Credit: News Sentinel
By: Jeffrey Newholm
Picking up where I left off last week, in today’s college hoops preview I’d like to highlight the top ten players to watch in women’s basketball. There are two things I’d like to note about this list. The first is that, to avoid a few schools hogging all the space here, each school is limited to one player. There are certainly All-American players who would be on here on their own merits, but I want to highlight as much of the field as possible. Another thing to note is that there are no freshmen on this list. This is because the WNBA usually does not let players go pro early, so the best players have to stay in school for a while and freshman usually don’t start (this, by the way, is one of the things I like the most in women’s basketball). With this noted, I’ll begin with a no-brainer for #1:
- Breanna Stewart, Sr. Forward, UConn
Stewart’s accomplishments are so numerous many can’t be mentioned here. She is a two time national player of the year and three time Final Four most outstanding player, which should get a player on top of any list. She led the team in scoring and rebounding last year, but what makes her stand out is her effort on defense. She recorded over 100 blocks the last two seasons and many of them where when a layup from the opposing shooter seemed certain. She also recorded over 60 steals in the last two years. When Stewart first arrived on campus, she stated her goal was to win four straight national titles. She’s three for three so far. Can she pull off the unprecedented feat this year?
- Diamond DeShields, So. Guard, Tennessee
DeShields was a five star, top five recruit in the class of 2013 at North Carolina. She, along with three other talented recruits, were supposed to take the Tar Heels back to the Final Four, and after reaching the Elite Eight their freshman year, it seemed a matter of inevitability. DeShields was especially good, being named consensus freshman of the year while averaging 18 points a game. But now all four of those players have transferred, with DeShields making a more or less lateral move to Tennessee. The Vols used to be the premier team in the game, but with Pat Summit’s departure they haven’t been to the Final Four since 2008. After sitting last year out due to NCAA transfer rules, DeShields looks to return the Vols to national prominence.
- Brianna Turner, So. Forward, Notre Dame
Notre Dame has taken a huge step up these last few years, making five Final Fours in a row—only to lose all five, including the last three to Uconn. Making it back won’t be easy with All-American Jewell Loyd leaving early for the WNBA, but with Turner coming back I wouldn’t count the Irish out. Turner averaged 13.8 points a game last season, which may not sound too impressive…until you consider she shot a blistering 65% from the field to get there, best in the nation (for all players, not just freshmen). With those numbers, it’s no surprise Turner was ACC freshman of the year and first team all conference. She ranked high in the rookie ACC record books in several other categories too, ranking third in blocks and double-figure rebounding games. With three more years to go, the sky is the limit for Turner. But at this point going to the finals and losing is no longer acceptable in South Bend. Can she lead the program to their first title since 2001?
- Niya Johnson, Sr. Guard, Baylor
Johnson may strike some as a curious choice on this list seeing as she only averaged seven points a game last year while her teammate Nina Davis averaged 20 and was Big 12 player of the year. Yet I still think I’m justified in picking Johnson because while any number of players can score points, there isn’t anyone in the country who can dish out assists like her. She had no less than 332 of them last year, a Big 12 record and 78 more than anyone else in the country. Furthermore, her assist-to-turnover ratio was a staggering 4.1:1, also a Big 12 record. Baylor has been right in the mix for the title the last two years only to meet their match in Notre Dame in the Elite Eight. Can they get a more favorable seed this year, or will they have to go through another power to get to the Final Four?
Credit: The Post and Courier
- Tiffany Mitchell, Sr. Guard, South Carolina
Listing a bunch of numbers here would not do Mitchell justice, as her biggest contribution to her team is coming up big when she is needed the most. Numerous times last year the Gamecocks were in danger of losing only to have Mitchell step up with a clutch three or some game-icing free throws. She was instrumental in both regional games last year, hitting a buzzer-beater in the Sweet Sixteen and ending the elite eight with a 7-2 run all on her own. Unfortunately the magic ran out in the program’s first Final Four game as she missed a three that would have beaten Notre Dame. This year the Gamecocks are one of the teams most likely to rain on Uconn’s parade in Indy and win the program’s first title. Can Mitchell live up to her reputation as the most clutch player in the game?
- Kelsey Mitchell, So. Guard, Ohio State
Mitchell went on a scoring rampage of epic proportions her freshman year, where she started in every game. In fact, she was the first freshman in NCAA history to lead the country in scoring at 24.9 points a game and was the only player in the country to score 800 points. What’s most impressive to me is Mitchell hit an astonishing 127 threes, which puts her on pace to break the record for threes in a career. All that considered, it almost goes without saying that she was co-Big Ten player of the year and was second team All American. Unfortunately the Buckeyes proved they were not ready for prime time when they loss to Uconn by 44 earlier this month with Mitchell going two for fourteen. Mitchell is a very talented player, but she needs to continue to develop her game so she can put up eye-popping numbers against elite teams as well as average ones.
- Courtney Williams, Sr. Guard, South Florida
Since the Big East split up into two conferences, UConn has dominated the American, never having to win a single digit game. But this year Williams and the Bulls will be looking to change that. Last year it wasn’t one of the Huskies who led the American in scoring at 20.3 points a game, it was Williams. In fact she scored a total of 710 points, best in Bulls history and the ninth most nationally. Her average wasn’t inflated by a few big games either: she broke the 20 point plateau 20 times. With Williams being a unanimous preseason all-conference pick and the Bulls currently at #19 in the country—and having just given mighty Baylor a mighty scare—can they do the unthinkable and knock off the American’s top dog?
- Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Jr. Guard, Maryland
Maryland looked to be right at home in their inaugural Big Ten season last year, blowing through the conference schedule without a loss, gaining a #1 seed and advancing all the way to the Final Four. But with the departure of star Lexie Brown to Duke, Walker-Kimbrough will have to step up her game if the Terps want to make it back for the third year in a row. She had a solid, if unspectacular, year last season, averaging 13 points a game while shooting 51% from the field. The regionals is where she truly stood out, however. She scored a combined 36 points in the second weekend and was named regional most outstanding player. This year in a small sample size she has been on a tear, averaging 19 points a game while the Terps are yet to have a game within 45. Can she continue on her torrid pace when Maryland gets into the meat of its schedule?
- Imani Boyette, Senior Center, Texas
Texas had a disappointing finish to the year in 2015, but it certainly wasn’t the fault of Boyette. She averaged less than 10 points a game and only started eight of them, but was such a big contributor off the bench she was named first team Big Twelve. Boyette lead the team with 52 blocks, was the most accurate shooter at 56%, and was second in rebounding with seven boards a game. Most impressively, she saved her best for last with back-to-back twenty point games in the tournament as the fifth seeded Longhorns snuck into the Sweet Sixteen. This year the program is back at full strength after numerous injuries last year and is up to #11 in the poll. Can they dethrone Baylor as the dominant team in the conference?
- Mariya Moore, So. Forward, Louisville
Moore may not have had quite the rookie year that DeShields and Turner had, but she’s still a player worth watching in the years to come. Moore is one of the best recruits ever landed by the usually unappreciated Cards, seeing as she was a McDonald’s All-American in high school and played on the USA Basketball Under-18 team. Given her potential it was sensible she started all but one game as a freshman. She averaged 13 points a game while showing good consistency, scoring in double figures in 25 games. She has shown improvement already this year, upping her average to 16 points a game—but the Cards are off to a shocking 0-2 start. Can Moore get the team turned around and make a deep tournament run?
You can follow me @JeffreyNewholm.
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