Somehow, it’s February. Already, postseason award shortlists are coming out. The NCAA tournament is right around the corner. And while the logistics are still being sorted around what to expect for a single-site tournament in San Antonio, Texas, it’s never too early to start speculating about which teams are true contenders.

But while basketball is a team sport, every year, certain individuals make a fortuitous leap when it matters most. This year, these are the five players to keep an eye on, each of whom is capable of leading their team to NCAA tournament glory.



Last year, UCLA Forward Michaela Onyenwere hinted at what was possible for both her and her team. At 18.9 points per game and 8.5 rebounds per game, she led the Bruins in both categories and was poised to bring the same talent to the national stage. Even with the NCAA Tournament cancelled, the outside world took notice.

Heading into this season, Onyenwere was viewed as a surefire first round pick and potentially a top five WNBA draft choice. This year, she has UCLA in the conversation as one of the nation’s top team. Using her voice on and off the court, her impact on the team is as great as ever. She still leads UCLA in rebounds at 8.1 per game and has moved to second in scoring with 17.1 due to the emergence of Charisma Osborne. But when UCLA took down Oregon on the road, it was Onyenwere pouring in 33 points.

Currently ranked eighth in the NET, UCLA is a borderline No. 1 seed. With a plethora of options and talent surrounding Onyenwere, the Bruins have a chance to make a deep tournament run. Expect Onyenwere to be leading the charge.



Louisville’s senior guard Dana Evans is currently leading the nation’s top-ranked team with 20.1 points per game. Although Louisville may fall in the poll after their loss to No. 4 NC State, Evans’s impact on that game was right in line with what she has done for the Cardinals all year long. She scored 29 as the only player on her team to reach double digits, made 5-of-8 from distance, as well as all four from the free throw line, all while playing the entire 40 minutes.

Evans is sixth in the entire nation at 94% at the foul line and has had multiple clutch late-game moments, potentially foreshadowing greatness in March. Against Wake Forest, she also played 40 minutes and had the game-winning and-one layup with 8.0 seconds remaining to top off a 25-point game.

Her ascent is remarkable, from Sixth Player of the Year in the ACC in her sophomore season to the conference’s Player of the Year last season. But what’s even more impressive is that she continues to improve. This year, she is shooting 40.0% from 3-point land, and her 45.8% mark from the field is the best of her career. Her singular focus on winning a national championship is clearly paying off, as is her work in the offseason on improving her shot selection.

The 5-foot-6 senior from Gary, Indiana projects as a point guard at the next level and is currently averaging 4.2 assists per game with a 1.82 assist to turnover ratio. Over the last five games, she has played at least 36 minutes in each and scored at least 20 in four. As the season wears on, it seems teams have not found a way to contain either her speed or decision making ability, as Evans has proved nearly impossible to guard.



The nation’s double-double leader, Texas A&M’s N’Dea Jones is the only one on this list not on the 2021 Wooden Award Late Season Top 20 (a notable snub in this author’s opinion). Thankfully, the 6-foot-2 senior forward has let her play speak for itself. Her 12 double-doubles in 17 games are tied for first in the nation, a feat she is averaging for the second straight year with 13.7 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.

Maybe playing on an Aggies team ranked at 15th in the NET has lowered her profile, but don’t be surprised if Jones has Texas A&M clicking in the tournament. She averages nearly 31 minutes per game and leads the team in both points and rebounds. Her 57.0% field goal rate is almost as impressive as the fact that she graduated in three years. No doubt, her time is coming. Every year, certain players use the tournament to turn themselves into household names. This year, Jones has the chance to sneak up on everyone.



UConn might be the title favorite at this point, and if so, Olivia Nelson-Ododa is the reason why. Paige Bueckers has been just as fantastic as we expected, but the 6-5 junior forward is the reason UConn is soaring. Unlike in past seasons, there is nowhere for Nelson-Ododa to disappear. UConn needs her now and on both ends of the court for scoring and rim protection. In UConn’s loss to Arkansas, foul trouble limited her to just 19 minutes, two shots and two points. While she needs to stay on the court, her absence underscored her value for the team.

Nelson-Ododa is shooting 64.22% from the field, the second best mark in the nation among qualified players. She’s had more than a few scoring outbursts, including a season-high 24 pts against Creighton which saw Nelson-Ododa hit a rare 3-pointer. She hit two more 3’s against Georgeotwon (after missing four against Tennessee) in a 31-point win without Bueckers on the floor.

Nelson-Ododa is in agreement with her coach Geno Auriemma that she is better when she is patient, calm and not caught up with the previous play. Her 14.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game seem to agree.



The nation’s most dynamic scorer, junior forward Naz Hillmon of Michigan has simply been outstanding. In her most recent game, a four point loss to Ohio State, she scored 50 points and added 16 rebounds. That raised her season average to 26.7 points per game, good enough for third in the sport. That also makes Michigan the only team in the AP Top 15 with a player in the top 15 scorers nationally.

Hillmon is doing it efficiently too. Her 63.58% shooting percentage is third in the country, while she is also contributing the third-most offensive rebounds per game (5.5) and the seventh most total rebounds (12.3) — the only player to rank in the top 10 in both scoring and rebounding.

In the Big Ten, Ohio State is looking like the top team, but has a self-imposed postseason ban. That puts pressure on Michigan, and Hillmon, to perform in the tournament. Right now, the Wolverines are 12th in the NET and on the border between a third and fourth seed. Hillmon’s leadership on and off the floor could be exactly what Michigan needs to land its highest-ever NCAA Tournament seed (they were previously a seventh seed in 2018).

She has scored in double figures in all but one game and has posted eight double-doubles in 11 contests. On top of it all, her 75% mark from the free throw line is the best of her career. If she gets on a roll come mid-to-late March, Hillmon could put together a tournament run for the ages.

Another year, another excellent season of college basketball, right?

