The perfect fixture for NCAA women’s basketball tournaments

(Illustration by Artur Galocha/The Washington Post) (Illustration by Artur Galocha/The Washington Post)


The NCAA women’s basketball tournament—just like the men’s version—has a field of 68 teams, including 32 conference champions and 36 teams at large. As in the men’s tournament, the bottom four teams at large and the teams ranked 65th through 68th compete in the First Four games, with the winners advancing to the first round of 64 teams. But compared to the men’s tournament, the women’s version tends to be a little more bare – meaning we don’t see as many early-round upsets or as many unexpected national champions.

That shows a few wrinkles when you step into a women’s bracket pool. That said, we’ve reintroduced some of the same strategies that have long driven our Men’s Perfect Bracket to create a similarly perfect Women’s Bracket—one that’s guaranteed* to win your pool.

(*As we note annually in the men’s breakdown, this is a guarantee from Paul the Psychic Octopus rather than a guarantee from Mark Messier.)

First off, it’s worth noting that defending champions South Carolina appear to be a worthy favorite. After adjusting for schedule strength, the Gamecocks are a staggering 42.1 net points per 100 possessions better than an average team. The difference between them and the No. 2 team on this metric, LSU (35.6), is the same as the difference between LSU and Texas, a No. 13 team (22.1). The top-seeker hasn’t lost a game in over a year and is now six games away from a perfect season. South Carolina is so strong that some bookmakers are offering national bets on the Gamecocks vs. the field – and the Gamecocks are favoured. It’s an interesting proposition and it makes sense to bet on South Carolina if you find a price of -150 or better, meaning a $150 bet would win $100. Conversely, if you can get +150 odds on the field (bet $100 to win $150), that’s decent value too.

In any case, no one would blame you for picking South Carolina to win back-to-back titles, even if that goes against our usual fade-the-favorite advice. However, if you’re covering South Carolina, you’ll need to find a value elsewhere in the bracket to differentiate your entry. And we won’t be making too many leaps of faith in lower-ranked teams; Since 1994, when it expanded to 64 teams, the women’s tournament has seen an average of eight upsets a year (with faults defined by a difference of at least two seed lines). That’s about four fewer surprises per year than for men.

Back to the brackets. If you’re looking for a disgruntled candidate in the first round, you probably shouldn’t pick a team lower than number 12. The teams ranked 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th have a combined 11 wins in 448 games since 1994. Additionally, no team seeded below No. 3 has won the women’s tournament in nearly three decades, and no team seeded 10th or lower has ever advanced to the Final Four. Last year, No. 10 Creighton made the Elite Eight but was dropped by South Carolina en route to his title. In other words, it makes sense to mostly advance favorites in your party. However, we will take some calculated risks by using advanced metrics from Her Hoops Stats.

This site produces offensive and defensive ratings much like Ken Pomeroy does for men’s college basketball. These numbers can then be converted into winning probabilities, giving us the most likely winner for each game. That can then be compared to how many public brackets (at ESPN) are pushing a particular team, giving us an indication of which teams are undervalued or overvalued relative to the market.

Below is a regional breakdown of this year’s Perfect Bracket, sprinkled with the occasional surprise and two obvious tournament finalists that could still add value to your bracket.

The first decision you have to make: are you actually picking? #1 South Carolina to become your tournament champion. If that’s the case, you’ll need to differentiate your bracket elsewhere and potentially significantly, as the Gamecocks will be a very popular pick (46.5 percent of brackets filed with ESPN through Tuesday afternoon had South Carolina, who won it all ). With those numbers, identifying the right title winner — assuming it’s not South Carolina — could be enough to lead your bracket to the competition. That’s the direction this year’s Perfect Bracket will go, in South Carolina for the title game but not as the eventual champion.

The rest of this bracket won’t have many surprises, except for #5 Oklahoma Promoted to Sweet 16 rather than UCLA with fourth place finish. The Sooners have an efficient half-court offense (89th percentile, according to Synergy Sports) with some of the best spot-up shooters in the game. Nevaeh Tot shoots 37 percent from behind the arc, Taylor Robertson’s effective field goal percentage (64 percent) is among the highest in the country, and Ana Llanusa has a solid no-dribble jumper who scores more points than expected even when guarding becomes .

#1 Indiana is a serious contender – and a logical alternative to South Carolina to win the national title. The Hoosiers rank third in Her Hoop Stats ratings — which adjust net points per 100 possessions for schedule strength — and their road to the title game isn’t difficult. Still, they’re a top seed and a popular pick — the second most popular Final Four pick on ESPN — so we’ll be taking some other calculated risks in this part of the bracket.

The South Carolina women are the favorites. Here’s who could beat her.

