2022 Tourney Upsets: Where Are They Now?
Taking a look at whether last year’s Cinderellas have been able to turn their tournament success into momentum so far this season.
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No. 21 Creighton Bluejays
Current Record: 8-3
Notable Games: South Dakota State (W), South Dakota (W), Nebraska (W), Villanova (W), Drake (W), Arkansas (L) and Stanford (L)
Creighton made a phenomenal run during last year's tournament, knocking off No. 7 seed Colorado, No. 2 seed Iowa, and No. 3 seed Iowa State before losing to eventual national champion South Carolina in the Elite Eight.
Despite the graduation of dynamic point guard Tatum Rembao, one of just six players to dish out 200 assists in 2021-22, the Bluejays have picked up right where they left off last season. Currently ranked No. 21 in the AP Poll, Creighton has earned solid wins against South Dakota State, Nebraska and Villanova – all teams that have either made an appearance in the AP top 25 or received votes at some point this season.
Like last season, a major part of Creighton’s success is its offensive efficiency. The Bluejays rank in the top 11% in points per play, 3-pointers made, and assist-to-turnover ratio. The trio of Lauren Jensen, Morgan Maly, and Emma Ronsiek continue to lead the scoring attack. Another key part of the Blue Jays’ offensive juggernaut is junior guard Molly Mogensen (9.5 points per game and 3.4 assists per game), who has hit an impressive 41% of her attempts from long distance.
Bottom line: They’re playing well so far, but they play in the Big East, so their schedule will only get more challenging. We’ll learn a lot about this team after their grueling late-December schedule, which, in addition to Tuesday night’s loss versus Stanford, also includes UConn and DePaul.
Current Record: 4-7
Notable Games: Louisville (L), Middle Tennessee (L), Iowa (L), Villanova (L) and Georgia (L)
Along with Florida Gulf Coast, Belmont was the lowest seed to make it past the Round of 64 in last year’s tournament, knocking off No. 5 Oregon in the Bruins’ second No. 12 vs. No. 5 upset in as many NCAA Tournaments.
Although they returned the bulk of last season’s roster and added graduate transfer Sydni Harvey, the Bruins have struggled to build off of its tournament momentum and currently sit at 4-7. A major reason for that record has to do with Belmont’s challenging non-conference slate, which ranks as the 14th-toughest schedule so far this year per Massey Ratings. Coach Bart Brooks intentionally scheduled tough teams to ensure his squad is prepared come NCAA Tournament time. Despite the lackluster record, the Bruins have played several close games against quality opponents like Louisville, Iowa, Villanova and Georgia.
The addition of Harvey has taken some of the load off of Tuti Jones and Destinee Wells, whom the Bruins relied on through last season’s tournament run. All three players are averaging over 11 points per game. Despite the trio’s strong start, the Bruins currently rank No. 64 in Her Hoop Stats Offensive Rating, 28 spots lower than last season’s ranking.
Bottom Line: Belmont’s switch to the Missouri Valley Conference from the Ohio Valley Conference might hurt its overall record. Although the Bruins have played tight games against some notable teams, they haven’t been able to come out with wins. If Belmont, the preseason favorites to win the MVC, can’t pull out a conference title, I don’t see them getting an invite to the tournament this year.
Villanova Wildcats (RV in AP poll)
Current Record: 10-3
Notable Games: Princeton (W), Belmont (W), Baylor (L), Creighton (L) and Iowa St. (L)
Last tournament, No. 11 seed Villanova got key defensive stops down the stretch to seal its first-round upset over BYU. To no one’s surprise, Maddy Siegrist dropped 25 points on 10-for-22 from the field, but her two blocks late in the fourth quarter made the difference in the end.
Kicking off the season 10-3 and receiving votes in the latest AP poll, Villanova has had a solid start to the season, picking up solid wins against Princeton and Belmont and losing a close one to Baylor. The Wildcats are really relying on the reigning Big East Player of the Year, whose 28.0 points per game and 6.8 win shares are both second-best in the country. The Wildcats have been able to protect the ball, ranking second in the country in turnovers per game (10.1) and turnover rate (13.1%).
Their 21-point loss to Creighton gave an example of how Villanova could struggle to win in the NCAA Tournament. Siegrist was responsible for 25 of Villanova’s 46 points but had virtually no help. Reliance on Siegrist was successful through one round of last year’s tournament, but doing the same will hurt Villanova’s chances of improving on last year’s result.
Bottom line: Villanova won’t make it past the second round of this season’s NCAA Tournament without other players stepping up and taking some pressure off Siegrist. They’re going to be challenged through conference play, so they’ll need to learn and adjust in order to be competitive this March.
