Louisville and South Florida play Monday night in the second-round women’s NCAA tournament game that our March Madness predictions have the least certainty about. We’re giving Louisville, the No. 3 seed in the Albany region, a 52 percent chance to beat South Florida and advance to the Sweet Sixteen. It might as well be a coin flip. No other favorite in a second-round game had less than a 66 percent chance of winning.
Why is the game so tough to call? It has more to do with the unusual structure of the women’s tournament’s first two rounds than with the teams involved. Typically, the top four seeds in each region get to host the first two rounds. This year, that happened for 15 of 16 top-four seeds. Louisville was the exception, because its arena is busy hosting men’s tournament games. Rather than head to a neutral site, the Cardinals had to travel to the arena of the next highest-seeded team in its quartet: South Florida’s Sun Dome in Tampa.
Home court advantage typically is worth 3.5 points in women’s college hoops. So this scheduling conflict adds up to a 7-point swing in the Bulls’ favor as they look to make a dent in the Cardinals’ 26-4 record against them and avenge a loss last year that effectively knocked them out of the tournament.
“Both teams know each other, are very familiar with both styles, with personnel, so it’s a shame we’re meeting this early in the tournament,” South Florida coach Jose Fernandez told the Tampa Bay Times. “But I’m glad we’re home.”
That bit of scheduling luck, and not South Florida’s strength, is what boosts the Bulls’ chances so much. South Florida is good for a 6 seed: Our mashup of power ratings and rankings says the Bulls are the 20th best team in the field, so they probably should have gotten a 5 seed. But Louisville might also have been underseeded. It’s the eighth-highest-rated team in the field, which usually is good enough for a 2 seed. The Cardinals won their first-round game by 33 points, compared to a 9-point win for South Florida. Texas, the fifth seed in the Albany region, and No. 4 California were rated much more closely than Louisville and South Florida are. In fact, Texas rated slightly higher than Cal, yet Cal, playing at home in Berkeley, had a two-in-three chance of winning. (Texas pulled off the upset, 73-70.)
Monday night’s toss-up game is a good argument for changing the best-teams-host model in the early rounds, for two reasons. First, choosing neutral sites in advance would prevent the double-booking of arenas such as Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center. And second, the women’s tournament probably would have more competitive games if it didn’t boost its already-strong favorites with hosting privileges.
Through Sunday, men’s favorites, playing in neutral arenas, have struggled more than women’s teams that get to host their competition. Two of 16 men’s teams seeded fourth or better lost in the round of 64, and five more went down in the next round. The teams averaged a winning margin of 12.3 points in the round of 64 and 4.4 points in the next round. By contrast, all of the 15 women’s teams that were seeded that high and got to host made it to the round of 32, and just three of the eight that played at home on Sunday lost there. The 15 teams averaged a 23.3-point win in the first round and a 9.5-point win in the second round. Some of the difference is due to a wider spread of talent in the women’s field.1
Until the women’s tournament removes favorites’ hosting rights, here’s a more modest proposal for schools that have women’s teams as strong as Louisville’s (Elite Eight last year, national runner-up the year before): Don’t host men’s tournament games on the opening weekend, lest you put your women’s team at a competitive disadvantage.
Check out FiveThirtyEight’s March Madness predictions.