April 15, 2024

The 2023-24 women’s college basketball season has been full of intrigue, from big upsets to surprising team performances to freshmen making their names known early and often on the national scene. And if the path to Cleveland and the national championship picture look wide open, so too does the race for national player of the year.

Iowa‘s Caitlin Clark swept the player of the year awards last season and, according to ESPN BET, is the favorite for the 2024 Wooden Award (-160), followed by Stanford‘s Cameron Brink (+650), LSU‘s Angel Reese (+750) and UConn‘s Paige Bueckers (+750), who was the 2021 national player of the year.

Clark, the presumptive No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 WNBA draft should she declare, has a surefire case to repeat given her continued dominance, which has helped the Hawkeyes maintain a top-five ranking despite losing two starters from last year’s national title game run.

But it’s impossible to ignore what others are doing across the board, from Utah‘s Alissa Pili, who put the country on notice with a 37-point outburst against top-ranked South Carolina, to freshman JuJu Watkins, whose first month at USC has placed her in the company of all-time Trojans greats Lisa Leslie and Cheryl Miller.

With much more basketball left to be played, including pivotal conference games and a few remaining major nonconference showdowns, a ton can change between now and March. And while Clark and former Gamecock Aliyah Boston were consensus winners the past two seasons, there are multiple player of the year awards, which might be split among different players when the hardware is handed out in the spring. That said, amid a year with so much movement and little certainty, previous national players of the year tend to come from the top teams in the country. Over the past 20 years, Washington‘s Kelsey Plum (2017) was the only player of the year from a team not ranked in the top 10 of the final Associated Press poll. Plum, the sport’s all-time NCAA Division I scoring leader, and the Huskies were ranked No. 12 entering the NCAA tournament.

So who are the leading contenders this season? Here are the top six candidates in the player of the year race, listed in alphabetical order, followed by others knocking on the door.

Who are the player of the year front-runners right now?

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1:18

Cameron Brink’s 29 points, 11 rebounds lead Stanford to OT win over Duke

Cameron Brink scores a career-high 29 points along with 11 rebounds and six blocks to lift Stanford to an 82-79 win in overtime.

Cameron Brink, Stanford

Forward | 6-foot-4 | senior
2023-24 stats:
18.6 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 3.3 BPG

The case for Brink: After Haley Jones graduated and the Cardinal lost some transfers in the offseason, Brink has taken the reins in convincing fashion, averaging career highs in scoring, field goal percentage (59.8%), 3-point percentage (41.7% on 12 attempts) and rebounding. If anyone questioned how much she powers the Cardinal, look at how much they struggled in the second half of their loss to Gonzaga when Brink was sidelined with an illness, or her 29-point, 11-rebound, 6-block masterclass to propel Stanford over Duke in overtime. She’s the only player in the country this season to average at least 18 points, 10 boards and 3 blocks.

What might make or break her case: Good luck to Pac-12 award voters who will have to decide between Brink, Pili, Watkins and Lauren Betts for conference player of the year. How close that race is might reflect the jostling expected to happen atop the league standings, and while Pac-12 teams have already been known for cannibalizing each other, that dynamic could reach a whole new level this year. While Stanford was picked to finish third in the conference preseason poll, Brink has cemented the Cardinal as a team not to overlook, and if she stays out of foul trouble and on the floor, it’ll go a long way for Stanford’s prospects this season, as well as her chances of taking home individual accolades.

Can’t-miss game: Feb. 4 vs. UCLA

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Bueckers dimes Muhl for wide-open 3

Paige Bueckers swings it to an open Nika Muhl for a three-pointer.

Paige Bueckers, UConn

Guard | 6-foot-0 | junior
2023-24 stats:
19.8 PPG, 2.7 APG, 2.0 SPG

The case for Bueckers: Bueckers’ 2023-24 season statistically is similar to her freshman campaign, where she won every player of the year honor she was eligible for (as of last season, freshmen are eligible for the Wade Trophy). But the main difference is her assists are significantly down. That’s remarkable considering she’s only nine games back from her August 2022 ACL tear, but also a reflection of the similar, if not more pronounced, role she has on this UConn team. With the Huskies decimated by injuries, Bueckers has been tasked with stepping up even more than expected for UConn to contend, and she has largely met the bill, especially after a 28-point, 3-steal and 4-block performance against North Carolina.

