2023 Women’s NCAA Tournament Upset Picks: Bracket Breakers offers first round options

We began our search for potential surprises in the women’s NCAA tournament by establishing baseline performance metrics for all Division I teams. Now that we have matchups, we can start figuring out which teams could emerge unscathed from their first-round clashes and which will likely have ruined their seasons well before midnight at the Big Dance.

Even a cursory look at the gaps between favorites and underdogs in women’s tournaments reveals grim news for wannabe Cinderellas; Superior talent, while starting to spread in women’s football, has yet to reach the bottom of the 68 peloton 2. Stanford and Sacred Heart, the weakest team named on Selection Sunday, have a staggering 63.7 points per 100 possessions . That matches the men’s game difference between Houston and the No. 361 Green Bay Hawks, who went straight 3-29 in the Horizon League. The women’s tournament top-3 seedlings have lost 335-1 in the first round since 1994. (Yes, that was Harvard in 1998. Some stories never get old.) This is reminiscent of the old statistician’s joke: Nothing about this deviation is standard!

While we’re flattering in our love for the misfits, we wouldn’t recommend even thinking about investing your time or treasure in any team in the bottom quarter of the brackets, at least not for now. Gardner-Webb, number 15, of Boiling Springs, NC, has an intriguing stat profile that should help them gain possession against better opponents. But they’re an underperforming team, playing against Utah, which is more than 40 points per 100 possessions stronger than the DI average. Teams need to be much closer together for styles to matter.

There are only four first-round encounters that qualify as potential group breakers (meaning opponents are separated by at least five seeded points), with teams within 10 points per 100 possessions of each other. Two of those are 6-11 games that have potential for excitement just because a bottom-tier favorite plays a power conference maverick: Creighton vs. Mississippi State (a 7.2-points-per-100-possession gap) and North Carolina vs. Purdue ( 9.0). This leaves two cases which become more and more interesting in our analysis.

First, our model sees a 3 points per 100 possessions gap in the Seattle 4 region between No. 6-seeded Colorado and No. 11-seeded Middle Tennessee, which pins it as the No. 31 in the country. And it’s a similar coin toss in Greenville 2 between Washington State #5 and Florida Gulf Coast #12. It’s all about the rating.

But there is more to consider. To topple an overdog, a longshot must take wise risks to increase the amount and value of their holdings, thereby increasing the variance of their rating. We know that successful underdogs in the men’s game bring down the boards for offensive rebounds, force opponents to turn over, and shoot lots of three-pointers. When these strategies work, a David can trip a Goliath, especially if the giant is having a bad shooting night. (When high-risk, high-reward tactics fail, the odds of a blowout-loss can increase — but who cares in win-or-go home scenarios like the NCAA tournament?)

Suppose we take the traits that lead to the underdog’s success in men’s soccer and see which teams carry them on the women’s side. Only two teams playing in the first round really stand out. They happen to be Middle Tennessee, which ranks 33rd nationally in points that steals add to its punching power and 30th in the 3-point rating, with 37 percent of all Blue Raiders goal attempts coming from behind the arc. And FGCU, which leads the nation with a whopping 3-point rating of 47.1 percent.

Just a week ago there were a dozen women’s teams with impressive numbers in various giant kill categories. Perhaps most intriguing was Columbia with an unusual combination of offensive rebounds and 3-point shooting. But in a repeat of the pre-tournament carnage, we’ve seen (and complained about) so many times that the men have lost five in their conference tournaments, and those results knocked two more out of the field. (There are a few more, which we’ll get to as we watch the women’s second round.)

So let’s pause for a moment to celebrate who we still have as a quality underdog, specifically the Florida Gulf Coast. The Eagles heaved 1,099 3s this season, by far the most of any team in DI. But that’s nothing unusual for FGCU, which has surpassed the millennium mark seven times in the past decade, according to HerHoopStats. At the same track, the Greens and Blues have averaged 27.4 wins per season and won eight ASUN Conference Championships.

Karl Smesko, the only women’s collegiate basketball coach Florida Gulf Coast has ever known (the school hired him in 2001 before it even had a gym), has transformed the Eagles into a dominant mid-major program. Smesko now has the third-highest win percentage of any active DI women’s basketball coach behind Geno Auriemma and Kim Mulkey, a fact that should earn you some cash bets. He’s made it to the strength of long-distance shooting and is truly an unheralded pioneer who brought the 3-point revolution to women’s football. Best of all, for our purposes, Smesko’s high variance strategies led to NCAA tournament success.

