Women’s NCAA Tournament upset picks: Can Duke take down Ohio State?


On Friday, the first-round games in the women’s tournament offered us a fine lesson in a fundamental difference between this version of March Madness and the one played by men. In the men’s game, the gap between the very best teams on the one hand and power-conference also-rans, the best mid-majors and even Yale on the other has become narrow enough that if everything goes right for an underdog on a bad night for a favorite, anything really can happen. That’s not yet true on the women’s side.

Talent is dispersing throughout the women’s game, and many programs are improving rapidly beyond those who are perennial championship contenders. But most top-shelf teams are still able to squash bottom-bracket opponents — and specifically to snuff out their attempts at giant-killing tactics — mostly just by being so much bigger, stronger and faster.

Even without Elizabeth Kitley, Virginia Tech destroyed Marshall on Friday, holding the Thundering Herd to a pretty incredible 6-for-41 (14.6 percent) shooting on threes. Baylor pressured Vanderbilt into 21 turnovers. Colorado held Drake to four offensive rebounds while making more than 60 percent of their own inside shots. And those results are from games where our model thought the longshot had at least a 10 percent chance of winning! In the rest, higher seeds went 6-0 and won by an average of 27.8 points.

Overall, Slingshot estimated there would be 1.45 upsets on Friday. And if you’re wondering what 0.45 of an upset would look like, what else would you call a game where Texas A&M, our favorite underdog of the day, lost by two points when Endiya Rogers missed a game-winning buzzer-beater?

Seriously, though, our No. 2 longshot, Middle Tennessee, did knock off Louisville, and so far, the Blue Raiders are the star underdogs of this tournament. Kudos in particular to guard Savannah Wheeler, who started the game by missing six straight shots and committing two fouls in 18 minutes, but whose 20 second-half points led Middle Tennessee back from an 18-point deficit to a two-point win. And to Coach Rick Insell, who employed an underappreciated high-risk/high-reward strategy by concentrating all but eight minutes of play in his five best players. And now Middle Tennessee gets to face LSU — just another example of the life of an underdog in the top-heavy women’s tournament.

Fear not, there are still longshots worth your time at this tourney. We just don’t think many of them will be dancing on Sunday. On the opening day of the second round, there will be five matchups featuring teams separated by at least five seeds. In four cases, Slingshot sees upset chances of less than 10 percent. Which leaves one where there’s some value.

Odds are from BetMGM. For more Underdogs, listen to Peter and Jordan’s podcast. For all our March Madness coverage, check out our content hub. 

No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes vs. No. 7 Duke Blue Devils

Upset Chance: 31.5 percent

Spread: Ohio State favored by 7.5 points

Nobody complained too loudly when Duke landed a 7-seed this year. After all, the Blue Devils finished seventh in the ACC, where they went 11-7 in the regular season, then lost to North Carolina State in the conference tournament’s quarterfinals. Well, maybe some folks who are always ready to write dissertations on how the NCAA selection committee treats the Duke men poorly should have saved some of their keystrokes for promoting Kara Lawson’s crew. Our model says Duke is the 19th-best team in the country. (They are also No. 19 at HerHoopStats, and 20th in NET.)

The Blue Devils have outscored their opponents by 35.7 points per 100 possessions after adjusting for the fact they have played the nation’s 16th-strongest schedule, according to Slingshot. That means there’s a difference of fewer than seven points per 100 possessions between the Blue Devils and the Buckeyes (who are ninth in our basic power ratings). In stark contrast, the average gap in Sunday’s other four giant-vs.-killer contests is over 20 points per 100 possessions.

Duke is better than their record shows: The Blue Devils have gone 2-5 in games decided by two possessions or less. And they’ve got some skills that should hold up as they advance. They are allowing opponents to shoot just 38.4 percent from inside. They also have players all over the court who obstruct shots. Camilla Emsbo, Kennedy Brown and Jadyn Donovan are averaging more than a block per game.

Meanwhile, Ohio State has had an outstanding season. Still, it is notably weak in the one area most crucial to ensuring a Goliath stays safe in the early rounds: The Buckeyes rank just 263rd in the country in offensive rebounding, grabbing only 28.3 percent of their missed shots. That didn’t make a difference against Maine in the first round. But it did in Ohio State’s previous two games. In losses to Iowa, when Caitlin Clark poured 35 points on them, and to Maryland in the Big Ten tournament, when they were shooting poorly, the Buckeyes sorely needed extra chances and didn’t get them. Considering both sides of the equation here, this game’s formula could combust some brackets.

Upset Chances of Less than 10 Percent

In these remaining games on Sunday, the odds of the underdog catching fire aren’t so minuscule just because there are big gaps in basic strength between the higher and lower seeds. (Though there are, and that’s bad enough.) The giant and killer factors our model applies also work in favor of chalk. LSU is the No. 1 team in the nation in offensive rebounding, nabbing an awesome 44.5 percent of their missed shots. Texas is No. 2 and South Carolina is No. 6. These overdogs all shoot well; when they miss, they often get to keep shooting. And there’s just no way to take a Goliath down with a slingshot if he holds all the rocks.

Meanwhile, Iowa State does not take chances to create extra possessions: the Cyclones rank 212th in the NCAA in offensive rebounding percentage and 353rd in steal percentage. Probably even worse, they cough up the ball on 19.7 percent of their possessions, which ranks 202nd. They’re a terrific shooting team whose poor ballhandling mitigates the effects of their accuracy — which is very dangerous in the tournament. Bottom line: These odds started low in our model, and got lower.

No. 3 LSU Tigers vs. No. 11 Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

Upset Chance: 8.7 percent

No. 2 Stanford Cardinal vs. No. 7 Iowa State Cyclones

Upset Chance: 7.8 percent

No. 1 Texas Longhorns vs. No. 8 Alabama Crimson Tide

Upset Chance: 6.9 percent

No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks vs. No. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels

Upset Chance: 1.9 percent

Thanks for research assistance to John Harris, Kevin Hutson and Liz Bouzarth of Furman University, and to Austin Mock.

(Photo of Reigan Richardson: Grant Halverson / Getty Images)

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