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College basketball preview: Award picks, predictions and surprises

Reigning national champion and Player of the Year Aliyah Boston is a frontrunner for the award again. (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

The 2022-23 women’s college basketball season tips off Monday, taking us on a four-month journey that culminates with the best time of the year, March Madness.

Before the games begin, Just Women’s Sports’ basketball experts explain which teams and players they’ll have their eye on during an action-packed season. JWS’ Eden Laase, Lyndsey D’Arcangelo and Rachel Galligan make their picks for end-of-season award winners and predict breakout players, surprise teams and much more.

Freshman of the Year

Laase: Lauren Betts, Stanford

Betts will have her work cut out for her, given the depth and talent of Stanford’s frontcourt, but her talent is unmatched. Eventually, I envision the No. 1 recruit carving out an important role for the 2020 national champion Cardinal — likely off the bench. Betts is a skilled passer whose touch around the rim is that of a player far beyond her age. I expect Stanford to make a deep run this season, and Betts will be a big part of that.

Kiki Rice is the No. 2 overall recruit and No. 1 point guard in the Class of 2022. (Courtesy of USA Basketball)

D’Arcangelo: Kiki Rice, UCLA

There are a handful of freshmen who have an opportunity to make an immediate impact on their teams, including Ayanna Patterson (UConn), Janiah Barker (Texas A&M) and Lauren Betts (Stanford). But I’m going with the No. 1-ranked point guard in the nation and 2022 Gatorade Player of the Year, Kiki Rice. UCLA went 18-13 last season, and Rice is the type of player who can come in and help turn the Bears’ program around with her shot-making skills, confidence and court vision.

Galligan: Maya Nnaji, Arizona

The 6-foot-4 freshman forward out of Hopkins, Minn. is Arizona’s highest-rated recruit in program history, at No. 9 in the Class of 2022. Nnaji’s length, athleticism and versatile skill set will give Adia Barnes a much-needed offensive and defensive asset for her system. I fully expect Nnaji to get thrown into the rotation early and often, and to have an impact on Arizona from the jump as a complement to fifth-year forward Cate Reese.

Defensive Player of the Year

Laase: Aliyah Boston, South Carolina

I see a lot of repeat awards in Boston’s future, starting with the DPOY. Beyond the obviously impressive numbers (8.4 defensive boards and 2.4 blocks per game last season), Boston anchors the South Carolina defense in a way that dictates everything around her. Having an elite rim protector and rebounder like Boston allows the entire defense to be more aggressive. Even if she’s not initiating a big defensive play, like a block, Boston is making steals and forcing opponents into poor possessions, simply because her teammates know if they make a mistake going for a steal, she will be there to back them up.

D’Arcangelo: Aliyah Boston

Boston and Stanford’s Cameron Brink are two of the strongest defensive players in women’s college basketball, and that’s not going to change this year. But Boston’s endless hustle on the boards and dominance in the paint continue to set her apart. She averaged 7.4 defensive rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 1.2 steals last season, while committing only 1.4 fouls per game. Boston’s impressive combination of body control, timing and rim protection is almost uncanny, and it’s scary to think she will only keep getting better in her senior season.

Galligan: Aliyah Boston

This is a no-brainer based on the defensive dominance we have seen from Boston during her career at South Carolina. Boston’s imposing size, rim protection and rebounding ability are unmatched. Last season, the Gamecocks allowed just 50.7 points per game, ranking third in the nation. They were also first in blocks per game and in the top five in defensive and offensive rebounds per game. Their ability to frustrate and suffocate opponents offensively starts with the presence of the three-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year.

Coach of the Year

Kellie Harper led the Vols to the Sweet 16 last season, their best finish since 2016. (Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Laase: Kellie Harper, Tennessee

The Volunteers have improved every year with Harper at the helm. They advanced to the second round in 2021 and followed that up with a Sweet 16 run last season. But that squad was plagued by injuries, keeping top players like Rae Burrell and Jordan Horston out for extended periods. Joining Horston this season are key transfers Harper secured in the offseason, most notably Rickea Jackson from Mississippi State. The Vols start the year ranked fifth in the country, and they have the tools to make a deep tournament run.

D’Arcangelo: Vic Schaefer, Texas

In his first two years as head coach, Schaefer has led Texas to back-to-back Elite Eight appearances. Ranked third overall in the AP’s Top 25 preseason poll, the Longhorns have their sights set on the Final Four. I think Scheafer has enough talent on this roster to get there. With Rori Harmon on the cusp of a breakout season and Shaylee Gonzales coming over from BYU, Texas could have its best season since 2003.

Galligan: Kenny Brooks, Virginia Tech

Brooks has assembled a squad that’s projected to finish second in the ACC, with three players on the all-preseason list for the first time in program history. Veteran returners Elizabeth Kitley, Georgia Amoore, Cayla King and Kayana Traylor accounted for 67 percent of Virginia Tech’s scoring last season. With Ashley Owusu (Maryland transfer) and Taylor Soule (Boston College transfer) entering the mix this season, the Hokies have the firepower to make a deep NCAA Tournament run. Brooks has a longstanding reputation of development and could very well be in the conversation for Coach of the Year toward the end of the season.

