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.

(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.

(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.

(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.

(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

Caitlin Clark once again made history Thursday, recording 35 points in her 13th career triple-double in Iowa’s 98-69 win over Loyola Chicago.

She finished the game with 35 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists. It’s her third triple-double with at least 35 points, and her fifth 30-point triple-double, which is the most in D-I history. It was also the second triple-double in Division I women’s basketball history with at least 35 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists, joining LSU’s Cornelia Gayden, who accomplished the feat 1995.

Sabrina Ionescu remains the all-time D-I leader in triple-doubles, with 26 during her time at Oregon.

“I knew we were going to make some bunnies,” Clark said when asked if she was concerned about getting her last assist. “Ten assists is all because of my teammates. I’m thankful for them, and for Coach Bluder for allowing me to get (the triple-double). It’s always cool when you get one of those.”

Clark is making her way up the all-time scoring list, now with 3,114 points. She’s set to pass fellow Iowan Lorri Bauman, who starred for Drake from 1980-84 with 3,115 points, who is sixth on the list. Both are natives of Des Moines.

It was also Clark’s ninth career game leading both teams in points, rebounds and assists. She sits one back from Stanford’s Nicole Powell (2000-04) for the most such games by a player since the 1999-2000 season.

“She’s really hard to play against,” Loyola coach Allison Guth said. “Her range is insane. I’ve seen teams try to box-and-one her, send two players at her. And she can do it all. We were going to stay pretty pragmatic to what we did, and try to slow them down with our pressure. Once they lit that up, it hurt us defensively.”

The Caitlin Clark effect continues, with a number of Iowa basketball’s Big Ten road games selling out as fans of opposing teams flock to see the Iowa star.

Rutgers, Northwestern, Maryland and Minnesota all have announced advance sellouts of their home contests games against the No. 4 Hawkeyes.

Ohio State, meanwhile, has opened up more tickets for its game against Iowa in January. The Buckeyes began with approximately 9,500 seats available in the lower bowl of the Schottenstein Center, and now they are offering upper-level seating to meet the demand. Iowa has been drawing 12,000 fans per game on average.

The trend started with Iowa’s home games for Clark’s senior season. The university announced in August that season tickets were sold out, after the team had to pause deposits in April due to an increase in interest. The team never even needed to put single-game tickets on sale.

So Hawkeyes fans looking to watch Clark and her teammates play at home need to hit the resale market – which stood at an average of $180 per home game in November, per SeatGeek. Before this season, Iowa had sold out just three regular-season games in program history.

No. 5 Texas’ Rori Harmon is out for the remainder of the season with an ACL tear, per a release from Texas Athletics. 

Harmon tore her ACL in practice on Dec. 27 and she did not play in that evening’s contest against Jackson State. 

The junior guard was named Big 12 preseason player of the year and she averaged 14.1 points and 7.8 assists per game in her 12 games played. 

“I’m grateful for the support of my teammates and coaching staff during this difficult time,” Harmon said in the press release. “I also want to thank our medical staff at Texas for taking care of me. I’m heartbroken that I won’t be able to play with my teammates this season, but I’m going to support them and be the best teammate I can be.”

Just Women’s Sports is tracking injuries to key players throughout the NCAA season and, when possible, outlining the timetables for their returns.

Out for the season

Azzi Fudd, UConn

Fudd is out for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL and a torn meniscus in her right knee. She played just two games before injuring her knee in practice. Fudd is the second Huskies player in two years to miss the majority of the season with an ACL tear, following Paige Bueckers’ lost season in 2022-23.

Sa’Myah Smith, LSU

Smith will miss the rest of the season for No. 7 LSU with tears to the ACL, MCL and meniscus in her right knee. Smith, who appeared in just seven games this season, will be given a redshirt for the remainder of this season and will be able to get this year of eligibility back, per LSU Athletics.

Destinee Wells, Tennessee 

Tennessee senior point guard Destinee Wells is out for the rest of the season with a lower right leg injury, the program announced Tuesday.

A transfer from Belmont, Wells was seen with a brace on her right leg during the team’s win over Wofford. The news of her season-ending injury came on the same night senior forward Rickea Jackson returned from injury. Wells played in just 10 games this season.