FGCU caused a stir in 2022 and 2018 as No. 12 and won in 2015 as No. 7. The Eagles lost by two points in 2017 as No. 13 and by a point in overtime in 2014 as No. 12. You can’t ask for more at the women’s tournament — at least until the women’s selection committee wakes up and starts giving Florida Gulf Coast appropriately higher seeded and lighter opponents.

Right now, we just don’t have enough detailed historical data to accurately quantify how the styles played by the FGCU and MTSU correlate with NCAA tournament performance above or below average. (That’s why we asked for your patience while we develop our model.) But based on the numbers we have, we can say that both matchups offer excellent odds for surprise, according to the win percentages developed by our colleague Austin Mock became :

Top 10 surprise chances in the first round

No. 5 Washington State Cougars vs. No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles

Probability of excitement: 55.1 percent

Expected lead to win: Florida Gulf Coast by 2 points

No. 6 Colorado Buffaloes vs. No. 11 Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

Probability of excitement: 45.4 percent

Expected lead to win: Colorado by 1.8 points

No. 6 Creighton Bluejays vs. No. 11 Mississippi State Bulldogs

Probability of excitement: 40.3 percent

Expected margin for victory: Creighton with 1.8 points

No. 6 Michigan Wolverines vs. No. 11 UNLV Lady Rebels

Probability of excitement: 37.1 percent

Expected lead to win: Michigan by 3.2 points

No. 5 Oklahoma Sooners vs. No. 12 Portland Pilots

Probability of excitement: 28.2 percent

Expected lead to win: Oklahoma by 8.1 points

No. 5 Louisville Cardinals vs. No. 12 Drake Bulldogs

Probability of excitement: 18.9 percent

Expected lead to win: Louisville by 8 points

No. 5 Iowa State Cyclones vs. No. 12 Toledo Rockets

Probability of excitement: 11.4 percent

Expected lead to win: Iowa State by 11.4 points

No. 4 Villanova Wildcats vs. No. 13 Cleveland State Vikings

Probability of excitement: 10.1 percent

Expected margin for victory: Villanova with 15.2 points

No. 6 North Carolina Tar Heels vs. No. 11 Purdue Boilermakers*

*If Purdue wins the first four game on Thursday night

Probability of excitement: 21.9 percent

No. 6 North Carolina Tar Heels vs. No. 11 St. John’s Red Storm*

*If St. John’s wins the first four game on Thursday night

Probability of excitement: 18.3 percent

One more note on how top-heavy the women’s field is: the next game on this list would be Texas vs. East Carolina, where we estimate the Pirates have only a 4 percent chance of winning, so these are all first-round games where underdogs have a realistic chance of winning enforce.

Interestingly, the money lines have moved towards our favorite long shots, and in some cases their implied odds have zoomed past our estimated odds. Florida Gulf Coast and Middle Tennessee are now favored to win their games. It’s similar to what we’ve seen in men’s football over the past two years: underdogs can quickly become overrated. Perhaps analysis is improving so drastically that astute bettors will find miscasts as fast as we can write about them. Perhaps people love Cinderella and are still riding a post-pandemic wave of vertigo at being able to bet on her in big events again. We are not sure. Finding ROI, however, is a different exercise than filling in brackets that reward you for picking lower-seed winners.

In this case you should be careful when playing on Vegas. Of course, UNLV will draw a lot of attention; The Lady Rebels have won 22 straight games. But the odds we see on sports betting suggest a difference of just four or five points per 100 possessions between them and Michigan, and our model assumes the gap is larger. We’d also like to note that UNLV played a fairly risk-averse style in choking the Mountain West: The Lady Rebels rank 17th in the country in avoiding turnovers, according to HerHoopStats, but only the 238 point average out of 27, 8 percent, rank 191). On the men’s side, we’ve found that when it comes to the big show, teams designed to dominate weaker conference opponents have a very hard time turning back and beefing up their playbooks. Indeed, UNLV went 26-7 last year, but as No. 13 in the first round, they snagged just five offensive rebounds with 31 misses, made 19 turnovers, and lost by 15 to Arizona. We really don’t want to be the ones telling you to look for value among overdogs. But as delicious as UNLV’s odds may seem, the market may already be overselling them.

Whether your first-round investment is financial or not, to make the most of it, remember this: Jalynn Gregory leads Middle Tennessee in both steals and 3-point tries. Tishara Morehouse has hit more than 40 percent of the 558 bombs she dropped for the Florida Gulf Coast this season. And Smesko belongs in the Hall of Fame.

(Top Photo: Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

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