There is just a different feeling in the air today. I've gone back and forth on why the air feels a bit different today, but the answer is simple: We. Have. A. Bracket.
The anticipation and excitement over what is to come in the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament is palpable. As buzzer beaters and upsets are certainly bound to happen, the question on everyone's mind is simple: who is going to win it all?
I am going to play the role of spoiler here. Based on the previous 18 years (not including 2020 due to the cancellation of the tournament), I am going to tell you why, right now, there are three teams most likely to cut the nets down at the Alamodome.
Based on statistical information dating back to the 2001-2002 season, and not including the 2019-20 season, I used four sets of criteria to predict the teams with the best chance to win it all.
Over this time, UConn has been dominant. The Huskies have won nine national championships during this span. Baylor has won it three times, Notre Dame and Tennessee each account for two titles, while South Carolina, Maryland and Texas A&M have one each. Over the course of these 18 seasons, that's just seven different winners.
When looking to predict this year's winner, here is the criteria that I used.
AP Top 25 Poll: Each of the past 18 national championship winning teams were ranked in the top-15 of the preseason AP Poll. The preseason No. 1 team has won eight national championships. This year's preseason No. 1 was South Carolina.
Coach's Final Four appearances: Only two times in the previous 18 seasons has a coach won the championship in their first Final Four appearance. Kim Mulkey won with Baylor in 2005 and Brenda Frese won with the Maryland in 2006. That means 89% of the winning teams have had a head coach who had previously been to a Final Four.
Scoring offense: Where did each national championship team rank in scoring offense? These numbers were close, but telling.
- Scoring defense: The final piece of criteria is scoring defense. There are just a couple of anomalies, but most of the national championship teams over the past 18 years were stellar defensively.
Criteria 1: Ranking in the preseason AP Top 25 poll
Over the past 18 seasons, All of the national champions were ranked in the top-15 of the preseason AP Poll. Here are the top-15 teams from this season's preseason poll:
- South Carolina
- Mississippi State
- NC State
- Texas A&M
- Iowa State
Criteria 2: Coach's Final Four experience
With only two coaches (Mulkey in 2005, Frese in 2006) having won national championships in their first appearance in the last 18 seasons, I decided the 89% of champions who had coaches who had previously been to a Final Four, was too strong of a statistic to ignore. That eliminated any school whose coach has not previously been to a Final Four. That eliminated the following schools that were ranked in the preseason AP top-15:
Criteria 3: Scoring Offense
With nine schools remaining, I took a look at the scoring offense of the past 18 national champions. The key number here is 18. Over the past 18 seasons, no national championship team has finished lower than 18th in scoring offense. Yes, offense does matter, and apparently it wins championships too.
The lowest ranked team to win the title was UConn in 2003, who finished 18th in scoring offense that season. While some national championship teams have been ranked very low in scoring defense (next criteria), every winning team has been a consistently strong offensive team. Due to the fact that exactly zero national champions have been ranked lower than 18th in scoring offense over the past 18 seasons, I eliminated any team that isn't currently in the top-18.
South Carolina (20th)
Texas A&M (31st)
South Carolina, a team that I love to reach the Final Four, is just outside of the top-18. While it pains me to have to eliminate the Gamecocks, rules are rules. It still hurts though.
Criteria 4: Scoring Defense
Stanford, UConn, Baylor, Louisville, Maryland, and Arkansas remain as we enter the scoring defense phase.
Over the past 18 seasons, a majority of the national championship winners were securely in the top-50 in scoring defense. UConn finished 1st in scoring defense in five of their championship seasons (2002, 2010, 2014, 2015, and 2016) while finishing 3rd in 2003, and 5th in 2004. Baylor finished 7th in scoring defense in its 2012 championship season and 5th in 2019. As a whole, only four of the past 17 championship teams finished below 50th in scoring defense, with one of those teams, Texas A&M, finishing 51st in 2011.
In regards to Baylor's 2005 championship season and Maryland's 2006 championship seasons, neither finished in the top-50 in scoring defense.
Only four of the past 18 national championship teams were ranked outside of the top-50 in scoring defense. The biggest outlier was Notre Dame, whose 2018 championship team was ranked 239th. That should give Maryland fans hope, as the Terrapins, who currently boast the No. 1 offense in the country, are ranked 264th in scoring defense.