Head coach Kelli Harper, who dealt with ACL tears twice in her playing career at Tennessee, understands well the pain of season-ending injuries. So she knows it will “be hard throughout the year” for Wells, who had averaged 6.8 points, 3.5 assists and 2.3 rebounds in 22.4 minutes per game.

Gianna Kneepkens, Utah

The star guard will miss the rest of the season after breaking multiple bones in her foot, the school announced on Dec. 4. An All-Pac-12 player and the team’s second-leading scorer, Kneepkens was injured late against BYU on Dec. 2 and had to be helped off the floor.

Utah head coach Lynne Roberts called Kneepkens’ injury a “blow to our program,” which is ranked No. 11 in the country at 7-1 as of Dec. 14.

“If there is a kid that eats, sleeps and breathes basketball, it is her. But this is part of life. Life can stink sometimes. This is going to be a process for her that she is going to have to push through,” Roberts said. “She has got a group of teammates and coaches who love her. She will be all right. It is still a little raw. The fact that the season is over for her, she is still working through that.”

Ayanna Patterson, UConn

UConn lost one more player for the season, as Ayanna Patterson was announced to miss the remainder of the season following knee surgery.

Patterson had not appeared in a game this season for the Huskies. Last season, she played 30 games, averaging just over two points and two rebounds. Head coach Geno Auriemma said the surgery was to address patellar tendinitis that Patterson has dealt with since high school.

Emily Bessoir, UCLA 

No. 2 UCLA’s Emily Bessoir is out for the remainder of the season with an ACL injury. The senior injured the same ACL that sidelined her for the entirety of the 2021-2022 season while she was playing in the FIBA Women’s EuroBasket 2025 qualifiers for her native Germany.

While Bessoir has played in just one game for the Bruins this season due to her international duties, she appeared in all 37 games last season and she was selected to the Pac-12 All-Tournament team.

“I’m just heartbroken for Emily, for her and for us,” head coach Cori Close told the Associated Press. “She’s been such a steady leader for us and she had so many things going for her this year. I look forward to seeing how this is going to be part of her conquering story.”

Out with injury but expected to return

Olivia Miles, Notre Dame

Miles injured her knee in the Irish’s 2023 regular season finale. She was sidelined during the ACC Tournament and has remained so into this season. Notre Dame head coach Niele Ivey provided a look into Miles’ recovery via Instagram, where she posted a video of Miles shooting around, though there remains no timetable for her return to action.

“She’s doing a lot of great workouts, and so just wanted to kind of just highlight her because she is she’s doing really, really well,” Ivey said to ABC 57. “She’s in great spirits, her knee looks really good.”

Caroline Ducharme, UConn

The junior guard played in No. 17 UConn’s first four games this season but she has been out since Nov. 19 with neck and back spasms. Ducharme has dealt with concussion issues in past seasons. On Dec. 1, head coach Geno Auriemma could not provide a timeline for her return to the team.

“Don’t ask me how long, because I wish I knew,” Auriemma told ESPN. “You don’t know when they’re coming and you don’t know how long they’re going to last. We just keep trying and trying and trying. . . I feel terrible for the kid.”

Sonia Citron, Notre Dame

Citron sustained an injury to her leg in the third quarter of the Irish’s game against Northwestern on Nov. 15. The junior guard needed help to return to the locker room after she was injured.

Notre Dame head coach Niele Ivey had announced that Citron was dealing with a sprained knee and would be out for just a couple of weeks. But on Nov. 28, Ivey said Citron would need a few more weeks of recovery before she could return to the court.

Returned to the court

Rickea Jackson, Tennessee

Jackson, who had been out of Tennessee’s lineup since Nov. 13 with a lower leg injury, returned to the court on Dec. 19.

“She steps on the court and she changes things,” Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper told the Knoxville News-Sentinel. “Her presence affects them when they step on the court. She gives them great confidence.”

Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark are sharing the spotlight as the Sporting News’ Athletes of the Year for 2023.

The honor caps off a banner year for both players, which included a run to the national championship game. Reese and the LSU Tigers won the title over Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes, but the Iowa guard swept the national player of the year awards.

Of course, much of the discussion after the championship game centered around Reese’s hand-waving “you can’t see me” gesture, which mimicked Clark’s own celebration from earlier in the tournament.

