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Around the NCAAW Weekly: Checking in on National Player of the Year candidates

Ahead of conference play, which players have established themselves as leading contenders for National Player of the Year?

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round - California
Should Stanford’s Cameron Brink be the favorite for National Player of the Year?
Photo by Bob Drebin/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

We’re delivering our look around the NCAAW a bit earlier this week, checking in on the sport’s most impressive teams and players from Monday, Dec. 18 to Friday, Dec. 22.


Still undefeated?

Last week, we examined the then-15 remaining undefeated teams, assessing whether their thus-far-unblemished records accurately reflected their team quality. For a few teams, the answer appears to have been “no,” as they suffered their first loss when facing tougher competition. That group includes Old Dominion (8-2), No. 23 Washington (11-1) and California Baptist (10-1). Others burnished their resume, securing confidence-boosting wins that confirm they are the class of women’s college hoops. In that basket, we have No. 2 UCLA (11-0). The rest—such as No. 1 South Carolina (11-0), No. 3 NC State (12-0), No. 5 Texas (12-0), No. 6 USC (10-0) and No. 10 Baylor (11-0)—simply kept taking care of business.

Let’s take a closer look at the more informative outcomes from the past week:

No. 2 UCLA (11-0) 77, No. 13 Ohio State (10-2) 71

The Bruins have earned an undefeated record and ascended to No. 2 in the rankings due to the balance between their post and guard play, a balance that was on display Monday night—just as our Edwin Garcia surmised in his preview—as UCLA defeated Ohio State, 77-71.

Sophomore center Lauren Betts proved too much for the Buckeyes, posting a double-double of 17 points and 11 boards. Betts’ scoring spurred the Bruins’ 46 points in the paint, while her rebounding helped UCLA control the glass, outrebounding Ohio State 40 boards to 30. After the Buckeyes’ aggressive, pressing defense initially disrupted the Bruins, allowing OSU to sprint out to a 7-0 advantage, UCLA’s guards eventually settled in. While sophomore guard Kiki Rice finished with 15 points and four assists, fifth-year guard Charisma Osborne closed the door in Columbus, shutting down Ohio State’s late comeback attempt as she scored 14 of her 19 points in the second half.

Head coach Cori Close applauded Osborne’s effort on both ends of the floor, saying after the game:

I just thought we showed a lot of composure, and it starts with Charisma Osborne. I just thought she was so solid on both ends of the floor. She was a calming force. No one ever drives around her. We switched a lot of screens—but you’ll notice, nobody ever rounded the corner on her.

Fifth-year guard Jacy Sheldon led Ohio State with 30 points, while junior guard Taylor Thierry added 20. However, no other Buckeye reached double figures.

No. 10 NC State (12-0) 87, Old Dominion (8-2) 50

A meeting between an undefeated ACC team and an erstwhile undefeated C-USA team is expected to follow a certain script. During the first quarter, Old Dominion threatened to disrupt that narrative, trailing NC State by just five points at the end of the period, 18-13. However, the Wolfpack soon unleashed their elite talent on the Monarchs, ripping ODU’s previously top-ranked defense and running away with the 87-50 road win.

As ODU head coach DeLisha Milton-Jones said after the game, “I thought we did a pretty good job of stopping them early on, but then it just got to a point where the talent just took over. They are a tremendous team.”

Freshman guard Zoe Brooks, one of six NC State players in double figures with a double-double of 13 points and 11 assists, credited the team’s veterans for the Wolfpack’s in-game turnaround, sharing that “our leaders told us to get our stuff together and we listened to them and did what we had to do.”

No. 19 Louisville 59 (11-2), No. 23 Washington (11-1) 51

Louisville responded to their shellacking in Storrs by handing Washington their first loss of the season, prevailing 59-51 at home.

A 6-0 run to close their first half and 5-0 run to open the second half proved pivotal for the Cardinals. Louisville maintained an advantage throughout the second half behind sophomore forward Nyla Harris, who scored nine of her 11 points in the third, and senior forward Olivia Cochran, who scored eight of her 14 points in the fourth. A domination of the glass—with 40 rebounds to Washington’s 26—also gave Louisville an edge. It was a team effort with seven Cardinals finishing with at least four rebounds, led by senior guard Kiki Jefferson’s eight.

A subpar shooting night sunk the Huskies. They were led by senior forward Lauren Schwartz’s 13 points, while junior forward Dalayah Daniels finished with 12 points and 10 boards.