What might make or break her case: Some voters might count out the Huskies after they suffered three double-digit losses (all to current top-five teams) in their first seven games of the season, dropping them in the AP poll to their lowest ranking in 30 years. UConn and Bueckers have several opportunities remaining on the schedule to notch résumé-building wins that could catapult them more firmly into the national conversation.

Can’t-miss game: Feb. 11 at South Carolina

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1:24

Caitlin Clark surpasses 3,000 points on historic night

Caitlin Clark becomes the 15th player in Division I women’s basketball history to reach 3,000 points en route to her 35 points in Iowa’s 67-58 win over Iowa State.

Caitlin Clark, Iowa

Guard | 6-foot-0 | senior
2023-24 stats:
29.5 PPG, 7.4 APG, 6.9 RPG

The case for Clark: Her usage is at an all-time high (39.6%; the previous high was 37.1% her freshman year) and she’s averaging over 20 attempts per game for the first time in her career, attesting to how Clark has taken on even more responsibility following the departures of McKenna Warnock and Monika Czinano. And yet her efficiency is comparable to where it was last year when she swept the player of the year awards; Clark sports an effective field goal percentage of 56.8% versus 57.1% her junior season. She’s still dishing out over seven assists per game while leading the nation in scoring, and has actually decreased her turnovers from last year to a career-low 3.2 per contest.

What might make or break her case: Voter philosophy may differ here: Some could see this as Clark’s award to lose, while others might teeter into voter fatigue. Nonetheless, how Clark and this new-look Iowa squad perform in Big Ten play will factor into her chances. Last season the Hawkeyes failed to win the regular-season crown with a 15-3 league record but rebounded to clinch the conference tournament title. Several members of this team, though, are less experienced. If Iowa and Clark falter significantly across their Big Ten slate — especially if her efficiency plummets — and a candidate from another team surges to challenge her, we might not have a repeat winner for this award.

Can’t-miss game: Jan. 13 vs. Indiana

Guard | 5-foot-6 | junior
2023-24 stats:
14.3 PPG, 7.7 APG, 3.1 SPG

The case for Harmon: Harmon’s impact on the Longhorns is undeniable. Vic Schaefer likes to refer to her as a five-tool player: She’s the head of the snake defensively, tasked with shutting down the opposition’s best guard, and runs the show on offense, not just as a facilitator but as an improved shooter. And Harmon already has a big-time nonconference performance that solidified her status as one of the top guards in the country: She became the first player in 25 seasons to record at least 25 points and 10 assists against UConn with a 27-point, 13-dime outing.

What might make or break her case: Her scoring numbers aren’t as striking as other players in this conversation (she’s not even the top scorer at Texas); whether that’s fair given how many other things she does on the court, it may matter to some voters. Nonetheless, if Texas runs through Big 12 play with ease and continues to look like a Final Four contender, it’ll likely be off the stellar play from its junior point guard.

Can’t-miss game: Dec. 30 vs. Baylor

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Alissa Pili erupts for 15 points in the 2nd quarter for Utah

Alissa Pili cooks the Gamecocks for 15 points in the second quarter to finish with 21 points in the first half for the Utes.

Alissa Pili, Utah

Forward | 6-foot-2 | senior
2023-24 stats:
24.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.3 BPG

The case for Pili: Take it from Dawn Staley: “You can’t stop [Pili]. It’s impossible to stop her,” the coach said after the Utes star went off for a career-high 37 points against the top-ranked Gamecocks last Sunday. It wasn’t just that Pili almost dropped a 40-piece on a defensive juggernaut like South Carolina, but that she only needed 28 minutes and 23 shots from the field to do so (15-for-23 overall, 3-for-6 on 3-pointers). And that game wasn’t a one-off: She’s shooting 72.1% from the field and 55.6% from 3 (36 attempts) on the season.

What might make or break her case: Pili has had to shoulder even more of the scoring load since Gianna Kneepkens went down with a season-ending foot injury in early December and with Isabel Palmer sidelined for the last month. If she can keep Utah toward the top of the Pac-12 standings and in the national conversation, she should remain in the player of the year race — even more so if she maintains this level of eye-popping efficiency.

Can’t-miss game: Jan. 12 vs. Stanford

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JuJu Watkins goes off for 27 points in USC’s win

USC freshman JuJu Watkins racks up a game-high 27 points in a blowout victory over UC Riverside.

