Though there are no actual games to be played, FiveThirtyEight is still taking a shot at a little March Madness. We built an NCAA Tournament bracket, using ESPN’s Bracketology, and we’re simulating the results of each game by using a simple “100-sided dice roll” against our forecast probabilities. We’ve played out our first and second rounds, the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight and the Final Four; here’s how the title game might have gone down.
The Baylor women’s basketball team was on a plane on the afternoon of March 12, waiting to hear more about the coronavirus outbreak slowly shutting down the sports landscape. The Lady Bears were about to take off for the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City, but when that tournament was canceled, they disembarked. When the NCAA Tournament suffered the same fate, seniors Lauren Cox and Juicy Landrum “couldn’t even talk to me,” coach Kim Mulkey said. “You’re at a loss for words.”
Baylor, as much as any other team in the country, had every reason to believe it could repeat as national champion. And as the FiveThirtyEight NCAA Tournament simulation came to a close on Monday, Mulkey’s team outlasted No. 1 overall seed South Carolina by 7 points in our national championship. That would have been Baylor’s fourth title since 2005.
The cancellations don’t take anything away from the Bears’ marvelous season. They finished 28-2 with their 10th-straight Big 12 title — the two losses being a 74-59 neutral-site defeat against South Carolina in November and a puzzling upset at the hands of Iowa State in the regular-season finale. That second loss, especially, may have distorted the perception of the No. 2 overall seed’s season, which otherwise included almost no drama. Every single win came by at least 8 points, and 19 of 28 by at least 20.
In our simulation, Baylor routed Missouri-Kansas City by 46 in the first round; took down Louisiana State, Iowa and Mississippi State by 29 points each; and then vanquished Oregon in the Final Four. The Bears ended up as a slight favorite (54 percent odds) against South Carolina, which remained No. 1 largely because of that regular-season head-to-head win.
Two factors loom large over that Nov. 30 game. First, it was four months ago. But more importantly, Baylor was without star post player Lauren Cox. The Big 12 Player of the Year and Naismith Award finalist missed seven weeks early in the season with a foot injury, and without her on the floor, South Carolina outrebounded her team by 14.
Last year, the Bears won an emotional national championship after Cox suffered a serious knee injury late in the third quarter. For this season, they seemed to have all the right pieces in place: a South Carolina transfer in Te’a Cooper, another senior guard in Landrum and one of the country’s best shot blockers in Cox. When Cox returned from her foot injury in late December, everyone saw against just how much she meant. In her last two seasons, Baylor was 58-2 with her in the lineup.
More every year, Baylor emerges as a capable foil for the Connecticut dynasty in women’s basketball. Last season, the Bears snapped UConn’s 126-game regular-season winning streak with a 68-57 upset in Waco, Texas. In the rematch on Jan. 9, Mulkey’s team ended the Huskies’ 98-game home winning streak with a 74-58 stunner — UConn’s worst home loss since 2005.
Even without the outcome of this simulated tournament, the program’s resume under Mulkey is as strong as ever for No. 2 in the country this century. Baylor’s 2011-12 team was college basketball’s first 40-0 national champion, and its three total championships — 2005, 2012 and 2019 — rank third behind UConn’s 11 and Tennessee’s eight. Notre Dame has two championships (2001, 2018) and five other trips to the title game, but the Bears’ ascent has been almost unmatched.
The debate over who is best among Baylor, South Carolina and Oregon — which gained separation as the top three teams in the country — will be the unanswered question of 2020. As dominant as Baylor was, the best resume this season belonged to South Carolina. Dawn Staley’s team finished 32-1, and 13 of those wins came against ranked teams in the tricky SEC. The Gamecocks won 19 games by 20 or more points, and they beat Mississippi State for a second time, 76-62, to win the SEC Tournament. In addition to Baylor, South Carolina beat two other top-five teams — Maryland in November and then UConn in February — and as a result finished No. 1 in the last AP poll.
So what made the difference in this rematch? It turned out that Baylor’s depth persisted over a full season. The Bears’ five double-digit scorers were too much for most teams to handle all year. The illustrious college careers of Cox and Landrum are over. But it’s time to get used to Mulkey’s program at the top.
Check out our simulated March Madness predictions.