Last weekend, the UConn women’s basketball team punched its ticket to a 26th straight Sweet 16 with an 82-74 win over Buffalo. It was business as usual except for one small detail: the Huskies are a No. 2 seed, making this the first year since 2006 that the Huskies are not a No. 1 seed. The selection committee’s decision was controversial, but UConn Coach Geno Auriemma shrugged it off, saying, “We’re not going to practice differently because we’re a 2 instead of a 1.”
Auriemma surely hopes his team doesn’t play any differently, either, as the Huskies have advanced to the Final Four in each of the past 11 seasons. In that span, they have won six national championships.
But seeding aside, are this year’s Huskies any different? After all, this team only lost two games and none in the American Athletic Conference. Are UConn fans right to be upset about the No. 2 seed, or is the seed a real reflection of the fact that this year’s Huskies aren’t quite as elite as their title-winning predecessors?
2018-19 UConn versus 2015-16 UConn
UConn most recently won an NCAA title in 2015-16, led by the dominant trio of Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck. That team went 38-0 and won by almost 40 points per game, including a 31-point victory over Syracuse in the national championship game. According to Her Hoop Stats, UConn led the nation in most traditional and advanced statistics, including points per game, points allowed per game, field goal percentage, points per scoring attempt, assists per game and block rate.
As an exercise, I selected 23 statistical categories from Her Hoop Stats on which to compare the 2015-16 and the 2018-19 teams. These included statistics on offense and defense—and on shooting, rebounding, assists, steals, blocks and fouls — in an attempt to represent the full range of each team’s abilities. Eight of the statistics happened to be categories in which UConn led the nation in 2015-16. This year’s UConn team leads the nation in just one of these statistics — foul rate — and bettered the 2015-16 team’s numbers in only three. This year’s team holds opponents to a lower shooting percentage on three-pointers, records assists on a higher percentage of its baskets, and has a slightly lower turnover rate than the 2015-16 team.
|2015-16||2018-19||Is 2018-19 better?|
|Points per game||88.1||83.4|
|Opponent points per game||48.3||55.3|
|Possessions per 40 minutes||70.9||70.8|
|Opponent average win percentage||59.5%||56.2%|
|Effective field goal percentage||59.0%||55.8%|
|Free throw share||80.0%||73.5%|
|Points per scoring attempt||1.23||1.17|
|Opponent effective field goal share||38.0%||38.8%|
|Opponent 3-point share||29.9%||28.3%||✓|
|Opponent points per scoring attempt||0.79||0.82|
|Opponent 3-point rate||30.2%||32.2%|
|Offensive rebounding rate||39.8%||35.6%|
|Defensive rebounding rate||72.6%||69.9%|
|Total rebounding rate||57.9%||54.6%|
|Opponent turnover rate||25.3%||19.1%|
However, the 2015-16 team set an incredibly high bar; comparing any team to that team feels akin to saying, “These UCLA Bruins are OK, but they’ve got nothing on John Wooden’s 1972 squad.” Not only did the 2015-16 UConn team go undefeated, but it didn’t win a single game all season by fewer than 10 points. Seniors Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck became the first three picks in the 2016 WNBA draft — the only time three players from the same school have ever been the top three picks in the WNBA or NBA draft.
2018-19 UConn versus UConn title teams since 2009
Her Hoop Stats only offers advanced statistics on teams from the 2015-16 season to the present, but UConn makes plenty of traditional stats available in its women’s basketball archives. Here is how this year’s UConn team compares to the six most recent UConn champions in 16 categories:
|Points per game||4||2||1||6||5||7||3|
|Opp. points per game||7||3||4||2||5||1||6|
|Field goal share||7||2||1||5||6||3||4|
|Opp. field goal share||7||5||2||3||4||1||6|
|Opponent 3-point share||4||6||3||2||5||1||7|
|Free throw share||4||1||5||3||2||6||7|
|Rebounds per game||6||7||2||3||4||1||4|
|Opp. rebounds per game||7||1||2||6||4||2||5|
|Assists per game||5||1||3||2||4||6||7|
|Turnovers per game||1||3||4||2||6||7||5|
|Steals per game||7||1||3||4||2||5||6|
|Opp. turnovers per game||7||1||4||6||2||3||5|
|Blocks per game||7||3||2||1||4||5||6|
This year’s UConn team ranks the best of the seven Huskies teams in just one category (fewest turnovers per game). It also trails the pack in several categories, most of which are on the defensive end. The 2018-19 Huskies generate the fewest steals and opponent turnovers of any UConn champion since 2009, allow the most points and the best shooting percentage, and give up the most rebounds. They are also shooting the worst percentage from the field, but they are still scoring more points per game than three of the previous six UConn champions.
