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Analysis | The perfect bracket to win your women’s March Madness pool

Analysis | The perfect bracket to win your women’s March Madness pool

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

The field for the women’s basketball tournament offers relatively little surprise compared to the men’s side. The top seed, 32-0 South Carolina, was the SEC’s regular season and conference tournament champion and is looking to become only the 10th team to complete an undefeated campaign with a national title. Iowa earned the No. 1 seed in the Albany 2 Region, Southern California is the No. 1 seed in Portland 3 while Texas is the top team in Portland 4.

We have two avenues to take in creating a potentially winning bracket this year. We can either back the massive favorite, South Carolina, and try to create value in the earlier rounds, or we can shun the Gamecocks in an attempt to differentiate our bracket as much as possible. If you are in a small pool — say, 25 people or fewer — then backing South Carolina is a decent play, despite the pick’s likely popularity.

However, this article is geared toward people entering bigger pools, prompting us to back South Carolina early and then fade the Gamecocks toward the end of the tournament in favor of more potentially lucrative squads. The logic is the same we’ve long employed in the men’s tournament; if you take the most popular title team, you have to be much closer to perfect with your other picks, while if you’re one of the only people with a less popular title pick, your margin of error expands.

Don’t worry: We will follow some basic guidelines to make sure our bracket doesn’t stray too far from reality. After all, the women’s bracket almost never features as many upsets as the men’s side. No. 1 seeds have won 31 of 41 (76 percent) women’s national championships, including a streak of 11 straight titles from 2012 through 2022. The most common Elite Eight matchup is a No. 1 vs. No. 2 seed, which has happened 51 times. The second-most common is No. 1 vs. No. 3. In fact, no double-digit seed has ever made it past the Elite Eight. The lowest-seeded championship-winning teams were No. 3 North Carolina in 1994, No. 3 Tennessee in 1997 and No. 3 LSU in 2023 (see a pattern here?). The lowest seed to make the national semifinals was No. 9 Arkansas in 1998.

We are also looking to back teams that are efficient on both sides of the ball against the best competition. The eventual champion, for example, has historically had an adjusted net margin of victory of between 41 and 52 points per 100 possessions after adjusting for strength of schedule, according to Her Hoop Stats data. That net margin efficiency drops to a range of 25 to 40 for the runner-up.

We’ve again incorporated some of the same strategies that have powered our Perfect Bracket for the men’s tournament to design a similarly perfect bracket for the women’s tournament — one that is guaranteed* to win you your pool.

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

No. 1 seed South Carolina should dominate this region. Coach Dawn Staley, whose team won a national championship in 2022 and went to the Final Four last year, lost her entire starting five and didn’t miss a beat, developing one of the deepest and most dangerous squads in the country, starting with 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso.

The center, suspended from playing in the opening game against either Presbyterian or Sacred Heart after being ejected for fighting in the SEC title game against LSU, is averaging 14 points and 9.5 rebounds and is a fearsome rim protector, allowing opponents to shoot just 26 percent at the rim as the primary defender, per data from Synergy Sports.

The surprise team could be No. 4 Indiana. The Hoosiers will have home-court advantage for the first two rounds with their first test against No. 13 Fairfield, a team that hasn’t lost since mid-November. However, Indiana is getting healthier and should be at full strength as the tournament begins. Fifth-year senior center Mackenzie Holmes, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, reinjured her left knee in the Hoosiers’ regular season finale on March 3. Having her back in the lineup should put the Hoosiers on a collision course to face South Carolina in the Sweet 16.

There are two notable potential early-round upsets in this region, No. 10 Marquette over No. 7 Mississippi and No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast over No. 5 Oklahoma. Despite the seedings, both games would be considered coin flips on a neutral court, per Her Hoop Stats.

Led by senior forward and first-team all-Big East selection Liza Karlen and senior guard and second-team all-Big East selection Jordan King, Marquette had its best start in program history, including a perfect 11-0 nonconference record. FGCU, meanwhile, is the first program in women’s basketball history to win three games as a 12th seed. A fourth is within reach.

No. 1 Iowa features Caitlin Clark, the preeminent star of college basketball. She surpassed NCAA icon Kelsey Plum, Kansas star Lynette Woodard and then Pete Maravich to become the all-time leading scorer in men’s or women’s college basketball. She is also the first — and only — player in basketball history to reach both 3,000 points and 1,000 assists in a career. Her presence alone is enough to justify Iowa as a title contender.

