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Is There Increasing Parity in Women’s College Basketball?

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Forgive me for writing this out of season, but this is a question I have been asking myself for some time. Since there is evidence of increasing parity in the men’s college basketball tournament, I wondered if the same was true for the women’s college game, which is considerably younger than its male counterpart. For the record, my definition of parity is less concerned with lower seeds upsetting higher seeds and moving deep into the tournament than simply seeing if the margin of victory between the seeds has decreased.

To begin with, I looked exclusively at the NCAA women’s tournament scores from 1994-2006. The reason I started with 1994 is because that was the first year the tournament field consisted of 64 teams, and there should have been a wider disparity in talent between the top seeds and the bottom ones. Also, this thirteen-year span represented the longest period the women’s tournament has kept the same format.

In order to determine if there was increasing parity, I took the margin of victory for the higher seeds for all the first round games from 1994-2006 and averaged them together, starting with the 1 vs. 16 match-up, moving onto the 2 vs. 15 match-up, and so on until the 8 vs. 9 games. Whenever there was an upset — a lower seed defeating a higher seed — I counted that as a negative margin of victory. After I averaged all the margins of victory, I then split the data into two parts (1994-2000 & 2001-2006). Here are the results.

Average Margin of Victory 1 vs. 16 2 vs. 15 3 vs. 14 4 vs. 13 5 vs. 12 6 vs. 11 7 vs. 10 8 vs. 9
1994-2000 41.9 25.7 26.8 14.5 4.8 8.0 4.3 0.4
2001-2006 39.3 27.4 20.0 15.9 9.3 6.6 7.4 0.3

As the data show, while some lower seeds have managed greater success against the higher seeds, there is no consistent trend to support the hypothesis that there is a lower disparity level between the top teams in the women’s tournament and the bottom teams, at least in the first round. Actually, overall, the average difference of margin of victory between the two time frames is 0.0, meaning nothing has changed over the past thirteen years of the 64-team women’s tournament field.

However, another aspect of parity I wanted to look at was whether lower-seeded mid-majors have closed the gap against the higher-seeded major programs in the nation. My definition of a mid-major team, which I have applied retroactively, is taken from CollegeInsider.com. Even though CollegeInsider.com writes exclusively about men’s college basketball, it stands to reason that if a men’s program is a mid-major, then its women’s counterpart will also be a mid-major.

The way I calculated the margin of victory was the same as when I was looking only at lower seeds vs. top seeds, with the exceptions that if a game does not include a mid-major program I do not count it and if the mid-major holds the higher seed, I also do not count that game because if the team does have a higher seed, they are already expected to win so when they do there is nothing to conclude from their victory except that the seeding committee was correct. Here are those results.

Average Margin of Victory 1 vs. 16 2 vs. 15 3 vs. 14 4 vs. 13
1994-2000 39.7 26.6 25.0 15.0
2001-2006 39.3 27.4 20.3 16.8

The reason I am limited to these four match-ups is because there were simply not enough games for the other seed pairings to allow me to make any conclusions. Similarly to the other look at parity, there is no evidence of a consistent trend of the lowest-seeded mid-majors doing anything to increase the parity between themselves and the highest-seeded majors. The average difference being 0.6 also speaks to the fact that there has been no closing of the talent gap between the first seven years of the 64-team women’s tournament field and the latter six.

Perhaps there will be increasing parity in the women’s NCAA tournament in the future, but right now there is none to speak of.

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About David Barbour

  • No, I don’t think I was missing that point. I understand that there are other women’s programs that are achieving national prominence, but I was trying to see if the gap had closed between the higher seeds and the lower seeds in the women’s tournament first round and then between the major programs and the mid-majors. I did not do any research on how far certain seeds go in the tournament. Perhaps if I am bored one day, I will.

  • wls

    I think you’re missing the fact that women’s basketball is just now reaching parity within the major conferences themselves. For example, Baylor made the tournament for the first time ever in 2001, and won it in 2005. That 2005 final was also one of the very few in the last decade to not feature UConn, Tennessee, or both. This year’s champ, Maryland, was also making their first appearance in the championship game, and were considered the third best team in their own conference (behind North Carolina and Duke). So I think there is increasing parity in the sense that it’s now increasingly likely that a 2,3,or 4 seed can win the tournament, and that we’re seeing different teams within the power conferences get those seeds. I also think it will be a long time (if ever) before anyone goes undefeated or even with a 1 loss season (as UConn did in the mid 90s).

  • The quality of play, though, has gone up faster than the men’s circuit. It’s just that the top teams and conferences are not giving any slack to the mid-majors.

    But is there parity in the kitchen? (Ducks)