Women’s NCAA Tournament upset picks: Are Caitlin Clark and Iowa on upset alert vs. West Virginia on Monday?



In 2010, Satyan Devadoss, then at Williams College, now a professor of applied mathematics and computer science at the University of San Diego, wrote: “It can truly be called the Michael Jordan of chalk, the Rolls Royce of chalk.”

He was talking about Hagoromo Fulltouch, a brand of blackboard chalk that was so smooth to the touch, moisture-proof and dust-free that math teachers around the world went gaga for it until the company that made it went out of business in 2015.

Or maybe Professor Devadoss was peering into the future to describe the 2024 NCAA women’s tournament.

Higher seeds went a perfect 16 for 16 in Saturday’s first-round matchups. In the dozen games we analyzed as Bracket Breakers matchups, where teams were separated by at least five seeds, favorites won all 12 and by an average of more than 20 points. Our model saw Syracuse as a very vulnerable giant, but Arizona shot just 5-19 (26.3 percent) on threes and committed 21 turnovers. And when the great Dyaisha Fair returned after being carried off the court with an injury at the end of the third quarter, the Orange crushed the Wildcats. Fair scored her team’s final 13 points, leading Syracuse to a 5-point comeback win. Slingshot also admired Florida Gulf Coast (as always), and the Eagles led Oklahoma for most of their 5-12 contest. But the Sooners were able to get physical inside without drawing fouls, took a late lead, and FGCU missed two attempts at tying the game in the closing seconds.

So look at the second round of the women’s bracket now: Up, down and across, with only one exception, you’ll see 1-8, 2-7, 3-6 and 4-5. If you stare hard, you might see some indication that the deepest reaches of the tournament field aren’t quite as dark as wins and losses make them seem. For example, there were 12 first-round games whose point spreads were large enough that no moneylines were available (or at least easy to find). And underdogs covered in nine of them. But what’s more important is that there were 24 matchups with spreads greater than 24 points each to begin with.

We will say that avoiding overvalued trendy underdog picks is always important, and we’re happy Slingshot recommended staying away from Drake and South Dakota State. But while our favorite longshots kept things close, almost none of the bounces went their way. So we’re left with some pretty thin second-round gruel.

Indeed, heading into Sunday, we suspect most of you would have agreed with reader Benjamin A. Commenting about Slingshot liking Duke’s prospects against Ohio State, he wrote: “After only one upset in the entire round of 64 … Yeah, I’m going to go no on that. 2-7 is quite a stretch. Looking forward to the high-level games in the Sweet 16, though.”

But look what happened there! Duke won 75-63 as an 8.5-point underdog. And now there’s one more second-round matchup that’s even more of a stretch but that Slingshot sees as worthy of your attention.

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. 1 Iowa Hawkeyes vs. No. 8 West Virginia Mountaineers

Upset Chance: 41.5 percent

Wait, what? At BetMGM, West Virginia is a 15.5-point underdog and +950 on the moneyline, making them the biggest underdogs in Monday’s games. But our model suggests that’s backward — the tournament gap between the Hawkeyes and Mountaineers is actually not only narrower than most fans and analysts believe, but the smallest among the second group of second-round matchups.

Slingshot sees West Virginia as the 20th-best team in the country, outscoring opponents by 35.5 points per 100 possessions after adjusting for strength of schedule. It’s got plenty of company in that price range: WVU ranks 21st in NET, 27th at HerHoopStats and 25th in RPI. And it’s in a nicer house than Creighton (No. 25, according to our model), Mississippi (35) or Kansas (37). Further, while all four of these underdogs are facing top-10 giants on Monday, the difference between West Virginia and Iowa is 12.1 points per 100 possessions, the lowest among the matchups. By itself, that should make WVU worth a flyer. Even assuming a game played at Iowa’s very quick pace and adding in home-field advantage for Caitlin Clark & Co., we would expect the spread here to be something like 12 points, not north of 16.

Then there’s this: West Virginia leads the country with steals on a staggering 16.5 percent of opponent possessions. We’ve been studying the men’s game long enough to see team after team of elite disruptors, from VCU to Stephen F. Austin to Abilene Christian to Iowa State, come out of nowhere to topple Goliaths. We have learned that a forced turnover rate this high is something you cannot ignore. The Mountaineers’ pressure is relentless — they’ve had games where they have applied it for 40 minutes. And it’s brought them big wins against tough foes. Two days ago, West Virginia was down at halftime in the first round but aggravated Princeton into 10 turnovers during the first six minutes of the second half, and outscored the Tigers 18-7 in the third quarter, then won by 10. Led by their outstanding backcourt of JJ Quinerly (19.9 points per game) and Jordan Harrison (13.9 ppg, 5.1 assists per game), the Mountaineers have four players averaging 2.4 or more steals per game. The Morgantown media is even asking if “Press Virginia” is back, this time courtesy of the women’s game.

Iowa’s offense is fantastic. The Hawkeyes are shooting over 60 percent from inside, 38 percent from outside, and don’t need to get to the free-throw line much to generate a nation-leading 119.1 points per 100 possessions. Clark looks like the greatest player you’ve ever seen because she is. And the 4.8 turnovers per game she commits are largely a product of how often she touches the ball and how fast she plays. Iowa coughs it up on just 15.4 percent of possessions, ranking 21st in the country as a group. It’s no insult to point out that, now and then, Clark has games where she starts to fling increasingly difficult passes, which can lead to turnovers. It usually happens while she’s in the process of destroying an opponent, like against Louisville in the Elite Eight last year. We’d just advise against trying anything like that too early against West Virginia. Because this is a case where a famous, fast-flying (and therefore somewhat overvalued) favorite is about to run into an underappreciated underdog.

Upset Chances of 15 percent or less

In the three remaining Bracket Breakers matchups on Monday’s slate, the higher and lower seeds are separated by about 15 points per 100 possessions in our basic power ratings. Each gap is then widened by the teams’ giant or killer characteristics but by just a couple of additional points. Notre Dame and UCLA are both strong offensive rebounders who are outstanding at protecting the ball. Kansas doesn’t press for steals, shoot many threes or hit the offensive boards, which makes for weak underdog sauce. It’s hard to see how the Jayhawks — who lost to West Virginia by 25 points in December — ended up on the same line as the Mountaineers. However, we’ve got to admit that this year’s tournament selection committee is getting the last laugh so far.

No. 1 USC Trojans vs. No. 8 Kansas Jayhawks

Upset Chance: 15 percent

No. 2 UCLA Bruins vs. No. 7 Creighton Bluejays

Upset Chance: 12.9 percent

No. 2 Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. No. 7 Mississippi Rebels

Upset Chance: 11.7 percent

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

(Photo of JJ Quinerly: Matthew Holst / Getty Images; Photo illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic)

 





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