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Close encounters of the college kind

More tightly fought contests yet another positive for this season's record-breaking NCAA women's tournament

Updated: 2024-04-05 07:02
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This season's NCAA women's tournament has been a huge ratings hit in North America thanks to breakout stars and increasing levels of competitiveness. AP/GETTY IMAGES

This spotlight season for women's college basketball isn't merely creating brighter stars and bigger ratings. It's also producing closer games.

The average margin of victory in NCAA Tournament women's games this year has been 15 points. That average hovered between 16.2 and 17.2 for each of the previous four seasons, giving an impression that the tournament lacked competitiveness.

"I think there's a little bit more parity than we've had in the past maybe because of the (transfer) portal," North Carolina State coach Wes Moore said on Tuesday. "But I just think it's a great time."

The average 2024 men's tournament game has been decided by 14.4 points, an increase from previous years. So the difference in victory margin between the women's tournament and the men's tournament is only six-tenths of a point per game.

That's a big change from recent years.

Women's tournament games had an average scoring margin that was anywhere from 4-5 points greater than the men in 2019, 2021, 2022 and 2023; the 2020 tournament was called off because of the pandemic. The top 16 women's seeds play at home for the first two rounds while all men's games are at neutral sites.

Home sweet home?

This year, the top 16 seeds in the women's tournament all won their first-round games by double-digit margins. The NCAA has been hesitant about moving away from home-court sites for the first two rounds because of attendance concerns.

Ole Miss pulled off a stunning second-round victory last year by beating top-seeded Stanford on its home floor but this year lost its second-round game at Notre Dame.

"I'm not an advocate for home-court games," Ole Miss coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin said at the time. "We've got to figure out how to be a top-four seed, top-16, so we can have the home-court advantage, or if you're going to go in someone's place and knock them off like we did last year, you need to have all cylinders clicking."

Surprises still rare

For all the excitement the NCAA women's tournament has produced this year, it hasn't generated many surprises.

Only four lower-seeded teams won in the first two rounds: No 11 seed Middle Tennessee knocked off No 6 Louisville on a neutral site in the round of 64, while No 7 seed Duke won at No 2 seed Ohio State, No 5 seed Colorado won at No 4 seed Kansas State, and No 5 seed Baylor won at No 4 seed Virginia Tech in the round of 32.

Last year, seven lower seeds won games in the round of 64 alone, though no higher-seeded teams lost on their home floors.

Still, the average margin of victory in the round of 64 and round of 32 was 16.56, the lowest since 2015, according to Stats Perform. The games got even closer in the regional rounds at neutral sites. Every team that reached the Final Four had at least one close call.

Iowa was tied with West Virginia with just over two minutes left in their second-round game. South Carolina was clinging to a two-point lead over Indiana in the closing minutes of a regional semifinal. UConn led Syracuse by only two points with a couple of minutes left in their second-round game. North Carolina State watched its 20-point lead over Tennessee shrink to two in the fourth quarter before pulling away for a second-round victory.

Wins by lower seeds

Lower seeds have gone 19-41 in the men's tournament and 9-51 in the women's tournament, but the results have been more similar in the last couple of rounds.

Eleven lower seeds won in the first round of the men's tournament, with Middle Tennessee the lone first-round winner among lower seeds in the women's division.

In the round of 32, women's lower seeds went 3-13 and men's lower seeds were 2-14.

The lower-seeded men's teams went 5-3 in the Sweet 16 and 1-3 in the regional finals. In the women's tournament, the lower-seeded team went 3-5 in the Sweet 16 and 2-2 in the Elite Eight.

Narrow margins

Twenty-six of the 64 men's games so far have either reached overtime or were decided by fewer than 10 points.

The women's tournament has featured 23 games with margins of fewer than 10 points.

The underdogs

The women's tournament doesn't have any Cinderella stories to rival North Carolina State's march to the men's Final Four as a No 11 seed. Every women's team to reach a regional final was seeded third or better in its region.

Aside from North Carolina State, the lowest-seeded men's team to advance beyond the first weekend was Clemson, which got to a regional final as a No 6 seed.

Final Four familiarity

The men's tournament features defending champion UConn but also has Alabama making its first-ever Final Four appearance, Purdue made it for the first time since 1980 and North Carolina State is here for the first time since its 1983 championship.

The women's Final Four teams are more familiar with this stage. South Carolina is in its fourth straight Final Four, Iowa is the defending runner-up and UConn is here for the 15th time in the last 16 seasons and a record 23rd time overall. The exception is North Carolina State, whose last Final Four trip was in 1998.

Agencies via Xinhua



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