Normally, we’d be fiercely debating over the rankings of the top teams, arguing over who deserves a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Instead, everyone’s just hoping to make it to the tournament safely, so that the season will be allowed to end in fireworks and (fanless) fanfare in San Antonio, with the long-awaited return of March Madness.

It’s no secret that the NCAA very badly needs the tournament to be played, even as a growing number of teams choose to cancel their seasons. While some teams are just trying to string together multiple games at this point, the top teams are all jostling for tournament seeds.

The lack of marquee non-conference games and the on again, off again scheduling makes it difficult to evaluate even the best teams. How do you compare a narrow win against a worse opponent to not playing at all? Do we rank teams at top strength or try to identify which teams are best prepared to weather the absence of their starting point guard or even their coach?

It’s harder than ever to rank the top teams, but that only means we have to look even closer at the stats. Ignoring the headlines in order to follow the numbers, here are the six teams with a real shot at the 2021 national championship.



It would be tough to look past Louisville (14-0 ACC), who last week passed their first real test as the new No. 1 team, beating then-No. 23 Syracuse 67-54. Through the rest of the season, Louisville will want to show that it can handle playing on the road (the team has only gotten four road games in, the last one a two-point nail-biter against Wake Forest) and move up in the NET, where they are currently ranked fifth. Winning should take care of both. Add that to a team with the fourth-best field goal percentage in the entire country (49.0%) and Louisville is set up to find tournament success, regardless of their opponents.

Reigning ACC Player of the Year Dana Evans has continued to play phenomenal basketball and is averaging 19.5 points and 4.6 assists per game. The other three Cardinals in double figures are Hailey Van Lith (13.2) Kianna Smith (12.8) and Olivia Cochran (12.5). Van Lith and Cochran are both freshman tied for the team high with an impressive 6.4 rebounds per game. Louisville might not have expected them to contribute so much in their first year, and we might not have expected Louisville to be the No. 1 team at this point in the season, but as we head into February, they’re every bit deserving of the top seed.



The top-ranked team in the all important NET, No. 3 UConn (10-0 Big East) is once again looking like a prohibitive favorite. In the entire nation, the Huskies are first in field goal percentage (53.5%) and scoring margin (37.3). The offense is clicking for 87 points and 22.3 assists per game, while the defense is holding opponents to below 50 points per game and 30% shooting.

Olivia Nelson-Ododa has established herself as a leader on and off the court, epitomized by her 65.3% field goal percentage and 2.1 blocks per game. And the latest headline-grabbing performance by freshman Paige Bueckers — 3-for-14 shooting but the will to hit a clutch 3 on a rolled ankle against Tennessee, and of course the eight rebounds and seven assists — is just more evidence of why the expectations for her were so high before she even played a game.

Bueckers is averaging a team-high 17.1 points and 2.9 steals per game as well as the nation’s 33rd most assists per game (5.1). The average NET rating of the teams UConn has beaten is 108, better than all but three other teams in the AP top 10, and convincing evidence that the Huskies are ready for a deep tournament run.



Although they have only seen the court twice in 2021, No. 2 NC State (11-0 ACC) is still a tournament threat. Emerging from COVID quarantine, the Wolfpack looked rusty in a 89-87 win over Virginia Tech, needing to rally from 14 points down in the fourth quarter. They were without their star player, however, as Elissa Cunane is recovering from COVID. In the team’s previous game (all the way back on January 3rd against Boston College) Cunane didn’t even miss a shot en route to a perfect 9-of-9 from the field for a season-high 24 points.

Cunane has been superb all year long with a 58.2% shooting rate that is the 18th best in the entire sport, and Kayla Jones is right there at 57.3%. Between the efforts of Cunane, Jones, Jakie Brown-Turner and Jada Boyd, NC State averages a nation-high 33.8 defensive rebounds per game, with all four players averaging at least 5.7 rebounds per game. That defensive hustle and offensive efficiency should let the Wolfpack run with anyone. They’ll need both for their biggest game of the year: a February 1st showdown with No. 1 Louisville.



As Aliyah Boston finds her footing, South Carolina (12-1 SEC) is looking more and more like the team everyone had ranked No. 1 preseason. Boston scored 26 with 16 rebounds and six blocks against then-No. 15 Arkansas only to return the very next game with a triple double, 16-11-10, against then-No. 22 Georgia. The reigning National Freshman of the Year is beginning to assert herself as a dominant big on both ends of the floor.

For most of the season, Zia Cooke has carried the scoring load, averaging 15.9 points per game. Nevertheless, in three straight games facing Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Arkansas, Cooke failed to reach double digit scoring. The Gamecocks still managed to win those games by an average of 30 points, and Cooke responded with 16 in the win over Georgia as Dawn Staley’s team showed how dominant they could be with all cylinders clicking.

The NCAA’s NET metric ranks South Carolina third on the strength of their 7.6 blocks per game (1st) and 19.9 rebound margin (2nd). For a team with the highest aspirations, the plan is coming into focus: dominate in the paint and score by committee.



No team has faced a more challenging schedule than No. 6 Stanford (12-2), but the Cardinal nonetheless held on to the top spot in the AP poll for six weeks before faltering in an uncharacteristic lack of focus against Colorado, before then losing to then-No. 6 UCLA. While the team won’t make excuses, it’s worth noting that Stanford has played just one game in its home gym of Maples Pavilion while living out of hotels since early December. And when you look at their opponents, only South Carolina has more quality wins.

Head coach Tara VanDerveer, who passed the legendary Pat Summitt to become the winningest coach in the sport earlier this season, has compiled another talented squad with the hopes of winning a national championship for the first time since 1992. VanDerveer will need Haley Jones to continue to play every position 1-4, Cameron Brink to limit her fouls so that she can see more floor time as an intimidating interior presence and lethal outside shooter, and Kiana Williams to hit shots at a higher rate. No one, however, will be more important than Anna Wilson, whose defense has been the cornerstone of the team’s identity as it navigates the best conference in the country. Despite their two losses, Stanford still has the talent and the coaching to win it all this year.



