Christmas came early for women’s college basketball this year as the NCAA Tournament bracket was announced on Selection Sunday rather than the traditional Selection Monday. The move to put the men’s and women’s bracket reveals on the same day was part of a broader push for gender equity that included expanding the field to 68 teams.
At least some head coaches liked the change for pragmatic reasons. After learning that her Tennessee team would host the first two rounds as a No. 4 seed, Kellie Harper told reporters, “As a coach, I want to know. I mean, we want to know where we’re going and where we’re playing and who we’re playing and when we’re playing. We want to know all that so we can prepare a schedule. … I feel like now we can get to work.”
The change also spared teams on the bubble, such as No. 11 seeds DePaul and Dayton, who traded a sleepless night waiting to learn their tournament fate for a sleepless night scouting their first-round opponent. (The Blue Demons and Flyers will play each other in a First Four game on Wednesday, with our model giving DePaul a 51 percent chance to win.)
In contrast, Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder, whose team will host games as a No. 2 seed, woke up “almost at ease” Sunday morning — but the selection show proved to be the great equalizer. “When you get into the room and the bracket starts coming up, that’s when the heart starts to beat a little bit and you start to get excited,” she said. “And then you see your path and now you have your path laid out in front of you, and so that’s when it gets fun.”
When all was said and done, South Carolina, Stanford, North Carolina State and Louisville nabbed the coveted No. 1 seeds, and our model gives them the best odds of making it to the Final Four in Minneapolis. That would be an epic homecoming for NC State freshman Sophie Hart — though don’t write off the possibility of fellow Minnesota native Paige Bueckers crashing the festivities with her UConn Huskies, who earned a No. 2 seed in NC State’s region.
To help you identify the national title contenders, sleepers and underdogs as you construct your bracket, FiveThirtyEight has brought back its March Madness prediction model. Learn how the model works here, or read on to see what the model expects in the women’s tournament.
Despite losing in the SEC Tournament final, South Carolina is the No. 1 overall seed with a 29-2 record. The Gamecocks have a 46 percent chance to win the tournament, which are the highest odds since UConn had a 65 percent chance in 2018. Those odds are three times higher than anyone else’s and at least 10 times higher than all but five teams in the 68-team field.
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Stanford has the next-best odds to win it all at 16 percent. The Cardinal would be the first repeat champion since UConn won four straight from 2013 to 2016. Stanford returned nearly every player from the 2021 title team and enters the NCAA Tournament on a hot streak, with its last loss coming at South Carolina on Dec. 21.
“I think the experience and how well we did [last season] will definitely help us,” Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer said Sunday night, reflecting on how her team won in 2021 despite having to live on the road for nine straight weeks in the regular season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We can look back and, when we have to dig in deeper, we know we’ve got extra gas in the tank.”
UConn, too, enters the NCAA Tournament looking to keep a streak intact. The Huskies have made 13 straight Final Fours, but they have only a 37 percent chance of doing that again this season (and a mere 6 percent chance of winning a national title). Even though the committee put UConn in nearby Bridgeport, our model favors NC State to make the Final Four (56 percent odds) out of that region, and it gives the Wolfpack a 15 percent chance to win it all.
The only other teams with at least a 5 percent chance at a national title are Louisville (6 percent) and No. 2 seed Baylor (5 percent). But plenty of teams are ready to make life difficult for the favorites.
“Every bracket is going to be loaded. … There’s so many great teams that, whatever bracket you’re in, you’re going to be playing with other great teams,” VanDerveer said.
Every top-four seed has at least an 84 percent chance to win its first-round game, and all but one have at least a 50 percent chance to make the Sweet Sixteen. So don’t fall too hard for the mid-tier teams, but a few still look like smart picks.
Central Florida is the No. 7 seed you want to take, with better odds of winning its opening game (71 percent) than No. 5 seed Oregon (70 percent) and No. 6 seeds Ohio State (68 percent), Kentucky (65 percent) and Georgia (62 percent). The Knights are led by guard Diamond Battles, who averages 13.8 points, 3.4 assists and 2.3 steals per game, and they lead the country in points allowed per game (47.5) and per 100 possessions (72.7). But despite the mantra that defense wins championships, UCF has just a 7 percent chance to win a second game; after facing Florida in the opening round, it would likely draw UConn in the round of 32.
Farther down the bracket, Princeton is right behind UCF on the defensive leaderboards and ranked 25th in the AP Poll, yet the selection committee hardly gave the team the royal treatment. The Ivy League champions appear to be underseeded at No. 11 and will play No. 6 seed and SEC Tournament champion Kentucky, which is led by probable 2022 WNBA lottery pick Rhyne Howard.
