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WNBA prospects who are primed to increase their draft stock during the NCAA tourney

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The NCAA Tournament is fast approaching, and for many WNBA Draft hopefuls, it’s the last opportunity to make strong impressions on coaches and GMs.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament- Maryland vs Iowa
Megan Gustafson (#10) and the Hawkeyes are set for a deep NCAA Tournament run.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament begins Friday, which means that the WNBA Draft is right around the corner. While it’s likely that WNBA scouts have seen enough of the bigger names in the senior class (as well as draft-eligible juniors) to form opinions on them, not everyone’s draft position is solidified.

Players who want to pursue professional careers will thus have this one last chance to make a good impression on potential employers. With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at three WNBA prospects that have the most to gain from a lengthy NCAA Tournament run.

Cierra Dillard, Buffalo

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Albany Regional-Buffalo vs South Carolina Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

It’s tough for mid-major prospects to make the WNBA. No matter how dominant a player is, if she’s not playing in a “Power Five” conference, there will be questions about how she’d look against stronger competition - specifically, against fellow WNBA prospects.

Such is the plight for Dillard. Even after Buffalo’s improbable NCAA Tournament run in 2018 (which included blowout wins over higher-seeded South Florida and Florida State), she entered the 2018-2019 season as an underdog. Once again, Dillard was rarely listed as a player to watch or a surefire WNBA draft pick jockeying for position on the big board.

Dillard’s response? Forcing her way into the conversation by dominating the stat sheet. It’s been an incredible season for Buffalo’s lead guard. Per Her Hoop Stats, Dillard’s 25.3 points per game ranked second in the nation, while she ranked in the 99th percentile in both assists (5.7) and steals (2.8) per game. Dillard also led the country in total free throw trips, imposing her will on defenses just as she has on draft boards.

Even after posting such gaudy numbers and winning MAC Tournament MVP honors, though, Dillard still faces an uphill battle when it comes to her WNBA draft stock. Her final opportunity to appeal to WNBA GMs will be in the NCAA Tournament. Another Buffalo upset or two might be more convincing than anything else to those at the professional level.

Megan Gustafson, Iowa

NCAA Womens Basketball: Nebraska at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

espnW’s pick for National Player of the Year, Gustafson has been nothing short of brilliant all season long. The numbers she’s put up have been monstrous: 28.0 points (first among all Division I players) and 13.3 rebounds, along with a ridiculous 1.44 points per scoring attempt. Gustafson’s dominance on the low block was on full display during the Big Ten Tournament, when she dropped a cool 45 points on perennial favorites Maryland en route to tourney MVP honors.

Still, when it comes to WNBA mock drafts, Gustafson is typically listed below fellow centers Teaira McCowan, Kalani Brown and Kristine Anigwe. Most pre-tournament projections have her going late in the first round. From a physical perspective, it’s not difficult to see why: She’s not as big as McCowan and Brown, nor as athletic as Anigwe.

What Gustafson does have, however, is a soft touch at the rim, patience with the basketball, and an endless array of low post moves that have frustrated Big Ten opponents for years. Gustafson’s balance, footwork and ability to finish with either hand make her arguably the most skilled center in the class.

What she’ll have to do, then, is prove herself against the country’s best. For all of Gustafson’s individual accolades, the one thing she’s missing on her résumé is NCAA Tournament success. A deep run in this year’s tourney could be of great benefit to her draft stock.

Sophie Cunningham, Missouri

NCAA Womens Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Missouri vs Georgia Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been an up-and-down season for Missouri in the SEC. Losses to Florida, LSU and Tennessee hurt them, but they also beat SEC champs and NCAA runner-up Mississippi State. They’ve been rewarded with a No. 7 seed in the Greensboro region, which features plenty of intriguing potential matchups for the Tigers.

Missouri’s one consistent factor throughout the season has been Cunningham. She finished conference play on a tear, and as a WNBA prospect, there’s plenty to like about her. Cunningham is a 6-foot-1 perimeter player who can shoot the 3-pointer at a high level — 41.4 percent this season and 45.7 percent the season prior.

Still, there’s something keeping Cunningham from entering the discussion of top draft prospects. Perhaps Missouri’s good-but-not-great regular season has played a part in that, or it could be that Cunningham’s physicality doesn’t blow people away. If the latter is true, then Cunningham has likely been slotted as a late first- or early second-round draft pick for some time now.

Even so, should Missouri advance to the later rounds in the Greensboro region, Cunningham could make a late push up the draft boards. An upset of Iowa, for instance, would be huge for the Tigers, and their fiery leader could get a final reevaluation by potential WNBA coaches as a result.