Because the coronavirus pandemic has canceled the NCAA women’s tournament, we wonder which teams would have reached New Orleans, which team would have emerged victorious and which player might have become an unexpected star.
We’ll never know. But Rebecca Lobo of ESPN and Charlie Creme, Graham Hays and Mechelle Voepel of ESPN.com explore what we could have seen during Final Four 2020. For this story, we used the last parenthesis of Creme for the projection projections and how the regions could have aligned.
Which team do you think would have won the NCAA 2020 title?
Rebecca Lobo: Just the other day, I was watching an ESPN broadcast of the Sweet 16 2013 game between Louisville and Baylor. Louisville’s victory was the biggest upheaval in the history of women’s college basketball and I was fortunate to call the game alongside Pam Ward. Baylor was the defending NCAA champion, presented the most dominant center of his time to Brittney Griner and shouldn’t have much trouble with the fifth-seeded Cardinals.
I’m talking about it because if we had three teams this year who rose above the rest for most of the regular season – South Carolina, Oregon and Baylor – none of them were favored as much than Baylor in 2013. I expected these three teams will be in New Orleans this year, but 2013 taught me that anything can happen.
Oregon and South Carolina played their best basketball of the season when it was most important and I expected that to continue in the NCAA tournament. South Carolina looked great in the SEC tournament and Oregon also sailed in the Pac-12 tournament (after a lackluster quarterfinal game against Utah, still a 20-point victory).
I give Oregon the slightest advantage for two reasons. First, the Final Four experience may be important, and most of the Ducks played on that stage in 2019. Second, their attack hummed. Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally constantly played like pros, while Erin Boley and even Minyon Moore took turns spending great nights. And they had the biggest college game competitor in Ionescu. Sometimes a player can split a team. Oregon had this player. The Ducks seemed destined to complete their “unfinished business”.
Charlie Creme: Oregon is my choice. As the season accelerated for the NCAA tournament, the Ducks played the best basketball in the country. It may not have been a wide margin, but Oregon looked very much like a team ready to complete the unfinished business he talked about almost immediately after losing Baylor to the national semifinals a year ago.
Baylor, Oregon and South Carolina were surely No. 1 seeds and, according to BPI, were overwhelming favorites to reach the Final Four. The same BPI also made the Ducks the best choice – with a margin of more than 10% – to win the national championship.
I greatly appreciate the analysis, but my prediction that Oregon was the last team standing is strictly based on observation and likely confrontations the tournament would have provided. The Ducks had three seniors in the starting lineup, three players slated to be among the top five WNBA draft picks this spring and the country’s best player by consensus at Ionescu. It produced what was the best attack in the country all season, and recently it seemed unstoppable, even in the country’s best conference, the Pac-12.
The idea that defense wins championships is outdated. Teams that can put the ball in the basket with as much variety, frequency and efficiency win championships. The three favorites played an excellent defense (the Ducks had allowed a single opponent to touch 70 points since their loss to Arizona State on January 10), but Oregon had the most firepower. This is why the Ducks would have celebrated New Orleans.
Graham Hays: I remember sitting in Bridgeport, Connecticut, listening to Oregon coach Kelly Graves before his team played UConn in a regional final in 2017. It was way before Oregon was chic. No one expected these ducks to participate in this match. A No. 10 seed, they almost lost to Temple in the first round. And that was long before they became an offensive juggernaut, when Ionescu was just a freshman and Graves was still trying to defeat Paul Westhead’s score system at all costs.
But what I remember is that when asked what still separated a program like his from a program like UConn, he focused on defense. He hasn’t focused on a singular talent like Breanna Stewart – he has one now. He didn’t focus on an offense that has averaged 87 points per game this season – he also has one now. He focused on UConn’s commitment to advocating.
All of that is to say that Oregon has been offensive enough to win a title for a few years, but the Ducks did look pretty good defensively this season.
Listen to me, the injured Baylor and South Carolina fans. Yes, Oregon was the weakest defensive team among the three favorites. Baylor led the nation in goal defense, South Carolina finished fourth. The Ducks had neither DiDi Richards nor Aliyah Boston. But with apologies to these two teams, no one in the country has had an offense like Oregon – not with Boley and Sabally shooting the 3 as well as they did in the second half of the season to complete all the rest of the Ducks. But starting with 174th defense on the field a season ago, while still a few possessions from the title game, the Ducks have climbed to the top 75 this season. In 13 games against ranked teams, they allowed 60.8 points per game.
Baylor and South Carolina were as good as defensive. But neither was going to keep the Ducks at 61 points more times.
Mechelle Voepel: It’s been a pretty good deal for Oregon, and after covering the Ducks and the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas, it’s hard to face them. But the Final Four has had a few surprises in the past three seasons, and this year may have chosen that path too. Oregon would have appeared as the favorite perceived by most, mainly because of Ionescu. She said during the Pac-12 tournament that she felt no pressure, that she played freely and easily. But would the weight of “nothing less than a championship be overwhelming” finally reach the New Orleans Ducks?
So let’s talk about Gamecocks and Lady Bears. South Carolina had not lost since Thanksgiving and seemed as strong to win its conference tournament as the Ducks to win theirs. Baylor, meanwhile, was checked. The Lady Bears not only lost their regular season final to the Iowa State, they lost after a foul was called with a tenth of a second to play. They were angry with themselves for being in this position, and I think the loss would have refocused Baylor and given coach Kim Mulkey more motivational material.
In two losses to Oregon, the Ducks were caught by two coaches who managed to take pretty offense – and Oregon’s offense often went a long way – and to make the game uglier. It’s Jeff Walz from Louisville and Charli Turner Thorne from Arizona State. I think Baylor could have done it in Oregon in the national semifinals, and if the Ducks had overtaken the Lady Bears, they probably would have been in a similar battle against the Gamecocks.
