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Your Guide To The NCAA Women’s Tournament That Could Have Been

Oregon seniors Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard had seemingly been building toward the 2020 NCAA Tournament their entire careers. They made the Elite Eight their first two seasons on campus, then broke through for the program’s first Final Four appearance a season ago. With the goal of a Final Four accomplished, Ionescu could have left Eugene for the WNBA draft but chose to return to school. “We have unfinished business,” she wrote in The Players’ Tribune last April.

Because of the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament, Ionescu and Hebard — and hundreds of players across the country — will not get the chance to finish what they started. Tyasha Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, the senior stars of No. 1 South Carolina, won’t get to try to bookend their careers with a national championship after winning it all in 2017. Mid-major stars like Princeton’s Bella Alarie, Drake’s Sara Rhine and South Dakota’s Ciara Duffy won’t get the chance to take on bigger programs. And most of all, there will be no buzzer beaters, no jaw-dropping performances, no “one shining moment” that gets replayed for years to come.

Here at FiveThirtyEight, we want to help fill some of that void. We brought back our March Madness prediction model for the women’s and men’s tournaments, using seeds and regions from ESPN’s Bracketology, and we’ll be simulating what might have happened over the next two weeks. Read on for our analysis of the women’s tournament, and check back on Mondays and Fridays to see how our model believes the tourney would have played out.

Top seeds

The four No. 1 seeds in our bracket are South Carolina, Oregon, Baylor and Maryland. Those first three have been atop the AP poll for eight straight weeks, and most analysts considered them the class of the NCAA this season. The FiveThirtyEight model also pegged these three teams as the favorites, with each having at least a 75 percent chance of making the Final Four and a 20 percent chance of winning it all.

Overall, Oregon was FiveThirtyEight’s favorite to win the title (37 percent), and it had the best chances of advancing to the Final Four (86 percent). The Ducks would likely have had to beat UConn in the Elite Eight, Baylor in the Final Four and South Carolina in the championship game to pull it off. The fact that Oregon had better than 1-in-3 odds of succeeding speaks to the talent assembled by head coach Kelly Graves, including Ionescu and Hebard, as well as junior Satou Sabally.

South Carolina is the only team besides Oregon that had better than 50-50 odds of making the championship game. The two teams combined for a 63-3 record this season and had just one loss between them since Dec. 1.1 Like Oregon, the Gamecocks had a star-studded roster, including Harris, Herbert Harrigan and freshman Aliyah Boston, so this final could have been a championship game for the ages.

Defending champion Baylor rounded out the top three with a 20 percent chance of winning it all. After those three powerhouses, the most likely champion was Maryland, which — despite winning 17 games in a row entering the tournament — had just a 9 percent chance of taking home the trophy. The only other teams with better than 1 percent odds of winning the tournament were 2-seeds Louisville and UConn. Interestingly, both had 2 percent odds of winning the title, but Louisville had significantly better odds of advancing to the Final Four, 28 percent to 11 percent. This is likely because Louisville would have been in the Fort Wayne regional alongside Maryland, while UConn was projected to be in the Portland regional with Oregon.

Sleepers

The Greenville regional is stacked: Beyond No. 1 South Carolina, the regional also has the ACC champion (No. 2 NC State), two teams from the nation’s toughest conference in the Pac-12 (No. 3 UCLA, No. 4 Oregon State) and the Missouri Valley champion (No. 5 Missouri State). That is without even mentioning No. 7 Arkansas, the third-highest scoring team in the nation, or No. 9 FGCU, which takes — and makes — a bunch of 3-pointers while committing the fewest turnovers per game in the country. (That’s a pretty good combination if you’re trying to pull some upsets!) It’s hard to pick just one sleeper from this regional, but I’ll choose Missouri State, which has nearly as many double-figure scorers (three) as losses (four) this season. Just ask Oregon State, which got all it could handle from the Bears in Corvallis back in November. Behind 21 points from leading scorer Alexa Willard, Missouri State led at halftime and continued to control the game until a 13-0 third-quarter run from the Beavers proved to be the difference. A rematch on a neutral court could have flipped the script for Missouri State and sent the team to its second straight Sweet Sixteen.

In the Dallas regional, home to No. 1 seed Baylor and No. 2 seed Stanford, don’t count out the SEC runners-up, Mississippi State. The No. 3 seed had a 42 percent chance to upset Stanford and make the Elite Eight and a 9 percent chance to make the Final Four. Compare that to the other No. 3 seeds, which had at best a 4 percent chance of making the Final Four, and you’ve got a possible sleeper in the making. The Bulldogs are led by freshman Rickea Jackson (15.1 points per game), who had at least 23 points and 10 rebounds in two of three games in the SEC Tournament. If she had continued this hot streak in the NCAA Tournament, she could have set the Dallas regional on fire.

Finally, don’t overlook the Ivy champion, Princeton, who earned the No. 6 seed in the Portland regional. The Tigers may have deserved a better seed and placement — they lost just once all year, at No. 4 seed Iowa in overtime in November. The Tigers’ defense was a menace: They allowed the fewest points per game in the country while also finishing in the top 15 in steals and blocks per game. They also had a projected first-round WNBA Draft pick in Alarie, who averaged 17.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.3 blocks per game.

Busts

Two Pac-12 teams — perhaps worn down from the grind of a conference in which half of the league ended the season in the top 25 — may have felt the sting of an early exit. Both Oregon State and Stanford had battled injuries: Oregon State freshman Kennedy Brown suffered a season-ending knee injury in February, and junior Taya Corosdale missed all but two games with a hamstring injury. Meanwhile, Stanford’s DiJonai Carrington and Haley Jones missed most and half of their team’s games, respectively, and while details have been scarce, head coach Tara VanDerveer said last week that she was not expecting them to return for the NCAA Tournament. Both teams had many good wins this season but not a lot of great ones, including going a combined 0-5 against Oregon, and they may simply not have had enough firepower to live up to their seeds.

Another team that could have been sent home early is No. 6 Ohio State, which made a run to the Big Ten Tournament championship game before falling to Maryland. The Buckeyes were a solid team, finishing 21-12 with wins over Louisville, Indiana and Iowa. But they were not stellar on defense, ranking just 144th nationally in points allowed per 100 possessions, or from the free-throw line, where their 68.6 percent shooting ranked 205th. Average defense and poor free-throw shooting do not typically lead to postseason success, and the FiveThirtyEight model seems to reflect that: Ohio State’s 66 percent chance of advancing out of the first round was easily the lowest among the No. 6 seeds, as was its 10 percent chance of making the Sweet Sixteen.

Check out our simulated March Madness predictions.

Footnotes

  1. That lone blemish was Oregon’s 72-66 loss to Arizona State on Jan. 10.

Jenn Hatfield is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area. Her work can be found on Her Hoop Stats and The Next.

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