With just 22% of the past 18 champions having defenses ranked outside of the top-50, I felt that the 78% number was too strong and significant to ignore. Therefore, I eliminated any school left who is currently outside of the top-50 in scoring defense.
Maryland and Arkansas account for two of the top-4 scoring offenses in the country, with Maryland having the top offense in the country at 91.3 PPG and Arkansas is ranked fourth at 83.1 PPG. Their defenses, however, are not so good, so Maryland (264th) and Arkansas (312th) are eliminated.
Louisville, another notably strong offensive team, as they are 13th in the country in scoring offense, come in at 103rd in scoring defense. That's not going to cut it, as the Cardinals are also eliminated.
UConn (3rd), Stanford (8th), and Baylor (14th), not only have defenses ranked in the top-50 to go along with strong offenses, they are all ranked in the top-15!
That leaves us with the three teams that have made it through all of the criteria unscathed, and with the best chance to cut the nets down this year. Those teams are:
UConn, Stanford, and Baylor.
The Bueckers Era has arrived
UConn, the preseason No. 3 team in the country, is currently 6th in the country in scoring offense and 3rd in scoring defense. Head coach Geno Auriemma will be seeking his 21st Final Four appearance this March, and his 13th in a row.
In my preseason prediction piece back in November I stated that "the Paige Bueckers era has arrived." She has certainly delivered in her first season as a Husky, as the postseason awards and accolades will be plentiful. She has also helped lead the Huskies back to a very familiar position in March -- a No. 1 seed.
Fellow freshman Aaliyah Edwards has also really come into her own this season as well, while Olivia Nelson-Ododa is playing with confidence and has competed well against some of the best post players in the country. A key difference-maker? Christyn Williams. She has quietly averaged 15.8 PPG, while acting as a veteran leader for this young team. Williams is key to UConn's success this March.
The reigning national champions are back again
Baylor, the preseason No. 4 team in the country, is currently ranked 7th in scoring offense and 14th in scoring defense. Head coach Kim Mulkey is seeking her 5th Final Four appearance and her 4th national championship this March.
The Baylor Bears are still the reigning national champions and they have quietly been playing some fantastic basketball over the past two months. The Bears just won yet another Big 12 Tournament championship, following up on another regular season championship. Despite road losses to Arkansas and Iowa State, the Bears have overcome injuries and a slow start, as they have currently won 17 consecutive games, en route to a 25-2 record. NaLyssa Smith leads four players averaging double figures at 17.9 PPG and their defense has been spectacular as of late. They have given up over 60 points just three times in their past 13 games.
The deepest team in the country is poised for a deep run
Stanford finished with the 15th best scoring offense and 8th best scoring defense in the country. Along with Maryland, the Cardinal have been one of the most impressive teams in the country over the past month. In the Pac-12 Tournament, Tara VanDerveer's team defeated Oregon St. by 34 in the semifinals and UCLA by 20 in the championship game. That 20-point win over the Bruins felt like a lot more, as Stanford dominated the game from beginning to end.
Stanford is extremely talented, they have a deep bench, are battle tested, and are terrific on both ends of the floor. Haley Jones is a star and freshman Cameron Brink has improved tremendously since the beginning of the season and is a force inside for the Cardinal. Lexie Hull, Francesca Belibi, Anna Wilson, Ashten Precthel and Hannah Jump add to the depth for this team, but their most important player is senior Kiana Williams. She was terrific against UCLA and is a leader that this team needs to help them get to a national championship game.
The team with the biggest gripe: South Carolina
The Gamecocks are sitting just outside of the top 18 in scoring offense, at 20th right now. Defensively, they are just out of the top-50, sitting at 56th. No team in the country has played a more challenging schedule than Dawn Staley's team has, as they compete in the toughest league in the country in the SEC, while also scheduling UConn, Iowa St., Gonzaga, and NC State in the non-conference.
Zia Cooke and Aliyah Boston make up one of the best guard-forward combinations in the country and Destanni Henderson, who is averaging 12.6 PPG, has been really good over the past month. Boston is a matchup nightmare and capable of going out and recording a triple-double every time out.
There you have it. All of the information you need to help predict this year's national champion. I must say, however, when you are filling out your bracket please remember: anything can happen in March.