Although the tournament selection committee relies heavily on numbers like RPI and strength of schedule, year after year those numbers prove to fall short in actually measuring quality of play leading up to the tournament.
While there is not really any statistical Holy Grail to predict how March Madness will unfold, in looking at potential upsets prior to the 2012 NCAA women's basketball tournament we took a look at potential upsets bracket by bracket by looking at performance rather than outcomes. Of course, saying there's potential for an upset is different than saying it will happen are two different things - not many upsets actually occurred although a number of those games ended up close and one could certainly argue that home court advantage foiled a few of those potential upsets.
Anyway, those initial previews were based upon a set of Four Factors stats that I alluded to but didn't post initially. The following is just a brief look back at those numbers before making some Sweet 16 predictions.
First, you can click here for an overview of how I use these Four Factors (or "tempo-free") stats. These statistics are helpful because they are rates that help that allow us to assess a team's statistics independent of how fast they play. For example, an uptempo team might score more points than a slower team only because they create more possessions per game to score. What we want to know is which team is the more efficient scoring team independent of pace of play in order to assess the quality of their performances.
Briefly, this is a rather simple analysis: the four factors for each team (shooting efficiency, turnover rate, offensive rebounding, free throw rate) and their opponents over the course of the season are compared to create differentials. Those differentials are weighted based upon their relationship to winning to come up with a set of strengths and weaknesses for each team. From there, we can look at the matchup in terms of clashing strengths and matching weaknesses that might be decisive in the matchup. Of course, once identifying that point of tension, it's easier to identify significant individual matchups or key players.
The premise here is simple: tournament upsets are often more predictable than our expectations might suggest because the underdog often leverages a relative strength or exploits a weakness to their advantage. However, what exactly those differentials tell us might not be entirely clear and you can find details on that thinking here. In addition to those numbers, I looked at Women's Basketball State's Phase 3 rating, which is described at their website, as well as offensive and defensive points per possession. This combination of numbers helps to explain most of the outcomes in the first and second rounds.
The numbers for each bracket are linked to the headers below, with brief observations following them.
- Florida Gulf Coast is a program that we've actually been watching all season, so we might have expected them to give their first round opponent a real run for their money. And indeed, they took St. Bonaventure to overtime in their first trip to the NCAA tournament. While their shooting efficiency is definitely eye-catching, their large turnover differential against an outstanding ball handling team like St. Bonaventure figured to be significant in this matchup. However a sticking point for FGCU in this matchup was not only their negative offensive rebounding differential, but also that both teams were pretty much even on the boards with their opponents. FGCU ended up winning that offensive rebounding battle, but St. Bonaventure's solid defense negated FGCU's shooting and turnover strengths, which ultimately won the game. Most importantly, St. Bonaventure's defense around the 3-point line - and maybe some tournament jitters - forced FGCU into 7-for-26 shooting from the 3-point line.
- Many people felt that Marist was a clear candidate for an upset, but their only real advantage relative to Georgia was shooting efficiency. However, what's fascinating about about Marist is that their shooting efficiency and overall offensive efficiency gave them one of the best State Ratings in the nation and an efficiency rating ranked first in the nation entering the tournamnet. That overall offensive efficiency took center stage in the first round as they were 12% more efficient than Georgia, which was the most significant aspect of their 76-70 win.
- However, in Marist's second round loss to St. Bonaventure, Ray Floriani wrote, "...the Bonnies enjoyed a somewhat surprising and solid edge in offensive rebounding percentage numbers. For the game, St. Bonaventure owned a 37-21 rebounding advantage." The edge is surprising in that St. Bonaventure is not a particularly strong offensive rebounding team; it's not necessarily surprising because Marist had a negative offensive rebounding differential coming in, which gave the Bonnies an advantage they don't normally have over opponents.
