The very first women’s NCAA basketball tournament was held in 1982, and Louisiana Tech took center stage. The Lady Techsters had already compiled a 109-9 record over the previous three seasons, winning the 1981 AIAW Championship (the precursor to the women’s tourney) with a perfect 34-0 record. Led by Wade Trophy winner1 Pam Kelly, the team put the finishing touches on another title in 1982 by defeating Cheyney and legendary coach C. Vivian Stringer in the final. It was the first of two NCAA championships Louisiana Tech would win in the 1980s and started a run of seven No. 1 seeds across nine NCAA tournaments.
Louisiana Tech was the UConn of the women’s NCAA tourney’s early era. But aside from a few more strong seasons in the 1990s, it’s been downhill since. The Lady Techsters haven’t made the NCAA field since 2011 — at 14-14 this season, they aren’t likely to end that drought soon — and they haven’t had an All-American since Tamicha Jackson in 2000.
Louisiana Tech isn’t alone among once-great programs whose talent pipelines have dried up. A number of teams that were the titans of the early NCAA tournament have struggled in recent decades. And in their place, a new ruling class of schools has emerged to become the defining programs of the modern age. In a championship as young as the women’s tournament, it’s been fascinating to watch the rise and fall of programs that, not very long ago, were in a very different place.
To visualize the progress of women’s programs in the absence of game-level data, such as our Elo ratings, we can use NCAA Tournament seeds as a proxy for team strength over time. This doesn’t explicitly factor in how a team performs in the tournament itself, but it does measure the general quality of a team’s entire season — plus, higher seeds tend to win more in the tournament anyway.2 To measure this, we awarded “seed points” in proportion to a given seed number’s expected wins in the tournament, calibrated to a 100-point scale where the No. 1 seed gets 100 points, No. 2 gets 70 points, and so forth.3
A more basic scoring system might assign 16 points to a No. 1 seed, 15 to a No. 2, etc., all the way down to 1 point for a 16 seed. But that would understate the power of a high seed: Instead of being only twice as valuable as, say, a 9 seed, a No. 1 seed wins about seven times as many games during the average tournament.
Averaging those seed-based point totals over all the women’s tournaments held since 1982, here are the top overall programs of the entire NCAA tourney era.
|Seed Points Per Tournament, by decade|
Some teams, such as Tennessee, have been relatively consistent throughout the NCAA era. Although the Lady Vols were at their best under coach Pat Summitt during the 1990s, ranking first among all programs in seed points per tournament, they were also the third-best program of the 2000s according to our metric, fourth-best of the 1980s and even fifth-best of the 2010s, though the past few years haven’t been as strong by Tennessee standards. (The Vols probably won’t be adding to their tally this season, either: Tennessee is currently 18-11 and ranks 63rd in the RPI ratings, making it a bubble team at best for this year’s bracket.)
Maryland and North Carolina have also been relatively good throughout the history of the women’s tournament. But more striking on the list above is how many programs followed the Louisiana Tech path — dominating the early days of the tourney, only to drop off the face of the Earth later. In addition to the Lady Techsters, three other programs — Long Beach State, Southern Cal and Old Dominion — have seen the biggest drop-off in seed points per tournament between the tournament’s first two decades and its two most recent.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have the programs that started slow and picked up steam into the present day. And as hard as it is to believe now, Connecticut wasn’t always the unstoppable force we see today. The Huskies didn’t make their first NCAA tournament appearance until 1989 and didn’t win a championship before 1995. Now it’s shocking news when UConn might not be a No. 1 seed, and it’s currently riding a streak of 11 straight Final Four berths. According to our metric, no team’s fortunes have improved more between the NCAA tourney’s early period in the 1980s and the current era than the Huskies’.
Other stunning out-of-nowhere success stories include current No. 1 Baylor, which made its first NCAA tournament in 2001(!); defending champion Notre Dame, which didn’t win an NCAA tournament game until 1996; and Duke, which — despite the success of its men’s team — failed to make much noise on the women’s side until the late 1990s/early 2000s. With the exception of the Blue Devils (who at 14-14 are unlikely to make the tournament), all of these programs have continued to be great this season. In fact, many more of today’s top teams — such as Louisville, Mississippi State and South Carolina — all emerged from humble results during the 1980s and ‘90s.
Most sports see early champions maintain some sort of strong presence into modern times, like the New York Yankees in baseball and Boston Celtics in basketball. So it’s surprising that this many of the most dominant teams of the early women’s tourney have vanished from the competitive landscape. It’s not impossible to imagine Louisiana Tech returning to its former glory someday, but for now the Lady Techsters’ success is a memory fading quickly into ancient history.
Sara Ziegler contributed research.