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Somehow, it’s February. Already, postseason award shortlists are coming out. The NCAA tournament is right around the corner. And while the logistics are still being sorted around what to expect for a single-site tournament in San Antonio, Texas, it’s never too early to start speculating about which teams are true contenders.
But while basketball is a team sport, every year, certain individuals make a fortuitous leap when it matters most. This year, these are the five players to keep an eye on, each of whom is capable of leading their team to NCAA tournament glory.
Last year, UCLA Forward Michaela Onyenwere hinted at what was possible for both her and her team. At 18.9 points per game and 8.5 rebounds per game, she led the Bruins in both categories and was poised to bring the same talent to the national stage. Even with the NCAA Tournament cancelled, the outside world took notice.
Heading into this season, Onyenwere was viewed as a surefire first round pick and potentially a top five WNBA draft choice. This year, she has UCLA in the conversation as one of the nation’s top team. Using her voice on and off the court, her impact on the team is as great as ever. She still leads UCLA in rebounds at 8.1 per game and has moved to second in scoring with 17.1 due to the emergence of Charisma Osborne. But when UCLA took down Oregon on the road, it was Onyenwere pouring in 33 points.
Currently ranked eighth in the NET, UCLA is a borderline No. 1 seed. With a plethora of options and talent surrounding Onyenwere, the Bruins have a chance to make a deep tournament run. Expect Onyenwere to be leading the charge.
Louisville’s senior guard Dana Evans is currently leading the nation’s top-ranked team with 20.1 points per game. Although Louisville may fall in the poll after their loss to No. 4 NC State, Evans’s impact on that game was right in line with what she has done for the Cardinals all year long. She scored 29 as the only player on her team to reach double digits, made 5-of-8 from distance, as well as all four from the free throw line, all while playing the entire 40 minutes.
Evans is sixth in the entire nation at 94% at the foul line and has had multiple clutch late-game moments, potentially foreshadowing greatness in March. Against Wake Forest, she also played 40 minutes and had the game-winning and-one layup with 8.0 seconds remaining to top off a 25-point game.
Her ascent is remarkable, from Sixth Player of the Year in the ACC in her sophomore season to the conference’s Player of the Year last season. But what’s even more impressive is that she continues to improve. This year, she is shooting 40.0% from 3-point land, and her 45.8% mark from the field is the best of her career. Her singular focus on winning a national championship is clearly paying off, as is her work in the offseason on improving her shot selection.
The 5-foot-6 senior from Gary, Indiana projects as a point guard at the next level and is currently averaging 4.2 assists per game with a 1.82 assist to turnover ratio. Over the last five games, she has played at least 36 minutes in each and scored at least 20 in four. As the season wears on, it seems teams have not found a way to contain either her speed or decision making ability, as Evans has proved nearly impossible to guard.
The nation’s double-double leader, Texas A&M’s N’Dea Jones is the only one on this list not on the 2021 Wooden Award Late Season Top 20 (a notable snub in this author’s opinion). Thankfully, the 6-foot-2 senior forward has let her play speak for itself. Her 12 double-doubles in 17 games are tied for first in the nation, a feat she is averaging for the second straight year with 13.7 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.
Maybe playing on an Aggies team ranked at 15th in the NET has lowered her profile, but don’t be surprised if Jones has Texas A&M clicking in the tournament. She averages nearly 31 minutes per game and leads the team in both points and rebounds. Her 57.0% field goal rate is almost as impressive as the fact that she graduated in three years. No doubt, her time is coming. Every year, certain players use the tournament to turn themselves into household names. This year, Jones has the chance to sneak up on everyone.
UConn might be the title favorite at this point, and if so, Olivia Nelson-Ododa is the reason why. Paige Bueckers has been just as fantastic as we expected, but the 6-5 junior forward is the reason UConn is soaring. Unlike in past seasons, there is nowhere for Nelson-Ododa to disappear. UConn needs her now and on both ends of the court for scoring and rim protection. In UConn’s loss to Arkansas, foul trouble limited her to just 19 minutes, two shots and two points. While she needs to stay on the court, her absence underscored her value for the team.
Nelson-Ododa is shooting 64.22% from the field, the second best mark in the nation among qualified players. She’s had more than a few scoring outbursts, including a season-high 24 pts against Creighton which saw Nelson-Ododa hit a rare 3-pointer. She hit two more 3’s against Georgeotwon (after missing four against Tennessee) in a 31-point win without Bueckers on the floor.
Nelson-Ododa is in agreement with her coach Geno Auriemma that she is better when she is patient, calm and not caught up with the previous play. Her 14.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game seem to agree.
The nation’s most dynamic scorer, junior forward Naz Hillmon of Michigan has simply been outstanding. In her most recent game, a four point loss to Ohio State, she scored 50 points and added 16 rebounds. That raised her season average to 26.7 points per game, good enough for third in the sport. That also makes Michigan the only team in the AP Top 15 with a player in the top 15 scorers nationally.
Hillmon is doing it efficiently too. Her 63.58% shooting percentage is third in the country, while she is also contributing the third-most offensive rebounds per game (5.5) and the seventh most total rebounds (12.3) — the only player to rank in the top 10 in both scoring and rebounding.
In the Big Ten, Ohio State is looking like the top team, but has a self-imposed postseason ban. That puts pressure on Michigan, and Hillmon, to perform in the tournament. Right now, the Wolverines are 12th in the NET and on the border between a third and fourth seed. Hillmon’s leadership on and off the floor could be exactly what Michigan needs to land its highest-ever NCAA Tournament seed (they were previously a seventh seed in 2018).
She has scored in double figures in all but one game and has posted eight double-doubles in 11 contests. On top of it all, her 75% mark from the free throw line is the best of her career. If she gets on a roll come mid-to-late March, Hillmon could put together a tournament run for the ages.
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