- That Arkansas took Texas A&M to the buzzer is really no surprise - their numbers were almost even across the board and Arkansas allowed less points per possession. What stood out was the individual matchups: Kelsey Bone and Adaora Elonu controlled the boards with the latter adding a game-high 23 points on 9-for-17 shooting to lead TAMU to the shooting efficiency advantage.
- BYU was my darkhorse candidate in the Des Moines bracket, despite facing DePaul on their home floor in the first round. This is another case of two very evenly matched teams across the board with someone having to negate even strengths. Ultimately, it was the combination of 20 turnovers from BYU and 6-for-24 3-point shooting that pretty much determined this outcome - had BYU done better in either area, the 4-point loss might have gone the other way.
- Kansas ended up being the real darkhorse in the Des Moines bracket and it was more than a little surprising. They managed to win the rebounding battle in their 57-49 win against Nebraska despite being outrebounded by opponents all season. Delaware said their defensive intensity was lacking in their 70-64 second round loss to Kansas and that definitely shows up in the stats: the Jayhawks' 12% turnover rate was their second-lowest all season and 7% lower than their norm. The question now is whether they can keep playing so much better than they have all season. The answer might lie with Angel Goodrich, who's playing outstanding basketball right now. However in both games it was other players that ultimately stepped up to contribute to those surprising statistical advantages: freshman Chelsea Gardner had a season-high 16 rebounds against Nebraska and Kansas' defense forced Delaware star Elena Delle Donne into a season-high 6 turnovers, the most she's had since November 20, 2010. Kansas is a true wild card right now that will face a terribly inconsistent - even half to half - Tennessee Lady Vols squad. You can probably throw statistical predictions out the window for that one.
- The turnover battle was clearly going to figure prominently in the Fresno State - Georgetown game and Georgetown got the advantage there. However, forcing Fresno St. into 7-for-29 3-point shooting was the big difference there defensively, as Georgetown simply made Fresno St. rely more heavily on their 3-point shooting than was reasonable.
- Eastern Michigan got demolished by South Carolina, which was mildly surprising not because they lost but because they lost so badly. South Carolina's 57.5% effective field goal percentage was well above average and was mostly the impact of Ashley Bruner and Charenee Stephens, who came through on the interior with points and rebounds in a game that was bound to be won primarily on the interior. The Gamecocks continued their hot shooting with a 54.4% eFG% in the second round against Purdue in West Lafayette, that time shooting 38.6% from the 3-point line which was also well above season average.
- St. John's pulled off a 74-70 win against the Oklahoma Sooners in Norman, Oklahoma despite being outrebounded as one might have expected. That might be more difficult to pull off against a Duke team that has been a much better offensive rebounding team this season.
- In Oklahoma's first round meeting, Michigan got beat on the boards just as expected: although Oklahoma only played about even with opponents on the offensive boards this season, Michigan had a negative differential and was beat badly on the boards in Norman in the first round.
- Revisiting Jessica's crusade against Texas being in the tournament,the Longhorns' first round loss to West Virginia was mostly due to their average defense going up against a rugged Mountaineers defense. To their credit, they ended up winning the offensive rebounding percentage battle by a small margin, which was a bit of a surprise but with West Virginia shooting so well that was rendered moot.
- Gonzaga was the story in the Kingston bracket as they once again advanced to the Sweet 16 as an 11-seed. However, if any seeding upset was to be expected, this once was it. In addition to playing at home, both Rutgers and Miami (especially without suspended guard Riquna Williams) were very favorable matchups for the Bulldogs and both of those games went as expected: they lost the rebounding battle in both games, but won all three of the other Four Factors.
- Green Bay gave Kentucky a run as expected and won the turnover battle, which figured to be important to giving themselves a chance. Unfortunately for the Phoenix, Kentucky's defense just smothered GB's normally efficient offense to get a 65-62 win.
- Penn State is playing well right now and their win against LSU in Baton Rouge is noteworthy moving forward. Where they're really winning games is with ball control - they turned the ball over less often than both UTEP and LSU opponents normally do, which is making their already quite efficient offense even more efficient.