The Michigan Wolverines celebrate their first NCAA Tournament bid in a decade. (Go Blue.)
Looking purely at the statistics, the Fresno bracket in the 2012 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament is full of upset potential.
And were it not for home court advantage, a few upsets might actually be likely.
Having been in Spokane for the 2011 women's basketball tournament to watch the Gonzaga Bulldogs' run to the Elite Eight on their home floor, the pros and cons of granting certain teams home court advantage are pretty clear.
UCLA Bruins fans would be perfectly justified in being bitter about having drawn the eleventh-seeded Bulldogs at home last season - it almost negates the advantage gained by earning a third-seed during the season. The Gonzaga crowd was outstanding the entire way and it was hard to even imagine any team short of the Stanford Cardinal beating them. Yet that's exactly why the home court assignments work for women's basketball - the atmosphere created by home crowds only enhances the March Madness experience for the women's game.
That home court dynamic in the women's tournament makes identifying upsets in the Fresno region rather difficult. A Four Factors analysis of the first round matchups would suggest that a number lower seeds could upend a higher seed due to significant statistical advantages. However, when taking home court advantage into consideration, it's hard to know how much some of the more narrow statistical advantages might matter.
Nevertheless, the balance of statistical and home court advantages in this bracket could make for a number of exciting games, even if upsets don't occur.
Put simply, the goal here is not to look for the types of contrasts in styles that are normally discussed in which one team has to impose their will on another. In many cases, the more important aspect of Four Factors analysis is competing strengths or matching weaknesses where something has to give. It just so happens that something will have to give in a few of these matchups and that could swing in the underdog's favor.
In addition to Four Factors, I took WBB State's efficiency ratings into account to figure out which games might provide the most intriguing matchups and which teams might go on a memorable run.
Intriguing first round matchup
A competitive first round game other than the 8/9 matchup
#10 Middle Tennessee State vs. #7 Vanderbilt
MTSU scored a home upset of Kentucky already this season and what immediately stands out as interesting statistically is that these two teams are relatively even on the offensive boards meaning that battle could end up deciding the game.
What also makes Vanderbilt particularly vulnerable in this one is that they turn the ball over more often than their opponents, something that MTSU could take advantage of as the ninth-best team in the nation at forcing turnovers.
This should be an interesting game and there's certainly upset potential there, but Vanderbilt is playing at home where they are 18-1 this season.
#11 Michigan vs. #6 Oklahoma
No, the intrigue here is neither just that I went to Michigan nor that said alma mater is making their first tournament appearance in over a decade (and 1998 was the last time both the men's and women's teams graced the field with their presence).
Both of these teams have significant weaknesses - Oklahoma turns the ball over more often than opponents whereas Michigan tends to give up more offensive rebounds than they get - and one of these teams could exploit that weakness.
The rebounding battle what be what determines this game: neither of these two teams is a particularly good rebounding team, despite Oklahoma holding an edge over their opponents on the offensive boards. Also of note is that guards are among this team's top rebounders: 5-foot-9 guard Jenny Ryan leads Michigan in rebounding while Oklahoma's top rebounder is 6-foot-1 guard Whitney Hand. But Oklahoma also has some height in the post, which could help them garner second chance scoring opportunities.
Adding to this game is that although both of these teams had solid tournament resumes, neither of them is entering the tournament on anything one might consider a hot streak: Oklahoma has been consistent in that they've lost every other one of their last 12 games and Michigan enters the tournament having lost 7 of their last 11 after starting the season strong.
Ultimately, the trump card here might simply be home court advantage - the game will be played in Norman, Oklahoma giving the Sooners a definite edge. On top of that, Michigan has to find a way to stop Hand from making plays and dynamic 5-foot-7 sophomore guard Aaryn Ellenberg from beating them everywhere - in addition to her speed in transition, Ellenberg is a career 38.4% 3-point shooter, despite a slump of her own to finish the season (5-for-23 3-point shooting in the last 4 games).
If indeed Oklahoma does advance, home court advantage might similarly help them against a St. John's Red Storm team, which is also just an average rebounding team. A Sweet 16 is not a given for Oklahoma, but the home court advantage might be significant in these matchups; so significant that even though you might consider a sixth seed making the Sweet 16 an upset, it wouldn't actually be that surprising.
SDSU has two potential strengths that could help them against Purdue - they're a much better offensive rebounding team, have the height across the rotation to impose their will on the boards, and are one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the nation (36.4% ranks 14th in the nation). As Queenie wrote in her summary of SDSU, they're a turnover prone team that could struggle against a defense like Purdue's but they're also the type of team that could get hot from long-range and put a tough opponent in a hole with their efficient and balanced offense.
It's just easier said than done while playing in West Lafayette.
A team seeded 7th or lower that could make it to the Sweet 16 or further.
#12 Eastern Michigan vs. #5 South Carolina in the West Lafayette Sub-Regional
Given the home court advantage that will potentially aid the higher seed in every other game, Eastern Michigan might have the best chance to pull off a true upset in the field.
Statistically, EMU and South Carolina are surprisingly well-matched across the board.
South Carolina is a pretty good ball handling team, but so is EMU. South Carolina is also a very good defensive team and EMU is better in one key area: they forced opponents into turnovers at a rate of 31% of their possessions, fifth in the nation. EMU's ability to force turnovers at such a high rate could give the Gamecocks problems. In losses, South Carolina is turning the ball over at a rate of just over 24% but highs of well over 30% against the likes of Arkansas, Kentucky, and LSU, also all among the top defenses in the nation.
However, yet another factor that might come into play during this game - and perhaps the biggest - could be offensive rebounding. EMU and South Carolina happen to have two of the three highest offensive rebounding rates in the Fresno bracket (bracket-high 44.09% and 42.58%, respectively), which means something has to give there. South Carolina has a small height advantage and definitely has a deeper rotation.
Neither of these teams is a particularly strong 3-point shooting team, which means this will either turn into a grinding grudge match with SC taking care of the ball or a game won in transition with EMU scoring off of turnovers. If it turns into the latter, EMU will have an opportunity to leverage the speed of guard Tavelyn James, the nation's second-leading scorer and this season's Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award Winner.
Even if it's not an upset, this should be an interesting game to watch strategically. However, in comparison to the game above, the matchup has more of the elements that might lead to an upset. And if EMU advances to the second round, their style of play could challenge Purdue as well, no matter how unlikely that outcome might actually be.
Ultimately, it wouldn't be at all surprising if not one major upset occurred in the Fresno bracket (particularly if you don't consider Oklahoma winning two games at home a "major" upset). And that would leave Stanford headed to a fifth consecutive Final Four.
There's not much to say about Stanford here except that they are among the best offensive rebounding teams in the field and after watching the Cal Golden Bears - consistently among the best rebounding teams over the last few seasons - fail to contain the Ogwumike sisters on the boards, it's not clear how any of the teams in this field would get that done. The teams that do have good numbers simply don't have those numbers attached to an Ogwumike.
Duke vs. Stanford would obviously be a great matchup, but we'll get to that in the event it comes.
But it would be a shame not to give a quick shout out to the Hampton Pirates. Leading scorer Jericka Jenkins is among the most efficient distributors in the nation and Hampton's numbers are shockingly good as a team coming out of the MEAC - they're ranking sixth in WBB State's State Ratings. This doesn't mean they'll upend Stanford, but it's difficult to inflate those State Ratings to the point that they have - to overcome a strength of schedule ranked 271st, they had to be extremely well on the court to finish the season ranked 6th in the nation by that particular rating system.
Even if not one upset occurs in this bracket, there's enough intrigue to make the region interesting to watch on a number of levels.