If you take the average in each statistical category, this year’s UConn team also ranks below average in all but two categories: turnovers per game and assist-to-turnover ratio. All together, these comparisons suggest there is some truth to the idea that this year’s UConn team isn’t as much of a juggernaut as it has been for most of the past 10 years.
Where does that leave this year’s Huskies?
Don’t panic, Huskies fans. None of this means the 2018-19 team cannot take home another championship. In fact, FiveThirtyEight’s March Madness predictions give UConn a 70 percent chance of making its 12th straight Final Four and a 16 percent chance of winning the championship. The latter is the third-best odds of any team left in the tournament. And UConn may have an ace up its sleeve in the form of senior Napheesa Collier. The 6-foot-1 forward was inexplicably left off the list of four finalists for the 2019 Naismith Player of the Year Award, but many of her numbers actually compare favorably to what three-time Naismith Player of the Year Breanna Stewart did in her senior year in 2015-16. Here are the stats in which Collier tops Stewart:
|Collier (2018-19)||Stewart (2015-16)|
|Minutes per game||32.5||29.1|
|Points per game||21.1||19.4|
|Total rebounds per game||10.7||8.7|
|Offensive rebounds per game||3.2||2.2|
|Defensive rebounds per game||7.5||6.6|
|Effective field goal share||63.4%||62.8%|
|Total rebounding rate||17.3%||17.0%|
|Offensive rebounding rate||11.6%||9.4%|
|Field goals made per game||8.6||7.4|
|Field goals attempted per game||13.9||12.8|
And here are the categories in which Stewart comes out on top:
|Collier (2018-19)||Stewart (2015-16)|
|Assists per game||3.6||4.0|
|Turnovers per game||2.0||1.6|
|Steals per game||1.5||1.8|
|Blocks per game||1.5||3.4|
|Fouls per game||1.6||1.4|
|Points per scoring attempt||1.30||1.32|
|Free throw rate||15.9%||16.0%|
|Free throw share||71.3%||83.6%|
|Defensive rebounding rate||21.9%||23.3%|
Collier is averaging 21.1 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per game for the Huskies. She ranks in the top 10 percent of players nationally in usage rate (27.0 percent), meaning that more than one in four Huskies possessions while she’s on the court ends with her shooting the ball or turning it over. (She registers an assist on another 21.5 percent of UConn possessions while she’s on the court.) Despite such a heavy workload, she is among the most efficient players in the nation, ranking 19th in field goal percentage (61.9%) and 22nd in points per scoring attempt (1.30).
In March, anything can happen. Sometimes a player puts a team on his or her back and carries it to a championship. Basketball fans in Storrs know something about this: Kemba Walker did it for the UConn men in 2011 and Shabazz Napier followed suit three years later. In other years, the best team does win, as shown by UConn’s four undefeated seasons from 2008-09 to 2015-16. In other years, it’s a little of both — such as in 2002-03, a dominant season for the Huskies that Auriemma famously summarized as, “We have Diana [Taurasi] and you don’t.” This year, whether the title goes to an excellent team or to a transcendent individual talent, the UConn women have a good chance of taking home the trophy. The Huskies may not be quite as intimidating as they once were, but the 2-seed is still among the nation’s best. And, of course, they have Napheesa, and other teams don’t.