Stocking-stuffing performances

An array of excellent individual players gifted us some phenomenal performances during pre-Christmas play:

  • Notre Dame freshman guard Hannah Hidalgo continued her standout debut season with her first-career triple-double. She had 26 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists as the Fighting Irish fended off Western Michigan on Thursday. The nation’s steals leader also added five more swipes to her ledger. For more on Hidalgo, check out Josh Felton’s latest ACC update.
  • Virginia freshman guard Kymora Johnson turned in her best performance of the season on Thursday. A scorching 6-for-7 from behind the arc, she scored 26 points, tossed seven assists, snagged five boards and secured two steals in a win over Fordham.
  • TCU senior big Sedona Prince had another monster game, with her double-double of 26 points and 17 rebounds helping the Horned Frogs remain undefeated against Omaha on Wednesday. Friday, she secured her eighth double-double of the season—22 points and 15 rebounds—as TCU finished off Mount St. Mary’s with ease.
  • Middle Tennessee State fifth-year guard Savannah Wheeler served up 34 points, seven boards, three assists and two steals in Wednesday’s win over Northern Kentucky.
  • Florida International senior forward Ajae Yoakum ensured the host Panthers got a win in the FIU Christmas Classic, not only going 10-for-11 from the field but also from the foul line as she scored a career-high 30 points. Behind Yoakum, FIU defeated Alabama State on Tuesday before taking care of Chicago State on Wednesday.
  • East Carolina sophomore forward Amiya Joyner earned a double-double of 27 points and 16 boards in win over George Mason on Monday. She also contributed six blocks, three steals and three assists.
  • Kansas City freshman guard Raychel Jones had an astoundingly-efficient 20 points as her team took care of business against Kansas Christian on Monday. She was 9-for-10 from the field and 2-for-2 from the line, while also tallying six rebounds, six steals, five assists and four blocks.
  • Norfolk State junior forward Kierra Wheeler makes this list for the second time this season after she had a massive double-double of 33 points and 17 rebounds, along with five assists, two blocks and two steals, as the Spartans secured an overtime victory over High Point on Monday.
  • Despite the loss, Alabama State senior forward Cordasia Harris showed out against DePaul last Sunday, dropping a career-high 32 points on 14-for-17 shooting. She also corralled nine rebounds and swatted a pair of shots.
  • Penn State pummeled Saint Francis on Sunday, scoring the second-most points in program history in part due to junior guard Leilani Kapinus’ career-best 25 points, six boards, five steals and four assists. On Wednesday, another Nittany Lion had an eye-popping effort, with sophomore guard Shay Ciezki swishing eight 3-pointers as she tossed in a 40-ball in a big win over Central Connecticut.

National Player of the Year checkpoint

Approximately a month and half into the 2023-24 season, it appears we’re poised for a tightly-contested National Player of the Year race featuring a number of worthy candidates. Before conference play dominates the calendar, let’s assess some of the strongest National Player of the Year resumes.*

Caitlin Clark (senior, Iowa)

The reigning National Player of the Year, Clark has been as spectacular as expected. Despite playing the fewest minutes per game of her career, she’s taking and making more shots, averaging 30.5 points—the best mark of her career and the best mark in the nation—in 32.5 minutes per game. She’s making a career-best 60.3 percent of her 2-pointers. From 3, Clark is launching 11.8 shots per game and swishing 4.6 of them, good for almost 40 percent. Due to her increased shooting and scoring, Clark’s assists have dipped from 8.6 to 7.4 per game. Nonetheless, she still leads the nation in total points produced with 384. It’s estimated that her overall production has contributed 4.8 win shares to Iowa, which leads the nation.

Paige Bueckers (redshirt junior, UConn)

In her only fully-healthy collegiate season, a freshman Bueckers was the National Player of Year. After an injury-riddled sophomore season and an ACL injury that caused her to miss all of last season, Bueckers is mostly matching the numbers she posted as a freshman, albeit in approximately seven fewer minutes per game. She’s averaging 18.8 points, shooting 55.3 percent from 2-point range and 47.9 percent from 3-point range. She’s up to 4.4 free throw attempts per game, compared to her 2.9 attempts as a freshman. However, it’s opposite with her assists, as her 5.8 assists per game as a freshman have dropped to 3.3 per game this season. Defensively, she’s again showing playmaking chops with 3.2 “stocks” per game.

Cameron Brink (senior, Stanford)

Advanced metrics love Brink. She leads the nation in player efficiency rating (60.2), win shares per 40 minutes (.620) and box plus/minus (31.7). Breaking down her production, it’s easy to see why advanced statistics appreciate her impact. Offensively, Brink has blossomed into an efficient No. 1 option, scoring 19.2 points per game. Overall, she’s converting better than 60 percent of her more than 10 field goal attempts per game. On 2-pointers, she’s at 66.3 percent; from 3, she’s at 37.5 percent. All those numbers are career highs. Defensively, the two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year remains a force. She’s grabbing 11.1 rebounds and swatting 3.3 shots in just 22.0 minutes per game. Thus far, she’s also committing the fewest fouls per game of her career.