All over the nation’s leaderboard despite their two losses, No. 9 Baylor (10-2 Big 12) cannot be counted out just yet. No team does a better job on the boards (+20.4), and only UConn has been outscoring its opponents by more than Baylor’s 35.1 points per game. The offense has enough ball movement to rank first with 24.7 assists per game and the defense is staunch enough to hold opponents to 29.5% from the field.

With the sixth-highest NET rating despite an uncharacteristic loss to Iowa State, Baylor has shown the signs of a team affected by the pandemic. Head coach Kim Mulkey missed time with COVID-19, as did guard DiJonai Carrington and forward Caitlin Bickle, who both did not play in the loss to Iowa State which snapped a 61-game home winning streak. Given the lack of practice time leading up to the game, Mulkey was not shocked by the result. Even less surprising was Baylor’s dominant win over Oklahoma State in response.

Nalyssa Smith has averaged a double-double with 17.1 points and 10.0 rebounds playing just under 30 minutes per game. DiDi Richards is 13th nationally with 6.1 assists per game, and Carrington is 22nd with 3.0 steals per game. They may not generate the headlines, but Baylor is simply too good to ignore, and they’re a team no one will want to face when it comes to tournament time.

Stanford comes into the season ranked second in the country in the AP Poll. After a dominant opening win over Cal Poly, Hall of Fame head coach Tara VanDerveer needs just four wins to pass the legendary Pat Summitt for the all-time winningest coach in women’s college basketball.

The 2020-21 season will be VanDerveer’s 41st in coaching, and her win total is up to 1,095, just behind Summitt’s 1,098. Stanford is 12-25 against Tennessee, where Summitt earned all of her wins, in a series that has been played every December for 31 years and includes preseason tournaments and three postseason matches.

While VanDerveer’s team had its highest preseason ranking in 11 years, she started this season simply grateful that the Cardinal were able to practice, much less play. (And already, games are being cancelled due to Santa Clara County’s new Covid restrictions.)

“I’ve talked to our team about, in terms of how to best approach this: ‘Everyone’s middle name is flexible,’” VanDerveer said at the Pac-12 virtual media day. “We just have to be ready to do whatever we’re allowed to do and enjoy each day, one day at a time.”

“I know she has four or five wins until she gets the record, but I know she has bigger goals than that,” senior guard Kiana Williams said.

With the Pac-12 opened up due to the departure of Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally, a trio who won the last three Pac-12 regular-season titles, Stanford believes it is capable of reclaiming the conference.

Williams, who is from San Antonio, is hoping to make the Final Four, which will be held in her hometown. The key for Stanford will be keeping her off the court, however, as she was forced to play nearly 36 minutes per game due to depth problems last year.

Williams is joined by sophomore guard Haley Jones, who played 18 games as a freshman before a season-ending knee injury. The former No. 1 high school recruit was fantastic as a freshman, and if the season opener was any indication, she has improved significantly in the offseason.

Lexie Hull and Lacie Hull, twins and the only members of the junior class available to play due to guard Jenna Brown undergoing knee surgery, will continue to play a massive role. Lexie may be the best pure scorer on the team, while Lacie continuously earns minutes with her defense.

If sophomore guard Hannah Jump can get hot, then Stanford will really be cooking. She is a 3-point specialist, but VanDerveer saw improvements in her fitness and strength that should allow her to improve on defense and create more shots for herself inside the arc, where she shot less than 20% of her attempts last year.

The guard position is book-ended by a fifth year and a freshman. The fifth year is Anna Wilson, who won an appeal to the NCAA for an extra year and was the 42nd-ranked recruit back in 2016. After an impressive preseason, she was named a starter for the team’s opener. The freshman is Jana Van Gytenbeek, who ranked as the No. 39 player in her class. Those two, and Williams, have learned from each other and make for a formidable group.

Cameron Brink, the No. 3 recruit in the country, is special at 6-foot-4. In her debut game, she dropped 17 points—the most for a Cardinal freshman since Candice Wiggins in 2004. Agnes Emma-Nnopu, the third freshman in the class, is able to rebound at an elite level, a skill that will immediately help the Cardinal and earn her playing time.

For Fran Belibi, the camp period allowed her to win a starting spot where she can showcase some of her incredible athleticism. Together with Ashten Prechtel, the other sophomore forward, the two form a nice duo. Prechtel is 6-foot-5 but has an inside-outside game with 31 blocks and 34% 3-point rate.

Senior forward Alyssa Jerome has started in the past and offers leadership and a steady presence inside. Altogether, the team’s depth will be a strength if it can be maintained. For Stanford, the goal is to play fast, rotate a lot, and maintain a quick tempo throughout all 40 minutes.

Few coaches are better up for that task than VanDerveer, which is no small reason why she is on the cusp of having more wins than anyone before her. For Stanford, the quiet celebration when the inevitable milestone occurs is just a subplot in a season in which their goals are much loftier — like celebrating a national championship for the first time since 1992.

Throughout the 2019-20 season, Oregon was ranked in the top four in every single weekly ranking. To begin this season, Oregon is ranked 10th behind three other schools in the Pac-12, the conference it has finished first in the regular season in each of the past three seasons.

The difference is that Oregon is replacing the first choice in the WNBA draft, Sabrina Ionescu, the second pick, Satou Sabally and the eighth pick, Ruthy Hebard. How does Oregon plan to reload? By signing the top ranked freshman class in the country: all five earned five stars in the 2020 HoopGurlz rankings and all five were ranked in the top 25 nationally.

