This weekend, New Orleans was scheduled to host what might have been one of the most anticipated Women's Final Fours -- and that's saying a lot considering how high the bar has been set recently.
Because the coronavirus pandemic canceled the women's NCAA tournament, we're left to wonder which teams would have made it to New Orleans, which team would have left victorious and what player might have stepped up as an unexpected star.
We'll never know. But ESPN's Rebecca Lobo and ESPN.com's Charlie Creme, Graham Hays and Mechelle Voepel explore what we might have seen at the 2020 Women's Final Four. For this story, we used Creme's final Bracketology for matchup projections and how the regions might have lined up.
Which team do you think would have won the 2020 NCAA title?
Rebecca Lobo: Just the other day I was watching an ESPN rebroadcast of the 2013 Sweet 16 matchup between Louisville and Baylor. Louisville's victory was the biggest upset in the history of women's college basketball and I was lucky to call the game alongside Pam Ward. Baylor was the defending NCAA champion, featured the most dominant center of her era in Brittney Griner and wasn't expected to have much difficulty with the fifth-seeded Cardinals.
I bring this up because while we had three teams this year that elevated themselves above the others for most of the regular season -- South Carolina, Oregon and Baylor -- none of them was favored as much as Baylor in 2013. I would have expected all three of those teams to be in New Orleans this year, but 2013 taught me that anything can happen.
Oregon and South Carolina were playing their best basketball of the season when it mattered most and I expected that to continue into the NCAA tournament. South Carolina looked terrific in the SEC tournament and Oregon cruised as well in the Pac-12 tourney (after a lackluster quarterfinal game against Utah, still a 20-point victory).
I give the slightest edge to Oregon for a couple of reasons. First, Final Four experience can matter, and most of the Ducks played on that stage in 2019. Second, their offense was humming. Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally were consistently playing like pros, while Erin Boley and even Minyon Moore took turns having big nights. And they had the greatest competitor in the college game in Ionescu. Sometimes one player can separate a team. Oregon had that player. The Ducks seemed destined to complete their "unfinished business."
Charlie Creme: Oregon is my pick. As the season was about to speed into the NCAA tournament, the Ducks were playing the best basketball in the country. It might not have been by a wide margin, but Oregon very much looked like a team ready to complete the unfinished business it talked about almost immediately following the loss to Baylor in the national semifinals a year ago.
Baylor, Oregon and South Carolina were certain to be No. 1 seeds and, according to BPI, were overwhelming favorites to reach the Final Four. That same BPI also made the Ducks the top choice -- by a margin of more than 10% -- to capture the national championship.
I greatly value the analytics, but my prediction that Oregon would have been the last team standing is strictly based on observation and the probable matchups that the tournament would have provided. The Ducks had three seniors in the starting lineup, three players pegged to be possible top-five WNBA draft picks this spring and the consensus best player in the country in Ionescu. That produced what was the best offense in the country all season, and of late it looked unstoppable, even in the nation's best conference, the Pac-12.
The idea that defense wins championships is antiquated. Teams that can put the ball in the basket with as much variety, frequency and efficiency win championships. All three favorites played great defense (the Ducks had allowed just one opponent to hit 70 points since losing to Arizona State on Jan. 10), but Oregon had the most firepower. That's why the Ducks would have been celebrating in New Orleans.
Graham Hays: I remember sitting in Bridgeport, Connecticut, listening to Oregon coach Kelly Graves before his team played UConn in a 2017 regional final. This was well before Oregon was any kind of chic. No one expected those Ducks to be in that game. A No. 10 seed, they almost lost to Temple in the first round. And this was well before they became an offensive juggernaut, back when Ionescu was just a freshman and Graves was still trying to undo the Paul Westhead score-at-all-costs system.
But what I remember is that when asked about what still separated a program like his from one like UConn, he focused on defense. He didn't focus on a singular talent like Breanna Stewart -- he has one of those now. He didn't focus on an offense that averaged 87 points per game that season -- he has one of those now too. He focused on UConn's commitment to defend.
