On March 12, 2013, University of Connecticut freshman forward Breanna Stewart played 37 minutes. She scored 16 points but collected only two rebounds and one block while going 0-4 from 3-point range. With the game tied at 59 and less than 10 seconds to play, Skylar Diggins of Notre Dame stole the ball and dished it to Natalie Achonwa for the game-winning layup — it was the Fighting Irish’s third win against the Huskies in three months.
In the Final Four, less than a month later, the Huskies got their revenge. Stewart scored 29 points, grabbed five rebounds and threw in four blocks while hitting four of five 3-pointers, leading her team to an 83-65 victory and ultimately her first national championship. It’s been all uphill from there.
Since that 2013 loss to Notre Dame, the Huskies are 118-1, including tournaments. All 118 wins have been by double-digits, and 100 of them have been by 20 points or more. This includes 36 wins against ranked opponents, 21 against top-10 opponents, and a perfect 12-for-12 record against top-5s. Stewart’s Connecticut doesn’t just beat the best teams in the country, it beats them down.
In this year’s NCAA Tournament, the undefeated Huskies are on a 71-game winning streak heading into the Sweet 16, looking for their — and Stewart’s — fourth straight national championship. If they pull it off, this will be Stewart’s second undefeated season.
Sure, there are a lot of lopsided scores in college basketball — but nothing else like this. As I’ve written before, women’s basketball gets a bad rap for its lack of parity, but contrary to a common opinion, this is likely a result of the sport’s maturity and stability. Here are some key points to consider (from my previous article):
- There is a lot of talent: Women’s basketball has been the most-played women’s sport at the high school level for decades. Its upper echelon likely has the highest concentration of talent relative to sport participation of any women’s sport other than tennis.
- The top teams recruit well, but not abnormally well, relative to the top men’s teams.
- However, because many of the most talented male players skip college or go abroad or leave for the NBA, a much higher percentage of the best young female basketball players will be playing in college at any given point than the best young male players. Which is to say that if guys like Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns stuck around campus for four years, there would be a lot less parity on the men’s side, too.
But the Huskies aren’t just garden-variety dominant, they’re axis-breaking-outlier dominant. To win as much and by as much as the Huskies have, you have to crush it on both ends of the court:
Over the past four seasons, the Huskies have scored a little over 1.0 points per offensive play and allowed a little under 0.6 points per defensive play — meaning that the Huskies have netted nearly half a point from their opponents for every possession exchanged.
But aside from being the biggest star on the best team, what role has Stewart played in all of this? For a player of her stature, that can be a surprisingly tough question to answer, at least by the stats.
If you look at the various NCAA leaderboards, Stewart’s name doesn’t come up very often. That’s because her Connecticut teams have been pretty well-balanced, so even though she’s been their consensus best player, she doesn’t have everything run through her. It’s also because the Huskies rarely play a competitive game, so Stewart doesn’t play as much as she could — she’s averaging just under 30 minutes per game over the past three seasons. This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if better stats were available, but even something as simple as total rebound rate, a staple of basketball analysis, is tough to come by in women’s ball — especially with the best women’s basketball stats site out of commission.
But while UConn does do a lot of things well enough not to need maximum output from Stewart from night to night, the main reason that it’s been far and away the best team over the past few years is still, obviously, that it’s had the best player in college basketball.
Stewart’s game isn’t as flashy as some, but she’s good-to-great at virtually everything. As a 6-foot-4 power forward who plays center and can shoot the rock from anywhere, she’s been drawing Kevin Durant comps since she got to UConn. It isn’t just the lanky eurosteps through the lane and long-armed passing angles that draw those comparisons, either — it’s how she keeps on improving. Not all our play-by-play data has shot location information,1 but that which does is revealing. Let’s have a look at Stewart’s shot charts for this season and the previous two:
The first thing you should notice is how evenly distributed both her shots and makes are. She can shoot close, midrange and long shots all fine.
A little harder to see in there is how she’s improved all her percentages while taking on a star player’s workload:
|FIELD GOAL PERCENTAGE|
Look at that jump in 3-point percentage this season. Stewart has gone to the deep ball effectively, and it works for her both because her length and form afford her plenty of time to load up and take aim and because her size and skill inside force teams to sell out when she feints a pick-and-roll and floats out for a three. For a player who began with few weaknesses, this rapid improvement has put Stewart in rarefied air. But it isn’t just her shooting that’s improving. Here’s how Stewart’s production has risen relative to her teammates (and herself) in a few key box-score stats:
Rebounding is a little difficult to gauge with the Huskies; because they have such a high shooting percentage, they have fewer opportunities for offensive rebounds than many teams. They also have a lot of quality rebounders who play limited minutes, but Stewart has taken over as the team’s top rebounder. In other words, she’s a shot-blocking, rebound-grabbing, ball-stealing, assist-dishing big who can shoot from anywhere.
Oh, and she plays great defense.
Synergy Sports Technology tracks points scored per play on offense as well as points allowed per play on defense. Although Stewart has always been top-tier in both (as is much of UConn), 2015-16 has really been a breakout for her:
Stewart has scored just over 1.2 points per offensive play used and allowed just under 0.5 points per play defended — both of these numbers are among the best in the sport, especially considering the number of plays in which she was involved. Comparing these to expectation (the net result of typical offensive plays and typical defended plays), we can figure out roughly how much each player contributed per play, as well as how much she contributed overall. The following chart represents the total amount contributed relative to expectation (via offensive plays used and opponent plays defended) by each Division I player in the Breanna Era (i.e., this season and the previous three):
Note that there are some great players like Brittney Griner (the highest dot of any player with only one year in the Breanna era, as well as the highest average per-play overall) who contributed huge amounts over their whole eras as well — i.e., this shouldn’t be taken as a broader historical comparison. But over the past four seasons, no one has dominated like Stewart, whose offensive and defensive talents have contributed 880 points by this method, 80 points more than second-place Kelsey Minato of Army.
After this season, Stewart will be off to the WNBA and the nomadic life of international play during the offseason that the best women’s players ride out. But that’s all for tomorrow. Today, we can enjoy watching one of the best female athletes in the world making one last run through the NCAA Tournament and see just how much her game can grow. It’s shown no signs of stopping yet.
Check out FiveThirtyEight’s 2016 March Madness Predictions.