Reese also pointed to her ring finger. Men’s athletes have done so as well, including Joe Burrow after winning the College Football Playoff with LSU in 2020 and Aaron Donald after winning his first Super Bowl with the Los Angeles Rams in 2022. But Reese received widespread vitriol on social media.

“I don’t think I was really surprised, you see, because I had been criticized a lot during the year for a lot of things I did,” Reese told TSN. “Because I’m a trash talker. That’s what I do. And a lot of people aren’t really used to that. I think people don’t expect that from women in sports. If it was flipped, and it was a man, you know it wouldn’t have been talked about or said or anything.”

At the time, Clark came to the defense of Reese. She and Reese are cool, and she thought the LSU star shouldn’t have been criticized “at all.”

After all, they are both fierce competitors. And they respect one another (Reese even said in October that she “loves” Clark, who she’s competed against since AAU, and hopes they can be teammates in the future).

In Tuesday’s TSN article, Clark once again reiterated her respect for Reese and advocated for her competitive fire to spread throughout college basketball.

“I think Angel’s great. I think that’s why so many people tuned into to watch the game, because there were so many great players,” Clark told TSN. “Honestly, it wasn’t just me and Angel that were great on the court. Neither one of us would have been in the national championship game if it was that way. I had really great teammates. She had really great teammates – that really went off in the national championship game, and that’s why we struggled to guard them.

“I admire her game. I think it’s great for the game. That’s what you need. You need that competitive fire. And I hope that spreads not only from Iowa and LSU, but to many other teams. I hope it’s the same way with all those top teams, that people can continue to show emotion.”

Aliyah Boston loves Caitlin Clark’s versatility.

The Indiana Fever star and WNBA Rookie of the Year spoke with Indianapolis’ WISH-TV about what impresses her about Clark, who is projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft. The Fever won the top pick in the draft lottery for the second straight year after selecting Boston with the No. 1 pick in 2023.

“Super exciting,” Boston said of getting the No. 1 overall pick. “I think it’s going to be a great addition to our team whoever we’re able to draft in that moment. So, I’m really excited.”

When asked specifically about Clark, Boston played coy. Clark has another year of eligibility remaining and remains undecided about her future, though the Iowa star is treating this season as though it’s her last.

“I think whoever we add is going to be amazing,” Boston said. Even still, she did offer up some high praise for Clark, who leads the country in scoring with 30.2 points per game.

When asked what impresses her the most about Clark, Boston listed several attributes.

“How versatile she is. Her vision on the court,” Boston said. “I think that’s super important. And I think she does a great job of that at Iowa.

“I think it’s going to be exciting whatever she decides, whether that’s to come out (into the WNBA Draft) or that’s to stay in. Regardless, ultimately, it’s her decision. She has to do what’s best for her. But whoever we get in the number one pick, they’re going to enjoy the Fever.”

Caitlin Clark has added another NIL deal to her roster: Gatorade.

Clark signed a multi-year partnership with the sports drink brand, according to Front Office Sports. While the financial terms of the deal are unknown, Gatorade will be donating $22,000 to Clark’s foundation, which is dedicated to empowering youth.

“This partnership is special because not only does Gatorade fuel the best athletes in the game, but they’re also committed to leading by example and giving back, which is what I strive to do every day,” Clark said in a statement. “I’m honored to join such an iconic brand that has some of the most elite athletes in sport on their roster and can’t wait for what’s ahead.”

The Iowa guard is one of four college athletes to have a deal with Gatorade. She joins UConn’s Paige Bueckers, who was the first college athlete to sign with the brand, as well as Penn State football’s Nick Singleton and Colorado football’s Shedeur Sanders.

Clark’s latest NIL deal comes after she became the first NCAA athlete to sign with State Farm in October. She’s also signed deals with Nike, Buick, Topps, Hy-Vee and H&R Block. Clark recently signed with the Excel Sports Management agency, which includes women’s basketball clients such as Napheesa Collier and Arike Ogunbowale.

Clark is projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft should she opt to forego her fifth and final year of eligibility. The Indiana Fever received that pick Sunday in the WNBA draft lottery.

“We’re thrilled to be a part of Caitlin’s journey to greatness early in her career,” Jeff Kearney, Gatorade’s global head of sports marketing, said in a statement. “[We] look forward to building upon the incredible impact she’s already made.”

