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Where’s the March Madness in the Women’s Final Four?

The NCAA women’s basketball tournament will have more upsets than it used to but still lags behind the men’s tourney.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma's hair is fixed by his players, right, Moriah Jefferson (4) and Breanna Stewart (30) while celebrating their 2014-15 national title in Tampa. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times )
UConn coach Geno Auriemma's hair is fixed by his players, right, Moriah Jefferson (4) and Breanna Stewart (30) while celebrating their 2014-15 national title in Tampa. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times )
Published Mar. 18, 2019

When the Women’s Final Four last came to Tampa in 2015, you could count the number of teams with realistic championship hopes on one or two fingers.

As the NCAA women’s basketball tournament prepares to return to Amalie Arena next month, UConn coach Geno Auriemma sees six or seven teams capable of winning it all, as his Huskies did four years ago.

“This year, I think, is going to be one of the more wide-open races that there has been,” Auriemma said.

That isn’t saying much.

While the men’s tournament is known for its madness, the women’s tournament is much more mundane. You might not want to use a Sharpie to fill out the brackets that are released tonight, but you should expect plenty of chalk.

Both of the previous championships in Tampa were top-heavy; all four participants in 2015 were No. 1 seeds, and the 2008 semifinalists featured two No. 1 seeds (UConn and Tennessee) and a pair of No. 2 seeds (Stanford and LSU).

No one was surprised when Tennessee coach Pat Summitt and star Candace Parker won the 2008 title in Tampa. (Times 2008)
No one was surprised when Tennessee coach Pat Summitt and star Candace Parker won the 2008 title in Tampa. (Times 2008)

Over the last 20 tournaments, none of the Women’s Final Four participants have been seeded lower than seventh. But 48 of the 80 semifinalists were No. 1 seeds.

Compare those figures to the men, where only 32 Final Four teams have been at the top of their bracket and nine teams seeded eighth or lower won their region.

The lack of parity holds true in other ways:

· While women had a 16-over-1 shocker (Harvard over Stanford in 1998) before the men did, the women’s tournament has never had a 15-over-2 or 14-over-3 upset.

· In the last 20 seasons, the men have had 46 double-digit Cinderellas make the Sweet 16. The women have had 19.

· Beginning with the 1999 Final Four at Tropicana Field, 11 different men’s teams have claimed the title. Only eight women’s teams have won it all in that span.

Breanna Stewart led UConn's run of dominance, including the 2015 title in Tampa. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
Breanna Stewart led UConn's run of dominance, including the 2015 title in Tampa. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)

So why is the women’s game so much more predictable?

Auriemma attributes it to differing talent pools. The drop-off between a top-20 recruit and one ranked 50th is a lot steeper with females than males.

“There’s just not enough depth to go around,” Auriemma said. “All the good schools get all the good players.”

But that is starting to change, at least slightly.

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As Tampa was preparing to host its first Women’s Final Four in 2008, eight of the nation’s top 20 recruits signed with either Tennessee or UConn. Nine other teams split the rest.

This year’s top 20 recruits went to 15 different schools. None, shockingly, chose the Huskies. The defending national champion (Notre Dame) only landed one of them, as did the Lady Vols.

“More teams are benefiting from the fact that more players are choosing different schools,” Auriemma said. “That’s what needed to happen.”

And it’s starting to result in a little bit more madness.

Six double-digit seeds have reached the Sweet 16 over the last five women’s tournaments. That’s double the Cinderellas in the five-year stretch from 1997-2001.

Only one No. 1 seed made the Final Four in 2016 —the first time that had happened since 2004.

All of that means the women’s road to Tampa might be more predictable than the men’s field, but the odds of upsets are higher than they used to be.

“Those four years (Breanna Stewart) was with us, it was a foregone conclusion that we were going to win it,” Auriemma said. “Now, it isn’t even a foregone conclusion that someone is an odds-on favorite to win it.”

Times columnist Martin Fennelly contributed to this report.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.