College basketball: Top five player of the year candidates
Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese are clear front-runners.
Sunday was a good day for basketball fans. It started with No. 3 UConn defeating No. 9 Iowa in a highly anticipated Phil Knight Legacy championship game, and it ended with No. 8 North Carolina overcoming a 17-point deficit to beat No. 5 Iowa State in the Phil Knight Invitational championship contest.
Throughout the day, top players like Azzi Fudd and Caitlin Clark put their talents on display. And though it’s early in the season, the Player of the Year race is on, with several stars adding to their already impressive resumes.
The reigning National Player of the Year will be the one to beat in this year’s race, especially as South Carolina continues to make its case as the national title favorite. All other players will be compared against her, and rightly so. Boston plays on the best team in the country and propels her squad on both ends of the floor. She’s just as important defensively as she is offensively, which gives her an edge over more offensive-minded players.
Boston’s numbers are down so far this season, from 16.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and two assists per game to 11.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 1.5 assists, but the Gamecocks are just six games into the season. I expect those averages to increase to double-double territory, with similar assist and block rates to last season. Her point average might stay slightly lower because of increased production from other players — the Gamecocks have six players averaging eight points or more per game, in contrast with last season, when they relied on three main scorers.
That level of internal parity could hurt Boston when it comes to POY voting, but it shouldn’t. It’s a mark of a good player to understand personnel and not push to score more points when it isn’t necessary. The senior also went down in her team’s win over Hampton on Sunday and returned to the bench in a boot. An injury could hurt her chances, but Staley told reporters after the game that team doctors didn’t think it was serious.
It was a two-player race for the award last season between Boston and Clark. So far this year, there are more candidates, but these two will remain the favorites unless someone else comes and blows them away.
Last year’s points and assist leader, Clark is once again stuffing the stat sheet. She’s averaging 27 points, 6.8 rebounds and seven assists per contest for Iowa. Unlike Boston, Clark is tasked with doing the bulk of her team’s scoring, with Monika Czinano complementing her down low. The junior continues to impress, even as Iowa searches for its identity.
The Hawkeyes were upset by Kansas State and lost to UConn on Sunday, but in that defeat, they played one of their best games of the season. Win or lose, Clark is going to show up. She finished with 25 points, seven rebounds and six assists in the 86-79 loss to the No. 3 Huskies, helping her case in the POY race.
The biggest criticism of Clark’s game last season, and one of the reason’s Boston was picked over her for POY, was defense. She’s never been asked to defend at a high level, but on Sunday Clark had two steals for layups that showed off strong defensive instincts. Defense is never going to be the focal point of her game, but more displays like that will provide another talking point in the Boston vs. Clark debate.
Fudd’s sophomore campaign is off to a terrific start that includes two 32-point games in wins over top-10 teams. She’s averaging 26 points per game (sixth in the country), 2.8 assists and 2.5 steals while shooting 53.3 percent from the field. Fudd struggled with injuries in 2021-22, but now that she’s healthy, the sophomore has a good case building for POY. With Paige Bueckers out, she’s taken on the main scoring role for UConn and delivered in every contest so far, leading UConn to a 5-0 record and a No. 3 ranking.
Bueckers isn’t the only injury the Huskies have weathered this season. No. 5 freshman recruit Ice Brady is out for the season, Dorka Juhász is recovering from a broken thumb, Caroline Ducharme is dealing with neck stiffness, and UConn even had a scare before they beat NC State when assistant coach Chris Dailey fainted and was taken to the hospital. Through all the adversity, Fudd has remained poised and a constant on a team dealing with significant setbacks.
In the win over Iowa, Fudd showed a resilience that also gave her POY resume a boost. After scoring just two points in the first half, Fudd regrouped and dropped 22 points in the second. As she got hot, so did the Huskies, storming back from an 11-point deficit to secure the victory.
At this point in the season, Boston, Clark and Fudd are the frontrunners for POY, but Brink isn’t far behind. The 6-foot-5 junior has the potential to be the best player in the country. Brink possesses both guard and post skills, which makes her a walking mismatch. She is averaging 11.9 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game, while shooting an extremely efficient 63.5 percent from the field. She’s also putting up those numbers in just 17 minutes per game, which is simultaneously impressive and her biggest issue.
Part of the reason her minutes are low is because it’s early in the season and Stanford hasn’t played competition that warrants extended time for their starters. The other reason is that Brink is foul prone. She was the best player on the floor in Stanford’s 76-71 overtime loss to South Carolina on Nov. 20, with 25 points, five rebounds and four blocks. But she sat on the bench for much of the first half and fouled out in the extra frame.
Brink brings a unique level of energy and passion to the court, which benefits the Cardinal most of the time. But she needs to learn to rein it in and stay out of foul trouble. If she does, Brink’s numbers will go up, Stanford will have a better shot at a national title, and she’ll also have a stronger case for POY.
DePaul’s Aneesah Morrow is putting up some of the best numbers in the country right now, with 28.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. Morrow averaged a double-double last season and is building on that in her sophomore campaign. There’s no denying her talent, but when it comes to a legitimate chance at the POY award, Morrow likely won’t be considered among the finalists because of the team she plays for. The Player of the Year is generally a top player (which Morrow is) on a top team (which DePaul is not, despite a win over No. 14 Maryland on Friday.) The Blue Demons are getting votes, but POY candidates typically come from teams in the top half of the top 25.
Iowa State’s Ashley Joens is another player who could make a case for herself this season. She’s averaging 22 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, but the fifth-year senior is both helped and hurt by the addition of Stephanie Soares. The 6-6 Soares gives the Cyclones a better chance to win more games and put themselves in contention for a title. For Joens, if there is debate as to whether she is the top player on her own team, winning POY becomes much more challenging.
Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.
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