To begin with: take No. 11 UNLV at the expense of No. 6 Michigan. The difference between Michigan and UNLV in the above net rating is negligible (25.3 vs. 23.4), making this a low-risk value play. We will also move forward #5 Washington State in the round of 32 over fourth-seeded Villanova. Cougars guard Charlisse Leger-Walker is a gifted offensive player (24.1 Player Efficiency Rating, 93rd percentile) and has already proven her ability to lead her team to upset wins. Washington State was the seventh seed in the Pac-12 tournament, the lowest seed to make the title game, and the Cougars knocked out UCLA and won their first Pac-12 championship, with Leger-Walker being named the most outstanding player.

Let’s be brave and discount #1 Virginia Tech. The Hokies’ Her Hoop Stats Rating and NET Rating are the lowest of the No. 1 seeds, and they’re having a tough draw No. 9 State of South Dakota goes to the second round. The Summit League regular-season and tournament winner is dangerous and tested, despite the weakness of his conference. The Jackrabbits defeated Louisville when they finished 10th in the state – South Dakota State’s first win over a top 10 team – and also toppled Kansas State when it finished 24th. South Dakota State also defeated Mississippi State, another great conference team in the tournament arena. One of South Dakota’s five losses went to top seed South Carolina, and another to UCLA, a No. 4 seed.

The Jackrabbits have one of the best offenses in the country (1.03 points per possession per Synergy Sports) and scored 0.15 more points per possession than you would have expected this season based on the quality of their shot attempts.

Still, let’s focus on bringing down Virginia Tech No. 5 State of Iowa. The Cyclones are very efficient on offense, whether in the transition phase, in the post, or in the pick and roll. Senior Ashley Joens averaged 26.7 points and 11 rebounds in Iowa State’s wins over Baylor, Oklahoma and Texas in the Big 12 tournament — all NCAA tournament teams. Morgan Kane, a 6-foot-3 center, is back in the starting XI after Stephanie Soares suffered a season-ending ACL injury in January. Since promotion, Kane has averaged 1.1 points per possession with 4.5 rebounds per game; She had a double-double in just 21 minutes against Baylor in the Big 12 quarterfinals.

Let’s take another leap of faith here and send #1 Stanford home in the round of 32. Brave? Yes, but that’s what a winning group requires in a very large pool. (In a smaller pool, it’s okay to take fewer risks.) #9 Gonzaga is the team causing a stir in the Perfect Bracket. The Bulldogs are very good in transition, scoring more than a point per possession (86th percentile per Synergy Sports). Stanford, on the other hand, is bad at defending transition plays, allowing nearly a point per possession (14th percentile). It’s a small advantage that could well pay off if Gonzaga can shock the Cardinal, who’s advanced to two straight Final Fours. The alternative is to move Stanford forward and try to find value in another part of the bracket, but there aren’t many opportunities like that. That one quality play in the early rounds could set your group apart, while picks like Iowa State and Texas (see below) offer opportunities to gain ground if Stanford prevails.

Four Cinderellas Who Could Burst NCAA Women’s Tournament Brackets

Another early surprise to consider is No. 11 State of Middle Tennessee via #6 Colorado. Middle Tennessee earned the 17th-highest Her Hoop Stats rating this season, while Colorado sits at only 35th. In other words, Middle Tennessee — which spent five weeks in the AP Top 25 — had nearly six points per 100 possessions better than Colorado after adjusting for schedule strength.

Finally, #4 Texas gives us a high seed with high upside potential. The Longhorns are the 13th best team this season according to Her Hoop Stats and rely heavily on defense. Texas also snagged 41 percent of its misses for second-chance opportunities, the fifth-highest rate in the country. And while the Longhorns lost to Iowa State in the Big 12 Finals, prior to this game they had won 12 of 14.

Our Final Four is chalky enough to withstand criticism – thanks to favorites South Carolina and Indiana – and brave enough to fight for the grand prize in virtually every pool if Texas and/or Iowa State come through. And while a playoff between Indiana and South Carolina is a common choice, it’s not as if the Hoosiers have the edge. (In less than 7 percent of ESPN’s brackets, Indiana wins the title.) This Final Four is definitely unconventional, but that’s a feature, not a bug. We expect the Perfect Bracket to compete in a large pool, and we want a distinctive bracket that also stands up to analytical scrutiny. This one does.

Unconvinced? Let’s look at our Final Four teams in a vacuum outside of the bracket. We say that the first, third, eighth and 13th best teams in the women’s basket will be the bottom four remaining teams, according to a reputable analytical source. We also try to support the third best team to the top team in the national title fight. It sounds solid to me – and it has what it takes to make a perfect mount. The perfect fixture for NCAA women’s basketball tournaments

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