The college basketball season is around the corner and it’s time to take a look at the players who will likely be household names. Here’s the first article in a four-part series: the seniors. Graduate students are included on this list.
1) Rhyne Howard (Kentucky Wildcats)
Howard is expected to go No. 1 overall in the 2022 WNBA Draft and was considered to be the best returning NCAAW player last year, though a freshman, Paige Bueckers, took AP Player of the Year. Howard joined Bueckers on the All-American First Team after averaging 20.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.5 steals. She is strong and psychical as a 6-foot-2 guard who can knock down threes and do it all on offense. She had 28 points, eight assists and six steals against Iowa in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but her Wildcats were not able to overcome a disastrous first half and lost to the Hawkeyes. Kentucky enters the season ranked at No. 13 and has yet to reach the Sweet 16 with Howard. You can bet Howard has her sights set even higher than that in her final season. But something will have to change for the Wildcats to get there. They started at No. 13 in 2019-20 and at No. 11 in 2020-21.
2) NaLyssa Smith (Baylor Bears)
Smith was also a 2021 First Team All-American; she was the only other junior joining Howard. She nearly averaged a double-double with 18 points and 8.9 rebounds per game en route to winning Big 12 Player of the Year. We’ll see if we see any more air guitar moments out of her in 2021-22 — most likely we will. She will be tasked with leading a No. 7 Baylor team that lost DiJonai Carrington and DiDi Richards to the WNBA Draft, so it will be up to her to produce and make big plays. She had 24 points in the Bears’ Sweet 16 win over Michigan and a double-double in their Elite 8 loss to UConn.
3) Naz Hillmon (Michigan Wolverines)
Hillmon’s numbers last year were perhaps more impressive than any other player on this list. She averaged 23.9 points and 11.4 rebounds per game and that included a 50-point game and a 22-rebound game (not the same game). She is a feared force in the Big Ten, where No. 11 Michigan is expected to challenge Maryland, Indiana and Iowa. She was ranked at No. 58 in her high school class, but has shown so much growth each year in college. Look for her to be and All-American again — she made the Second Team last year.
4) Elissa Cunane (NC State Wolfpack)
Another member of the 2020-21 All-American Second Team was Elissa Cunane, who returns for her highly-anticipated senior season with the Wolfpack. Cunane’s rebounding numbers dipped from her sophomore year to her junior year, but she is capable of averaging a double-double. She is a gifted inside scorer who gives No. 5 NC State national championship potential. The Wolfpack were a 1-seed that got upset by 4th-seeded Indiana in the Sweet 16 last year, but with Cunane’s supporting cast returning with her, watch out.
5) Ashley Joens (Iowa State Cyclones)
Joens is known as the best pure scorer in this senior class — she averaged better than 20 points per game as a sophomore and as a junior. Last year she was fifth in the nation with a scoring average of 24.2. She can shoot, drive and back down to create for herself. She’s a great rebounder too with 10.2 boards per game over the past two seasons. Add Joens to the list of players who is looking to bounce back from a heartbreaking tournament loss — her Cyclones were knocked out in the second round by Texas A&M on a Jordan Nixon buzzer-beater in overtime. Iowa State enters the season at No. 12 in the rankings.
6) Lauren Heard (TCU Horned Frogs)
Heard is an incredibly talented guard who can score in a variety of ways. TCU relies on her a lot so look for her to put up big numbers once again. Last year she averaged 21.2 points, which is impressive on its own. But she really stuffed the stat sheet too, averaging seven rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.6 steals.
7) Vivian Gray (Texas Tech Lady Raiders)
Gray, like Heard, is a prolific scorer from the Big 12. She went DII out of high school, by choice, even though she had plenty of DI offers. Then, after tearing it up at Oklahoma State as a sophomore and junior, she played even better in her first season at Texas Tech last year, averaging 19.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists. Now she’s back for a fifth year of eligibility. Gray has a great mid-range game, can finish at the basket and is a capable 3-point shooter though her numbers were down last year.
8) Shakira Austin (Ole Miss Rebels)
Before Austin’s freshman season began, Maryland head coach Brenda Frese said it was her job to make her a high WNBA Draft pick by the time she came out of college. Frese knew Austin had that kind of potential. The No. 4 Hoop Gurlz recruit averaged 10.1 rebounds per game in her debut season with the Terps, but the scoring didn't come along until last year when she averaged 17.9 points for Ole Miss. Austin was a key part of the Rebels’ late-season NCAA Tournament push, which came up short. She had 22 and 12 in the team’s regular season finale — an upset win over No. 17 Kentucky — and 29 and 13 in an SEC Tournament upset of No. 13 Arkansas. Austin is on the rise so expect even more improvement this year.
9) Christyn Williams (UConn Huskies)
Williams was the No. 1 Hoop Gurlz recruit in 2018, even ranking ahead of Charli Collier who was the No. 1 pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft. Williams is a gifted scorer who averaged 16.3 points last year on 34.3 percent shooting from beyond the arc. The lefty was named an All-American honorable mention and helped the Huskies advance to the Final Four. Her numbers aren't going to be as high as some other players on this list because No. 2 UConn is loaded, but she is one of the most talented seniors in the country.
10) Olivia Nelson-Ododa (UConn Huskies)
Nelson-Ododa’s numbers will also be lower than others on this list for the same reason, but she has a high ceiling as a post player. She averaged a career-high 13 points last year and posted career highs of 8.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 3.1 blocks as a sophomore. Her presence in the post will be critical to UConn’s success. Dorka Juhasz is just as tall, but isn't a true post and it remains to be seen how much playing time 6-foot-5 underclassmen Amari DeBerry and Piath Gabriel will see. Nelson-Ododa joined Williams on the All-American honorable mention list last year.
Other seniors to watch:
11. Madi Williams, Oklahoma Sooners, 5-11 guard/forward
12. Veronica Burton, Northwestern Wildcats, 5-9 guard
13. Cece Hooks, Ohio Bobcats, 5-8 guard
14. Grace Berger, Indiana Hoosiers, 6-0 guard
15. Aisha Sheppard, Virginia Tech Hokies, 5-9 guard
16. Lorela Cubaj, Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, 6-4 forward
17. Ali Patberg, Indiana Hoosiers, 5-11 guard
18. Kiara Smith, Florida Gators, 5-10 guard
19. Sam Haiby, Nebraska Cornhuskers, 5-9 guard
20. Katie Benzan, Maryland Terrapins, 5-6 guard