Over the last three weeks, South Carolina, Baylor and Oregon have established themselves as the three best teams in the country. Distinguishing among them is nearly impossible, but they have unquestionably separated themselves from the rest of the pack. The Gamecocks, Lady Bears and Ducks have wrapped up No. 1 seeds -- barring something extraordinary and unforeseen. The dominance has been obvious. We know exactly how good they are.
The same can't be said for some teams at the next level. Even this deep in the season, a few teams remain a mystery. Whether it has to do with imbalance in conference schedules, inconsistent play or injuries to key players, the identity of some teams in the next group -- which consists of about a dozen teams -- remains somewhat unknown.
Let's look at how they're impacting the bracket, and what their current seed is in our latest Bracketology projection.
NC State: No. 3 seed, Greenville Regional
We know the Wolfpack are good, but how good? Consecutive losses and a narrow, low-scoring win over Duke suggest that this might not be the same team that began the season with 14 consecutive wins and just a week ago was Bracketology's fourth No. 1 seed.
The nonconference schedule was merely average, but NC State was impressive in wins over Maryland, Texas and then Florida State early in ACC play to establish itself as at least a top contender for a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed.
As the 3-point shooting has dropped way off, the offense is sputtering -- and a spot on the top two lines doesn't look possible right now. Are the losses to Louisville and Georgia Tech at home indicative of a team hitting the bump in the road during a long season, or of a team that benefitted from a weaker ACC and is now running out of gas? The next two weeks will bring that answer.
Mississippi State: No. 3 seed, Portland Regional
The Bulldogs challenged themselves early in the season and answered most of those tests, which was made even more impressive by the team's youth and that Vic Schaefer was replacing three starters. Mississippi State also played South Carolina as tough as anyone has all season in Columbia. However, some benefits of the schedule have made the Bulldogs hard to place on the S-curve.
In a 14-team league, one SEC schedule is not the same as another. Each team in the conference only plays two games against three others. The Bulldogs' two-game partners this season are Auburn, Georgia and Ole Miss, which are a combined 8-28 in the SEC play. Mississippi State also played Texas A&M without Chennedy Carter. And Mississippi State's lack of a singular go-to player was evident in Sunday's loss at Kentucky. Despite the Bulldogs' second-place status in the SEC standings, the Wildcats were clearly the better team on Sunday. Before that game, a No. 2 seed seemed like a possibility. That seems unlikely now.
UCLA: No. 2 seed, Dallas Regional
The Bruins might have answered this question by coming back to beat Oregon State in overtime on Monday night, but they still have displayed moments that raise small doubt. After a statement win at Stanford, UCLA barely escaped against last-place Cal.
A loss to USC and needing overtime to beat Washington also raise concerns as to whether the Bruins really should be in contention for a No. 1 seed. Can a top seed really have only one marquee nonconference win (at Indiana) and struggle so much against teams in the bottom half of the Pac-12?
They tend to play to the level of their competition, and that can be dangerous. While UCLA has a knack for hitting perimeter shots in big moments, the Bruins rank 277th in the country in 3-point percentage (28.4%). Relying as heavily as they do on forcing turnovers and turning defense into offense leaves less room for error.
Gonzaga: No. 4 seed, Dallas Regional
The Feb. 8 loss to 11-15 Saint Mary's was alarming. That was the Zags' second loss of the season; they had won 21 consecutive games since an overtime loss to Stanford in the third game of the season. The fact that the loss to St. Mary's came just two games after losing senior shooting guard Katie Campbell (knee) for the season is the concern. Gonzaga is second in the country in 3-point percentage, but Campbell (43.1%; team-high 47 3-pointers) was a big part of that.
Last March the Zags lost point guard Lauren Stockton and wing Jill Townsend to injuries in the WCC tournament semifinals, derailing what could have been a top-16 placement. They were a No. 5 seed instead and lost to Oregon State on the Beavers' home floor. Once again, there is no way to evaluate Gonzaga against teams it's competing against for top-16 positioning with the lineup that is currently available.
The WCC typically has some teams to challenge Gonzaga, which has already clinched at least a tie for its 15th regular-season title in 16 years, but this year only one other team in the conference (BYU) has an RPI in the top 100. Even without the Campbell injury to consider, measuring a team that hasn't played NCAA tournament-level competition in six weeks can be difficult.