The No. 8 overall prospect, and the highest ranked in the class, is guard Sydney Parrish. She comes from a big-time Indiana basketball family and has the ability to take over a game. Coming into college, she was viewed as a shooter, but is now seen by the Oregon coaching staff as a scorer — someone who can get points any way she needs. Head coach Mark Graves described Parrish’s commitment as “huge.”

“I think she was the instigator and influencer,” he said. “The other players wouldn’t have come if they didn’t like what they saw here, but Sydney was such a positive influence and she’s just such a nice person and that helped.”

The next highest ranked recruit is Te-Hina Paopao, a 5-foot-9 guard from Oceanside, Calif. As a freshman in high school, she tore her ACL, only to re-injure it her sophomore season. Out of all the players in the class, she is seen as the most likely to turn the gym lights on and off — meaning she will be the first one in and the last one out. As is common throughout this group of freshmen, her versatility is a weapon.

Kylee Watson, a 6-foot-4 forward, will fit right in with Oregon’s forest, and I’m not talking about the beautiful Pacific Northwest. In addition to Watson, Oregon’s front court also boasts Nyara Sabally (6-5), Arielle Wilson (6-6), Lydia Giomi (6-6) and Sedona Prince (6-7), the tallest player in program history until Philippa Kyei steps on campus next season. The No. 17 recruit, Watson is already being praised for her aggressive style and motor.

Oregon’s coaches have been diligently scouting their own practices until the season can get underway in earnest, and Maddie Scherr is the only player to rank in the top three in assists, disruptions and rebounds. Also showing off her perimeter defense, the 5-foot-11 guard is making a case to find time in a crowded backcourt with Taylor Mikesell, Taylor Chavez, Jaz Shelley and Paopao.

Like redshirt senior forward Erin Boley, the sharpshooting forward who is the the only active player in the nation to have ranked in the top-15 nationally in 3-point percentage each of the last two seasons, Scherr is from Kentucky — the only state represented more than once on Oregon’s roster.

Graves has been so impressed with the freshmen in the preseason and his returners that he believes this Oregon roster will be the most potent shooting team of his tenure.

Rounding out the freshman class as the 22nd ranked player nationally is 6-foot-4 forward Angela Dugalic from Illinois. Internationally, she has already helped the Serbian Senior National Team qualify for the Olympics. Already, Dugalic’s versatility is being seen as a way for Oregon to replace some of Sabally’s production.

Together, this immensely-talented freshman class is looking to bring Oregon to new heights and finish the business that the pandemic took away from Ionescu, Sabally and Hebard. They are all winners, which will fit into the culture that Orego built under that program-changing trio.

“Day to day we have a different one step up, it’s a really tremendous class,” Graves said. “The one that’s been the most consistent for us and really has a chance to be a star is Te-Hina Paopao, I think she’s really solidified herself as our top guard and I think, hopefully, we have a another Sabrina-Ruthy combination with Te-Hina and Sedona.

Prince was at Texas for her freshman season after entering as the 8th-ranked recruit, but missed the season with a broken right leg suffered while playing for the USA U18 national team at the FIBA Americas Championship in Mexico City. In 2019, Prince transferred to Oregon but was denied immediate eligibility by the NCAA.

Boley is the only returning starter and Oregon has high expectations for Chavez and Shelley. Both played under 20 minutes per game, but still managed to score more than 6 points per game and shoot above 42% from 3-point range. Mikesell came over from Maryland and will be immediately eligible, while Nyara Sabally, who missed the past two seasons with injuries, will be able to make her first impression.

Last year, South Carolina rode the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class to the top of the AP Poll. Oregon is hoping it can do the same — and finish it off with a championship.

The still-defending champions are facing a season as difficult as any in the college landscape.

Thankfully, Baylor has experience re-loading. For three straight years, the Lady Bears dominated the Wade Trophy for the national player of the year. Brittney Griner won in 2012, when Baylor won a national title, and again in 2013; Odyssey Sims followed in 2014.

The next season may have been Kim Mulkey’s most significant challenge in terms of replacing talent. And while Baylor continued to dominate the Big 12, they couldn’t find their way past the Elite Eight until 2019, when they finally reached the mountain top again, and claimed another NCAA title.

This year, Baylor not only needs to find a new rotation, but they’re also dealing with all the schedule irregularities that have begun to hound college basketball due to the pandemic.

Forward Lauren Cox and guards Te’a Cooper and Juicy Landrum were all drafted to the WNBA after combining for 45.1% of the team’s points per game and 49.4% of the team’s assists. Entering the season, senior guard DiDi Richards and junior forward NaLyssa Smith were expected to be the only full-time starters returning from last year’s squad that went 28-2 overall and 17-1 in the Big 12.

 Now, the AP poll’s 3rd-ranked team in the preseason is figuring out how to move forward from the indefinite loss of Richards. In a preseason practice, Richards and Moon Ursin were injured in an accidental collision. According to Baylor, Richards suffered a spinal-cord injury without radiographic abnormality, which causes temporary impairment. She has been treated, released, and is making progress from her injury. Ursin has been in concussion protocol.

“I said at my first press conference, the teams that survive and win this year will be those who have the most depth and most experience,” Mulkey said. “We, as of today, have nine players who will play. When DiDi gets back, she will be the 10th player. While we do have five or six players who had significant minutes (last season), their roles will now change. And that does matter. While we have the talent and experience back, we don’t have them in the role they played last year.”

Last season, Richards earned the Naismith and WBCA awards for national defensive player of the year. In her junior year, her second as a starter, she averaged 8.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.7 assists, and 1.7 steals. This season, the coaching staff was hoping to turn Richards into a point guard after seeing something in a season in which she had a team-high 170 assists last season and had just 58 turnovers in 896 minutes.

“I watched a lot of games. I definitely watched the Iowa State game, the one we lost. I watched it at least 20 to 30 times, I’m not kidding. But I watched a lot of games. I didn’t want that to happen again,” Richards said in the offseason. “I worked hard this summer trying to get my game to another level and my confidence built.”

