As the new year approaches, the college basketball season is heating up, and so is the player of the year race.

The Naismith Player of the Year award recognizes the best players in NCAA men’s and women’s basketball. Several players on the 50-player watchlist have lived up to their billing. One in particular has done even more.

Here are Just Women’s Sports’ contenders in the player of the year race heading into 2024, in no particular order.

Caitlin Clark, Iowa

Not much more needs to be said here. Last year’s Naismith Award winner is putting on an even better show this season. At the time of publication, Clark averages a league-leading 30.5 points per game and is seventh in NCAA Division I in assists (7.4 per game). At her current pace, Clark could overtake Kelsey Plum’s college scoring record by February. And while she’s a high scorer, she also spreads the wealth around to her team.

In what could be her final year in the NCAA, Clark has also stepped up her defensive play. She’s gathered 91 defensive rebounds through 13 games played, and her turnover rate is at a career low.

For the second year in a row, Clark may well be the best all-around choice for player of the year.

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(Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Alissa Pili, Utah

Few players on this list have taken their team on their backs the way Pili has. When she shoots, she rarely misses. When she defends, she gives her all.

Pili averages just under 25 points per game, good for fourth in D-I. She also has a 69.7 shooting percentage, the fifth-highest in the NCAA. And she is making 56.5% of her 3-pointers, which ranks first in the NCAA.

Pili’s WNBA potential has been debated. But after the show she’s been putting on this season, there’s no question that she could thrive in the pros. Her size, scoring ability and athleticism make her an ideal draft candidate in 2024 — and perhaps a player of the year candidate as well.

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(Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

JuJu Watkins, USC

The freshman guard is already making a huge impact for the Trojans. In the seven-week old college basketball season, Watkins has taken home six Pac-12 freshman of the week honors. And for good reason.

Watkins is averaging a staggering 26.8 points per game, placing her at second in D-I as a first-year player. She shoots over 46% from behind the arc, and she’s snagged 62 rebounds in her nine games played.

Before finishing her first semester of college, Watkins has cemented herself as a regular in USC’s starting lineup and as a favorite for national freshman of the year honors. And if she keeps it up, she could set her sights even higher.

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(M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Paige Bueckers, UConn

Bueckers started the 2023-24 season with something to prove. The redshirt junior guard had less than 50 college games under her belt due to injuries — a good amount lower than many other players in her year. But she hit the court without missing a beat.

The 21-year-old averages almost 19 points per game, shoots 48% from the three-point line and leads her team in points this season. Bueckers also averages more than three assists per game, and she’s snagged 23 steals in 12 games. She is stepping up her defensive game as well. So far, she’s batted a team-leading 16 blocks as a guard and she’s collected 50 defensive rebounds.

If she continues to heat up despite the pressure of leading a depleted UConn squad, she could play her way into the national award conversation.

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(Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Aneesah Morrow, LSU

Morrow is another player whose all-around skillset is serving her well early in the 2023-24 slate. Her versatility is allowing her to shine at LSU after her transfer from DePaul in the offseason.

The 20-year-old forward makes her presence known on the scoresheet, averaging 18.3 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. But her excellence continues on the other side of the ball. Morrow leads the Tigers with 34 steals and 17 blocks in 13 games played.

Through many challenges LSU has faced this season, including a prolonged absence for star Angel Reese and the removal of former starter Kateri Poole from the team, Morrow has taken everything in stride and remained a consistent and reliable player for the Tigers.

Honorable mentions:

  • Cameron Brink, Stanford
  • Aaliyah Edwards, UConn
  • Deja Kelly, UNC
  • Ta’Niya Latson, Florida State
  • Jacy Sheldon, Ohio State

Utah may have lost to top-ranked South Carolina on Sunday, but Utes star Alissa Pili showcased why she could be a first-round pick in the 2024 WNBA draft.

Pili had a career game in Utah’s 78-69 loss to South Carolina, which was nearly a stunning upset from the Utes. She helped the team overcome an early 11-point deficit with a career-high 37 points, but while the Utes pulled within two points of the lead, the Gamecocks held on to remain undefeated.

On top of her 37 points, Pili went 15-of-23 from the field, with a team-high three 3-pointers. She also added three steals, two rebounds, one assist and one block.