Player of the Year

Laase: Aliyah Boston, South Carolina

I’m picking Boston on the same criteria as I did last season: the top player on a top team who is elite on both offense and defense. Nine times out of 10, I’ll choose the same player for DPOY and POY, simply because I put a lot of stock into defensive abilities. We’ve already gone over Boston’s defensive prowess, but her offense is equally impressive. She averaged 16.8 points and 12.5 rebounds a game last season while shooting 54 percent from the field. That level of efficiency is exemplary when you consider the kind of defensive matchups, double teams and contact she is facing night in and night out.

Caitlin Clark has been a Player of the Year contender in each of her first two seasons. (G Fiume/Getty Images)

D’Arcangelo: Caitlin Clark, Iowa

A dynamic scorer with incredible court vision, Clark led the nation in both points (27) and assists (eight) per game in 2022. But having the ball in her hands the majority of the time hindered her ability to get open looks. With Central Michigan transfer Molly Davis in the Hawkeyes’ backcourt as an additional ball handler, Clark will be free to come off screens and even post up against smaller guards. She worked on her strength and conditioning in the offseason, raising her game to yet another level. In 2021, Paige Bueckers won the POY race. Last season, it was Aliyah Boston. This year, I think it’s Clark’s turn.

Galligan: Aliyah Boston

For me, it comes down to the most dominant player in the country on the most dominant team in the country. Boston’s greatness has been on full display over the course of her three years at South Carolina, and I believe this season will be her best yet for the preseason favorites.

All-American Team

Laase: Aliyah Boston, Caitlin Clark, Ashley Joens, Haley Jones, Elizabeth Kitley

D’Arcangelo: Aliyah Boston, Caitlin Clark, Haley Jones, Azzi Fudd, Elizabeth Kitley

Galligan: Aliyah Boston, Caitlin Clark, Haley Van Lith, Haley Jones, Elizabeth Kitley

Breakout player

Laase: Ashley Owusu, Virginia Tech / Destiny Adams, North Carolina

I’m picking two players this time around because I think they will break out in different ways.

Owusu isn’t your typical breakout player because she is a well-known and established talent, having averaged 14.3 points and 3.7 assists per game last season. But Maryland clearly wasn’t a good situation for the guard, whose numbers actually decreased from her sophomore to junior season. At Virginia Tech, she will play in tandem with Elizabeth Kitley and be able to run the offense while also serving as a top-scoring option. I expect a rebirth for Owusu.

Adams is completely different — and maybe a slightly niche — choice. Adams didn’t put up big numbers as a freshman last season, playing just 8.3 minutes per game, but the 6-3 forward has everything coaches look for in a player. Her build, aggression, versatility and athleticism will all come in handy for the Tar Heels this year. North Carolina made it to the Sweet 16 last year thanks to Alyssa Utsby and Deja Kelly, but increased production from Adams could push them even farther in 2022-23.

Rori Harmon was the first freshman in Texas history to earn All-American honors with an honorable mention last season. (Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

D’Arcangelo: Rori Harmon, Texas

Harmon’s freshman season was already impressive, with the guard averaging 11 points, five assists and 2.4 steals for the Longhorns. But it was her performance in the Big 12 tournament that made people across the country start to pay attention. Harmon won the Big 12 tournament MVP after scoring 66 points in a three-game span and leading Texas to a championship. The Big 12 Freshman of the Year may only be 5-6, but she plays beyond her size and she’s primed for a breakout season.

Galligan: Elizabeth Kitley, Virginia Tech

I think this will be a breakout year for Kitley from a name-recognition standpoint. With the roster they have in place this season, the Hokies are primed for success, giving the reigning ACC Player of the Year an opportunity to emerge in the national spotlight. The 6-6 forward has developed into a top WNBA prospect after averaging 18.1 points and 9.8 rebounds per game and shooting 55 percent from the field last season. This is the season women’s basketball fans across the country really start to pay attention.

Surprise team

Laase: UNLV

The No. 13-seed Rebels gave No. 4-seed Arizona everything it could handle in the first round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament before falling 71-67. UNLV returns its top six scorers and a heap of athleticism this season. I expect them to win the Mountain West and earn a tournament bid. Due to an unimpressive non-conference slate, I don’t anticipate UNLV getting a ton of attention until the postseason. But when they get there, this team could make a deep tournament run.

D’Arcangelo: Syracuse

Syracuse head coach Felisha Legette-Jack has the potential to win Coach of the Year in her first season at the helm. The Orange are looking to rebound after a public coaching scandal, players transferring in droves and consecutive mediocre seasons. Legette-Jack brings stability and passion to her alma mater, both qualities the program needs. She also brought senior Dyaisha Fair — the fifth-leading scorer in the nation at 23.4 points per game — and last season’s MAC Freshman of the Year Georgia Wooley with her from Buffalo. Syracuse has the talent to hold its own in the ACC and make a splash late in the season.

Galligan: Penn State

Coach Carolyn Kieger has steadily improved Penn State’s win totals the last three seasons while changing the culture with players who fit her style. The team’s roster has versatility, length and depth at all five positions. The Nittany Lions will be led by senior Makenna Marisa, one of the top guards in the Big Ten with the potential to rise up the national ranks after averaging 22.2 points per game her junior year. East Carolina transfer Taniah Thompson should also make an immediate impact for Penn State as Kieger’s team takes the next step in its evolution.

Pick for NCAA champion

Laase: South Carolina

D’Arcangelo: South Carolina

Galligan: South Carolina

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA and college basketball. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.

Rachel Galligan is a basketball analyst at Just Women’s Sports. A former professional basketball player and collegiate coach, she also contributes to Winsidr. Follow Rachel on Twitter @RachGall.