Alissa Pili (fifth-year, Utah)

Pili firmly entered this conversation when she almost single-handedly led Utah to an upset of South Carolina with a 37-point masterpiece. Yet, her resume is deeper than that singular, superb performance. The 6-foot-2 Pili is a fundamental offense force who can score efficiently at all three levels. She’s shooting 75.2 percent on 2s, 56.5 percent on 3s and almost 70 percent overall on a total of 12.9 field goal attempts. Those numbers make her the nation’s leader in effective field goal (78.1 percent) and true shooting (78.9 percent) percentages. She’s second on the national leaderboard for offensive box plus/minus at 19.8 and Utah has a nation-leading 152.0 offensive rating when Pili is the court. She’s also turning in her most active season as a defender with 2.4 “stocks” per game.

Ayoka Lee (fifth-year, Kansas State)

Our Eric Nemchock evaluated Lee’s WNBA prospects a few weeks ago. Since then, Yokie has continued to turn in a spectacular final college season. Although she’s playing a career-low 24.5 minutes per game after missing all of last season due to knee surgery, she’s still scoring almost 21 points per game, shooting a career-high 68.5 percent from the field. She’s also shown little slippage defensively, despite her knee surgery. She’s grabbing 8.2 boards, blocking 2.2 shots and swiping almost a steal per game. In terms of advanced metrics, she’s in the top five in PER (3rd, 49.5), win shares (2nd, 4.1), wins shares per 40 minutes (3rd, .517) and box plus/minus (3rd, 21.9).

Rori Harmon (junior, Texas)

Harmon has been a rockstar for the undefeated Longhorns. She’s posting career highs across the board: 14.1 points, 7.8 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 3.1 steals per game. With her two-way efforts, she has piloted Texas to the second-ranked offense and eighth-ranked defense in the nation. As a primary ball handler with a heavy offensive load, her commitment to defense especially stands out. She’s a shutdown point-of-attack defender, eager to agitate opponents. Advanced stats capture her impact, particularly defensively. Nationally, she’s eighth in defensive win shares (1.3) and third in defensive box plus/minus (9.5). And when she’s on the floor, the Longhorns have the best defensive rating in the Big 12 at 66.9.

JuJu Watkins (freshman, USC)

Amongst an impressive freshman class, Watkins has shined the brightest. She’s an instant star for the undefeated Women of Troy, restoring the once-proud program back to the pinnacle of women’s college basketball. In just nine collegiate games, Watkins has scored 30 or more points five times, highlighted by the 32 points she dropped on Ohio State in her debut. And despite leading the nation in usage, she’s scoring efficiently, shooting better than 50 percent on 2s and almost 47 percent on 3s. She also impacts the action beyond her bucket getting, going to the glass for 6.9 rebounds per game while turning defense into offense with 2.6 steals per game. She ranks third nationally in points produced per game at 24.5.

And here are a few more players whose names could feature more prominently in this conversation as the season progresses: Kamilla Cardoso (senior, South Carolina); Hannah Hidalgo (freshman, Notre Dame); Aneesah Morrow (junior, LSU); Lauren Betts (sophomore, UCLA).

A look ahead

While college basketball play resumes Wednesday, Dec. 27, things really get rolling on Friday, Dec. 29, when conference contests begin to fill the calendar. Here are some games worth anticipating.

Friday, Dec. 29

Georgia Tech vs. No. 21 Florida State (2 p.m. ET, ACC Network Extra)

No. 9 Stanford vs. California (5 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network)

Saturday, Dec. 30

No. 13 Ohio State vs. Michigan (12 p.m. ET)

Minnesota vs. No. 4 Iowa (2 p.m., Big Ten Network)

No. 10 Baylor vs. No. 5 Texas (2 p.m. ET)

No. 11 Utah vs. No. 8 Colorado (3 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network)

No. 6 USC vs. No. 2 UCLA (8 p.m. ET)

Sunday, Dec. 31

No. 18 Marquette vs. No. 17 UConn (1 p.m. ET)

No. 14 Notre Dame vs. Syracuse (2 p.m. ET, ACC Network)

No. 19 Louisville vs. Miami (4 p.m. ET, ACC Network)


*All stats are from Sports Reference College Basketball.