So far, it seems that sophomore Jordyn Oliver and freshman Sarah Andrews will assume the duties of point guard. Ursin will also be a candidate to replace backcourt minutes.

After a brilliant sophomore season, NaLyssa Smith will step into a much bigger role as a junior. In just 24.1 minutes per game, she led Baylor in scoring with 14.3 points per game and was second in rebounding at 8.0 per game. Her next step will be increasing her shooting range — she took and missed just four 3-pointers last year.

Queen Egbo, the Big 12 Sixth Person of the Year, will likely be the second post player in a two-big lineup. Last year, she averaged 10.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Behind Smith and Egbo, Hannah Gusters arrives as a freshman from MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas. The No. 16 ranked recruit will benefit from the experience ahead of her without having the pressure to perform immediately.

Despite coming from the same high school, Andrews is in a different spot with the immediate need for production at the point guard position. In practice, UCLA transfer Jaden Owens and Penn State transfer Kamaria McDaniels will add competition, but neither can play this season.

The transfer who can make an impact is DiJonai Carrington, a grad transfer from Stanford. Carrington was picked as the Newcomer of the Year in the Big 12 by ESPN.

In a breakout junior year alongside Alanna Smith and Kiana Williams, Carrington started 36 games and averaged 14 points and 7.5 rebounds. After the season, she had knee surgery, and five games into her senior season, she shut it down after re-injuring the knee. After graduating with degrees in Psychology and African & African American Studies, Carrington transferred in hopes of playing in a new offense.

Carrington said that Mulkey has stopped practice to instill a more aggressive mindset, but she will not be hearing it from just her coach. Richards, who is not expected to play in Game 1, will be a force on the sideline.

“If my role is yelling and being the voice on the sideline,” she said, “I’m prepared to do that.”

Stopped me if you’ve heard this one before, but UConn is once again poised to win multiple national championships. It may not start this next year — the landscape is far too precarious for any confident predictions — but championships are coming.

The squad is young and new, with just four returning players and no seniors. Evina Westbrook, who sat out last year after transferring from Tennessee, will lead six freshmen seeing the court for the first time.

The last time UConn had as many first-year players on its roster was 1988, when it won its first (of 18) Big East titles. This year will mark the return of UConn to the conference it made famous and is ready to dominate once again.

Then, as now, the young players are a source of optimism. Still, UConn will need its older players to step up. Juniors Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa will anchor any success UConn finds.

“We have been taking up that leadership role,” Williams said. “It’s a lot more responsibility, it’s been different. The younger players have a willingness to learn, and are competitive. They’ve made it easier for us.”

Williams is one of four top-ranked high school recruits to have signed with UConn in the past five classes. The others are Paige Bueckers, who is widely expected to have a standout freshman season, and Azzi Fudd, who will join UConn next year.

“There is a direct correlation between if you sign those guys, at Connecticut anyway, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to be an amazing team for a couple of years,” Auriemma said. “Yes, that is a great possibility. Our track record proves that.”

Before last season was cut short, UConn was a lock to enter the tournament as a No. 1 seed. Since then, Megan Walker left early for the WNBA and Crystal Dangerfield graduated before going on to win WNBA Rookie of the Year with the Minnesota Lynx. Seniors Molly Bent, Evelyn Adebayo, Kyla Irwin and Batouly Camara also graduated.

Along with Bueckers, the freshman class also features guard Autumn Chassion, forward Aaliyah Edwards, guard Nika Muhl, forward Mir McLean and forward Piath Gabriel. This group is widely expected to put the Huskies over the edge. Already, Geno Auriemma has been impressed with Edwards, the second highest rated player in the class, and Muhl, whose experience is bolstered by time in the Adriatic League in Croatia, where she led the league with 6.2 assists per game in 2019.

”There are times that Aaliyah and Nika look like they’ve been playing college basketball for awhile. They fit right in,” Auriemma said. ”They slide right in. So Paige, Nika, and Aaliyah mix really well with our returning players. Mir, once in a while, Piath less, Autumn less. But everyone has gotten better.”

Aaliyah Edwards plays a physical game and has been likened to Napheesa Collier by Christyn Williams. Piath Gabriel, at 6-foot-5 freshman, was not a top-end prospect, but UConn’s coaches clearly saw something. And Mir McLean is athletic and versatile, but will probably be a spark off of the bench this season.

The notoriously difficult coach has a team voted the 3rd-best in the preseason. Williams will still be running the show after posting 14.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game in her sophomore season, but should have more to offer if given the opportunity. The next of the four returners is Nelson-Ododa, a 6-foot-5 center who played a lot of minutes last season, even if they were not always the most predictive. Still, she was able to record 100 blocks last year, the eight-most in school history.

Aubrey Griffin had 5.4 rebounds per game but struggled with consistency. Anna Makurat will be tasked with spacing the floor as a catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter, where she averaged 7.9 points and 3.3 assists per game last year.

Then there is Westbrook, who also has some stroke from distance — she shot 38% from deep in the 2018-19 season. Still, she is recovering from knee surgery and has never played for UConn, so expectations for the redshirt junior should be kept in flux.

Of course, the team’s ceiling may depend on Bueckers. She was tabbed as the preseason Big East Freshman of the Year, but as she will be the first to say, it’s far too early to celebrate.

“I haven’t even done anything yet, I haven’t even stepped foot on a college court,” Bueckers said. “I have a lot to prove. I have a lot to work on.”

The good news is, she has some time—but not as much as you’d think.

While the 2020-2021 season may be a bit too hectic for even the sport’s most talented freshman to conquer, starting next year, with Azzi Fudd joining a more experienced Huskies squad, the expectation will be championships, plural.

That’s welcome news for Husky fans. For everyone else, well, we can try to enjoy at least this season.

