College basketball: Top five player of the year candidates
Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese are clear front-runners.
CHICAGO — A minute and a half into the overtime period in an off-the-national-radar Monday night contest, Aaliyah Collins jogged the ball up the floor. Her Chicago State Cougars were tied with Wisconsin 56-56, and the freshman eyed her teammate on the right wing.
In the blink of an eye, Collins crossed over to her left, beat her defender, faked a pass to the left corner, and flipped the ball toward the rim. It didn’t drop, but a foul was called. She calmly sank both free throws.
Outside of the fact that it put her team ahead, few observers at the time were aware of the significance of that moment. You see, those free throws didn’t just give the Cougars the lead — they gave the Cougars the lead for good. On Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, Chicago State won its first basketball game in 674 days.
“We were celebrating like we had won a championship,” Collins says.
The MOMENTS that make it all MATTER! pic.twitter.com/vh6OVWepsc— Chicago State WBB (@ChiStateWBB) November 23, 2021
Most players of Collins’ caliber aren’t interested in going on to play for a team that just went winless a season ago. Collins, after all, was the 2021 Washington State Girls Basketball Player of the Year. But for the self-described underdog, the fit was perfect.
“Chicago State kind of checked off a lot of the checks on my list that I was looking for in a school,” Collins says. “I really wanted to be close to the city. I wanted a lot of ethnicity. I wanted to be far from home.”
As for the basketball? That only added to her drive.
“People might look at that and then they wouldn’t want to come because of the record,” Collins says. “But who says that can’t be you to help change it?”
Collins has “wanted to prove people wrong” ever since she didn’t make the fifth-grade basketball team almost a decade ago. “Before high school, I wasn’t really the best player,” she says. “I struggled a lot.”
It’s safe to say Collins has already proven plenty of people wrong: Her 2.6 steals per game rank in the top 30 in the country, and she’s the only freshman in Division I averaging at least 14 points, three assists and 2.5 steals per game. The dynamic point guard is on pace to shatter program records in several categories.
It’s the type of season that surely has many coaches kicking themselves. The few Division I offers Collins had received got pulled when the pandemic hit, and she went multiple months without a single scholarship offer.
“It was very discouraging at first,” Collins told Sam Brief last month on the Chi State Pod. “I went through a really tough time of confidence in myself.”
It wasn’t until the winter of Collins’ senior season that her former teammate’s uncle, who had a connection with then-first year Chicago State head coach Tiffany Sardin, put the two in touch.
“I was surprised she was still available,” Sardin says. “We got lucky.”
Due to COVID-19 restrictions at the time, Sardin had to rely on film, phone calls and Zoom during the recruiting process. That included watching clips of Collins running track and showing off her speed.
“She was getting smoked, and then out of nowhere she turned the jets on and won the race,” Sardin recalls. “I had to watch the clip several times thinking, ‘Wow!’”
Once the two connected, it fell on Sardin to convince the high school sensation to come play for a program without a rich history. “I was very honest and answered any and every question Aaliyah and her parents had,” Sardin says. “They were prepared and did a lot of research on Chicago State and me as well.”
Sardin’s biggest selling point? “I did tell her I thought she could be a special player that Chicago State hadn’t seen in a long time,” Sardin says. “If she wasn’t allergic to working hard, being challenged and held accountable … then come be the reason why something is changing.”
Collins committed not long after, and the two have been forming a special bond ever since.
“I have so much respect for that woman,” Collins says. “Before one of our games, she told me, ‘I put a lot of trust in you.’
“I’m like, ‘I’m a freshman — you sure you want to do that?’ But that just kind of stuck with me because that’s a lot for a coach to put trust into a freshman.”
That trust is looking like a wise decision on Sardin’s part as Collins inches closer and closer to becoming Chicago State’s first ever WAC Freshman of the Year. Collins already has five WAC Freshman of the Week awards under her belt, and in January she became the first mid-major player in two years to win the USBWA Tamika Catchings National Freshman of the Week — an honor given in recent seasons to players such as Ayoka Lee, Aliyah Boston, Paige Bueckers, Caitlin Clark, Azzi Fudd and Aneesah Morrow.
