- Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.
Some years the national player of the year in women’s college basketball is suspense-free, the coronation of a player who led the race start to finish. Think Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu last season, or UConn’s Breanna Stewart in 2016. Other times, it’s a two-player battle. And then there’s this season, in which several players — including UConn freshman guard Paige Bueckers — are in the mix.
There might not be a consensus, either. There are multiple player of the year honors — including the Wade Trophy, Wooden Award, Naismith Award and awards from The Associated Press and ESPN.com — and the different voting bodies for each might value different things. Complicating matters even more this season is the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on schedules, including some marquee nonconference games that were canceled.
And then there are top teams such as Texas A&M, NC State, Stanford and Maryland that are such successful ensembles, it’s hard to pick just one player from each squad who consistently stands out.
Taking all those things into account, here is a look at the top candidates, listed in order of most likely to win at least one national player of the year accolade.
Paige Bueckers, UConn, guard, freshman
Will her age count against her just because there is no precedent for a freshman being awarded as the country’s top women’s player? It shouldn’t, but Bueckers would be groundbreaking. No freshman has ever won the Wade (started in 1978), Naismith (1983), AP (1995) or Wooden (2004) honors. The only sophomores who’ve won any of those awards are Southern California’s Cheryl Miller, Texas’ Clarissa Davis and UConn’s Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart.
Yet being the top player on the No. 1-ranked team — and a program that has won 11 NCAA championships — is a pretty strong formula for Bueckers to win national player of the year. The Huskies (21-1) are also projected as the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
Consistency is in her favor, too. Held to single-digit scoring just once, Bueckers had nine points against Tennessee on Jan. 21 — but her 3-pointer late in that victory was the dagger. She leads the Huskies in scoring (19.8 PPG), assists (6.2 APG), steals (2.4 SPG), 3-pointers (50) and minutes played (36.1). She had three consecutive games of 30 points or more — something no other UConn player has done — and set the program’s single-game assists record with 14 against Butler on Saturday.
Bueckers is in a different situation than most previous UConn superstars. She’s playing on a team with no seniors and seven freshmen, and she has had more opportunity to put up bigger number than many of her predecessors. By the same token, that means there’s more weight and pressure on her to perform.
Bueckers isn’t a one-woman show; juniors Christyn Williams (15.4 PPG), Olivia Nelson-Ododa (13.0 PPG) and Evina Westbrook (9.5 PPG), and freshman Aaliyah Edwards (10.7 PPG) are providing good support. They’ve all contributed to the Huskies’ defensive improvement over the course of the season. But Bueckers is still UConn’s engine.
The issue some observers have with Bueckers is that the Big East has not proved to be any more challenging this season than the American Athletic Conference was the last seven. UConn has a plus-33.9 average margin of victory in Big East games, and if the Huskies win the conference tournament, that will mark eight consecutive seasons of undefeated league play.
In her three nonconference games against Power 5 opponents — Tennessee, Arkansas and South Carolina, all of the SEC — Bueckers averaged 22.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists. The Huskies’ only loss was against Arkansas, 90-87. Nonconference games against top teams like Louisville and Baylor were canceled because of COVID-19 issues, but the Huskies are rated No. 2 in the NET.
Bottom line: Bueckers has made a compelling case to make awards history.
Dana Evans, Louisville, guard, senior
Named the ACC player of the year Tuesday for the second consecutive season, Evans is averaging 21.0 PPG and 4.3 assists, while making 56 3-pointers. In ACC games, No. 5 Louisville ranked second in scoring offense (75.6 PPG) and scoring defense (63.3 PPG), and Evans was a big part of both. The Cardinals’ losses were to NC State and Florida State, the latter coming Feb. 21 and putting a little nick into their season. Still, Evans twice being the top player in a highly competitive league and the clutch performer she has been for the Cardinals make her a strong national player of the year candidate.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Evans has shot 56% from the floor in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter of games this season, including 8 of 13 from 3-point range. She has scored in double figures in 40 consecutive games dating back to last season.
