Yes, Parity Was Real This Season. But Baylor Still Dominated.

Before the national championship game tipped off on Sunday, things seemed to be going according to plan for Baylor and Notre Dame. Two No. 1 seeds — and two of the three teams to be ranked No. 1 during the regular season — would face off, with one seeking to cap a dominant, one-loss season, and the other aiming for its second title in as many years.

Once the game began, though, practically nothing went according to plan for either team.

Baylor raced out to a 15-5 lead and led by as many as 17 in the first half and 12 at halftime. The Bears dominated, getting contributions from inside (12 first-half points from center Kalani Brown) and out (5-5 shooting in the first quarter from point guard Chloe Jackson). It was the bad kind of déjà vu for Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw, whose Fighting Irish needed a 15-point comeback — the largest ever in an NCAA championship game — to take home the trophy last season.

But in the second half, it was Mulkey’s team that had the bad kind of déjà vu. A year after then-senior Kristy Wallace tore her ACL in Baylor’s regular-season finale, the Bears lost Big 12 defensive player of the year Lauren Cox to a knee injury in the third quarter. Notre Dame promptly came all the way back to tie the game at 74 with 5:18 left in the fourth quarter and even briefly took a 77-76 lead with a little more than three minutes left.

Baylor ultimately pulled out an 82-81 victory behind big contributions from the game’s most outstanding player in Jackson (26 points, five assists), Brown (20 points, 13 rebounds) and freshman reserve NaLyssa Smith (14 points, six rebounds). Notre Dame looked unstoppable at one point in the fourth quarter, with Marina Mabrey canning three 3-pointers in just over two minutes, but came undone at the free-throw line late, with two crucial misses in the final minute.

In the end, when the confetti fell from the rafters to signal the end of the 2018-19 women’s college basketball season, everything was more or less as expected. The No. 1 overall seed hoisted the trophy, emerging out of a field that saw all of the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds advance to the Elite Eight and the two teams that had the best odds of winning a title at the outset make it to the championship game. Yet parity was rightfully the buzzword of this season: Teams like Oregon and NC State had historic years; mid-major Rice cracked the top-25 rankings for the first time, and Gonzaga hit its highest ranking in program history at No. 12; and mighty UConn was not a No. 1 seed for the first time since 2006. In the Final Four, the combined margin of victory (including the championship) was 11 points — the smallest such margin in women’s NCAA Tournament history, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group.

Paradoxically, the 2019 national champions both rejected that parity and exemplified it.

Baylor dominated its schedule from start to finish, posting a 37-1 record and finishing the season on a 29-game win streak.. The Bears claimed their ninth-straight regular-season conference title and won the Big 12 tournament for the ninth time in 11 years. The 6-foot-7 Brown and the 6-foot-4 Cox had All-America-caliber seasons, combining to average nearly 29 points and 17 rebounds per game. Behind their two interior leaders, Baylor led the country in blocks per game, assists per game, rebounding rate and opponent field-goal percentage.

But as much as they dominated, Baylor also embodied the growth of the game, defeating UConn in the regular season and Notre Dame in the championship game. This is the first time that a team has beaten both the Huskies and the Fighting Irish, two of the sport’s premier programs over the past decade-plus, in the same season since Baylor did it in 2012-13. The program has now won three national championships and made four Final Fours since 2005 while reaching the Elite Eight in eight of the past 10 seasons. By anyone’s definition, Baylor should be considered in the upper echelon of programs, on par with UConn and Notre Dame.

Mulkey has built her program into a powerhouse in part by recruiting well, but also by developing players and putting them in position to succeed. She signed three top-5 recruiting classes in the past four years, according to ESPN, including the nation’s No. 1 class in 2018. Yet she still found herself without an experienced option at point guard entering this season. She settled on an unorthodox solution, moving graduate transfer Jackson to point guard and teaching her the nuances of the position throughout the year. On Sunday night, Jackson proved that her coach made the right decision, committing just one turnover all game and scoring Baylor’s final 4 points.

In the end, Baylor claimed the 2019 national title by the slimmest of margins,1 simultaneously proving that parity is real in the women’s game and ensuring that the Bears will be regarded as one of this decade’s elite programs. They will rebuild again in the offseason, as they lose Brown and Jackson off of this year’s team. But don’t be surprised if Baylor produces the good kind of déjà vu in seasons to come, as Mulkey has built the Bears into a perennial contender and a team that can compete with anyone — UConn and Notre Dame included.

Check out our latest March Madness predictions.

Villanova Won A Title. Now It Must Start Over From Scratch.

The Villanova Wildcats produced one of the most dominant seasons in NCAA history last year, going 36-4, including a complete dissection of a strong Michigan team to win the championship game. The Wildcats scorched teams on offense, ranking No. 1 in the country in offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage, according to college basketball stats guru Ken Pomeroy. This helped them beat the Wolverines by 17 points.

But the team that is defending that title — currently ranked eighth heading into Wednesday’s rematch with Michigan — is hardly recognizable eight months later, as four of coach Jay Wright’s stalwarts from a season ago are now in the NBA.

The departure of Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges — a pair of juniors left over from the 2015-16 national title-winning team — has left a crater in Wright’s lineup. Along with the exits of Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman, the outgoing quartet combined for a whopping 26.1 win shares last season1.

