Top seeds beware: Are early-round women's upsets becoming more common?


Creighton coach Jim Flanery had a simple message for his team headed into the 2022 women’s NCAA tournament, as a No. 10 seed playing on the road and a possible game against No. 2 seed Iowa and Caitlin Clark looming.

“We’re going to Iowa City to win two games,” Flanery told his team.

He knew the odds and history were against them, but someone had to instill belief the Bluejays could do it. Since women’s college basketball went back to playing first- and second-round games on home courts in 2015, top-two seeds had gone 74-4 at home. Of the four that pulled the upset, only one was a double-digit seed.

To win two games in Iowa City, the Bluejays would have to pull two upsets. First up: an 84-74 win over No. 7 seed Colorado in the first round. Up next: the Hawkeyes, playing on their home court, in front of nearly 15,000 fans, with the Clark effect in full swing. She had won her first Big Ten Player of the Year award as a sophomore that season, leading the nation in scoring at 27 points per game.

Flanery felt confident going into the game because Creighton had more familiarity with Clark than most teams. Sure enough, the Bluejays slowed her down enough to pull a 64-62 stunner.

A few hours later, fellow 10-seed South Dakota beat No. 2 seed Baylor in Waco. Then last year, No. 9 seed Miami beat No. 1 seed Indiana, and No. 8 seed Ole Miss beat No. 1 seed Stanford, both road teams coming out victorious.

These types of upsets remain rare in the women’s NCAA tournament, but it’s a trend worth monitoring when the first round tips Friday. Should top-two seeds be on alert headed into this year’s NCAA tournament? Factor this in, too: The No. 2-ranked team in the AP poll this season has lost 11 times, the most in a season over the past 25 years.

History shows the vast majority of teams hosting first- and second-round games have a huge advantage. But it is also true there have been as many upsets involving top-two seeds in the past two NCAA tournaments than the previous five combined.

“Because of our win and because of Ole Miss’ win, people are like, ‘Oh yeah, you can break through,'” Miami coach Katie Meier said, referring to last year. “It’s really, really hard to do that.

“It’s ridiculous to win in front of 16,000 people rooting against you. But we are getting to the point where if you’re in a major conference, you’ve been playing on the road against hostile fans since December, so it’s not as dramatic for your players to walk in to. They don’t just freeze. That’s a credit to the growth of the game.”

Clark has helped facilitate some of that growth — her popularity set attendance records across the Big Ten and in the Big Ten tournament this year, and has helped spur rising television ratings. Back in 2022, she had star power, but the Creighton players were not intimidated when it came time for their second-round game.

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In fact, Flanery felt good about the matchup for multiple reasons. Creighton and Iowa had played a closed-door scrimmage in October, an annual routine for the two programs. Creighton lost by five, but playing a game that was one possession until a couple of late free throws gave his players confidence to know they could win.

Several of his players played against Clark in high school. His star guard, Lauren Jensen, played with Clark the previous season at Iowa, before transferring to Creighton. They knew what they were up against.

Flanery also knew the pressure would be entirely on Iowa. Flanery told his team in the locker room before the game, “Of course you’re going to be nervous because there’s 15,000 people. But you know what else? Iowa is going to be nervous because there’s 15,000 people, and they’re supposed to win. So let’s do some breathing so we can try to relax and be in the moment.”

Creighton did not give Clark much room or freedom to shoot, and slowing down the tempo became an advantage. The longer Creighton led, the more Flanery sensed the pressure growing on Iowa. Though the Hawkeyes came back to take a lead in the fourth quarter, Creighton believed it could win. Jensen made it happen, making a go-ahead 3-point shot with 12.6 seconds left to stun the home team.

The Bluejays had clinched their first Sweet 16 appearance, and ended up reaching the regional final before losing to eventual national champion South Carolina. “After the Elite Eight, I told them, ‘Don’t ever forget what this feels like,'” Flanery said. “‘Keep going back to this and using it as confidence that you are as good as almost anybody in the country.'”

Headed across the country to Stanford last year, Ole Miss coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin had a good feeling about her team defense. The Rebels thrive on frustrating their opponents on the offensive end; plus, she said, her team went into its first-round matchup against Gonzaga believe it was seeded too low.

Strong defense plus highly motivated team equals double-digit win against Gonzaga. Then came the real test against No. 1 seed Stanford, a team that lost one home game all season — to No. 1 South Carolina. When McPhee-McCuin put on the tape to scout Stanford, she noticed that teams did not pressure the Cardinal the way Ole Miss does. She came up with a plan: Disrupt their vision and passing lanes to make them feel uncomfortable.

The result? Stanford had more turnovers (21) than field goals made (17) and just eight assists. Ole Miss won 54-49.

“It continued to show that women’s basketball is now getting parity, which is great for the game, because who wants to watch a movie when you know how it’s going to end?” McPhee-McCuin said. “It brought new and fresh faces in the conversation, which I thought was good for us. It just solidified everything we thought. We thought we were a good team. We thought we were legitimate. We thought we could play against anybody.”

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Whether these upsets happened because there is greater parity or because of specific matchups is a question that coaches don’t necessarily agree on. While Flanery is not as sold on matchup advantages as an answer, Meier believes matchups are hugely important in helping teams pull upsets.

Miami had familiarity with Indiana headed into its second-round tournament game last year. The Hurricanes and Hoosiers played in the Bahamas during the 2022 season. Miami lost 53-31 after missing a 3-point attempt to win the game. So when Meier saw her team was going to Bloomington, Indiana, and had drawn the Hoosiers, she thought to herself: “We have a formula for how to beat Indiana.”

