The Final Four of the Women’s NCAA Tournament begins Friday night in Columbus, Ohio, with the UConn Huskies taking their annual position as the favorite to win yet another national championship.
UConn (36-0) is appearing in the Final Four for a record 11th consecutive year. But unlike their last four trips to the semifinals, the Huskies aren’t coming in as the defending champions. Instead, they’ll be looking to avenge a 64-62 overtime loss to Mississippi State in last year’s Final Four.
Huskies Face Notre Dame (Again)
It’s possible that UConn could get another shot at the Bulldogs in the finals this year. But first, they’ll need to get past one of their biggest rivals of the past decade, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (33-3). The two teams have a long history of meeting in the postseason, something that UConn coach Geno Auriemma says draws top players to both programs.
“When you come out of high school and you choose to go to Notre Dame or Connecticut, you’re saying I want to play in big games,” Auriemma said in a media teleconference. “I want to play on the big stage.”
Few stages are larger than the Final Four, and few games could be bigger than a clash between these two squads. UConn is looking to complete their fifth undefeated season in the past decade, while Notre Dame is hoping to overcome not only a seemingly unstoppable opponent, but also a rash of injuries that have seen key contributors sidelined with torn ligaments.
The two teams have already played once this season, with UConn getting the best of the Irish 80-71 in early December. FiveThirtyEight estimates that the Huskies have an 89 percent chance of winning and moving on to the final.
(The ESPN-based statistical analysis site has an interactive predictions model that we found quite fun to play with.)
Mississippi State Has Legacy to Build
The other semifinal features the only team to beat UConn in the past three seasons: Mississippi State (36-1). While the Bulldogs came to the Final Four last year as a relative unknown, this year they’ve been pegged as one of the favorites since the beginning of the season. That’s a culture that coach Vic Schaefer wants her players and her program to embrace.
“As I told [athletic director] Scott Stricklin…I wanted to come here and build a top-10 program,” Schaefer said. “Those teams 17 to 25 are fluid. One week they are in the poll, the next week they are out…that’s not what my vision was. I envisioned us building a top-10 program here.”
With a second straight Final Four appearance, Schaefer appears to have reached that goal. After making the championship game last year, the only hill left to climb for the Bulldogs is a national championship.
But to accomplish that, Mississippi State will first have to deal with the Louisville Cardinals (36-2). Louisville has had little trouble running through the tournament to this point, and coach Jeff Walz thinks his team is peaking at just the right time.
“I really like how we’re playing right now,” Walz said. “We’re really getting downhill toward the basket, trying to get tempo, and that’s what we have to continue to do.”
FiveThirtyEight’s projections see Louisville as a slight favorite to win the game, giving the Cardinals a 54 percent chance of reaching the final. No matter who wins the game, however, they’ll be a significant underdog to UConn: those same projections give the Huskies a 75 percent chance of winning the title.