After an action-packed 14 draft selections in the NWSL Expansion Draft, Racing Louisville FC is out of the starting gates with an actual roster. The final two selections made the most noise, when club president Brad Estes announced that the team was selecting the rights to U.S. national teamers Tobin Heath and then Christen Press.

The two forwards with extensive USWNT experience are currently playing for Manchester United through the 2021 season, which ends in May. Neither Heath or Press were protected by their NWSL clubs, the Portland Thorns and Utah Royals, in the draft, making their rights available for Louisville to acquire.

“We feel very good about tonight,” said Louisville coach Christy Holly on the Twitch broadcast. “There was a lot of decision making that went into it, a lot of homework, research, and conversations with coaches within the league, past players, and national team members so we felt we had a real good insight into what each player brought.”

Both Utah and Portland will gain $75,000 in allocation money because one of their allocated players was taken. While the future for Press and Heath is unknown, the decision could have vast consequences for both the upcoming trading period and the 2020 college draft. If Racing had not selected either, the club would have been given $150,000, which it could have used on the top pick of the draft. Catarina Macario of Stanford is the runaway favorite to be taken first overall, if she declares.

The Thorns left all three of their keepers unprotected, which left many fans speculating that one would surely be taken. Instead, because Louisville opted to take Heath from Portland, a U.S. allocated player, it could not take anyone else from the Thorns, leaving Racing to select Katie Lund and Michelle Betos as keepers.

Lund has been learning behind Aubrey Bledsoe with the Washington Spirit, while Betos has considerably more playing experience with seven seasons in the league, most recently with OL Reign, and is also a former Goalkeeper of the Year in the NWSL.

The first player off the board was defender Addisyn Merrick, who made eight appearances for North Carolina in 2020. In last year’s college draft, she was the 28th overall pick, but boosted her standing through her play this season.

Louisville also stacked its defense with Julia Ashley, the sixth pick in the 2019 draft. After a near nine-month recovery from a back injury she suffered while playing with Adelaide United in Australia.

While Alanna Kennedy is currently playing on loan in Tottenham from the Orlando Pride, Louisville selected the versatile Australian center back. Houston Dash’s Erin Simon was also selected and is a player that Holly coached previously with Sky Blue. The final defender taken, Kaleigh Riehl from Sky Blue, is also on loan right now with Paris FC. Riehl holds the NCAA Division I record for minutes played by an outfield player during her four years at Penn State.

One of the surprises was Jennifer Cudjoe — not that she was chosen by Louisville, but that she was available at all. After making the team through an open tryout, Cudjoe played in nine games for Sky Blue with seven starts in the midfield. Now, she’s heading to Louisville.

North Carolina’s midfield was poached with the selection of Lauren Milliet, who showed off her quality in both the Challenge Cup and Fall Series. The most used sub of 2019, Cece Kizer, was taken by Louisville as well. Currently, she is on a loan to Kolbotn IL but had previously signed a two year deal with the Dash.

Louisville also added pieces before the draft even started. Chicago sent over Yuki Nagasato and Savannah McCaskill to Louisville in exchange for full protection. The Red Stars also had to give Louisville an international slot in 2021 and 2022 and the fifth overall selection in the 2021 college draft. This now seems to have been a steep price, given how many of its players a team like Portland was able to keep.

Both Nagasato in the midfield and McCaskill on the front line will add a lot to their lavender and midnight violet club. Nagasato is one of the premier setup players in the league and will have an impressive front line with which to work.

In addition to Press and Heath, Caitlin Foord’s rights were taken by Louisville. The Australian with World Cup experience is currently playing for Arsenal, but her speed and experience were too much to pass up, even if it is not a guarantee that she will ever play in Lynn Family Stadium. Foord joined Arsenal in January and signed a two and a half-year deal with Arsenal, where she has contributed four goals and five assists in six league games.

Katie McClure, who made six appearances for Washington after being drafted 23rd overall, is an exciting forward. She will join her former Kansas teammate Merrick in Louisville.

Louisville also signed Cheyna Matthews, a forward who plays for the Jamaican national team, before the draft.

On the podium during the broadcast, Leigh Nieves of the supporter group Lavender Legion spoke about how she was “excited to have players to root for.”

Holly was also happy with the players that were selected and the research that went into the process. Overall, the team was looking for players that were “hungry” and “high caliber” even if they were unproven in the league. Louisville also opted for both positional and experience balance, with “players that align with what we’re trying to do culturally.”

The draft only marks the beginning of the craziness, as the trade window officially opens Friday.

With no nets cut down for the 2019-20 season, it seems anachronous that another season should tip off. Nevertheless, here we are in the second week of November, and by the end of the month we will have college basketball.

Between the WNBA draft, the transfer portal and a sparkling class of freshman, there will be plenty of change for this upcoming season. (At the same time, UConn and South Carolina are again predicted to be among the game’s best, so has anything really changed at all?)

For one, a heavy fan presence inside arenas on game day seems pretty unlikely. While some programs have announced that they’ll allow between 15-25% capacity for home games, the vast majority of spectators will be tuning in from the comfort of their living room.

Regardless of how you catch them in action, below are the six players who I believe will define college hoops this year. From a unique freshman sensation to veteran players looking to boost their draft stock, these are the players to stop and watch when you’re flipping through the channels during this season like no other.

In no particular order…



In the spring, we posed the question, “Will Paige Bueckers save UConn?” The answer then, and now, seems to be yes. The top recruit arrives at Hartford with the weight of the most decorated program on her shoulders, but everyone from her coach to her more than half a million social media followers expects her to perform in year one.

The words “generational talent” have been thrown around a lot with regards to Bueckers, and she is going to a program that has developed more than a few. The freshman point guard will have more eyes on her than anyone when she debuts on the collegiate stage. It is not a stretch to say that UConn’s ceiling in this pandemic season will depend on how quickly Bueckers is able to fare in the transition. Expectations are so high, it’s unlikely she’ll exceed them. But watching to see if Buckers can live up to the hype is enough of a reason to keep an eye on the Huskies.



