasons, they’re basically the same; if anything, this year’s early-season slate was tougher. The Terps played three ranked teams and four true road games before conference play this season, compared to two ranked opponents and no true road games last year. They beat then-No. 7 Louisville on the road, a better win than the 2016 team ever recorded. Both versions of Maryland beat up plenty of low-level mid-majors, and even though several of the teams were different, the difficulty was about the same overall.
Meanwhile, the Big Ten was pretty weak this season, but not demonstrably worse than last year. The only notable departures were Minnesota’s Rachel Banham and Michigan State’s Aerial Powers; the Gophers weren’t a tournament team last year, and the Spartans made it back to the dance. They join the Terps, Ohio State and Purdue in the field. Michigan, who went 11-5 in conference play and sits at No. 23 in Jeff Sagarin’s rankings (Maryland is No. 6), was left out completely for some reason. Had the Wolverines made it, that would have matched the five Big Ten teams in the field last year.
The league went from an 18-game schedule to a 16-game slate this season, and Maryland only played Ohio State once, but the Terps did everything within their control, posting a plus-22.4 point differential in conference play, up from plus-16.3 last year. Their overall point differential rose from plus-22.9 to plus-25.5.
But again, they came in three seeds lower in the tournament.
Moving up or down one spot with such a similar resume would be understandable, as the landscape of the sport varies a little each year. But considering the lack of mobility at the top—Connecticut, Notre Dame, South Carolina and Baylor are all repeat No. 1 seeds—it seems most likely that the committee’s criteria changed in a way that hindered Maryland more than anyone. Of the four 2-seeds, only Stanford won a conference tournament, and all four dropped at least four contests. All four lost to at least one unranked team, while Maryland’s two defeats were to top-15 opponents.
Of course, this matters less because the Terps were seeded too low, and more because their too-low seed put them in an incredibly difficult position in the bracket. Maryland will likely have to face West Virginia in the second round, and the Mountaineers showed they can hang with anyone by ripping off three straight wins against the Big 12’s three best teams, including Baylor in the conference title game. Being the highest 3-seed also puts Maryland in UConn’s region. UConn, of course, hasn’t lost since November 2014. And the only surefire way for the Terps to prove the committee wrong is probably to beat the Huskies in Bridgeport.
There’s nothing Maryland can do now except win games. The team’s focus is currently on getting out of College Park, a hurdle that wasn’t cleared last year. However, everyone will have this slight in the back of their minds. If nothing else, it’s extra motivation for a group that already had plenty.