Only four teams remain standing in the women’s NCAA Tournament, and, as has been the case all season, one stands quite a bit taller than the rest. The UConn women won all 32 regular-season games by an average margin of 40.3 points per game and then somehow improved on that during the NCAA Tournament — winning by 44.8 points per game en route to the Final Four. Now the Huskies have a 93 percent chance of winning the title (according to FiveThirtyEight’s projections) and, honestly, even that feels a little low.
For all that UConn has accomplished over the past four seasons, the present squad may be their best. Using my colleague Neil Paine’s method of estimating an NCAA team’s strength at any given moment,1 the Huskies have steadily improved over each of the past four seasons. By that measure, this year’s squad is the best UConn team of the Breanna Stewart Era.
In the tournament, the Huskies have scored 1.18 points per possession on offense and allowed 0.64 on defense, according to Synergy Sports Technology. That adds up to an absurd advantage of more than half a point every trip up and down the court, roughly the same as what my colleague Benjamin Morris found to be the norm throughout UConn’s Stewart Era.
Speaking of Stewart, all she’s done this tournament is to average 20.5 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 3.0 steals and 4.0 blocks — in fewer than 30 minutes per game — shooting 59.2 percent from the field, 46.2 percent on three-pointers and 85.7 percent from the line. The Huskies have the best player and the best team, and the whole machine is running at peak efficiency right now.
As inevitable as a UConn title may feel, however, they still need to get through two more games. Oregon State is waiting for the Huskies in the Final Four, as are Syracuse and Washington on the other side of the bracket. So here’s the lowdown on the last three teams that have any hope of derailing UConn’s freight train before it can arrive at a fourth consecutive championship:
If UConn’s efficient play has netted them an extra half-point per possession, then the first step for Oregon State is to slow the game down — every additional possession is an opportunity for UConn’s advantage to manifest itself. Research has shown that about two-thirds of a game’s pace is dictated by the offense, so the job for Oregon is to grind out their possessions, protecting the ball and using as much clock as possible.
That’s not exactly Oregon State’s forte, however. The Beavers averaged 15.3 turnovers per game during the regular season, 123rd in the country, and they’ve struggled in the tournament as well, turning the ball over 18 times against Troy in the opening round and 19 times against Baylor in the regional final. The team’s two leading scorers and primary perimeter weapons, Jamie Weisner and Sydney Wiese, were responsible for 13 of those turnovers against the Bears.
So Weisner and Wiese will need to be much tighter with the ball against UConn. But both have had also had their moments of brilliance in the tournament thus far. Weisner dropped 38 points on DePaul in the regional semifinal — including 21 points from three-pointers alone — and is scoring 19.8 per game for the tourney as a whole. She’s averaging 1.3 points per possession as a spot-up shooter these past four games, according to Synergy Sports Technology, and has also been very good coming off screens and handling the ball in the pick-and-roll. As for Wiese, she creates plenty of offense with her scoring and passing; combining those two areas of the game, she’s generating 1.12 points per possession as a ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. She’s also turning the ball over on just 9.6 percent of her pick-and-roll plays, which should be Oregon State’s bread and butter if they want to control the clock.
On defense, the Beavers were one of the best units in Division I this season, allowing the nation’s lowest field goal percentage and outrebounding opponents by an average of 11.7 boards per game. But they’ll need a lot more than that to beat UConn. Wiese and Weisner must control the tempo with a deliberate dribble-drive attack and knock down their three-pointers (they’re a combined 19-for-53 in the tournament). And even that might not be enough to topple the Huskies.
This has been an unbelievable run for the Orange, a team that FiveThirtyEight’s pre-tournament projections gave a mere 6 percent chance of reaching the Final Four. And since they’ll be paired against another Cinderella in the Washington Huskies, Syracuse has a fairly healthy chance of making it to the national title game — 62 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s current projections.
The Syracuse game plan is about overwhelming opponents with aggressive defensive pressure, prolific three-point shooting and relentless work on the offensive glass. The Orange ranked second in the nation in steals this season with 12.8 per game. Those live-ball turnovers feed their offense at the other end, and according to Synergy Sports Technology they’ve averaged 20 transition possessions per game in the tournament, making it their most common category of offensive play. They average a whopping 0.18 fewer points on half-court possessions than in transition, so Syracuse has to get out and run if they want to maximize their offensive potential.
The Orange also rely heavily on the three-point shot. Guard Brianna Butler attempted more threes (398) than any other player in women’s college basketball this season, and as a team Syracuse hoisted the third-most attempts in the country. You might think this would go hand in hand with dead-eye marksmanship from downtown — but at 29.6 percent, the Orange aren’t exactly evoking Golden State Warriors comparisons.
Syracuse did collect a fair number of those misses though, finishing fourth in the country in offensive rebounds per game. In fact, Synergy Sports Technology calculates that the team earned 5.4 extra points per game on put-backs. So for the Orange, the formula for success is fairly simple: force turnovers, hunt threes, chase misses, wash, rinse, repeat.
Of the four teams remaining, Washington had the longest initial odds of making it this far — just 0.2 percent, according to the FiveThirtyEight model. So the fact that they’re here at all is fairly remarkable. And getting here with a roster so eroded by injuries makes the feat even more incredible. Only seven Huskies have played in the tournament, and, functionally, the rotation is really just six players deep. Three different players — Kelsey Plum, Talia Walton and Alexus Atchley — have yet to get a single breather on the bench during any of Washington’s four games. So exhaustion could be a major factor, particularly since Syracuse is going to be pressing and looking to run.
Short-circuiting Syracuse’s defensive pressure means protecting the ball. Plum, the Huskies’ leading scorer and primary ball-handler, has 15 turnovers in the four tournament games. That sounds like a lot, until you factor in how many minutes she’s played and the size of her offensive role. A back-of-the-envelope calculation2 of her True Usage (an estimate of offensive involvement that includes shot attempts, turnovers, trips to the free throw line and assists) for the tournament comes out 41.2 percent.3 If you factor in her offensive workload, those 15 turnovers mean she gave the ball away on just 11.2 percent of the possessions in which she’s been directly involved.4 That in itself is cause for optimism, though she’ll probably need to be even better against a Syracuse defense that thrives off takeaways.
In the half-court, Syracuse plays a zone defense (of course they do, it’s Syracuse after all), and the Husky offense has struggled to solve the zone this season. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Washington averages a robust 0.90 points per possession against man-to-man defenses, but that rate drops to 0.79 against zones, with spot-up shooting — the largest component of the Washington offense — seeing a particular decline. However, just like Syracuse, Washington does have the ability to get out and run on offense before the defense can get set. Plum is relentless in pushing the ball, averaging 8.7 transition possessions per game in the tournament.
Syracuse and Washington have similar strengths, and this should be an up-tempo game. Neither team was expected to be here, but at least one will get a chance to play for a championship — where, let’s be honest, they’ll probably lose to Connecticut.