The top-ranked player in her class, Jones looked the part throughout her injury-shortened freshman season. Starting the final 12 games of the season, Jones averaged 12.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game over that span. Her shooting translated to the collegiate level at a 52.8% rate, and while the schedule difficulty was not exactly equal, Stanford was 16-2 with Jones in the lineup and 11-4 without her. With Jones healthy, Stanford was able to peak at No. 1 in the AP Poll without DiJonai Carrington or Maya Dodson, a critical sign for Cardinal fans, as neither player is available for this season. (Go deeper: read our summer interview with Haley Jones here.)



The Freshman of the Year is poised to make an even bigger splash in year two with South Carolina. On a young team last year, Boston averaged 12.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks per game for a team that went 32-1 and ended the year as the No. 1 team in the AP poll. After shooting an efficient 60.8% from the field, Boston’s game could expand as she grows into the midrange from her spot at center.

Arguably, Boston may need to assume an even bigger role, despite already being First-Team All-SEC last year and the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year. Her freshman season dazzled, but with the loss of Ty Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, South Carolina will need to find more production. No one would argue that Boston is not prepared, but watching her go to work is sure to be a treat.



Oregon and UConn vied for Carrington, but in the end the Stanford graduate chose to take her fifth year at Baylor. An elite scorer with a significant rebounding presence, Carrington will fit right in on a team that has previously incorporated high-profile transfers Chloe Jackson and Te’a Cooper.

Surrounded by talent and a coach that knows how to push all the right buttons, Carrington is a candidate to reach new heights. While the effects of her physical injuries remain to be seen, everything from Carrington’s past would suggest that she should flourish in any environment. She scored 14.0 points and hauled in 7.5 rebounds per game in her breakout junior season, with Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer expecting even more in a senior season that lasted just five games. Instead, Kim Mulkey will get to see what a full-strength Carrington can contribute in her lineup.



For the second straight year, McDonald led the Pac-12 in steals, nabbing 2.3 per game last season and winning the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award for her efforts. Impressive in its own right, McDonald also averaged 20.6 points per game to lead the conference for the second straight year, becoming the first in the Pac-12 to go back-to-back in steals and scoring. Her outsized importance to her Arizona team is evidenced by her 36.8% usage rate on offense, the fourth-highest in the entire sport.

In one game last season, McDonald dropped 44 points on a ranked Texas team. She is also in the midst of a 66-game streak of scoring in double figures, the longest active streak in the country. Last year, her hardware case had to make room for the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award, recognizing the top shooting guard in the country. After playing with Kelsey Plum her freshman season with Washington, McDonald has established herself as a similarly effective scorer for Arizona. If there is one area to grow, it is 3-point shooting, where she is not shy to try but has made just 28% of her attempts in her two seasons with Arizona. Seen as a top professional prospect last year, McDonald will be making her case for WNBA teams all year while playing on an Arizona team hoping to make some noise in March.



Nearly averaging a double-double from the center position, Cunane was essential to NC State’s 28-4 season. A 54.7% shooter last season, Cunane fit right in on a team filled with 3-point shooters, making 17-of-38 from beyond the arc after taking just 12 in her freshman season. With 3-point shooters continuing to space the floor and the confidence to attack any defender one-on-one, Cunane will continue to get the point totals. Like others on this list, there is room to improve, which is exactly what makes her junior season so exciting. Last year, NC State won its first conference tournament in 29 years and reached No. 4 in the AP poll. How successful they are in the 2020-2021 season will be largely up to Cunane to decide.

For the South Carolina Gamecocks, the 2020-2021 season is all about unfinished business and building a legacy. In Dawn Staley’s 13th season as head coach, South Carolina is still in the process of cementing its position as a perennial powerhouse.

The top of the line recruiting that has become the standard for South Carolina was no more apparent than last season, when Staley brought in the top-ranked recruiting class in the country and started three freshmen all season on the way to an SEC championship and a No. 1 ranking in the AP and Coaches’ polls. Of course, with South Carolina in line for the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament, and with regional play in Greenville, the tournament and the season were canceled, and there was no crowning moment.

What makes the unfinished business narrative so enticing is also what leaves it incomplete. The path to a national championship in 2020 was there, but it’s still waiting in 2021, 2022 and beyond. Staley and the South Carolina coaching staff are recruiting better than anyone right now, as last year’s success so readily indicates. And with a trio of experienced underclassmen leading the way, there’s really no limit as to how good this program can be.

The top-rated recruiting class coming into the season, South Carolina’s freshmen contributed immediately last year. Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal put on a clinic on making the leap from high school, starting all 32 games. And while South Carolina lost its two senior starters, Ty Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, to the WNBA draft, Staley says the two left a legacy of leadership. Already, the coach has credited Victaria Saxton with filling the void and leading the charge.

South Carolina, affected by the pandemic, returned to campus for the first time in mid-July. Even when the season seemed in doubt, Staley has never been worried about her team lacking motivation. The coach described her group as ultra-competitive, and coming off a dominating season with a 32-1 record and holding the nation’s longest winning streak, South Carolina will be ready to prove they can hang with anyone.

Like so many coaches, Staley has been forced to guide her team through a preseason program without knowing when or where games will be played. A complete schedule has to yet be released, but to hear Boston describe it, the team isn’t concerned.

“We’re not really sure what schedule we’re looking at or things like that, but we know the start date of November 25, so we just keep working no matter what, because we know something, something is going to come,” Boston said.

Last year, Boston became the first player in program history to be named the National Freshman of the Year. Rewriting the record books while averaging 12.5 points and 9.4 rebounds a game, Boston was also named the conference’s Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year. Cooke averaged 12.1 points per game, and Staley has said she considers the guard one of the most athletic players she has ever coached. Beal will only grow on her 6 points and 5.4 rebounds from her freshman season.