But it’s not any individual accolades that Collins is most concerned with.
“I wanna catch some more dubs,” she says.
That mentality is what fueled Collins to lead her high school team to an unbeaten season as a senior; it’s what Sardin referred to when she called Collins a “fierce competitor” upon signing her; it’s what prompted Collins to apologize for a loss to the league’s best team during an interview for this piece.
The true test of that desire to win comes when no one is watching — when the scoreboard is off and the cameras aren’t rolling. It was one of those times, after Collins injured her ankle during a summer workout, that Sardin saw who her top recruit could become.
“She wasn’t going to say a word, just fight through the pain,” Sardin says. “It really bothered her not being able to practice or go full in summer training for a few days. At that moment, I knew this kid was going to be special in this program and league. I’m not sure anyone else would’ve battled through the discomfort and pain she was feeling just to be out on the court training with her teammates.”
When it comes to in-game results, Collins is off to a good start: She’s led Chicago State to three more wins since that first one in November to match the program’s total from the previous five seasons combined. With a young, up-and-coming coaching savant in Sardin at the helm, there will undoubtedly be more where that came from.
As Collins continues to garner more recognition, she credits her family for where she is today. She has two older siblings, Kaela and Anthony, whom she calls her “biggest motivators,” and she attributes her love of the sport to her father, Tony. “[My dad] is very passionate about the game, and he kind of just spread that passion to me,” she says.
Aaliyah also believes Tony, who coached her during her elementary and middle school years, is responsible for her lockdown ability on the court.
“He definitely worked with me a lot on defense because he’s a big believer in defense, too,” she says. “I feel like he’s been a big part of my success in basketball.”
For as much love as Aaliyah has for her parents and siblings, however, they aren’t the ones she’s most excited to talk to when she calls home.
“Sometimes I’ll be calling my parents, and I’ll be like, ‘Where are the cats?’” she says. “Before even really talking to [my parents] I wanna see the cats please!”
That Collins ended up wearing a cougar on her jersey is fitting. Collins’ enthusiasm for her three cats (“those are my babies,” she says) is emblematic of what sets her apart — an ebullient energy that shines through in her play.
That same energy carries over into Collins’ fandom. The native of Snohomish, Wash. pulls for the Seattle Storm — an appropriate choice for a player with shades of former Storm guard Jordin Canada in her game.
Like Canada, Collins hangs her hat on the defensive side of the ball. While her jump shot is a work in progress — ”I have been in the gym day in, day out working on that,” she says — she’s already producing on the offensive end, as well. She’s averaged over 20 points per game in the team’s wins, including 25 against the Badgers in Madison.
It takes an exceptional coach to turn around a losing team, but seemingly every great sports rebuilding story is co-authored by a star athlete, a “face of the franchise” type of player with the perfect blend of talent and personality to elevate both a program’s performance and its marketability. Steve Kerr and Steph Curry took the Warriors from one playoff appearance in 18 years to perennial contenders; Brad Underwood and Ayo Dosunmu brought Illinois men’s basketball back to prominence after years of irrelevance; Adia Barnes and Aari McDonald led Arizona to last year’s national title game three years removed from a 6-24 season.
Chicago State is still climbing the front end of the mountain, but Sardin may have found her Aari McDonald in Aaliyah Collins. So for the first time in recent memory, there is hope for the program on the South Side of Chicago. Hope that behind Sardin, Collins and company, the Cougars are well on their way to “catching some more dubs.”
Calvin Wetzel is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering basketball and betting. He also contributes to Her Hoop Stats, CBS SportsLine and FiveThirtyEight. Follow him on Twitter at @cwetzel31.
Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese are clear front-runners.
Engelbert is focused on the long-term health of the league.
All eyes are on the Aces and Liberty, but don't overlook LA.
The rule requires players to prioritize the WNBA over international leagues.
Get a rundown of the top highlights, stories, and events in women’s sports, including can’t-miss games and exclusive features.
20% off all JWS merch, now through December 18th.