With three newbies, South Carolina could have channeled an atmosphere much like Maryland in 2006, when LSU, Duke and North Carolina were each more experienced and perceived as bigger favorites, but Terps for the most part young – with First year students Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman and second year students Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper – walked away with the title. So I’ll go with South Carolina, especially since the Gamecocks also had stable senior starters, Tyasha Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who were part of the South Carolina National Championship team in 2017 as ‘freshmen.
What four teams did you expect to reach the Final Four?
Lobo: I expected the four seeders to arrive in New Orleans, with the Fort Wayne area games being the most competitive. It wouldn’t have shocked me to see Louisville, who was slated for the No. 2 seed, get out of this region, but Maryland ended their season playing more regularly and taking advantage.
Cream: Baylor, Oregon and South Carolina were too good to trip in a possible showdown because the installment would have been played. But I would have predicted that Louisville would come out of Fort Wayne. Yes, the Cardinals sometimes had trouble attacking and it would be a problem against the Terps who got the highest score if they met in Elite Eight. However, Louisville coach Jeff Walz is often able to find the right defensive game plan in big games like this. The NCAA tournament is all about the clashes, and because of Louisville’s strength, experience and length in the backcourt with players like Dana Evans and Jazmine Jones, this clash would have helped Louisville.
The idea that Baylor and Oregon face off in the national semifinals for the second year in a row is fascinating. I chose the Ducks to win the title, but getting through the Lady Bears was the toughest call. Just like a year ago, Baylor is not a good game for Oregon. Lauren Cox has the size and defensive skills to neutralize Hebard (the Oregon striker had four shots at his 2019 Final Four meeting), DiDi Richards is a physical defender who has the length to frustrate Ionescu, and l ‘Oregon doesn’t have quite the right defender to match NaLyssa Smith’s skills. I’ve always been with the Ducks because they have more ways to win and more options. Boley and Sabally would have been extremely important attacking, and Coach Graves may have had to be more creative in overcoming a less than ideal confrontation with Baylor.
Hays: Rebecca mentioned the upheaval in Louisville-Baylor earlier, and it would have taken an upheaval on this scale to keep all of Baylor, Oregon or South Carolina out of the Final Four. Part of me wants to choose the No. 4 DePaul seed that comes out of Fort Wayne, and if we had done it in December, everyone could have been on board. As it stands, I will take No. 2 Louisville. Maryland coach Brenda Frese cost her former assistant Jeff Walz a trip to the Final Four at home when their teams met in a regional final in Louisville in 2014, but I wish Louisville stifled the Terrapins defensively and return the favor. neutral court this year.
Voepel: As competitive and fun as this season has been, I agree that the first four seeds screened were all favorites in New Orleans. Geography (fan support) is also said to have helped three of them, in neighboring regions, with Oregon to Portland, South Carolina to Greenville and Baylor to Dallas. Although the last two times, the Lady Bears played in a regional tournament in Dallas – in 2011 and 2016 – they lost in the final.
And don’t forget the 12-game UConn streak in the Final Four. The Huskies would not have fallen without a good fight in the Portland area, even if they were beaten by Oregon in Storrs on February 3. The Huskies only had the top three teams (Baylor, Oregon and South Carolina). . UConn and coach Geno Auriemma would have been impatient with the rare chance that the underdogs could potentially pay off all three in the NCAA tournament.
In 2019, Baylor hoisted the NCAA trophy and Chloe Jackson – not All-American Kalani Brown or All-Big 12 first team Lauren Cox – has been the best player of the last four. Who could have had a similar impact on the Final Four 2020?
Hays: It seems that we all agree that anyone from Baylor, Oregon or South Carolina could have won without registering as the slightest surprise. So even if I chose Oregon to win the title, let’s go with Zia Cooke of South Carolina. The Final Four is a great scene for a freshman, and Cooke was up and down with his filming during the dress rehearsal which was the SEC tournament. But this is the only chance to call Cooke something under the radar, as she is going to be one of the central figures in South Carolina from now on. It doesn’t sound like an exaggeration to say that someone who scored 20 points each against Kentucky and Tennessee, and who came to South Carolina with all the accolades of a superstar waiting, might not care about the lights from New Orleans.
Cream: Boley would be my choice for an unsung hero if Oregon were to win it all. Oregon has so many offensive pieces that the defenses are often forced to choose which duck they will let beat. With so much attention to Ionescu, Sabally and Hebard, Boley often looks open. If he arrives in rhythm, Boley is a rollover shooter who is capable of hitting four or five 3-point streak and opening a game or making a few key jumpers in a close game. It helps if Boley plays with a group of selfless teammates and the national assists leader at Ionescu (9.1 APG). Against Baylor and South Carolina, or against both, she would likely have opportunities, and as one of the best 3-point shooters in the country (44.1%), Boley would have a chance to enter the Final Four folklore.
Voepel: If Oregon had won, Moore, a licensed transfer guard, could have been the spark; she brought the Ducks a contagious defensive tenacity, and had a great attacking game in the Pac-12 championship victory over Stanford. For Baylor, second-year player Queen Egbo had her moments in the regular season, and she could have left the bench to play a bigger role than expected both offensively and defensively. Another reserve that could be a real star is Destanni Henderson of South Carolina. Maryland goaltender Taylor Mikesell had the most points at three points this season (90) among all players in one of the first four seeded games, so she could have had a big impact too.
Lobo: I think Sabally could have had a monster in the Final Four. She was relatively calm in the last two games of the Pac-12 tournament, but she was in beast mode during the second half of the season. Another player who could have stolen the show was Mikiah Herbert Harrigan of South Carolina. She was great in the SEC tournament and had an obvious tenacity that showed up whenever her team needed it.