“If I’m a WNBA GM, there’s no doubt in my mind that kid can play in the WNBA,” Utah associate head coach Gavin Petersen said. “She’s a winner, she’s an assassin in between the lines and she’s a great teammate.”

In the second period, Pili had 14 consecutive points for Utah before foul trouble put her on the bench. She finished the first half with 21 points.

“I’d much rather get the win and have Pili score 37 on us, then her score 37 with the win,” Dawn Staley told the Associated Press. “Now, that’s a little bit hard to swallow. But, utmost respect for Pili. I mean, Utah, I hope we don’t see them in the tournament and whoever does get to see them, good luck to you.”

If you ask Pili, her performance came down to sticking with what works.

“I just went out there and did my thing,” Pili said. “Let the game come to me. It’s better when I don’t think about it, because it just comes to me.”

Top-ranked South Carolina was up by three points against No. 11 Utah with just under five minutes left in the game. Te-Hina Paopao dribbled up the court to the elbow and released a jump shot. 

Her shot dropped into the hoop. Three minutes later, Paopao had the ball in the key again. She dribbled closer and closer to the basket and was approaching traffic. She lifted her arms to shoot as she ran, and her shot fell into the hoop again as her arm hung in the air. 

Paopao’s last-minute points kept her team afloat in a difficult matchup. The game remained close until the final buzzer, but Dawn Staley’s squad secured the victory against Utah, 78-69, to remain undefeated this season. 

The Gamecocks faced their toughest challenge of the year against Alissa Pili and the Utes. Pili dropped 21 points in the first half, and she only played 13 of the 20 minutes after getting into foul trouble. 

Kamilla Cardoso got into foul trouble herself after being called for three charges on Jenna Johnson, who put on a foul-drawing clinic against the defensive powerhouse. 

When Pili returned to the court in the second half, she did so in her usual form. Pili rained buckets on South Carolina, finishing the game with 37 points, a career-high. No other Utes came close to her offensive contributions, and the only other Utah player to reach double-digits was Dasia Young with 10 points. 

The Gamecocks spread the love on the scoreboard with four players in double-digits and 26 bench points. 

South Carolina was plagued by turnovers in its closest game of the season. Utah forced 23 turnovers and collected 11 points in transition, but they weren’t enough for the Utes to earn their first win against a first-ranked squad.

March still has plenty of madness left for college basketball fans as the Sweet 16 tips off Friday, but as the season draws to a close, so too are the campaigns of the biggest stars in the game. There have been plenty of memorable performances this season, both by teams and individuals.

While the remaining 16 squads battle it out for the NCAA title, it’s time for individual awards. Here are my picks for Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year, Freshman of the Year and the All-American Teams.

Player of the Year: Caitlin Clark, Iowa

It’s been the year of Caitlin Clark in women’s basketball. The Iowa star is averaging 26.8 points per game (third in the country), 8.6 assists per game (first in the country) and 7.3 rebounds per game. Stats aren’t everything, but Clark’s paint a compelling picture. This season, she’s led her team to a 28-6 record, a Big Ten tournament title and, so far, an appearance in the Sweet 16 (the Hawkeyes play Colorado on Friday afternoon for a spot in the Elite Eight).

Thanks to her logo 3-pointers, Clark is regarded as a prolific scorer. The junior certainly knows how to put the ball in the basket, but there is much more to her game. Her ability to read the floor, run the fastbreak and find teammates with precise passes is also what sets her apart.

The Hawkeyes are an excellent offensive team, scoring an NCAA-leading 87.4 points per game. Offensively, everything that happens for Iowa happens because of Caitlin Clark. And for that reason, she’s my Player of the Year.

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(Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports)

Coach of the Year: Lynne Roberts, Utah

In just one season, Roberts has elevated her team from a middle-of-the-pack Pac-12 squad (8-7 conference record, 21-12 overall in 2021-22), to one of the conference’s best contenders. The Utes finished the regular season with just four losses, including an undefeated record at home. They also reached their highest-ever AP ranking, rising to No. 3 at one point, and now find themselves in the Sweet 16 for just the third time in school history.

