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

Angel Reese grew up in Baltimore playing basketball on boys’ teams, doing what she had to do to stand out.

Now, as a 21-year-old and one of the biggest stars in college basketball, she returns to her old stomping grounds to play against Coppin State.

Reese’s Charm City homecoming will be the first time a historically Black college or university has ever hosted the incumbent NCAA championship team. Reese and the LSU Tigers will be bringing a sold-out crowd with them to PEC Arena.

“The demand for tickets has been endless,” Coppin State athletic director Derek Carter said. “The last couple of weeks I’ve been reminded of a lot of friends that I, honestly, had forgotten about.”

Reese is eligible for the 2024 WNBA draft — and with a name as big as hers, it’s likely she’ll enter and be drafted high. Seventh-ranked LSU wanted a homecoming game for Reese before she leaves the NCAA, and the HBCU in Baltimore is an ideal location. 

“Someone on the LSU staff called me and she told me LSU wanted to bring Angel home, and would we be interested,” Eagles coach Jermaine Woods told Andscape. “It’s not every day you get a chance to get an All-American, a national championship team and a Hall of Fame coach to come to your building.” 

The last time Coppin State hosted a team as highly ranked as LSU came in 2021, when Reese played there wearing different clothes — her former team, the Maryland Terrapins, were ranked sixth when Reese last appeared at PEC Arena. She drew a crowd then, too. 

The Tigers already have been upset once this season, by another ranked team in Colorado. Coppin State could be the next tick in the loss column for LSU. 

But beside the chance to play and beat a highly skilled opposing team, hosting the Tigers at their home arena presents a rare opportunity for the Eagles. Bringing such a high-profile player to their home city affords the team visibility and a lot of money from ticket sales. 

“My list has 45 names, and people are still calling me because everybody wants to see LSU and Angel Reese,” Woods said. “LSU could have taken this game to anywhere in the area — Towson, Loyola, Morgan, UMBC. But they chose Coppin, in the heart of West Baltimore.

“It’s an amazing opportunity, and it’s great that we’re bringing this big spotlight to Coppin State University.”

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.”

LSU basketball star Angel Reese had to hold head coach Kim Mulkey back from referees during Sunday’s 81-36 win against Northwestern State.

Despite Reese’s effors, Mulkey ended up receiving a double technical foul and her first ejection in her three seasons at LSU. Mulkey took issue with a charging foul called on forward Aneesah Morrow with 4:56 left to play.

“I’ve been tossed before,” Mulkey said. “It was time.”

Referee Timothy Greene awarded the coach with the technical fouls. After the game, she admitted to goading Greene into ejecting her.

“I think I helped him,” she said. “I said, ‘I’m not leaving, so you’d better toss me.'”

Mulkey was so fired up that Reese had to hold her back, which the forward laughed about afterward. Mulkey also thought it was funny, with Reese even calling for her son, former LSU baseball player Kramer Robertson, to come and help her.

“It was fun,” Reese said. “We both have similar personalities and we really like to win no matter the score. Of course she’s gonna fight for us and we all fight for her so, that moment was fun. We know she has our back and we have her back.”

LSU basketball came up big Tuesday night in a historic 133-44 win over McNeese State.

The Tigers set program records for points in a game and margin of victory. Their previous scoring record stood at 125, set in November of last year in a win over Bellarmine. The previous margin of victory record was much older, with the Tigers eclipsing a 76-point win over Prairie View in 1995.

In the win, LSU showcased its defensive skills, forcing 36 turnovers, which turned into 52 points. In the second quarter, the Tigers shut out the Cowgirls entirely, part of a stretch of 13:36 in which they held their opponents scoreless.

In that time, LSU went on a 47-0 run.

“I told them at half, I don’t know if I’ve even been part of that,” LSU head coach Kim Mulkey said. “And a run like that you don’t think about it in the moment. I don’t care who you’re playing. That’s crazy.”

LSU had 20 steals, led by Angel Reese who had six. Flau’jae Johnson had five while freshman Mikaylah Williams had four. Reese added 21 points and 10 rebounds, while freshman Aalyah Del Rosario led the team in scoring with 27 points and 10 rebounds. Aneesah Morrow had 18 points, while Williams had 26.

