If there’s one theme for this year’s NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, it’s that everything’s wide open so there’s room for new stars and that teams can create new memories. Some of the biggest star forces in the game this season come from underclassmen, with strong performances by freshmen and sophomores adding their resumes, and there are promises to be more where it comes from.
Caitlin Clark, Iowa
Clark leads the country with 26.7 points per game. Her 195 assists are the most in the country, and her 506 field goal attempts are third. She is so comfortable on the best rankings of so many offensive categories that it is easy to forget that she is a freshman. A possible encounter with her UConn counterpart, Paige Bueckers, in the round of 16 is the definition of TV you should watch.
Paige Bueckers, UConn
Bueckers, the Big East’s player of the year and freshman of the year, was one of the top stories this season. She averaged 19.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per game and had already played 45 minutes of an overtime game against South Carolina and hit the game-winner. Her career high point, 32 points, came in February against St. Louis.
Dana Evans, Louisville
The Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year for the second consecutive season, Evans is 5 feet 6 inches, but in 15th place in the country in points with 520. She was a senior guard and in all of her 23 games this season in two figures, and 40 games in a row, dating to last season. She steals an average of 1.3 steals a game and has a throw-in percentage of 92.1.
Elissa Cunane, North Carolina
Cunane was the most valuable player in the ACC tournament and helped lead the Wolfpack to a No. 1 series in San Antonio. She was a 6-foot, 5-foot junior center in North Carolina and led the team with 16.6 points and 8.1 rebounds per game.
NaLyssa Smith, Baylor
The Big 12 player of the year, Smith, averaged 18.6 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, while finishing second in the conference with a 53.3 field goal percentage. As a junior power forward, she helped lead Baylor to No. 2 in San Antonio after scoring 21 points in a semifinal round of a conference tournament against Texas. She was born in San Antonio and has shot at a clip of 54.1 percent this season and had six games that shot at least 75 percent.
Aari McDonald, Arizona
The Pac-12 player of the year and a co-defensive player of the year, McDonald is one of the best two-way players in the country. It was her second consecutive year that the defensive player scored. Her 19.4 points per game tied her for the highest average in the conference, and she scored in all 85 games with the Wildcats in double figures after transferring from Washington. She is 5 feet 6 inches, and her five rebounds per game were the 23rd most in the conference. She also had 2.7 steals per game, and her speed makes her a weapon in transition.
Ashley Owusu, Maryland
Maryland is full of talent, but his heart and soul is Owusu. Her 373 field goals were the 23rd in the country. A second year she leads the Terps with 18.3 points per game and assists with 5.8 per game. She was a unanimous Big Ten pick, and her decision-making skills helped Maryland to a 1.69 help-to-turnover ratio.
Aliyah Boston, South Carolina
So much has been said about Boston, the Gamecocks’ generation star. Boston was fifth in the country with 74 blocks and 14th with 11.7 rebounds per game. A second forward, she again led South Carolina to a title in the Southeastern Conference. At 6 feet 5 inches, she is a double SEC defensive player of the year and an inevitable presence on the floor.
Haley Jones, Stanford
Stanford was dominant, and Jones is a big reason. She is a 6-1 keeper and has the potential to take over matches, although her 13 points and 7.7 rebounds a game does not jump from the statistics page. She can shoot and work in paint and is the cardinal’s heart.
Rhyne Howard, Kentucky
Howard, a two-time SEC player of the year, was 25th in the country with 20.7 points per game and led the Wildcats with 7.3 points. She has scored double figures in 70 of her 79 career matches. As a sophomore, she’s in the same conversation with former stars Tiffany Mitchell and A’ja Wilson in South Carolina, players who earned the SEC Player of the Year twice before becoming seniors. She is the only Power 5 player to score more than 20 points per game.
Others to look at: Jenn Wirth, Gonzaga; Hannah Sherven, South Dakota; Michaela Onyenwere, UCLA; Charli Collier, Texas.