For the first time in a long time, there is not one dominant team clearly better than the rest. Baylor (33-1) and fellow No. 1 seed Notre Dame (32-3), the defending champion, are two popular favorites to take the title, sure, but none of the top seeds are untouchable.
The point is that there is a larger group of teams with legitimate Final Four aspirations than in past seasons. In fact, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index has identified three schools with at least a 20 percent chance of claiming the national championship in Notre Dame, Connecticut and Baylor.
“The conversation is definitely about the fact that it’s much more wide open,” ESPN analyst Maria Taylor said in an interview Thursday. “ … We even said when we got our final bracket that there’s a solid six teams that could make it to the Final Four. And even though Oregon’s a two-seed, in our mind we’re like, yeah, No. 2 seed, but they can beat every single opponent if they’re hot at the right time and playing well at the right time. I mean, we’ve seen every No. 1 seed lose at least once this season.”
All that tight competition wasn’t contained to just the top echelon of the sport, either, as evidenced by the first two rounds of the tournament.
Six games were decided by single digits and two went into overtime on the first day. Last year, there were five games decided by single digits in the first round and three overtime games in the entire tournament.
It’s a relatively incremental change, to be certain. But it was also a highly visible change because the first round is usually when viewers see the largest margins of victory.
There were less noticeable signs of parity, too, such as Connecticut’s 12-point second-round win over Buffalo, which rallied from a 24-point deficit in the third quarter to get within eight.
It was the Huskies’ closest second-round game since they beat Xavier by two points in 1999.
“We’ve had more close games this year total than our first three years, so I think we’ve gotten a lot of practice with that and us being able to grind out games,” Connecticut senior Katie Lou Samuelson said after the Buffalo game. “It’s been that type of year for us, where things just don’t naturally happen the way they have before. For us, that’s good preparation, that shows that when things go wrong, when things happen, we can always pick up what we need to do.”
A weary-sounding Huskies Coach Geno Auriemma was more succinct: “That was a lot of work,” he said. “That was really hard.”
Still, Connecticut advanced to its 26th consecutive Sweet 16 and was joined by the rest of the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds.
The surprises of the regional round come from No. 6 seed UCLA, No. 11 seed Missouri State and No. 6 seed South Dakota State. It’s the first trip to the regionals in 18 years for Missouri State, which knocked off No. 3 seed Iowa State by nine points. It’s the first trip ever for South Dakota State, which defeated No. 3 seed Syracuse.
It’s the ninth time in 10 years a team seeded 10th or lower has made it to a regional. But there is an argument to be made, Taylor said, that a more open field in this year’s NCAA tournament goes hand in hand with an increase in parity in the women’s game.
“A lot of it is great coaching,” Taylor said. “Like Jeff Walz, who’s been at Louisville and is constantly getting his teams to Final Fours. But also, players are deciding they don’t have to just go to U-Conn. and Notre Dame, like, I want to stay on the West Coast and I would like to go to Oregon, so that’s where Sabrina [Ionescu] ends up. We’re seeing star power in Megan Gustafson, from Wisconsin, go to Iowa instead of going somewhere outside of that region. And now she’s the [ESPN] national player of the year.
“What we’re seeing is a lot more parity in women’s basketball in general. Girls are starting to play sooner. They’re playing AAU on very talented teams, playing more specialized ball and getting in systems that fit them. You add that to some great college coaches, and this is the good field we have now.”