After missing 10 of their first 13 shots, the Tigers quickly turned their game around – even without Hailey Van Lith, who is out with a foot injury. Still, if you ask Mulkey, the defense is “still catching up” after dealing with player absences. (Reese recently missed four games for undisclosed reasons, and Sa’Myah Smith suffered a season-ending knee injury.)

“You don’t have Angel, then you don’t have Hailey and you don’t have Sa’Myah. So that sets you back temporarily until you can get back on that floor and prepare every day without them,” Mulkey said. “I think when Hailey gets back and if you can keep everybody healthy, I think you’ll start to see some good stuff out there.

“I’m not saying you’re not seeing good stuff now. I see improvement. But I’ll say it again, we can score the ball with a lot of people. But you got to defend and you got to rebound if you want to win championships.”

Still, allowing just 44 points in a game showcases a team’s defensive abilities – regardless of which opponent is on the other side of the stat sheet.

“Their defensive pressure got to us,” McNeese head coach Lynn Kennedy said. “We just didn’t handle it well. LSU caught fire. The fast break really opened it up for them, they [made] some transition shots and that got them going.”

For Del Rosario, the performance serves as an indicator of what she can bring to the Tigers from the bench as the season continues.

“It changed my perspective of the game,” she said. “I knew I was going to have to step up, play big-time minutes on the court and take advantage of the minutes. When I came here, I was not in the best of shape. Now, I feel like I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been.”

Kateri Poole is no longer with the LSU basketball team, head coach Kim Mulkey said Sunday.

Poole, a 5-foot-8 junior guard, won the 2023 national championship with LSU, but she played in four games this season for the No. 7 Tigers. Her last game came on Nov. 17 against Southeastern Louisiana, in which she played just five minutes. Before that, on Nov. 14, she did not play against Kent State due to a “coach’s decision.”

She last appeared on LSU’s bench against Texas Southern on Nov. 20, although she did not play.

“She’s no longer with us,” Mulkey told reporters Sunday following the team’s 83-53 win over Louisiana. Mulkey had been asked about a timetable for Poole’s return.

“Depth, anytime you lose any player for any reason, your depth becomes smaller. But I still think we have plenty,” Mulkey continued when asked about the team losing players. The team lost Sa’Myah Smith due to a season-ending knee injury in late November, while Hailey Van Lith is out while dealing with plantar fasciitis.

Mulkey did not give any further information on Poole’s departure, and would not comment on if it resulted from a dismissal or a mutual parting of ways.

Poole’s absence comes after LSU star forward Angel Reese missed four games in November for undisclosed reasons. Mulkey attributed Reese’s absence to “locker room issues” and would not give any further details.

On Sunday, Reese showed support for Poole via Instagram, writing: “Forever my dawg! I love you & 10 behind you!”

Poole also posted on Instagram, writing “(T)hank you tiger nation” with a photo of the national championship trophy on her Instagram Stories.

The junior was a member of LSU’s national title-winning team in 2023 after spending the first two years of her career at Ohio State. She appeared in 35 games last season, averaging 4.5 points, 2.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.5 steals per game.

Angel Reese’s basketball superstardom earned her a lot of attention during her four-game absence from No. 7 LSU’s lineup. 

Her celebrity has also secured her a multi-year NIL deal with Reebok. Shaquille O’Neal is the new president of basketball for the brand, as well as a mentor of Reese’s, and he’s been helping Reese throughout her absence.

“I talked to Shaq every day. We FaceTimed, he called, he checked on me every single day to make sure I was good,” Reese said. “He told me every day, ‘This too shall pass.’ He’s been here before and he knows what it takes.”

Reese made a triumphant return to the court for the Tigers in Thursday’s 82-64 win against Virginia Tech. After the game, she did not go into any detail about the nature of her absence, continuing the precedent she and Tigers head coach Kim Mulkey set while she was gone. But some of the comments Reese made about speaking with Shaq may shed some light on the situation.

“Being able to have somebody like that was something that was really good for me. He told me when I was right, when I was wrong and told me what I needed to do to get back. And I know he’s probably going to call me after this game,” Reese said. 

Reese recorded 19 points and 9 rebounds against the Hokies. After the game, she shouted out her support system — likely including Shaq — for getting her through the intense scrutiny she endured during her time away from the team. Before Thursday, she had last played on Nov. 14.

“I want people to realize that I’m not just an athlete, I’m a human. I go through things, we all go through things. Being able to have so many people that are super supportive to me over this past week-and-a-half really showed me a lot and who really cares for me,” Reese said.

