Who had the toughest route to perfection? Where Gamecocks rank among unbeaten champs

Which of the recent undefeated NCAA women’s basketball champions has faced the most difficult path to perfection?

As Dawn Staley’s South Carolina Gamecocks try to join this historic list of nine Division I national champions with perfect records, it’s worth considering the opposition each faced. Not all undefeated seasons require the same kind of excellence to sustain.

Last March, ESPN’s Michael Voepel ranked the undefeated champs, which also factors in level of dominance. Here we’re solely considering the quality of the teams faced along the way and the location of those games.

Because my metric of choice, Massey ratings, began in 1997-98 — the year Pat Summitt’s Tennessee Lady Vols became the third NCAA D-I team to finish undefeated — we’re going to start with them and rank South Carolina’s schedule to date alongside the seven perfect champs since then — with apologies to the 1985-86 Texas Longhorns and 1994-95 UConn Huskies.

Specifically, we’re looking at the chances a typical undefeated team would have won every game on that season’s schedule. So, which team had the toughest road to perfection? And how does South Carolina’s route compare? Let’s take a look.

First, a quick word on methodology. I used the average rating across the undefeated champs, and projected the chances of a team with that rating winning based on the opponent’s rating and the location of the game. Because games in nearby arenas that teams don’t typically call home — like the Gamecocks playing the SEC tournament in Greenville, South Carolina — showed no home-court advantage in this small sample, I treated them as neutral-site games. The XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut, was considered a home game for UConn.

You might wonder why all these chances of going undefeated are relatively low when these teams did in fact win all their games. Kamilla Cardoso’s game-winning 3 to save South Carolina’s perfect season was a good example of why that’s the case. Equally dominant teams as these undefeated champs occasionally lose a game along the way, so it takes some amount of luck along with incredible skill to reach perfection.

8. 1997-98 Tennessee Lady Vols

Chance of finishing undefeated: 25.5%
Ranked opponents: 10
Top-10 opponents: 6

Don’t blame Summitt’s scheduling for the Lady Vols rating as having the easiest path to an undefeated season of this group. Tennessee faced each of the next three teams in the rankings in nonconference play. However, in a season where no other top-two seed reached the Final Four, the Lady Vols stood head and shoulders above the rest of the NCAA. That comes with an asterisk, however: Second-rated UConn had Nykesha Sales healthy when Tennessee won a January showdown in Knoxville. Sales’ subsequent season-ending Achilles rupture was a factor in the Huskies getting upset by No. 4 seed North Carolina State in the regional final.

7. 2015-16 UConn Huskies

Chance of finishing undefeated: 22%
Ranked opponents: 13
Top-10 opponents: 6

In part, the 2015-16 Huskies rank so low because they faced just one other ranked opponent during their brief stint in the American Athletic Conference (South Florida, albeit the maximum possible three times). Additionally, UConn had the benefit of relatively easy matchups in the Final Four after Oregon State upset second-ranked Baylor in the regional final and No. 4 seed Syracuse advanced all the way to the championship game.

6. 2008-09 UConn Huskies

Chance of finishing undefeated: 21%
Ranked opponents: 11
Top-10 opponents: 6

By Geno Auriemma standards, this wasn’t a particularly difficult nonconference slate for UConn. The Huskies faced just two ranked opponents, and North Carolina — undefeated and No. 2 at the time — slumped and finished 11th in the Massey ratings. UConn’s path to the title included two of the other top four teams in the rankings, culminating in a third matchup against fourth-rated Louisville, but the national semifinal against Stanford was the only game a typical undefeated team wasn’t at least 88% likely to win.

5. 2001-02 UConn Huskies

Chance of finishing undefeated: 19%
Ranked opponents: 13
Top-10 opponents: 6

Voepel’s top undefeated team benefited to some degree from a down Big East. With reigning national champ Notre Dame losing three starters, no conference foe was ranked higher than 20th. Auriemma compensated with a strong nonconference schedule that included a trip to face second-rated Tennessee in Knoxville and a home matchup against third-rated Oklahoma. UConn went on to beat both teams again in the Final Four.

4. 2023-24 South Carolina Gamecocks

Chance of finishing undefeated: 18%
Ranked opponents: 7
Top-10 opponents: 3

Remarkably, South Carolina has already faced an above-average schedule in terms of difficulty among undefeated champions ahead of the NCAA tournament. Just one team faced a trickier slate before the tournament by this measure. Although the Gamecocks have faced just three top-10 opponents, they’ve matched up with two more (Utah and UConn) ranked 11th. Massey’s ratings are far more impressed by this season’s Huskies than the pollsters, ranking UConn second overall and LSU — beaten by South Carolina on the road and during the SEC championship game — seventh. So long as the Gamecocks can keep winning, their schedule will only increase in difficulty as they face more tests during March Madness.

3. 2009-10 UConn Huskies

Chance of finishing undefeated: 17%
Ranked opponents: 17
Top-10 opponents: 9

Now we’re getting to the gauntlets. The Huskies faced far stiffer competition en route to their second consecutive perfect season with Maya Moore and Tina Charles leading the way. UConn played at three opponents ranked in the top 10 (Big East rival Notre Dame, Duke and Oklahoma) and faced second-rated Stanford twice, including in the national championship game. Nearly half of the Huskies’ games were against ranked foes, offering plenty of chances to stumble. UConn made it through unscathed.

2. 2013-14 UConn Huskies

Chance of finishing undefeated: 11%
Ranked opponents: 15
Top-10 opponents: 9

Remarkably, UConn faced every other team in the top seven of the Massey ratings in 2013-14, playing them a combined nine times with four of them on the road and three more at neutral sites. That’s partially because third-rated Louisville was one of the best conference foes of any undefeated team during the Cardinal’s short overlap with the Huskies in the AAC. But Auriemma also scheduled aggressively, with nonconference visits to Baylor, Duke and Maryland, and was rewarded with a team prepared to win every NCAA tournament game by at least 15 points.

1. 2011-12 Baylor Lady Bears

Chance of finishing undefeated: 7%
Ranked opponents: 12
Top-10 opponents: 6

Although Baylor’s schedule wasn’t as loaded as those of some of UConn’s national champions, it featured multiple showdowns against the nation’s best teams, the games that matter most in terms of reducing the odds of staying undefeated. Kim Mulkey scheduled nonconference matchups against second-rated UConn and third-rated Notre Dame in Waco, Texas, plus a visit to sixth-rated Tennessee. The Bears had to beat the Lady Vols again in an atypically difficult regional final, then saw all four top seeds advance to the Final Four, where they knocked off fourth-rated Stanford before finishing off the season with a rematch against the Fighting Irish. This is the only undefeated season where the typical champion would not have had even a one-in-10 chance of staying perfect on paper.

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