Men vs Women: How They Play the Game

March Madness provides us with an opportunity to watch the best women’s college basketball teams in the country and the best men’s college basketball teams in the country compete for a National title in parallel. Both tournaments are exciting - full of upsets and buzzer beaters - but they are far from identical. Men and women do not play the game in the same way. The following statistical analysis uses regular season and conference competition statistics from the women’s and men’s teams qualifying for the 2021 NCAA Division 1 Basketball Tournament to compare how men and women approach the game of basketball.

Comparison of Game Statistics Between Men’s and Women’s Teams

The women’s teams attempted more field goals per game on average than the men’s teams (61.4 vs 58.6 field goals). A possible cause for the higher number of field goals attempted on the women’s side is the women are getting 2.4 more rebounds per game on average. Both the men’s and women’s teams averaged the same number of field goals made per game: 27. Ultimately, the women had a lower average field goal percentage than the men (43.5% vs 45.8%).

The statistics on field goals can further be broken down into 2 pointers and 3 pointers. The women attempt 4.5 more 2 point field goals per game than the men and make 1.0 more field goal per game than the men, on average. This means that the men have an average 2 point field goal percentage 4.1% higher than the women’s.

For 3 point field goals, the men once again have a higher shooting percentage (by 1.7%), but are now attempting an average of 2 more 3 pointers and making an average of 1 more 3 pointer per game than the women. 3 point shots account for 25% of the field goals that the women make and 29% of the field goals that men make, on average. For all of these categories - field goals attempted, field goals made, and shooting percentage - for both 2 and 3 pointers, the women have more variation between teams, as shown in the boxplots.

Even though the men are shooting 2 and 3 pointers at a higher percentage than the women, the women are hot on their heels. Just a couple examples are Stanford's 3 point streak shown above and Iowa's freshman Caitlin Clark leading both Division 1 men and women in scoring.

Men’s teams that make it to the NCAA Tournament shoot 2 pointers and 3 pointers at a higher percentage than the women’s teams. This means that if a men’s team wants to have the same win percentage as a women’s team, we would expect that they would need to have a higher shooting percentage, as demonstrated by the graph above.

All of these shooting statistics accumulate in the women scoring less points on average than the men’s teams (72.3 vs 74.8 points). Also, the women’s opponents scored less points on average than the men’s opponents (61.4 vs 66.7 points). Due to the gap between the women’s and men’s defenses being larger than the women’s and men’s offenses, the women have a higher average scoring margin than the men (9.8 vs 6.9 points). There has been a lot of talk about Gonzaga’s dominance on the men’s side this year, but there are 5 teams on the women’s side with an average scoring margin larger than Gonzaga’s. And following the trend that we witnessed in the shooting breakdowns, the women have more variation in the scoring margin by team. The women also have a higher average win percentage than the men (76.0% vs 71.4%) with more variation.

The video above is just one example of Gonzaga's dominance, a perfectly executed steal with a 35 point lead, which was topped by 5 women's teams in the regular season.

From the graph above, we can see that a women’s team making the same number of field goals per game as a men’s team is expected to let their opponents score less field goals than the given men’s team.

When it comes to assists, the women average 1.1 more per game. The following tweet is just one example of the prominence of assists in the women's game from UConn's Sweet 16 win against Iowa. The women manage to average 2.3 more opponent turnovers per game, however, the women also average 1.7 more turnovers per game. Additionally, the women average 1 more steal per game. The men and women average about the same number of fouls per game, but the men’s teams have more variation on the high end when it comes to the number of fouls. Finally, the men and women have about the same free throw percentage, but there is less variation in the women’s teams.

From this initial assessment, it appears that the men play the game by shooting more efficiently (for 2s and 3s), resulting in them scoring more points per game despite attempting less field goals. However, the women play better defense, holding their opponents to less points on average, rebound more (which may be tied to the lower shooting percentage), steal more, create more turnovers, and work together more in the form of assists. The women’s teams making it to March Madness win more often and by more points, on average.

Using Statistical Models to Compare Men’s and Women’s Teams

The six statistics that are most important in linear regression models (separated by gender) to predict a team’s win percentage are scoring margin, field goals attempted, opponent 2 point shooting percentage, opponent 3 point shooting percentage, free throws made, and turnovers. These linear regression models accounted for 79% and 76% of the variability in win percentage for women and men, respectively. These statistics were used in a k-means cluster analysis, in which 4 clusters were made.

The table above shows the cluster means for each of the six variables, and the breakdown of the number of teams in each cluster.

The table above further breaks down the clusters by displaying how many of the top 4 seeds from each region (16 total teams) are in each cluster for the men and the women.

Cluster 1 doesn’t stand out in any of the statistics (besides having the most turnovers) and it doesn’t contain any of the #1 men’s or women’s teams. Things get interesting with the other three clusters.

Cluster 2 has three of the #1 men’s teams, and the most regional top 4 men’s teams of any cluster. More than half (7/13) of the men’s teams in this cluster are in the top 4 of their region. These teams have the second highest scoring margin and the most field goal attempts per game. This is not expected; when comparing the men to the women in the section above, the women attempted more field goals. The best men’s teams, and the vast majority of the men’s teams, are split between Clusters 2 and 4, where Cluster 2 is dominated by top seeds that win handedly and force the game to move at a fast pace, whereas Cluster 4 plays the game more like we would expect from the men after the analysis above: the lowest scoring margin, the lowest number of attempted field goals, the best opponent shooting percentage, and the lowest number of turnovers. Only 1 women’s team in the regional top 4 seeds fits that description.

93% of the teams in Cluster 3 are women's teams, and all four of the women’s #1 seeds are in Cluster 3. The statistics match what we would expect after the analysis above: the largest scoring margin, more field goal attempts than the cluster with the most men’s teams, the lowest opponent shooting percentage, and a high number of turnovers. Additionally, one of the two men’s teams that fit into this cluster is Houston, a #2 regional seed. Houston has one of the best defenses of the men’s teams, and that seems to be one of the reasons why they play more like the women than the men.

This cluster analysis was interesting to observe the divide between men’s teams in Clusters 2 and 4, and to observe just how similarly the top women’s teams play (by fitting into Cluster 3). A bonus is observing how Houston’s men’s team plays more like the women’s teams than the men’s teams. If anything is going to give a team a leg up in the Elite Eight, it may very well be playing the game unlike any of your competitors.

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