Iowa basketball and star senior Caitlin Clark were not going to lose to Kansas State again.

The No. 6 Hawkeyes claimed a 77-70 victory on Sunday, winning their rematch with the Wildcats and the Gulf Coast Showcase. Kansas State had beaten Iowa just 10 days earlier in Carver-Hawkeye Arena to hand the Hawkeyes their first, and so far only, loss of the season.

“Kansas State is obviously a great team,” Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder said, noting that she thought the team did a “great job” of handling three games in three days as part of the Thanksgiving weekend tournament.

“It feels really good to get the redemption win. We did not play very well at our place and we knew that. We were really kind of glad to have this opportunity to redeem ourselves.”

Clark, who had one of the worst outings of her career in the loss to the Wildcats, was named tournament MVP. She scored 32 points in Sunday’s revenge win, and she also contributed 5 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals.

Still, the victory resulted from a group effort – especially after Kansas State went on an 11-0 run to take the lead with a little over two minutes remaining. Kate Martin had a double-double, while Molly Davis contributed 13 points for Iowa. The Hawkeyes were without Hannah Stuelke, who is sidelined with an ankle injury.

“I’m just really proud of this group,” Clark said. “They went on a little run there in the fourth quarter again, but we just responded and stayed together.”

Kansas State senior Ayoka Lee drew seven fouls on top of scoring 18 points. The Hawkeyes once again found themselves in foul trouble, as both Addison O’Grady and Sharon Goodman picked up early fouls.

“Ayoka Lee is just really tough to stop. She’s an excellent player,” Bluder said. “One of the best in the country. But we have one of the best in the country as well, and we’re very thankful for that.”

Dawn Staley has been excited to see early-season upsets in women’s college basketball.

While her Gamecocks are a perfect 4-0, several of their top competitors already have been toppled. Preseason No. 1 LSU lost to Colorado to start the season, and preseason No. 2 UConn lost to NC State. And then-No. 2 Iowa was upset by Kansas State, almost one year after the Wildcats upset a top-5 Iowa team.

Meanwhile, Princeton nearly upset No. 3 UCLA, and Duke pushed then-No. 6 Stanford to overtime.

All of these are signs of growing parity in the women’s game, which Staley called “good for the sport.”

“I think women’s basketball is good,” she said after South Carolina’s 78-38 win over South Dakota State on Monday. “We could talk about parity, but we’re good. Our sport is at a really good place where anybody feels like they could beat anybody. It’s come to pass and I think that helps everybody else when you see it.”

While the Gamecocks have not yet been a victim, the upsets give them reason for better preparation, Staley said. After all, a team never knows if they could be next.

“When you see it, you prepare a little bit better,” she said. “You’ve got examples of what it could look like for you if you lose a basketball game. More so than just coaching your team up, they see it, they feel it. It is a real thing out there when you see teams get upset.”

And the upsets have come as the sport has reached new heights of popularity. With more eyes on the game than ever before, sometimes those upsets can feel monumental. But if you ask Staley, she’s seen this changing of the tides coming.

Earlier this month, Staley discussed the the rise in the sport’s popularity with Vanity Fair.

“Women’s basketball is bursting at the seams,” Staley said. “It is a long time coming.”

And that could mean a greater financial return, too. Broadcast rights for the NCAA women’s basketball tournament are set to be negotiated soon, and the deal could be worth more than $100 million.

“We need somebody to bet on us,” Staley said, “and I know that they’ll get a return on their investment.”

Iowa star Caitlin Clark will become the first college athlete ever featured on the “ManningCast” during Monday’s game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs.

Clark will speak with former NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning on their alternate Monday Night Football broadcast. The show will air starting at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2.

The lifelong Chiefs fan will have a rooting interest in the game — at one point, her family even had a Chiefs vending machine in their home. She attended Kansas City’s Christmas Eve game in 2022.

She’s also sure to have a chance to talk about her basketball career with the Manning brothers, who simultaneously analyze the football action and interview their guests during each “ManningCast.”

The reigning National Player of the Year just broke another record in her latest game for the Hawkeyes. Clark’s 35-point performance in Iowa’s 113-90 win against Drake on Sunday marked her 39th career game with at least 30 points, breaking former Washington star Kelsey Plum’s record for the most in Division I women’s college hoops history.