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Why NCAA Men’s Basketball Has More Upsets Than Women’s Basketball


Both the Men’s and Women’s NCAA Division I basketball tournaments tipped off last week. While analysts may continue to bemoan the effects of the “one and done” rule on the level of play in the men’s game, quality of play in the women’s game has never been higher. Now with prospects in a professional league, girls and women can dream bigger than they used to and hope that they can play in the WNBA.

Yet the men’s tournament, to judge by the ratings and attendance marks, continues to draw much more interest than the women’s game. Why?

First, traditional powers in women’s NCAA basketball dominate the game in a way unseen in the men’s game since the 1960s. The men’s game, meanwhile, appears much deeper than the women’s game, and men almost always wear Cinderella slippers of March Madness.

Men And Women’s Tournaments By The Numbers

The men and women’s tournaments consist of 64 teams each, and hence six rounds. Each tournament is seeded, so it’s easy to divide the 64 teams into fourths, with 16 teams in each category.

We can identify the top 16 teams (a one to four seed in each regional), the bottom 16 teams (the 13 to 16 seed in each regional) and everything in between. The field is trimmed by half in each round. Thirty-two teams play after the first round, 16 make it to the third round, and so forth.

If everything goes according to Hoyle, the top 32 seeds make it to the final 32, the top 16 seeds make it to the Sweet 16, and number one seeds will make it to the final four. But the wonderful thing about March Madness is that it never works out just like this: Cinderellas crash the party and win games they should never win.

Why Does The Women’s Tournament Have Fewer Upsets?

Yet somehow, the women’s game has far fewer Cinderellas than the men’s game. There are many ways to prove this. Between 2010 and 2014, four number-one seeds in the men’s game went to the Final Four (out of a maximum number of 20), while 12 women’s number-one seeds went to the Final Four.

During the same span, only one women’s team seeded below a four went to the Final Four, while seven made it in the men’s game. Six women’s teams in the bottom half of the field advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, while 18 went from the men’s game.

There are far more upsets in the men’s game than the women’s game. Let us define upsets, somewhat arbitrarily, as games where the winning team is at least six seeds below the losing team. A nine-seed beating an eight-seed, or a seven beating a 10, is a minor upset. But a 13-seed beating a four-seed is, at the least, a real upset.

The women’s game has only nine upsets so defined in the five-year period under investigation. The men’s tournament has 38.

Women’s Basketball Is More Dynastic, Too

The difference is also great if we define “upset” as the winner being five seeds below a winner: 17 happened in the women’s game (about three per year); 49 in the men’s game (about 10 per year).

In both 2011 and 2014, there was only one six-seed magnitude upset in the women’s tournament. The lowest number of six-seed upsets for the men’s tournament in any of the years is six.

The women’s game is also more dynastic than the men’s game. Nine different teams have been to the women’s Final Four in the years under investigation here, while 15 teams have been to the men’s Final Four. The University of Connecticut went to the Final Four in all five women’s tournaments; Notre Dame and Stanford when four times.

Only Kentucky went to more than two Final Fours among the men during the time span. Five teams went to the women’s Final Fours once during the time—while 11 men’s teams went once during the same period.

Any way you slice it, the women’s tournament tends to be chalk, as the experts call it, where the favorite wins.

Why The Discrepancies Between Men And Women’s Basketball?

One can only speculate on what this reveals about the men’s and women’s game. Men might be more streaky players than women—so that a much inferior player or an inferior team could get hot in the men’s game more often than inferior women hoopsters get hot. Perhaps men players just get lucky more often than women players. It would stand to reason, however, that “streaky” and “lucky” would seem to be randomly distributed across the sexes.

A more systematic analysis leads me to think that the pool of talent must be deeper in the men’s game than in the women’s game. The talent gap between inferior and supposedly superior men’s teams is narrower than the talent gap between inferior and superior women’s teams. In other words, talent in women’s NCAA basketball is concentrated at the top and diffuse at the bottom, while the gap between the bottom and top in men’s hoops is much narrower.

There may be several reasons for these gaps. Perhaps the best players in the men’s game leave early for the bright lights and big money of the NBA, so that the top of the men’s game does not get as high as it might otherwise get. Dynasties are cut short by the pursuit of professional glory (for the men). Few women leave early for the dimmer lights and small money of the WNBA, which might allow the relative heights in the women’s game to grow higher.

There’s A Talent Gap Between The Two Games

Perhaps the women’s game resembles the men’s game in its earlier days, when dynasties were more common. Perhaps in 30 years, after the women’s game becomes more and more popular, it will resemble men’s game today. Talent is not yet as diffuse as it will be in 30 years or so.

Perhaps the best men players do not want to be on the same team as the other top men’s players so that they are assured of playing and competing, and the talent itself is more diffuse in the men’s game (though this fact itself would have to be explained).

These explanations may explain some of the variance.

My hunch is that the bottom of the men’s game is closer to the top of the men’s game because the bottom is relatively higher in men’s game. More men have more talent because more players invest the necessary time, toil, and travel to become top-notch basketball players before college and after. More men are inspired to work on their shot, improve their moves, master the game through study, and increase their athleticism than do women.

Does This Point Out A Difference Between Men And Women?

Perhaps this is because men are relatively more competitive than women or because they care more about athletic prowess and basketball skill than women. Men are also more likely to be drawn to this competitive situation, to relish it, and to find real meaning in it. More single-minded and less likely to be multi-taskers, men are more likely to sink the time into getting better every day. It is hard to call this single-mindedness a virtue, but it helps those who possess it to become better basketball players. More men possess such single-mindedness or focus.

There are many women who share the same attributes and they are among the best women basketball players in the world. Look at college recreational teams, however, where the number of men who play far exceeds the number of women who play. Or at the number of men who seek to walk onto college teams or take a shot at making a team or the number of men who are willing to be on the scout team (simulating a team’s opponents). Women’s sports are, generally, more likely to have problems filling all spots in the school-sponsored sports than they are to have scout teams.

So the NCAA tournaments might reveal more than a little about the different tendencies of men and women in this particular time and place. As the differences in competitiveness and aggression seem to be one of the sex differences that transcend time and place, the tournament might just be a window for a greater understanding of how men and women differ.