Rhyne Howard, Kentucky, guard, junior
On Tuesday, the junior was named the SEC player of the year for the second season in a row. She has topped our rankings of the top 25 players in women’s college basketball since November, and it’s not as if her season hasn’t been worthy. It’s more about other candidates elevating. But Howard is still in the mix as one of the nation’s best.
Her 19.8 PPG average is down from last season’s 23.4. But her rebounding (7.5 RPG) and assists (3.7 APG) averages are both improved. Howard also has a history of coming up big for the No. 17 Wildcats against the best opponents. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Howard has averaged 20.5 points against AP-ranked opponents in her career. That’s fourth-best among SEC players (with at least 20 such games) over the last 20 seasons.
NaLyssa Smith, Baylor, forward, junior
The Big 12 has a lot of strong candidates for conference player of the year, and the league has one week left in the regular season. In the ESPN.com picks for the player of the year in every conference last week, we tapped Oklahoma State’s Natasha Mack as the favorite for the Big 12 award, with Smith as the top challenger.
But Smith’s performances in Baylor’s past four victories seemed to turn the tide more strongly toward her. In those games, she shot 66.7% from the field, while averaging 18.8 points in helping Baylor secure its 11th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title.
Smith is averaging 18.1 point and 9.3 rebounds, and while she’s not likely to win national player of the year this season, she’s making a statement that she at least should be in the conversation.
Caitlin Clark, Iowa, guard, freshman
Like Bueckers, Clark is a dynamic freshman leading her team. Her numbers are huge: She is averaging 26.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 7.0 assists. She has made 82 3-pointers and is shooting 41 percent from behind the arc, and 47.7 percent overall. Her scoring and assists averages and 3-point total each rank second in Division I. She scored 30 or more points 10 times, including in five games in a row.
Clark might be held back a bit by the unranked Hawkeyes’ results; with one regular-season game remaining, on Wednesday, they are 14-7 overall and 10-7 (tied for sixth) in the Big Ten. However, the Big Ten is currently projected to have seven teams in the NCAA tournament, as opposed to three from the Big East. It would be difficult to argue that Clark hasn’t consistently played against better competition than Bueckers has.
If Clark finishes with her current scoring average, it will be the third-highest by a freshman in Division I women’s history. The top three now are San Diego State’s Tina Hutchinson at 29.9 in 1983-84, Appalachian State’s Valorie Whiteside at 27.1 in 1984-85 and Delaware’s Elena Delle Donne at 26.7 in 2009-10 (ESPN Stats & Info).
Aliyah Boston, South Carolina, forward, sophomore
The Gamecocks’ offense doesn’t always give Boston as many touches as she needs, although coach Dawn Staley continues to tweak things. Boston is second on the team with a 13.0 scoring average, while also averaging 11.7 rebounds and 2.9 blocks.
Boston’s dominance inside opens things up for her guards — fellow sophomore Zia Cooke leads the team with 15.9 PPG — and she’s the tentpole for the defense. Her talent is abundant, but with relatively low scoring numbers and the No. 7 Gamecocks falling in their regular-season finale to Texas A&M, Boston will be mentioned for national player of the year, but probably not as a front-runner.
Aari McDonald, Arizona, guard, senior
The Pac-12 player of the year — the second such honoree for Arizona behind current coach Adia Barnes (1998) — McDonald has helped lead the No. 11 Wildcats to a second-place finish in the league and assure their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2005.
After transferring from Washington, the senior has scored in double figures in all 85 games she has played for Arizona. She is averaging 19.4 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.7 steals, and her effectiveness on offense and defense will garner some consideration for national player of the year.
Charli Collier, Texas, center/forward, junior
The draft-eligible junior is the projected No. 1 pick in the ESPN.com WNBA mock draft and is averaging 21.0 points and 12.2 rebounds. She has had a season high of 44 points, and 12 games of 14 rebounds or more.
Collier likely will get some consideration from national player of the year voters. But in Texas’ two biggest tests, versus Baylor, she struggled, tallying a combined 14 points and 14 rebounds.
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