All of which is a way of saying that Oregon has been good enough on the offensive end to win a title for a couple of years, but the Ducks finally looked good enough defensively this season.
Hear me out, aggrieved Baylor and South Carolina fans. Yes, Oregon was the weakest defensive team among the three favorites. Baylor led the nation in field goal defense, South Carolina was fourth. The Ducks didn't have DiDi Richards or Aliyah Boston. But with apologies to both of those teams, no one in the country had an offense like Oregon -- not with Boley and Sabally shooting the 3 as well as they did over the second half of the season to complement everything else the Ducks had. But from 174th in field goal defense a season ago, when they still came within a few possessions of the title game, the Ducks climbed to the top 75 this season. In 13 games against ranked teams, they allowed 60.8 points per game.
Baylor and South Carolina were as good as it gets defensively. But neither was going to hold the Ducks to 61 points more times than not.
Mechelle Voepel: The case has been made very well for Oregon, and after covering the Ducks and the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas, it's hard to pick against them. But the Final Four has had some surprises the past three seasons, and this year might have gone that route too. Oregon would have come in as the perceived favorite by most, primarily because of Ionescu. She said during the Pac-12 tournament that she was not feeling any pressure, that she was playing free and easy. But would the weight of "anything less than a championship would be crushing" have finally gotten to the Ducks in New Orleans?
So let's talk about the Gamecocks and Lady Bears. South Carolina had not lost since Thanksgiving and looked as strong in winning its conference tournament as the Ducks did in winning theirs. Baylor, meanwhile, was ticked off. The Lady Bears didn't just lose their regular-season finale at Iowa State, they lost after a foul was called with one-tenth of a second left. They were mad at themselves for being in that position, and I think that loss would have refocused Baylor and given coach Kim Mulkey more motivational material.
In Oregon's two losses, the Ducks got banged around by two coaches who have a history of success in taking pretty offenses -- and Oregon's offense was often beautiful -- and making the game uglier. That's Louisville's Jeff Walz and Arizona State's Charli Turner Thorne. I think Baylor could have done that to Oregon in the national semifinals, and if the Ducks got past the Lady Bears, they likely would have been in for a similar battle against the Gamecocks.
With three freshman starters, South Carolina could have channeled a vibe somewhat like Maryland did in 2006, when LSU, Duke and North Carolina were each more experienced and perceived as bigger favorites, but the mostly young Terps -- with freshmen Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman and sophomores Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper -- came away with the title. So I'll go with South Carolina, especially since the Gamecocks also had steady senior starters Tyasha Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who were part of South Carolina's national championship team in 2017 as freshmen.
Which four teams did you expect to reach the Final Four?
Lobo: I expected the four 1-seeds to make it to New Orleans, with the games in the Fort Wayne Regional being the most competitive. It wouldn't have shocked me to see Louisville, which was projected as a No. 2 seed, make it out of that region, but Maryland ended its season playing more consistently and gets the edge.
Creme: Baylor, Oregon and South Carolina were too good to get tripped up in any potential matchup as the bracket would have played out. But I would have predicted Louisville coming out of Fort Wayne. Yes, the Cardinals struggled on offense at times and that would be a problem against the high-scoring Terps if they met in the Elite Eight. However, Louisville coach Jeff Walz is often able to come up with the right defensive game plan in big games like this. The NCAA tournament is all about matchups, and because of Louisville's strength, experience and length in the backcourt with players like Dana Evans and Jazmine Jones, this matchup would have favored Louisville.
The thought of Baylor and Oregon facing off in the national semifinals for a second straight year is fascinating. I picked the Ducks to win the title, but getting through the Lady Bears was the toughest call. Just like a year ago, Baylor isn't a good matchup for Oregon. Lauren Cox has the size and defensive acumen to neutralize Hebard (the Oregon forward had four shots in their 2019 Final Four meeting), DiDi Richards is a physical defender who has the length to frustrate Ionescu, and Oregon doesn't quite have the right defender to match NaLyssa Smith's skill set. I still went with the Ducks because they have more ways to win and more options. Boley and Sabally would have been extremely important on the offensive end, and Coach Graves might have needed to get even more creative to overcome a less-than-ideal matchup with Baylor.