It almost never came to that, though. The Hurricanes needed a wild 17-point second half comeback to beat Oklahoma State and advance. That win, coupled with Meier’s game plan, gave her players the confidence to believe they could keep going. In front of nearly 15,000 fans, Miami set the tone and never trailed, winning 70-68 and getting Meier to the Sweet 16 for the first time as a coach.

“Women’s basketball is now getting parity, which is great for the game, because who wants to watch a movie when you know how it’s going to end?”

Ole Miss coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin, whose 8-seeded Rebels upset 1-seed Stanford in 2023

I said, ‘Oh my God, after how many years I’ve been in this business as a player and a coach, it really comes down to matchups,'” Meier said. “It’s unbelievable. The matchups really helped in terms of the prep. In the end, yes, you’ve got to catch fire. You’ve got to have a really competitive team. They’ve got to not panic and just stay very faithful. But in the end, a large percent of [your chance] is the bracket that you draw.”

South Dakota State coach Aaron Johnston believes matchups help too, but so does past NCAA tournament experience — especially in the case of mid-majors. In 2019, his No. 6-seeded Jackrabbits upset No. 3 seed Syracuse to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time. But Johnston points to 2016, when South Dakota State, as a No. 12 seed, nearly upset No. 4 Stanford in Palo Alto, California.

The Jackrabbits had an eight-point lead with 4:41 to play before losing 66-65. Three years later, in a tight game with Syracuse, those who experienced the Stanford loss wanted a different ending — including Johnston’s two best players, seniors Madison Guebert and Macy Miller.

“I do think the mindset from that was important,” Johnston said. “If you look at most of these mid-major teams that are getting wins, most of them have some history in the NCAA tournament, some comfort level in handling the pressure and the expectation. A lot of times these games are road games, so you have to have a pretty mature team that has the ability to handle that, and that group for us did.”

Mid-major coaches like Flanery and Johnston know that no matter what their respective seasons look like, they will be headed on the road to begin the tournament, and at a big disadvantage.

But given the recent upsets, along with increasing attendance and ratings, Flanery wonders whether it’s time to play the early rounds on neutral courts. From 2005 to 2008, women’s basketball tried an eight-team pod system that included sub-regionals where host teams could play in them after bidding, but those also went away because of attendance concerns.

I just think we’re in a place where the sport can handle it now, or at least we try,” Flanery said. “I hope that we don’t look over the idea that maybe it’s now possible for us to do that. It’s going to take some work. You’re not going to want to put it in the middle of nowhere, but I think we can do it the right way, and it would be more fair for the student-athletes.”

It’s a conversation that has been had as recently as 2021, when COVID-19 forced the entire NCAA tournament to take place at neutral sites at the Alamodome and arenas in Texas. Coaches who support moving away from home sites cautioned there should be a way to pick sites in areas that have proven to support women’s basketball. The tournament moved back to home sites in 2015 because of attendance concerns at predetermined locations.

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Last year, an NCAA attendance record was set for the first two tournament rounds — 231,677 fans attended games, up 6.8% from the previous high … set in 2022. Compare that to 2014, the last year for neutral sites in the opening rounds, when the total attendance for the entire NCAA tournament was 239,345.

Headed into this year’s tournament, South Carolina, UConn and Stanford will all host opening-round games, the way they have in every non-COVID-19-impacted year since 2015. LSU coach Kim Mulkey, who led the Tigers to the NCAA title last season, has also had the advantage of early-round home games during her time with LSU and Baylor, previously. “The mouthpieces of our sport are Geno [Auriemma] and Dawn [Staley] and Kim, and hey it’s to their advantage to keep playing two home games, so I just hope that we listen to some other people,” Flanery said.

North Carolina coach Courtney Banghart, president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, said this topic is on the list of WBCA agenda items for the next year. Banghart said she is interested in learning more, without feeling the need to make an immediate decision.

As part of that discussion, she said, there should be an evaluation of the growing pains that could follow, including how much of an appetite there is to see attendance drop in the short term for potential long-term gains. Fans used to home games for the first and second rounds would now be asked to travel for the entire tournament, another factor.

Still, Banghart said, “If we don’t have the conversation now, when would we? The game has never been more respected and more appreciated. What are the risks? What are the growing pains we’re willing to endure? Those two things have to be co-connected.”

On the other hand, Banghart also believes that the current structure presents opportunities for programs to help boost attendance and fan interest during the regular season. She noted attendance at North Carolina has gone up in the past three years as the team has gotten better and its fan base has bought in to creating a raucous home court. More home wins means a better record and the possibility of one day hosting first- and second-round games.

UCLA coach Cori Close also pointed out that conference realignment could have an effect on overall attendance numbers — especially those in her future conference, the Big Ten. She suggested going back to the group that put together the Kaplan Report in 2021 looking into gender equity in the NCAA — a result of inequities brought to light between the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments that year.

“I would go back to those people that we paid to do a lot of research and say what do you see as the trends?” Close said. “I think we need to study, seek wise counsel and make a really educated decision. I do think we’re really close, if we’re not there right now. It’s not just the Caitlin Clark effect. I respect what JuJu Watkins has brought to USC, what [Notre Dame’s] Hannah Hidalgo and several others have brought to various places around the country and I celebrate that. We’re in a really interesting time.”

For now, though, the focus is on this year’s tournament. Doing what Creighton or Miami or Ole Miss or Baylor did over the past two years will be difficult to replicate. But winning on the road in the tournament is not as improbable as it seems.



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