June 5, 2023

Great Indian Mutiny

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New era for women’s basketball: Why South Carolina’s upset at Iowa is a sign of things to come

No matter what happened in the National Championship game, and any way you want to analyze it—strategic, dynamic, and business—Iowa’s 77-73 victory over South Carolina Friday night was a watershed moment for women’s basketball. Especially for the study of the underdogs in the women’s tournament.

Back on March 23rd, we claimed that this year’s tournament was already giving us the best-ever lineup of dominant teams and upset victories. And that was before Miami pulled out their second deep upset, not to mention shocking Final Four fans from the Hockey. Nine teams defeated opponents ranked at least three holes higher in this tournament, and the national championship game emerged with two and three seeds. The women’s game has never seen anything like this level of chaos.

Neither analytical models nor betting lines gave Iowa much chance of ending the Gamecocks’ 42-game winning streak. Our colleague Austin Mock put the probability of an upset at 7.2%, HerHoopStats said at 16.6%, and South Carolina opened favored -675 on the moneyline.

Dawn Staley’s crew played to their core strength as always: SC did 26 Offensive rebounds. In our Bracket Breakers analysis, hitting the offensive glass consistently emerges as the best thing a favorite can do to fend off a long shot. Get attack boards, and you’ll collect possessions while preventing your opponent from moving. And it worked! As Rebecca Lobo said, every miss was a help to South Carolina. The Gamecocks took 20 more tries than Iowa.

Before we continue, a word on the Gamecocks’ playing style. In February, after Connecticut lost to South Carolina, Gino Auriemma said, referring to O’Conn star Lou Lopez Seneschal: “You can see the bruises on her body. It’s just awful what teams are doing to her now. It’s not basketball. I don’t know what it is.” But it’s not basketball.” Last week, Iowa State coach Lisa Bluder said competing for rebounds against the Gamecocks was like “going to a bar fight.”

However you want to interpret both these observations and their aftermath, the statistical suggestion behind them is wrong. Size and power aren’t what generate offensive rebounds, at least not on their own. In the men’s game, Kentucky has led the nation in offensive rebounding percentage this season, but it’s only 88th in the country for average player lengths, according to KenPom.com. Meanwhile, Notre Dame was averaging 41 high, but 357 in OR%. The overall correlation between average length and teams catching rate for missed shots was only 0.04, basically nothing at all!

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Can 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 come on. Even in a game that had Auriemma so frustrated, South Carolina scored a whopping 25 offensive rebounds to just 10 for UConn, but it was the Huskies who were called for more errors (22-21). Physical play does not translate into dominating the offensive boards. Take it from Blaine Taylor’s biggest fan: This takes wit, strategy, positioning, and teamwork.

As things turned out, nothing other than an offensive glass went well for the Gamecocks on Friday night. In the shooting percentages they’ve established this season, the Gamecocks should have had about 85 points on an FGA-77, not 73. South Carolina was 4-for-20 in threes and less than 70% on free throws.

Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes continued to threaten and shoot triples (40.4% 3PA/FGA, in line with their season numbers) even though the Gamecocks were letting Caitlin Clark get to the rim again and again (71.4% shooting inside ) and it was perfect 14-14 on foul shots. And it’s mostly underrated just yet, but Iowa consistently fouled lanes at South Carolina, upsetting the Gamecocks to 15 turnovers.

All of which is to say that the formula for taking down Goliath, even as dominant as South Carolina, is similar to what we found in the men’s game. maximize the quantity and value of your possessions; Force transitions and open your fire. And pounce on any signs of excessive complacency. After overcoming first-quarter deficits against Maryland and Iowa, it was only natural that the Gamecocks thought they could impose their will in the second half of their game against the Hawkeyes. But a halftime break, a media time out, and a couple of video reviews were all Clark needed to recharge their batteries, and South Carolina couldn’t match their touch. It was also normal for Staley to sit out Aliyah Boston after the Gamecocks star hit two quick errors early in the game. But Boston ended up recording only 25 minutes. South Carolina voluntarily sidelined its best player—and confirmed the idea that it needed to act temporarily on the field. Why not let it work its magic for as long as possible?

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Statistically speaking, South Carolina’s upset of Iowa is a classic case of what can happen when a giant is playing at the bottom of their range and the killer (and its superstar) is at the top of the game. There’s a lesson, too: The Bell curves for these teams overlapped. Whether the chances of the Hockeys winning were 7% or 17%, it wasn’t 1% or 2%. It’s a little crazy to think about, but that’s where the underdog opportunities for women in basketball lay not so long ago. When UConn was at the height of its dominance, the Huskies never lost; Most of their matches were like 1-16 or 2-15 matches in the men’s tournament. This year, South Carolina was stronger than it was in its 2022 championship season. But also LSU, Indiana, Utah (a lot), Iowa, Virginia Tech, Stanford, and UConn were not down. It’s not a par, but a new era of women’s basketball has arrived where no fewer than six teams compete for the national title—no matter how good looking—every season.

And that’s great for business. The core audience for women’s basketball has been growing for a while now; Last year’s South Carolina championship game against UConn averaged nearly 5 million viewers across ESPN, the most in nearly 20 years. But this time, it’s Clark vs. Boston, the South Carolina dynasty on the line, the relatively unknown field in the men’s four-way final—all combined with greater exposure to spark public fascination with the women’s tournament. The Iowa State-South Carolina game drew 5.5 million viewers, with a peak of 6.6 million viewers. LSU’s victory over Iowa to win the national title was on ABC.

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Yet, as more talented players entered the game, spread more widely around DI and moved more frequently, successful tournament underdogs have often been middle seeds who quickly grew into strong overall teams, rather than long picks playing high-stakes strategies. . Of the eight teams that beat opponents who were at least three seeds higher in this tournament, five were from powerhouse conferences: Colorado, Georgia, Miami, Mississippi, and Mississippi State. As a group, these teams played slow, averaged a rank of 174.6 in possessions per game, and were excellent on defense (average rank of 19.2 in schedule-adjusted defensive efficiency, according to our spreadsheets) and offensive glass (26.4 in OR%). . They were very good at forcing steals (47.8) but shooting too few (300.8). They weren’t particularly dependent on free throws (104.4) or assists (141).

Of the three less fortunate mid-level companies, Princeton University also fits this statistical profile. However, Florida’s Gulf Coast stands apart to an almost comical degree. The Eagles shoot a lot of bombs and don’t focus on the offensive rebound. Toledo, which puts up 80 at Iowa, is also a first offense, though no one shoots like FGCU.

As more disruptions occur, a big part of our research will be to explore whether long shots come together in groups, as they do in the men’s game. As more teams pursue championship dreams, will any build-up be built around arc-breaking notions, whether it’s the long-range shooting we see from Florida’s Gulf Coast, defense pressure in Georgia, or an intense focus on offensive boards like Mississippi?

This is just one question we’ll be looking at during the holiday season, as we continue to collect the data we need for a full Bracket Breakers model for the Women’s Championship.

Thank you for sticking with the interim analysis we’ve been able to provide this season, and please send us feedback on what you’d like to see as we expand our research.

(Top photo of Caitlin Clark and Brea Beal: Ron Jenkins/Getty Images; Angel Reese photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)