This game is a rematch of 2019, when No. 11 seed Princeton lost to Howard and No. 6 seed Kentucky by just 5 points. Princeton has a 35 percent chance to flip the script this year behind guard Abby Meyers, whose shot-making and swagger made her a finalist for the best mid-major player in the country. The Tigers also have a 9 percent chance to make the Sweet 16, which is higher than any No. 7 or No. 8 seed.
Finally, Belmont has the best odds of the No. 12 seeds to advance (30 percent), topping even Florida Gulf Coast, which is 23rd in the AP Poll and boasts a potential future WNBA player in Kierstan Bell. The Bruins are efficient on both ends of the court, and an efficient travel schedule might help, too. As Her Hoop Stats pointed out on Twitter, Belmont will play No. 5 Oregon in Knoxville, Tennessee, which is less than three hours from its campus but a long flight for the Ducks.
So which top-four team has less than a 50 percent chance to make the Sweet 16, you ask? That would be No. 3 seed LSU, which is 25-5 this season and fell to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament semifinals. The Tigers have a 49 percent chance to win two games, and No. 6 seed Ohio State isn’t far behind at 37 percent. You might just let your child or furry friend pick the winner of that pod, unless you feel strongly about purple and yellow or scarlet and gray.
Another potentially topsy-turvy area of the bracket is the 8-9 matchups. Last year, just one of the No. 8 seeds was a first-round underdog, but this year, all of them are. Nebraska, which plays No. 9 seed Gonzaga, has the best odds of advancing at 48 percent, while Washington State has just a 39 percent chance to beat No. 9 Kansas State. Kansas (40 percent odds to beat Georgia Tech) and Miami (46 percent odds to beat South Florida) could also get sent home early.
There is also a team that has bust potential for a second straight year in No. 6 seed Georgia. Last year’s model correctly predicted that No. 6 seed Oregon would oust No. 3 Georgia. This year, the Bulldogs have the lowest odds of any No. 6 seed to win their first game (62 percent) and advance to the Sweet 16 (12 percent). In fact, the other three No. 6 seeds have two to three times better odds of making the tournament’s second weekend.
First-round matchups to watch
If you like offense, the first-round game to watch is No. 7 seed Utah against No. 10 seed Arkansas (Friday, 5:30 p.m. Eastern). Both teams rank inside the top 25 nationally in points per game, and they get it done with efficient scoring rather than simply with volume. This game also has upset potential, as our model gives the Razorbacks a 56 percent chance to advance.
The aforementioned Nebraska-Gonzaga game (Friday, 3:30 p.m. Eastern) is the most even of the first round, with Gonzaga having a 52 percent chance to advance. No. 7 seed Colorado versus No. 10 seed Creighton (Friday, 1:30 p.m. Eastern) is also nearly a dead heat, with Colorado having a 53 percent chance to advance.
And if you’re most interested in seeing underrated stars ball on a national stage, make sure to watch Maddy Siegrist and No. 11 seed Villanova take on Shaylee Gonzales and No. 6 seed BYU (Saturday, 1 p.m. Eastern). BYU has a 78 percent chance to advance, but that doesn’t mean the game won’t be exciting.
Other stars from outside the Power Five conferences include:
Aneesah Morrow (DePaul): Takes on Dayton, Wednesday, 9 p.m. Eastern
FiveThirtyEight model’s prediction: DePaul over Dayton (51 percent)
Kierstan Bell (FGCU): Takes on Virginia Tech, Friday, 2:30 p.m. Eastern
FiveThirtyEight model’s prediction: Virginia Tech over FGCU (78 percent)
Jasmine Dickey (Delaware): Takes on Maryland, Friday, 5 p.m. Eastern
FiveThirtyEight model’s prediction: Maryland over Delaware (93 percent)
Dyaisha Fair (Buffalo): Takes on Tennessee, Saturday, 3 p.m. Eastern
FiveThirtyEight model’s prediction: Tennessee over Buffalo (87 percent)
Abby Meyers (Princeton): Takes on Kentucky, Saturday, 4 p.m. Eastern
FiveThirtyEight model’s prediction: Kentucky over Princeton (65 percent)
Oh, and one more thing: Don’t miss sisters Sam and Jade Thomas facing off when No. 4 seed Arizona takes on No. 13 seed UNLV (Saturday, 10 p.m. Eastern). Sam and Arizona have an 89 percent chance to advance, but chaos is practically guaranteed when siblings take the court.
Check out our latest March Madness predictions.