Roberts had a solid foundation last season, with players like Kennedy McQueen, Jenna Johnson, Gianna Keepkens and Issy Palmer all returning after a first-round victory in the 2022 NCAA Tournament. And while the Utes would have been good with that core, Roberts set out to make them great by securing Alissa Pili from USC in the transfer portal.

Roberts managed to integrate Pili into the lineup seamlessly and, with just one addition, changed the make-up of her entire team.

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(Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

Defensive Player of the Year: Aliyah Boston, South Carolina

The reigning DPOY gets the nod once again as she continues to dominate for undefeated South Carolina. Boston has her team positioned as the favorite to win the NCAA Tournament once more, and her defense is a big reason why.

She’s averaging 2.0 blocks and 6.3 defensive rebounds per game, but more importantly, offenses have to game plan around the South Carolina big. She changes the way teams attack the Gamecocks because they have to be wary of her in the paint. Boston also allows her teammates to be aggressive in their defensive matchups because, if they get beat, she’s there to clean up with a block, an altered shot or a rebound.

South Carolina allows the fewest points per game in the country at 50.6, a statistic made possible by their rim protector.

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(Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Freshman of the Year: Ta’Niya Latson

Unfortunately, Latson didn’t get to showcase her skills in the NCAA Tournament. An injury kept the guard on the bench during Florida State’s opening-round loss to Georgia, but she did enough during the regular season to secure the Freshman of the Year award.

Latson, a five-star recruit, more than lived up to the hype in her first season at Florida State. She helped her team to a 23-10 record after the Seminoles went 17-14 the season before. Her 21.9 points per game ranked 11th among all NCAA players, and she contributed 4.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. Latson recorded 34 points twice this season, 32 points twice and 31 points on three separate occasions.

The guard was also consistent with her scoring, finishing with fewer than 15 points only five times this season, and scoring in double figures in 29 of 31 games.

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Angel Reese broke Sylvia Fowles' LSU record with 20 consecutive double-doubles this season. (Andrew Nelles/USA TODAY NETWORK)

All-Americans

First Team

Caitlin Clark (Iowa), Aliyah Boston (South Carolina), Alissa Pili (Utah), Maddy Siegrist (Villanova), Angel Reese (LSU)

Second Team

Elizabeth Kitley (Virginia Tech), MaKenzie Holmes (Indiana), Diamond Miller (Maryland), Cameron Brink (Stanford), Olivia Miles (Notre Dame)

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

Utah suffered a stunning loss Thursday in the Pac-12 quarterfinals at the hands of Washington State. The defeat leaves the door wide open for the fourth and final No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Sure, the Utes could still end up as a top seed by the end of this weekend – after all, anything can happen in conference tournaments. But which other teams should be considered for the No. 1 line? Let’s take a look.

Iowa

If all goes according to plan in the Big Ten Tournament, Iowa and Maryland will duke it out Saturday afternoon for a spot in Sunday’s final.

Had the Hawkeyes not lost to Maryland in the second-to-last game of the regular season, they would be a lock for the final No. 1 seed. But they did, and while Caitlin Clark’s last-second heroics in the season finale against Indiana bode well for the Iowa, the team needs to at least avenge that loss to Maryland to move into a top seed.

Maryland

Heading into the season, few thought Maryland would have the chance for a No. 1 seed, given the high-profile transfers that left the program in the offseason.

Yet, here the Terrapins are, with wins over Iowa, Notre Dame, Michigan, UConn, Ohio State and Illinois on their impressive résumé. Utah’s loss has opened the door for the Terps, but they likely will have to beat Illinois and then Iowa in order to do make their case.

LSU

Despite head coach Kim Mulkey’s belief to the contrary, LSU does have an argument for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers’ strength of schedule hurts them, but they’ve remained consistent and only have one loss – to No. 1 South Carolina.

If LSU can manage to go all the way and win the SEC Tournament, and if Maryland and Iowa don’t advance to the Big Ten Tournament final, LSU could have a fighting chance.

Utah

The reality is, despite its loss Thursday, Utah still has a top-line résumé. The Utes have their recent win over Stanford, which itself looks destined for a No. 1 seed, as well as wins over Arizona and Oklahoma.

While Thursday’s loss to Washington State doesn’t help their chances, they shouldn’t be counted out, especially if other teams don’t perform to expectation over the conference tournament weekend.