If you thought Kentucky’s chances looked good over in the men’s tournament, it’s time to bet your house on the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team. The nine-time national champions return to the NCAA tournament this year looking for their second three-peat in school history, and our first-ever go at March Madness predictions for the women’s tournament gives the Huskies a really, really good chance of doing just that.
Next to Connecticut, things look bleak even for the other No. 1 seeds in the tournament: Maryland has only a 2 percent chance of winning it all, while steering clear of the Albany region gives South Carolina and Notre Dame a 10 percent and 9 percent chance, respectively, of dethroning Connecticut.
We’re thrilled to be forecasting the women’s NCAA tournament and look forward to seeing how our model performs given what little data we have to work with. Below, we break down the strengths and weaknesses of each region.
Albany has rightfully been labeled the “regional destination of doom” because of the Huskies, who are so dominant this year that their opponents’ odds seem laughable: St. Francis College, their first-round matchup, has about a 1 in 7,000 chance of beating them. Our model all but guarantees that UConn will make an appearance in the Elite Eight — a 98 percent chance — and the likelihood of the team heading to the Final Four isn’t much lower, at 96 percent. With these odds, UConn seems to be a surefire winner, barring something like a teamwide food poisoning epidemic or a player strike against Geno.
UConn is led by junior Breanna Stewart, who scored double figures in all but three of the team’s games this season and senior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who is the school’s all-time career leader in 3-point field goals, with 341.
But the near-perfect Huskies are just that: near perfect. They lost once this season, to Stanford (a No. 4 seed) 88-86 in overtime back in November, and finished the season with a 32-1 record.
And even though we give No. 2 seed Kentucky just a 1 percent chance of making it out on top of the Albany region, remember that the Wildcats were eliminated from the tournament by UConn in two of the past three years and may have a thirst for vengeance.
Last year’s runner-up, Notre Dame, is the No. 1 seed over in the Oklahoma City region, coming off a fresh ACC championship and looking for its fifth consecutive appearance in the Final Four (we think the team has a 58 percent chance). The Irish are led by standout shooting guard and ACC Player of the Year Jewell Loyd, who averaged 20.5 points, 3.1 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game, and ACC Freshman of the Year Brianna Turner, a forward who averaged 13.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game.
Notre Dame will have to get past strong teams like No. 2 seed Baylor and No. 4 seed Stanford, two programs that are used to Final Four appearances, and some dark-horse contenders in Minnesota and Oklahoma. The Golden Gophers have stellar sophomore center Amanda Zahui B., who averaged 18.6 points and 12.4 rebounds per game, with an incredible 39-point game thrown in there, too. We give her team a less than 1 percent chance of getting past the Irish, but maybe not if she has anything to say about it.
The No.1 seed in the Spokane region is Maryland, which swept through its Big 10 season and tournament undefeated and has only two losses on the season. The team has one of the most potent offenses in the country, but a pedestrian defense. And the Terrapins have a tough road ahead. Our model rates them as the weakest No. 1 seed by far, with only a 37 percent chance of winning their region. While they hope to win the program’s second national championship, after beating Duke in a thrilling overtime game in 2006, we give them only a 2 percent chance of winning this year (not helped by likely facing UConn in the Final Four).
But first they must get out of the region. And Maryland might face No. 2 seed Tennessee. The Lady Vols, who haven’t made a Final Four appearance since 2008, have a 33 percent chance of making it out of the Spokane region this year, the most likely No. 2 seed to advance.
Even before that, Maryland’s second-round opponent might be the only undefeated team in the tournament: No. 8 seed Princeton, which is 30-0. Some projected the Tigers to get a No. 5 seed, but the committee obviously saw their Ivy League schedule as unimpressive. Still, scrappy Princeton has the third-toughest defense in the country, and our model has it as the fifth most likely team to win the region and the 17th most likely team in the entire bracket to win the championship.
Also in the Terrapins way: Oregon State, with its 3-point happy offense, is the most likely No. 3 seed to advance to the Final Four by our model’s estimates. And Duke is also impressive, with a scoring margin of nearly 12 points per game.
For an upset sleeper, don’t count out No. 6 seed George Washington, which despite losing to Maryland by 10 points in November has the 15th-highest scoring margin in the country — albeit achieved by tearing through the relatively weak Atlantic 10 conference.
To the extent that UConn faces a threat, it comes from the Greensboro region, where South Carolina is the No. 1 seed. By our model, South Carolina has the second-highest probability of winning it all, at 10 percent. If the Gamecocks do face the Huskies, it won’t be the first time — UConn throttled South Carolina by 25 points last month, one of the Gamecocks’ two losses on the season. But the Gamecocks have a stout defense, ranked eighth nationally. Their interior defense is especially impressive, as they block 6.5 shots per game, and overall, the team holds opponents to fewer than 53 points per game.
To get to the Final Four, South Carolina must fight through several obstacles. It might encounter No. 5 seed Ohio State in the Sweet 16 and thus have to contain freshman superstar Kelsey Mitchell, who leads the nation in scoring, at 25.0 points per game. North Carolina, the No. 4 seed, knocked off the Gamecocks in the regional semifinals last year and is the third most likely team to get out of the region — ahead of No. 3 seed Arizona State.
But most of all, South Carolina must get past No. 2 seed Florida State, which boasts the eighth-highest scoring margin in the country. Our model gives FSU a 17 percent chance of winning the region.
Regardless, the main story lines to watch this year are whether mighty UConn can fulfill statistical destiny and storm through the tournament like the dominant program our model expects it to be and whether Princeton takes its insulting seed as motivation and sustains its unbeaten, dream season.
Check out FiveThirtyEight’s March Madness predictions.
CORRECTION (March 19, 12:00 p.m.): Because of an error in data reported by ESPN, an earlier version of this article gave incorrect team scoring margins for Duke, George Washington and Florida State. We’ve updated those figures with the correct data.