To borrow a trademark from the world of golf, the 2021 NCAA women’s basketball tournament will certainly be “a tradition unlike any other.” Among the differences this year from recent editions of the storied tournament: It will be played entirely on neutral courts in the state of Texas instead of the first two rounds occurring on the home courts of the 1 through 4 seeds; teams will have to adhere to stringent COVID-19 protocols; and games will start this Sunday, March 21, instead of on the usual Friday. Indeed, in ways big and small, the tournament has been altered by the pandemic — but it will perhaps be better for it.
“I personally think it’s going to be the best tournament that we’ve had since I’ve been coaching,” said Jeff Walz, the head coach of No. 2 seed Louisville, on Monday night, citing the fact that the neutral site could help underdogs pull off early round upsets.
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Combine that more level playing field with the unprecedented amount of parity this season, and it is shaping up to be an exciting tournament. Four different teams have held the No. 1 ranking in the AP poll this season, and multiple bracketologists, including ESPN’s Charlie Creme and The Next’s Russell Steinberg, suggested that as many as seven teams had a chance at the No. 1 seeds. “I just don’t see a dominant team,” said Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey, whose team secured a No. 2 seed on the strength of an eye-popping 25-2 record and the nation’s best field-goal percentage defense. “I see outstanding teams, but it’s gonna be who stays the healthiest. It’s going to be who’s playing the best and gets on a roll here.”
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To help you sort through the elite teams, sleepers and underdogs as you make your picks, FiveThirtyEight has brought back its March Madness prediction model. Click here to learn more about how the model works, or read on to see what the model predicts for the women’s tournament. We’re also highlighting the best first-round matchups to help you optimize your television schedule on Sunday and Monday.
The No. 1 seeds are Stanford, UConn, South Carolina and NC State, with NC State ascending to that perch for the first time in school history. However, the ACC Tournament champion Wolfpack have the lowest odds of the top seeds to reach the Final Four (37 percent) and win it all (4 percent) after being placed in the Mercado region alongside the SEC regular-season champion and No. 2 seed Texas A&M and the No. 3 seed Arizona Wildcats, who finished second in the Pac-12 behind Stanford.
The other three No. 1 seeds each have at least a 50 percent chance to reach the Final Four, led by 77 percent for Stanford, the top team in FiveThirtyEight’s power ratings. Those odds are 19 percentage points clear of UConn, the next closest team, but in a sign of the sport’s increased parity, they’re the lowest for the top-rated team since FiveThirtyEight began modeling the women’s tourney in 2015.1
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When it comes to winning a championship, Stanford is also the favorite, with better than 1 in 3 odds of hoisting the trophy (36 percent). UConn has a 24 percent chance, South Carolina has a 12 percent chance, and Baylor, at 11 percent, is the only other team with at least a 1 in 10 chance to win it all. Along with Stanford’s 25-2 record and average margin of victory of 25.7 points (yes, you read that right), another reason that the Cardinal could take home the trophy is that they have more experience than any other team with living on the road. This winter, COVID-19 restrictions in Santa Clara County forced them to spend nine straight weeks on the road in order to play, which gave them a preview of what it will be like to live in San Antonio for up to three weeks in pursuit of a national title.
Maryland, the No. 2 seed in the Hemisfair region opposite South Carolina, was in contention for a top seed after winning the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles and leading the nation in offensive rating this season. (Even more impressively, the gap between Maryland and the team with the second-best offensive rating was as large as between second and 12th place.) Head coach Brenda Frese has favorably compared this year’s squad with her 2006 championship team, saying, “This team is probably even more potent. A little more depth. The unselfishness they play with … I think really separates this team into another category.”
Our projections back that up, giving the Terps 1 in 3 odds of advancing to the Final Four (33 percent) and 6 percent odds of winning a title, the fifth-best title odds of any team. The Terps are led by sophomores Ashley Owusu and Diamond Miller, who combine to average 35.5 points per game on nearly 50 percent shooting from the field. But they also have four other double-figure scorers, including Katie Benzan, the Harvard transfer who leads the nation with a 147.1 offensive rating and makes over 50 percent of her 3-pointers.
