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As A 3-Seed In The Women’s Final Four, Arizona Is Practically A Cinderella

The women’s NCAA Tournament is well-known for its chalk-filled brackets. Although it offered us the ultimate upset in 1998, a full 20 years before a 16-seed beat a 1-seed on the men’s side, that was a huge exception to the general rule: Favorites dominate the women’s tourney. And that trend had been especially true in recent years, as no team seeded lower than a No. 2 had made the Final Four since Syracuse did it as a 4-seed and Washington did it as a 7-seed — unheard of! — back in 2016. But Arizona broke that streak this season, punching its ticket as a 3-seed behind the stellar play of point guard Aari McDonald.

A No. 3 seed may not sound like a Cinderella, but it is relatively rare for women’s Final Four entries. Of the 108 teams that have advanced to the Final Four since 1994 — the first year of the 64-team women’s bracket — only 11 (or 10 percent) did so as 3-seeds, with 14 (13 percent) seeded fourth or lower. Meanwhile, 77 percent of all Final Four teams have been top-two seeds. Compare that with the men’s tournament, in which only 60 percent of Final Four teams have been top-two seeds over the same span, and we can see how comparatively rare it is for women’s teams that are even barely outside the cream of the crop to make deep tourney runs.

In particular, the No. 1 seeds are constant Final Four fixtures, claiming 57 percent of available slots by themselves. That’s certainly been true this year, with a trio of top seeds — UConn, Stanford and South Carolina — making their way to the national semifinals. The only exception was Mercado region No. 1 NC State, whose journey ended in an upset loss against fourth-seeded Indiana in the third round of the tournament. That was an anomaly in itself; the Wolfpack were just the 22nd No. 1 seed since 1994 to fail to make the regional final (out of 108 potential chances). In that sense, the Hoosiers’ victory helped pave the way for Arizona’s Final Four berth, as the Wildcats won as favorites in a rare 3-versus-4 seed matchup in the Elite Eight.

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But the way McDonald and Arizona played, it would have been difficult to envision anyone stopping their march to the program’s first Final Four appearance. Against a tough defensive squad — Indiana ranks seventh nationally in HerHoopStats’ defensive rating — the Wildcats put up 103.1 points per 100 possessions, made 43 percent of their 3-pointers and buried the Hoosiers with an 18-5 run to end the game. McDonald poured in a season-best 33 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, proving again why she ranks third in the Pac-12 this season in win shares (trailing only Stanford’s Kiana Williams and Haley Jones) and was named a second-team All-American by The Associated Press. Just as importantly, Arizona’s sixth-ranked defense clamped down on Indiana, holding it to its third-worst offensive performance (81.5 points per 100) of the season.

A purple basketball illustration where the lines on the ball are brackets

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Can those performances continue against mighty Connecticut in the national semifinal? Certainly the Huskies are an altogether different challenge than any team Arizona has faced in the tourney so far. Our model’s power ratings consider the Wildcats to be double-digit underdogs against UConn, giving Arizona just an 18 percent chance of pulling the upset. In two regular-season games against Stanford (a team comparably rated to the Huskies), Arizona lost by an average margin of 20.5 points per game. Even if the Wildcat defense has a chance to slow down Paige Bueckers, Christyn Williams and UConn’s third-ranked offense, points may be hard to come by against their top-rated defense.

Whatever happens, though, Arizona has already exceeded expectations by making it this far. Amid a sea of No. 1 seeds, they are the only team carrying the banner for the rest of the field. Given the usual chalk of the women’s tournament, that makes them an underdog story worth rooting for.

Check out our latest March Madness predictions.

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Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.