It’s typical for reigning national champions to lose a large chunk of their talent the following season, especially in the one-and-done era. And while the Wildcats may not have lost the most win shares of past champions, the immediate exodus of talent will have huge consequences for their prospects to repeat as champions this season. This is perhaps a long way of saying winning back-to-back titles, or even coming close, has become very difficult in college basketball — and for good reason.

Villanova’s departures have left a sizable hole

Total win share of players who left NCAA championship teams the season after their championship, since the beginning of college basketball’s one-and-done era

Departing players
Season Champion Number Win Share
2017-18 Villanova 7 26.1
2016-17 North Carolina 7 21.8
2015-16 Villanova 5 11.4
2014-15 Duke 4 25.5
2013-14 Connecticut 7 19.8
2012-13 Louisville 4 12.3
2011-12 Kentucky 7 36.3
2010-11 Connecticut 5 13.4
2009-10 Duke 6 20.7
2008-09 North Carolina 9 26.6
2007-08 Kansas 9 35.3
2006-07 Florida 10 33.7
2005-06 Florida 2 1.5

Source: Sports-reference.com

The Florida Gators, in 2006 and 2007, and the Duke Blue Devils, in 1991 and 1992, are the only programs in the past 45 years to repeat as NCAA men’s basketball champions, after John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins capped off seven consecutive titles. Back then, Wooden had the luxury of coaching future NBA Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar2 and Bill Walton for three seasons, something that is largely unheard of in today’s game.3 Likewise, Mike Krzyzewski was able to develop chemistry with college stars like Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, and Bobby Hurley — all of whom stayed a full four years.

And when it comes to the one-and-done era, the Gators are an anomaly themselves, as Donovan managed to persuade the likes of Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer to remain in Gainesville for their junior years before winning another title and then moving to lengthy careers in the NBA.

For most champions, winning a national title usually means saying goodbye to their best talent — the nation’s top freshman are forced to use college as a stopgap for a year before jumping to the NBA, and upperclassmen often ride their team’s success to test the NBA’s waters. For his part, Wright did well to keep Brunson and Bridges in Philadelphia for another two years after winning their first title, which built a bridge to that second championship.

But the team that cut down the nets last year has been gutted, particularly on the offensive side. Among the top four players of each champion since 2006, when the one-and-done began, Villanova’s departed quartet leave the greatest offensive hole for a reigning champion, a hole that might be too great to overcome.

Villanova fans might choose to view things in a more optimistic way, instead thinking themselves as fortunate that they only lost four players, especially seeing the Wildcats of Kentucky lose an unimaginable six players after their championship in 2012 and then stumbling into the NIT a year later. Nova’s relatively tiny rotation last year — Villanova ranked 302nd in total bench usage, according to KenPom — could be a blessing in disguise as the likes of Eric Paschall and Phil Booth are still available to make the leap to the top of the college ranks and potentially beyond.

Still, Villanova fans thinking of a repeat might want to curb the enthusiasm.

Any team not named Duke, Kentucky or Kansas — whose recruiting prowess means a revolving door of NBA-bound super freshmen — has struggled to be relevant again immediately. If you look past these three blue bloods, Louisville is the only reigning champion to reach the Sweet 16 the year following championship in the last dozen years. It’s why the 2010 North Carolina Tar Heels couldn’t even make the NCAA Tournament after winning the whole thing a year earlier. It’s why last year’s Tar Heels were swept aside in the second round of the tournament by Texas A&M.

Back-to-back has become a pipe dream

How men’s NCAA champions have fared the following season in college basketball’s one-and-done era

Season after championship …
Season Champion Wins Losses Postseason
2017-18 Villanova 2 0 ?
2016-17 North Carolina 26 11 2nd Round
2015-16 Villanova 32 4 2nd Round
2014-15 Duke 25 11 Sweet 16
2013-14 Connecticut 20 15 NIT
2012-13 Louisville 31 6 Sweet 16
2011-12 Kentucky 21 12 NIT
2010-11 Connecticut 20 14 2nd Round
2009-10 Duke 32 5 Sweet 16
2008-09 North Carolina 20 17 NIT
2007-08 Kansas 27 8 Sweet 16
2006-07 Florida 24 12 NIT
2005-06 Florida 35 5 Champion

The NCAA Tournament’s First Four was known as the First Round until the 2015 tournament.

Source: Sports-Reference.com

Joining senior Paschall, who’s being touted as a first-round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and redshirt senior Booth, who netted 23 in his season debut last week, is the 12th best recruiting class, according to ESPN. Five-star recruit Jahvon Quinerly is considered one of the best freshman point guards in the nation, and four-star forwards Cole Swider and Brendan Slater both also have a place on the ESPN 100. Whenever this is enough for Wright’s team to make waves again in March is a question for the season ahead. However, with currently the fifth-best ranked recruiting class for next year, Wildcats fans may have another title-winning team in the not-too-distant future, maybe just not in the immediate one.

CORRECTION (Nov. 14, 2018, 3:30 p.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the Florida Gators were the only team in 45 years to repeat as national champions in men’s college basketball. Duke also did, winning back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1992.