Hays: Rebecca mentioned the Louisville-Baylor upset earlier, and it would have taken an upset on that scale to keep any of Baylor, Oregon or South Carolina out of the Final Four. Part of me wants to pick No. 4 seed DePaul coming out of Fort Wayne, and if we did this back in December, all of me might have been on board. As it is, I'll take No. 2 Louisville. Maryland coach Brenda Frese cost her former assistant Jeff Walz a trip to the Final Four on home turf when their teams met in a regional final in Louisville in 2014, but I would have liked Louisville's chances to smother the Terrapins defensively and repay the favor on a neutral court this year.
Voepel: As competitive and fun as this season was, I agree the projected top four seeds were all favorites for New Orleans. Geography (fan support) would have helped three of them too, in regionals that were nearby, with Oregon in Portland, South Carolina in Greenville and Baylor in Dallas. Although the last two times the Lady Bears played in a regional in Dallas -- in 2011 and 2016 -- they lost in the final.
And don't forget about UConn's streak of 12 consecutive Final Four appearances. The Huskies wouldn't have gone down without a good fight in the Portland Regional, even though they got thumped by Oregon in Storrs on Feb. 3. The Huskies' only losses were to the three best teams (Baylor, Oregon and South Carolina). UConn and coach Geno Auriemma would have been itching for the rare chance as underdogs to potentially pay back all three in the NCAA tournament.
In 2019, Baylor hoisted the NCAA trophy and Chloe Jackson -- not All-American Kalani Brown or All-Big 12 first-team pick Lauren Cox -- was the Final Four Most Outstanding Player. Who could have made a similar impact on the 2020 Final Four?
Hays: It seems we're all in agreement that any of Baylor, Oregon or South Carolina could have won without it registering as the slightest surprise. So even though I picked Oregon to win the title, let's go with South Carolina's Zia Cooke. The Final Four is a big stage for a freshman, and Cooke was up and down with her shooting during the dress rehearsal that was the SEC tournament. But this is the only chance to call Cooke an under-the-radar anything because she's going to be one of South Carolina's central figures from here on out. It doesn't seem like much of a stretch to say someone who scored 20 points each against Kentucky and Tennessee, and who came to South Carolina with all the accolades of a superstar in waiting, might not mind the bright lights in New Orleans.
Creme: Boley would be my choice for unsung hero if Oregon were to have won it all. Oregon has so many offensive pieces that defenses are often forced to pick which Duck they will let beat them. With so much attention on Ionescu, Sabally and Hebard, Boley often has open looks. If she gets in rhythm, Boley is a knock-down shooter who is capable of hitting four or five 3-pointers in a row and blowing open a game or of making a couple of key jumpers in a tight game. It helps that Boley plays with a group of unselfish teammates and the nation's leader in assists in Ionescu (9.1 APG). Against either or both Baylor and South Carolina, she would likely get opportunities, and as one of the best 3-point shooters in the country (44.1%), Boley would have a chance to go down in Final Four folklore.
Voepel: Had Oregon won, Moore, a graduate transfer guard, might have been the spark; she brought a defensive toughness to the Ducks that was contagious, and she had a terrific offensive game in the Pac-12 championship game victory over Stanford. For Baylor, sophomore post player Queen Egbo had her moments in the regular season, and she could have come off the bench to play a bigger-than-expected role both offensively and defensively. South Carolina's Destanni Henderson is another reserve who could be a real standout. Maryland guard Taylor Mikesell made the most 3-pointers this season (90) of any player on one of the top four seeds, so she could have had a big impact too.
Lobo: I think Sabally could have had a monster Final Four. She was relatively quiet in the last two games of the Pac-12 tournament, but she was in beast mode the second half of the season. South Carolina's Mikiah Herbert Harrigan is another player who could have stolen the spotlight. She was terrific in the SEC tournament and possessed an evident toughness that came through whenever her team needed it.