“When you’re up, everybody loves you. And when you’re down is when you see who really loves you. Being able to have such supportive people for me here through a tough time for me was really important.”

Head coach Kim Mulkey addressed the media on Wednesday over public responses to Angel Reese’s prolonged and mysterious absence from the LSU women’s basketball team.

Reese is set to return for No. 7 LSU’s matchup against No. 9 Virginia Tech on Thursday after a four-game absence.

The 2023 Final Four Most Outstanding Player last appeared on the court on Nov. 14. She played 14 minutes in LSU’s win over Kent State before being benched in the second half for what Mulkey called a “coach’s decision.” She then missed LSU’s next four games, and Mulkey provided few details on her absence outside of alluding to “locker room issues” on Nov. 20.

The lack of clarity surrounding Reese has led to widespread speculation about the LSU star’s whereabouts. Mulkey responded to the media’s handling of the situation during a press conference Wednesday.

“It is a wonderful, wonderful profession – ‘til I have to deal with y’all,” Mulkey, who is one win away from 700 in her career as a coach, joked to reporters.

“I don’t mind dealing with you,” she said, before addressing what she finds “aggravating” about the media. “All I ask as a coach is, if I don’t give you the answer you want, don’t attack me for that. Don’t attack and make it personal. Is that fair?

“Some of you take it to a personal level and I just don’t understand that. I would never attack any of you for writing a bad article about me if you didn’t think I made the right call. … That’s fair game. But to attack somebody on a personal level, am I wrong about that?”

Mulkey added that her reason for explaining Reese’s absence as she did was to “protect my players.” Junior guard Kateri Poole has also been absent from the team, and Mulkey has declined to say if or when she will return.

“For not answering the question the way you think I should answer it?” she said. “That’s not journalism in my book. Maybe I’m too old. Maybe I need to get out. But, you get realness with me … I can’t sugarcoat things. I feel like people want the truth, but I’m also going to do what? I’m going protect my players. I struggle with that.”

Reese led the Tigers to their first national championship last season, in Mulkey’s second year with the team. LSU (7-1) is looking to bounce back from a season-opening loss to Colorado and make a run at a second straight title.

The NCAA basketball season has started off with a bang, with a number of freshmen already making names for themselves.

MiLaysia Fulwiley caught the attention of NBA great Magic Johnson in her very first game for South Carolina. And if Fulwiley and her fellows continue on their trajectories, then freshman of the year could be this season’s most competitive award — and a few freshmen could even play their way into the national player of the year conversation.

Just Women’s Sports takes a look at four freshman phenoms who have starred for their teams in the first month of the season.

JuJu Watkins, USC

Watkins has been vocal about having both freshman of the year and national player of the year aspirations – and so far, she’s off to a great start. On Monday, she snagged her third-straight Pac-12 Freshman of the Week selection, and she has helped No. 6 USC to its best AP poll ranking in 29 years.

Her first collegiate game set the tone. Her 32 points stands as the most ever by a USC freshman in their debut, beating out Lisa Leslie’s 30 points. And those 32 points came against a ranked opponent in Notre Dame. Just five games later, she broke Leslie’s record for the most 30-point games scored by a USC freshman. And what’s more? Her 26.8 points per game rank second in Division I behind only Iowa senior Caitlin Clark.

When USC trailed by six points to Penn State on Nov. 22, Watkins scored seven in a row to lead the still-undefeated Trojans to victory.

“JuJu is so phenomenal, to see her adapt to the college game and adapt as quickly is so impressive,” USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb said of Watkins. And after her debut, Gottlieb said: “She’s ridiculous. Get used to it.”

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(Jeff Blake/USA TODAY Sports)

MiLaysia Fulwiley, South Carolina

Fulwiley turned heads with her season-opening performance against Notre Dame in Paris. And since then, she’s been a walking highlight reel for South Carolina, helping the team reach the No. 1 spot in the rankings.

The freshman guard is averaging the second-most points (15.0) for the Gamecocks behind only senior center Kamilla Cardoso (16.8). She’s also averaging 4.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.0 steals per game. The Gamecocks (5-0) had a lot of question marks after the departure of big names such as Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke, but in Fulwiley, they’ve found an answer.

And what is perhaps scariest for South Carolina’s opponents is that Fulwiley still has a lot to learn when it comes to choosing her spots for her dazzling plays.