But this is a rugged region, and let’s not forget about the reigning champion No. 3 LSU. The Tigers’ spotty record against Quadrant 1 teams (8-5) has some people pessimistic about their tournament chances, but they are still the country’s sixth-best team, per Her Hoop Stats, and have two of the top transfers in the country in Aneesah Morrow (DePaul) and Hailey Van Lith (Louisville). Van Lith is one of the best spot-up shooters in the country, scoring more than a point per possession on these attempts (88th percentile), per Synergy Sports. Morrow, meanwhile, can usually be found in the post or cutting to the basket.

Two teams could play spoiler in the first round: No. 10 UNLV and No. 11 Middle Tennessee. UNLV has a better overall adjusted scoring margin per 100 possessions than No. 7 Creighton because of a more efficient offense and defense, per Her Hoop Stats. Middle Tennessee is rated similarly to its first-round opponent, No. 6 Louisville. When you can identify such situations, it often makes sense to choose the lower-seeded team for value, unless you’re in an extremely small pool.

Don’t expect many surprises in this region. The top four seeds — No. 1 Southern California, No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Connecticut and No. 4 Virginia Tech — should all make their way to the Sweet 16 next week.

The way we will differentiate our bracket, though, is by advancing the Huskies to the Elite Eight and ultimately into the Final Four. Connecticut has been the third-best team in the country, per Her Hoop Stats, despite playing the 13th-hardest schedule and enduring a raft of injuries. And who can forget about Paige Bueckers? She “broke” college basketball as a freshman in 2022 and will return to Connecticut for the 2024-25 season despite being projected as a potential top-three pick in the 2024 WNBA draft.

The Hokies — who have been without star forward Elizabeth Kitley in recent weeks — should be able to advance to the Elite Eight at the expense of USC, which has not fared as well away from its home court. If Kitley remains out, though, the task would be considerably harder for Virginia Tech.

Upsets should be tough to come by in region, but keep an eye on No. 12 Columbia against No. 5 Baylor if the Lions can advance past a First Four game against Vanderbilt. Columbia earned an at-large bid from the Ivy League and has a real star in Abbey Hsu. Hsu has amassed 2,113 career points (third in Ivy League history) and she’s been successful on a conference-record 373 career three-point attempts. She’s averaging 20.6 points and 7.4 rebounds in her final season.

The top two seeds, No. 1 Texas and No. 2 Stanford, come into the tournament on solid footing.

A win over Connecticut in December certainly looks good on the Longhorns’ résumé, as does their top 10 efficiency ratings on both offense and defense. Freshman Madison Booker is averaging 16.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists, earning seven Big 12 weekly awards, three national weekly awards and both the Big 12 player of the year and freshman of the year honors. The 6-foot-1 forward is at her best handling the ball in the pick-and-roll and driving to the rim.

Stanford suffered a surprising late-season loss to Arizona, but the Cardinal had a strong record against Quadrant 1 teams and outscored all opponents by 43.3 points per 100 possessions after adjusting for strength of schedule, per Her Hoop Stats. Only South Carolina, Connecticut and Iowa performed better during the regular season and conference tournament play. Plus, the team has two capable scorers in senior forward Cameron Brink and junior forward Kiki Iriafen. You will know things are looking good for Iriafen when she is draining midrange jumpers, cutting to the basket (when she scores 1.2 points per possession, in the 84th percentile, per Synergy Sports) or working in the low post (where she scores almost a point per possession). Brink will be earning her usual double-double — she averages 17.8 points and 12 rebounds per game — provided she can stay out of foul trouble, a perennial issue.

Don’t sleep on No. 10 Maryland against No. 7 Iowa State. Oddsmakers give these two teams the same price to win the national championship and Her Hoop Stats has Maryland as a one-point favorite on a neutral court.

It’s chalky, but the Final Four will be No. 1 South Carolina, No. 2 Stanford, No. 1 Iowa and No. 3 Connecticut. Selecting South Carolina, the overwhelming favorite, to be a part of the national title game makes little sense if your goal is to win a pool of any significant size, so we will fade the Gamecocks in favor of Stanford. On the other side, let’s pencil in Connecticut over Iowa.

As for the title game, selecting Connecticut to win it all should give us the most value while keeping the bracket rooted in reality. Coach Geno Auriemma and the Huskies are 132-23 in NCAA tournament games, making Auriemma the winningest head coach in postseason play. They won the Big East tournament title and went undefeated (18-0) against Big East competition, with a star player in Bueckers. And lastly, the Huskies have one of the highest adjusted margins of victory per Her Hoop Stats: +44.2, third-best in the country.

“We know that we’re not picked to win it. We’re not favored in any bracket really this year, so we know that and we know we’re sort of the underdog in this situation, but sort of been embracing it,” Bueckers told reporters this week.

Well, Bueckers, you’re picked in this one. Don’t let us down.

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