South Dakota Coyotes
Current Record: 6-7
Notable Games: Creighton (L), Drake (L)
In an impressive showing, No. 10 seed South Dakota took down No. 7 seed Ole Miss in the first round and then thumped No. 2 Baylor by 14 points to earn a spot in the Sweet 16 last year. However, South Dakota has suffered losses this season against four teams currently outside the top 100 in Her Hoop Stats Rating. Extremely notable is the fact that the ‘Yotes lost all five starters from last year’s team and are rebuilding their lineup. South Dakota’s 6-7 record marks its worst start since the 2012-13 season.
Similar to other teams on this list, the Coyotes are heavily reliant on their top player, Grace Larkins, with not much help from others. Larkins, who didn’t start a game last season, is playing 32 minutes per game and averaging 17.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.8 steals this season. No other South Dakota player is currently averaging double figures in scoring.
They recently snapped a six-game losing streak, beating Kansas City by 23 points in the Coyotes’ Summit League opener. Macy Guebert showed potential in this game, adding 10 points on 2-for-2 shooting from the 3-point line and dishing out five assists. Although this performance came against a lesser opponent, Guebert’s contributions, Larkin’s 31 points and Walker Demers’ 11 points show that South Dakota can be successful in the future.
Bottom Line: South Dakota was a true Cinderella last year, but we will only see them back in the tournament if they can win the Summit League title, a path that will likely run through conference favorite South Dakota State. Elite teams are going to key in on Larkins, and if that’s all the Coyotes bring to the table, it’s not going to be enough.
Florida Gulf Coast Eagles
Current Record: 10-2
Notable Games: Stanford (L), Duke (L) and Kentucky (W)
FGCU made a splash with its three-point upset of No. 5 Virginia Tech in the first round last year. FGCU ran an extremely potent offense, leading the country in three pointers attempted and ranking second in 3-point makes during the 2021-22 season. The No. 12 vs. No. 5 upset, coupled with the Eagles’ 3-point heavy offense, caught the attention of the nation.
The Eagles lost some key pieces coming into this season, namely two-time Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year Kierstan Bell. However, Michigan State transfer Alyza Winston and returners Tishara Morehouse and Emma List have built on a fantastic 2021-22 season. Morehouse was named to the Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year Award watch list prior to the season. In addition to these players, FGCU is led by head coach Karl Smesko, who has the third-highest winning percentage amongst active Division I coaches, trailing only Geno Auriemma and Kim Mulkey. Smesko’s continued emphasis on long-distance shooting is evident this season as FGCU is leading the country with a 3-point rate of 47.3%, meaning almost half of their scoring attempts are 3-pointers. Case in point: the Eagles attempted a whopping 46 three-pointers in their loss against Stanford.
FGCU is currently No. 51 in Her Hoops Stats Rating and suffered blowout losses against its two toughest opponents this season, Stanford and Duke. On the positive side, FGCU scored a victory over SEC opponent Kentucky and actually hung with Stanford for three quarters, trailing by eight heading into the fourth quarter. While the Eagles’ capabilities on offense are well-documented, they are also performing well on defense, allowing the nation’s second-lowest assisted shot rate and an opponent assist-to-turnover ratio that ranks in the top 10%.
Bottom Line: I think we all hope that FGCU is back in the tournament this year. Not only are they fun to watch, but their reliance on the three ensures that they’re almost never out of any game. Last season’s tourney upset has only added to the confidence of a team that wasn’t lacking it to begin with.
Current Record: 7-3
Notable Games: Villanova (L), Seton Hall (W), Texas (L), and UConn (L)
As a UK alumna, No. 11 Princeton’s upset of No. 6 seed Kentucky in last season’s NCAA Tournament really hurt. Kentucky’s defense had no answer for Abby Meyers, who blew up for 29 points. Coming into the tournament as one of the top-ranked defenses in the country, the Tigers held the Wildcats to 36% shooting from the field. They also won the battle on the glass, despite being the smaller team.
Last season’s run was one of the best in Ivy League history, and the Tigers have built off that momentum. This season, Princeton has taken tough losses to Villanova and Texas, but they remain one of the top defensive teams in the country. Despite Meyers’ departure for Maryland, the Tigers are finding their way and almost pulled off a huge win against injury-ridden UConn earlier this month.
The Tigers are getting production from Kaitlyn Chen, Julia Cunningham and Grace Stone, all of whom are averaging double figures in points this season. Additionally, Princeton has done a great job taking care of the ball; the Tigers’ 13.4 turnovers per contest rank in the country’s top 7%.
But as has been the case in recent years, Princeton’s calling card is its defense, which currently ranks in the top 20 in Her Hoop Stats Defensive Rating. A key piece to the Tigers’ stingy defense is reigning Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year Ellie Mitchell, whose 12.5 rebounds per contest rank third in the country and whose 3.1 steals are the 15th-most in Division I.
Bottom Line: There is no doubt that Princeton and other Ivy League schools have earned an increased amount of respect over the past couple of seasons. And while Columbia might give Princeton a serious run for its money in the Ivy League tournament, I expect the Tigers will be back in the NCAA Tournament breaking hearts again in March.