Whatever happened in the national championship game, and any way you want to analyze it — strategically, dynastically, commercially — Iowa’s 77-73 win over South Carolina on Friday night was a watershed moment for the women’s basketball. And especially for studying the underdogs in the women’s tournament.
On March 23rd, we claimed that this year’s tournament was already giving us the best brew ever of dominant teams and upset victories. And that was before Miami pulled off its second deep upset, not to mention the Hawkeyes’ Final Four upset. Nine teams defeated opponents seeded at least three spots higher in this tournament, and the national championship game featured a 2-seed and a 3-seed. The women’s game has never seen anything like this level of excitement.
Neither the analytics models nor the betting line gave Iowa much of a chance to end the Gamecocks’ 42-game winning streak. Our colleague Austin Mock has the odds of an upset pegged at 7.2%, HerHoopStats says 16.6%, and South Carolina opens as a -675 favorite on the moneyline.
Dawn Staley’s crew played to its core strength as always: SC 26 offensive rebounds. In our Bracket Breakers analysis, hitting the offensive glass keeps coming up as the single best thing a favorite can do to avoid a longshot. Grab the offensive boards, and you’ll pile up possessions while stopping your opponent from moving. And it worked! As Rebecca Lobo said, every miss feels like an assist for South Carolina. The Gamecocks took 20 more attempts from the field than Iowa.
Before we continue, a word about the Gamecocks’ style of play. In February, after Connecticut lost to South Carolina, Geno Auriemma, referring to UConn star Lou Lopez Sénéchal, said: “You can see the bruises on his body. What teams are doing to him right now is just horrible. It’s not basketball. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not basketball.” Last week, Iowa Coach Lisa Bluder said fighting for rebounds against the Gamecocks was like “going to a bar fight.”
However you want to interpret each of those sentences and the dustups that follow, the statistical proposition behind them is wrong. Size and strength are not what make offensive rebounds, at least not by themselves. In the men’s game, Kentucky led the nation in offensive rebounding percentage this season, but ranked just 88th in the nation in average player height, according to KenPom.com. Meanwhile, Notre Dame is 41st in average height, but 357th in OR%. The overall correlation between average height and the rate at which teams get their own missed shots is only 0.04, absolutely nothing!
Could the numbers be a little different in women’s basketball? Sure, and knowing what they are is another reason why we need to keep pushing for better data. But okay. Even in the game that Auriemma was so frustrated with, South Carolina had a whopping 25 offensive rebounds to just 10 for UConn, but the Huskies were called for more fouls (22-21). Physical play does not translate to dominance on the offensive boards. Take it from Blaine Taylor’s biggest fan: that takes intelligence, strategy, positioning and teamwork.
As it turned out, nothing beyond the offensive glass went well for the Gamecocks on Friday night. At the shooting percentage they’ve established this season, the Gamecocks should have around 85 points on 77 FGA, not 73. South Carolina is 4-for-20 from three and under 70% on free throws.
Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes continue to threaten and shoot threes (40.4% 3PA/FGA, in line with their season numbers) even as the Gamecocks allow Caitlin Clark to get to the rim repeatedly (71.4% shooting from inside) and became perfect. 14-14 on foul shots. And it’s hardly appreciated by now, but Iowa continued to disrupt South Carolina’s passing lanes, forcing the Gamecocks into 15 turnovers.
All of this means the formula for knocking off a Goliath, even one that dominates South Carolina, is similar to what we’ve seen in the men’s game. Maximize the quantity and value of your assets; force turnovers and open up your shot. And grab any signs of too much fun. After overcoming first-quarter deficits at Maryland and Iowa, it was natural for the Gamecocks to believe they could impose their will in the second half of their game against the Hawkeyes. But halftime, a media time out and a few video reviews were all Clark needed to recharge his batteries, and South Carolina couldn’t match his touch. It was also natural for Staley to sit Aliyah Boston after the Gamecocks superstar picked up two quick fouls early in the game. But Boston ended up logging just 25 total minutes. South Carolina is voluntarily sidelining its best player – and confirming the thought that he will need to take action on the court temporarily. Why not just let him work his magic as long as he can?
Statistically speaking, Iowa’s upset of South Carolina is a classic case of what can happen when a giant is playing at the bottom of its ranks and a killer (and its superstar) is at the very top of its game. There’s a lesson there, too: The Bell curves of these teams overlap. If the Hawkeyes’ chance of winning is 7% or 17%, they are not 1% or 2%. It’s a little crazy to think about, but that’s where the underdog’s chances resided in women’s basketball not too long ago. When UConn was at its peak, the Huskies were literally undefeated; most of their games are like 1-16 or 2-15 matchups in the men’s tournament. This year, South Carolina is stronger than its championship season in 2022. But so are LSU, Indiana and Utah (by a lot), and Iowa and Virginia Tech, and Stanford and UConn didn’t fall. It’s not equality, but a new era of women’s basketball has arrived in which at least half a dozen teams are contenders for a national title — no matter how good the best looks — every season.
And that’s great for business. The audience base for women’s basketball has been growing for a while; South Carolina vs. Last year’s UConn championship game averaged nearly 5 million viewers on ESPN networks, the most in nearly 20 years. But this time, Clark vs. Boston, a South Carolina dynasty on the line, the relatively unknown field of the Men’s Final Four — all of this combined with greater exposure to ignite a public fascination with the women’s tournament. The Iowa-South Carolina matchup drew 5.5 million viewers, with a peak of 6.6 million. And LSU’s victory over Iowa for the national title was on ABC.
Nowadays, as more talented players enter the game, spread more widely around DI and move more often, successful tournament underdogs are often middle seeds who quickly grow into strong overalls. team, rather than out-of-nowhere longshots who play high-risk strategies. . Of the eight teams that defeated opponents at least three seeds higher in this tournament, five were from power conferences: Colorado, Georgia, Miami, Mississippi and Mississippi State. As a group, these teams played slow, ranked an average of 174.6 in possessions per game, and were good defensively (average ranking of 19.2 in schedule-adjusted defensive efficiency, according to our spreadsheets) and the offending glass (26.4 in OR %). They are very good at forcing steals (47.8) but they shoot very little (300.8). They aren’t particularly reliant on free throws (104.4) or assists (141).
With three successful mid-major underdogs, Princeton also fits this statistical profile. Florida’s Gulf Coast, however, stands apart, on an almost comical level. The Eagles launch a lot of bombs and don’t focus on offensive rebounding. Toledo, which put up 80 on Iowa, was also first on offense, though none shot as many threes as FGCU.
As more and more upsets occur, a key part of our research is exploring whether longshots cluster, as they do in the men’s game. As more teams get their tournament dreams, will anything build on the concepts that break the bracket, whether it’s the long-range shooting we’re seeing from Florida Gulf Coast, pressure defense in Georgia or intense focus on offensive boards like Mississippi?
That’s just one question we’ll be looking at in the offseason, as we continue to gather the data we need for a more complete Bracket Breakers model for the women’s tournament.
Thanks for sticking with the preview we’ve provided this season, and please give us comments about what you’d like to see as we expand our research.
(Top photo of Caitlin Clark and Brea Beal: Ron Jenkins/Getty Images; Photo of Angel Reese: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)