And of course, there are so many others poised to contribute. Destanni Henderson played some of her best basketball at the end of last season, getting named to the SEC All-Tournament team after a 4-for-9 performance against Arkansas in the semis. LeLe Grissett started games in both her freshman and sophomore seasons, averaged 6.4 points per game last season, and had the highest field goal percentage on the team at 62.8%. Laeticia Amihere, who missed four games while helping Team Canada qualify for the Olympics, averaged 1.1 blocks per game.

South Carolina added five star point guard Eniya Russell as the only member of the 2020 recruiting class, and Olivia Thompson, a walk on in the 2019 class, was awarded a scholarship and will look to build on her high school reputation of prolific 3-point shooting after making 11-of-36 in her first collegiate season.

Altogether, this is a deep, talented team, one that is paradoxically both young and experienced. And yet no matter what happens for South Carolina this season, this team’s business will remain unfinished. For the program to firmly establish itself as one of basketball’s unquestionable elites, dominating the next decade as thoroughly as UConn the last two, winning in 2021 would only be a first, but necessary step.

But if the Gamecocks prevail, watch out: The 2021 recruiting class is already the highest ranked in the nation, led by guard Raven Johnson, guard Saniya Rivers and forward Sania Feagin, the second through fourth-ranked players in the class, and guard Aubryanna Hall, who is ranked 14th.

Add those players to a defending champion and, well—let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s still 2020, after all.

For 24 consecutive years, Notre Dame reached the NCAA tournament. Until it didn’t.

At 13-18 and 8-10 in ACC play, there was little chance of the Fighting Irish making the 2020 NCAA tournament. Only then there was no NCAA tournament.

Instead, Hall of Fame head coach Muffett McGraw’s 33-year career ended with a 67-65 loss to Pitt in the first round of the conference tournament. And the streak lived on.

When McGraw announced her retirement, it came as a surprise to nearly everyone, including the woman who has been tapped as the successor, Niele Ivey. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick was one of the only people who knew of McGraw’s decision ahead of time, and had a written agreement that the reigns would be passed off to Ivey.

Ivey, who was there for the first national championship in program history as a player and for the second as an assistant coach, has spent a total of 17 years at Notre Dame. This past season, she coached for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, a job she held when she received the shocking news that McGraw was calling it a career. After checking on her mentor, it was a quick process for Ivey to accept one of the most high profile coaching jobs in the sport.

Replacing Muffet McGraw is no easy task, one that was only made harder by the pandemic. Four months after her hiring, Ivey still had items in storage. After guidelines cost the team more than eight weeks together over the summer, Ivey and her players only initially met up in person on Aug. 1.

Usually, a coach would have all summer to install a new system, acclimate, and begin a new dynasty. Instead, Ivey, like everyone else, has had to make it up as she goes during an offseason dominated by Zoom meetings.

Notre Dame has never reached a Final Four without Ivey. Now, the team is hoping their new head coach will spark a tenth. But what do their prospects look like following 2019’s letdown?

During her time on the coaching staff, Ivey was often leading the charge on recruiting. She was instrumental in the recruitment of Skylar Diggins-Smith, and later Jewell Loyd and Arike Ogunbowale.

Ivey, like McGraw, is a former point guard. At the time of the hiring, Diggins-Smith posted this clip of her coach in action in the Final Four.

Now, Ivey can reap the benefits of her own recruiting as she inherits a stacked team. The freshman class was ranked third in the nation by ESPN HoopGurlz behind UConn and Oregon. After a number of small classes, Notre Dame signed five players to its roster, including four five stars. Madeline Westbeld, Allison Campbell, Natalija Marshall, Alasia Hayes and Amirah Abdur-Rahim should all be able to make an immediate impact.

The 2019 class was ranked 11th despite there being just two members: Sam Brunelle and Anaya Peoples. The two five stars started the season opener, becoming the first pair to do so for Notre Dame since Teresa Borton and Jacqueline Batteast in the 2001-02 opener.

Peoples played in 17 games before a shoulder injury cut her season short, still finishing with a team-high 8.1 rebounds per game and 12.6 points per game, which would have been the best among ACC freshmen if not for Brunelle. The forward averaged 13.9 points per game and will continue to be a factor in 2020-21.

Katlyn Gilbert made more field goals than anyone on the team last year. While fellow foreigner five star Jordan Nixon transferred to Texas A&M, Danielle Cosgrove caught fire from behind the arc to shoot 8-for-20 over the last nine games, and Abby Prohaska will be returning from a medical redshirt.

Last year, Mikayla Vaughn was the only player with significant on court experience returning from the 2019 national championship appearance, but missed 11 games with a sprain in her right knee, after tearing the ACL in her left knee as a freshman. In 20 games, all starts, Vaughn shot a team-high 58.4% from the field with 10.6 points and 7.0 rebounds.

Granted a sixth year, returning leading scorer will be back for her second year with the team after coming over from North Carolina. Dara Mabrey, who transferred from Virginia Tech, will not be eligible for the 2020-21 season, but will look to add her 3-point shooting and follow in her sisters’ footsteps in finding success in a Notre Dame uniform.

Ivey’s legacy as a fantastic recruiter is already showing up. Olivia Miles, the second highest rated player in 2021, and Sonia Citron, also in the top 20, verbally committed within the first week of Ivey’s tenure.

Notre Dame can also expect Ivey, like McGraw and so many others throughout the women’s game, to continue to be a champion for issues off the court.

“What sets Niele apart is her ability to connect with all generations — alums, her current team and future student-athletes,” McGraw said. “She will be a fantastic role model and a leader in the women’s empowerment movement, and she will represent Notre Dame in a way that will make our fans proud.”