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Meanwhile, in the Mercado region, No. 3 seed Arizona is a legitimate Final Four threat behind senior guard Aari McDonald. McDonald is the kind of player who seems destined to go down in March Madness lore: She is averaging 19.3 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.7 steals per game and was named both Pac-12 Player of the Year and Co-Defensive Player of the Year. And although her 35.3 percent usage rate means she accounts for a greater share of her team’s offensive plays when she’s on the floor than all but five other players in the country, she has talented players around her in Sam Thomas, Trinity Baptiste and Cate Reese, each of whom is averaging between 7 and 12 points per game.
The result is that Arizona has a 20 percent chance of making the Final Four. Those are higher odds than No. 2 seeds Louisville and Texas A&M, and higher than the odds for the three other No. 3 seeds combined.2 Playing in their first NCAA Tournament since 2005, the Wildcats are poised to make it count.
Georgia is a No. 3 seed in the Alamo region after its run to the SEC Tournament championship game, but the Bulldogs have just a 41 percent chance to make the Sweet 16. No. 6 seed Oregon is actually favored to take that spot, with 51 percent odds.
The prediction model has even worse news for No. 8 seed South Florida, the only top-eight seed that has less than a 50 percent chance to escape the first round. Its opponent, No. 9 seed Washington State, is in the tournament for the first time in 30 years and could surprise some people behind standout freshman Charlisse Leger-Walker from New Zealand.
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Finally, the River Walk region could be a bust if it doesn’t give us two tantalizing second-weekend matchups: No. 4 seed Kentucky versus No. 5 seed Iowa, with the winner taking on No. 1 seed UConn. These matchups would be duels between some of the nation’s premier scorers in Kentucky junior Rhyne Howard (20.7 points per game), Iowa freshman Caitlin Clark (26.7 points per game) and UConn freshman Paige Bueckers (19.7 points per game). Howard and Bueckers were their conferences’ players of the year, Bueckers and Clark were their conferences’ freshmen of the year, and Clark is averaging the most points of any freshman dating back to 2015-16.
“I kind of had [an] inkling that they were going to do that, to be quite honest,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said of being placed in UConn’s region. “… I know we have two really tough games, but I think everybody would like to have a Caitlin-Paige matchup.”
First-round matchups to watch
The aforementioned 8-9 game between South Florida and Washington State (Sunday, 9:30 p.m. Eastern time) is the most even first-round matchup in our projections, with Washington State having a 51 percent chance to win. Two 7-10 matchups have the next closest odds, as No. 7 seed Alabama has a 56 percent chance to advance over No. 10 seed North Carolina (Monday, 12 p.m. Eastern) and fellow No. 7 seed Virginia Tech has a 57 percent chance to beat No. 10 seed Marquette (Sunday, 12 p.m. Eastern).
If you’re more interested in games with clear upset potential, make sure to watch mid-majors South Dakota (No. 11 seed), FGCU (No. 11 seed) and Stephen F. Austin (No. 12 seed). All three teams rank among the top 15 nationally in net rating and points per play, and they have combined to lose just nine games all season. Meanwhile, their Power Five opponents have each hit rough patches, losing at least three of their last five games entering the tournament.
No. 11 FGCU vs. No. 6 Michigan, Sunday, 3 p.m. Eastern
FiveThirtyEight model’s prediction: Michigan over FGCU (70 percent)
No. 12 Stephen F. Austin vs. No. 5 Georgia Tech, Sunday, 4:30 p.m. Eastern
FiveThirtyEight model’s prediction: Georgia Tech over Stephen F. Austin (68 percent)
No. 11 South Dakota vs. No. 6 Oregon, Monday, 10 p.m. Eastern
FiveThirtyEight model’s prediction: Oregon over South Dakota (80 percent)