“She’s looking for a really great moment for her, a crowd-pleasing play. She has an appetite for it, that she loses sight of the in-between the great plays. And that’s where the game is being played,” head coach Dawn Staley said. “We gotta continue to give her more experiences in game-like situations. … But she’s learning.

“Not taking anything away from her. I want her to be great, I want her to be generational, I want her to be able to play a lot of different ways.”

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(Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports)

Hannah Hidalgo, Notre Dame

A three-time ACC Rookie of the Week, Hidalgo is off to a hot start for the Irish, averaging 25.0 points (good for third in Division I), 5.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists and a 56.6% shooting through her first six games. She leads the ACC in both points and steals (6.3) per game.

Hidalgo set a Notre Dame record with 31 points in her first game. And earlier this month, she was named ACC Player of the Week and Rookie of the Week – just the second Notre Dame player to ever sweep such awards.

On top of that, she has 38 steals through six games. Her season high sits at 12 – which tied the Notre Dame record for a single game. She had 18 steals in a two-game span, which is the second-most by an ACC player in the last 25 seasons. She leads all Division I players in steals per game.

She also hasn’t posted below 20 points yet this season, and her six straight games with at least 20 points matches Beth Morgan and Arike Ogunbowale as the only players in Irish history to do so.

“I knew recruiting her what she was capable of providing for us,” head coach Niele Ivey said of Hidalgo. “I needed leadership. I needed scoring. And somebody that could just handle the ball … just the experience that she brings.

“And then we obviously fell in love with her. She has an incredible personality. So when you have that match with somebody with high character, somebody that plays with the unselfishness that she plays with, it fits into our system perfectly.”

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(Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports)

Mikaylah Williams, LSU

Williams is another freshman who is making history. Against Kent State in mid-November, she scored 42 points, going 15-of-20 from the field while adding seven rebounds and three steals. Those 42 points set an LSU freshman record for points, and also stand as the most points in a single game for any LSU women’s basketball player in the last 25 seasons.

“She’s a special talent,” head coach Kim Mulkey said. “It was one of those moments where the rim feels as big as the ocean. I want to be that coach that pushes her beyond the limits. I think you’re just seeing her scratch the surface.”

She’s averaging 17.5 points per game, and her scoring touch has helped LSU rise to the sky-high expectations they faced ahead of the season – even amid some off-court turmoil.

For Williams to stand out among a top-ranked recruiting class at LSU is no small feat – especially considering the star transfers that the Tigers also brought in during the offseason, with both Hailey Van Lith and Aneesah Morrow making their mark.

Angel Reese will return to the lineup for LSU basketball after a four-game absence, head coach Kim Mulkey announced Wednesday.

The star senior last appeared on the court on Nov. 14. She played 14 minutes in the first half of the Tigers’ 109-79 win over Kent State, but she did not play at all in the second half due to what Mulkey called a “coach’s decision.”

She missed LSU’s next four games. Mulkey provided few details on Reese’s absence, though she did allude to “locker room issues” on Nov. 20.

“You always have to deal with locker room issues,” Mulkey said. “That’s just part of coaching. In 40 years, I can never think of a time where I didn’t have to deal with issues. That’s what coaches do. Sometimes y’all know about it and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you want to know more than you’re entitled to know.

“I’m going to protect my players, always. They are more important. It’s like a family. If you do some disciplining of your own children, do you think we’re entitled to know that? That’s a family in that locker room.”

Mulkey remained similarly tight-lipped even as she revealed Reese’s return. She declined to disclose how long she has been practicing with the team, only saying: “It doesn’t matter. Angel is back, and we are happy, happy, happy.”

Reese returns just in time for No. 7 LSU’s game against No. 9 Virginia Tech, which is set to tip off at 9 p.m. ET Thursday on ESPN. The Tigers beat the Hokies, 79-72, in the 2023 Final Four en route to their first title in program history.

Yet while LSU will have Reese, they will be without sophomore forward Sa’Myah Smith, who will miss the rest of the season with tears to the ACL, MCL and meniscus in her right knee. Junior guard Kateri Poole also remains out for the Tigers. Poole has missed three games in a row, though the reason for her absence has not been disclosed.

Senior guard Hailey Van Lith is available for the game, but she is dealing with a foot injury, Mulkey said. The injury is one Van Lith has had for several years, but she aggravated it in LSU’s win over Virginia on Nov. 25.