For years, the not-so-burning question around the NCAA women’s basketball tournament was whether anybody stood a chance of beating the Connecticut Huskies. The answer, of course, was a resounding “no” in 2013. And 2014. And 2015 and 2016. Last season was more interesting, however; for the first time since we started predicting the women’s tournament in 2015, UConn’s odds of winning the title dipped below 70 percent. And sure enough, the Huskies were eventually unseated by Mississippi State in the Final Four, while South Carolina took home the national title. At long last, we had a little competitive balance in women’s hoops!
Unfortunately for everyone except Connecticut fans, the parity party was short-lived. (Well, sort of — more on that later.) After experiencing the sting of defeat from their first loss in 112 games last March, Katie Lou Samuelson and the Huskies came back to once again establish themselves as far and away the most dominating team in the country. And as usual, they are huge favorites to win the NCAA tournament, according to FiveThirtyEight’s forecast model.
Here’s how UConn compared with every other tournament-bound team this season, in terms of schedule-adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency data from HerHoopStats.com:
Coach Geno Auriemma’s crew led the nation in adjusted efficiency margin in each of the previous four seasons,1 so it’s no surprise to see the Huskies out in front of the field this year as well. But this season’s team might have been the best Connecticut squad in recent history — which is really saying something, considering that the 2015-16 Huskies were possibly the greatest women’s college basketball team of all time. As dominant as that Breanna Stewart-led team was, this year’s version is slightly better, according to HerHoopStats’ net efficiency ratings:
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The prospect of UConn bouncing back with a vengeance — from a “down” season in which it went 36-1 and came within an incredible overtime buzzer-beater of going to a fifth straight national championship game — might seem a little anticlimactic. But even though UConn looks as good as ever, there are signs that the rest of the country is catching up, slowly but surely.
While the FiveThirtyEight model gave the 2016 Huskies a 70 percent chance of winning the title going into the tournament — with no other team in double-digits, percentage-wise — this year’s model assigns Connecticut a 65 percent championship probability, with Baylor sneaking into double-digits at 12 percent.February injury to mega-efficient guard Kristy Wallace complicates that projection, although freshman understudy Alexis Morris performed well in Wallace’s stead.">2 According to HerHoopStats, the gap between UConn and Baylor in 2016 was 21.4 points per 100 possessions. This year, that difference is down to 14.8, despite Connecticut’s improved rating.
This isn’t to say that the Huskies aren’t still overwhelmingly likely to win. Our model gives them a whopping 93 percent chance to make the Final Four, and few teams in the country are fit to keep things remotely competitive with UConn, much less beat them. But the parity — albeit incremental — that finally broke through with Connecticut’s loss last season carried over slightly into this year’s tournament. UConn can keep getting better, but it won’t make them quite as massive a favorite as they were even a few seasons ago.
Check out our latest March Madness predictions.