JuJu Watkins, USC

Guard | 6-foot-2 | freshman
2023-24 stats:
27.3 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 2.6 SPG

The case for Watkins: It’s rare for freshmen to assert themselves into the player of the year conversation so forcefully, but Watkins has done just that, living up to every bit of the hype she received entering her first season at USC. The former No. 1 recruit burst onto the scene the first day of the season with a 32-point, 6-rebound, 5-assist effort in the Trojans’ win over Ohio State, and has since continued to put up ridiculous numbers with four additional 30-pieces. She’s second in the nation in scoring, hitting an impressive 50.6% of her shots and 47.6% from 3, but does a little bit of everything for USC.

What might make or break her case: The Trojans haven’t played the strongest nonconference slate, so the Pac-12 should be a much greater challenge for Watkins. If she keeps up these sorts of numbers in conference play, shines against the likes of Stanford, UCLA and Utah, and helps assert the Trojans as a Pac-12 contender capable of making a deep run in March, Watkins deserves serious consideration, no matter her freshman status.

Can’t-miss game: Jan. 14 vs. UCLA


Which other players could break into the conversation?

Lauren Betts, UCLA

Forward | 6-foot-7 | sophomore
2023-24 stats:
17.0 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 1.8 BPG

Why Betts is in the vicinity: Offensive balance powers No. 2 UCLA, with six players (including stellar backcourt duo Kiki Rice and Charisma Osborne) averaging double-figure scoring. Yet Betts might be playing her way into this race due to the simple fact she has catapulted Cori Close’s squad into a national title contender upon transferring in the offseason. After not seeing much time at Stanford, Betts is shining with UCLA, most recently exemplified by her 22-point, 18-rebound outing against Florida State. Her efficiency is also staggering; 77.4% is the best among qualifying players.

What could bolster her case: How will Betts fare against tougher competition and taller bigs in the Pac-12? Her marquee performance against FSU, for example, came against a rather undersized team. And given UCLA’s balance and strong guard play, the more pronounced her role on the team, the better her chances are at taking home individual awards, especially if the Bruins continue on this trajectory.

Can’t-miss game: Feb. 4 at Stanford

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0:18

Kamilla Cardoso makes Duke pay for TO with go-ahead bucket

Kamilla Cardoso comes away with a steal and scores to put South Carolina up 31-29 over Duke.

Center | 6-foot-7 | senior
2023-24 stats:
14.7 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 3.1 BPG

Why Cardoso is in the vicinity: The Gamecocks thrive off their depth and, like UCLA, are balanced offensively, but Cardoso has undoubtedly been central to their undefeated start. She has shown up in big moments, from their season-opening win against Notre Dame (20 points, 15 rebounds, 4 blocks) to her fourth-quarter surge to push South Carolina past Duke. In her expanded role replacing Boston, she’s averaging various career bests, including field goal percentage (61.9%), and Cardoso’s presence defensively and on the glass has helped the Gamecocks pick up where they left off despite losing five players to the WNBA. As the best player on the top team in the country, she has a strong argument for being featured in the player of the year conversation.

What could bolster her case: Staley has stressed there’s still a whole other level Cardoso can reach, saying after the Utah win she wants her team to get the senior center the ball “a lot more” (the player from Brazil is averaging 9.3 shot attempts per game, a hair below Te-Hina Paopao‘s team-best 9.4). While their dynamic backcourt of Paopao, Raven Johnson and MiLaysia Fulwiley has further elevated the Gamecocks’ offense, getting Cardoso more touches would further diversify South Carolina’s offense and open things up even more for its guards, in the process cementing her as a top player in the country.

Can’t-miss game: Jan. 25 at LSU


What about LSU?

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1:26

LSU breaks two scoring records in huge win

LSU scores their most points ever in a game and records its biggest winning margin following their 133-44 victory over McNeese.

The LSU Tigers boast a Big Three of Angel Reese, Mikaylah Williams and Aneesah Morrow. Reese was a finalist for several player of the year awards last season, but given her four-game absence and uneven play on the court, she hasn’t asserted herself into the conversation this year — so far.

Is it possible that Morrow, who leads the team in scoring, is second in rebounding and has a standout performance against Virginia Tech on her résumé, enters the chat behind further dominance in SEC play? Or how about Williams, LSU’s best shooter (55.9% from the field, 51.0% from 3)? Or a resurgent Reese?


What to watch this weekend

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1:39

Louisville takes down rival Kentucky

Louisville takes down rival Kentucky

No. 18 Louisville at No. 17 UConn

Noon ET Saturday, FOX

Louisville might have a different feel this year, especially following the transfer of Hailey Van Lith to LSU, but behind the addition of Kiki Jefferson and the emergence of players like Olivia Cochran, they’ve remained in the AP poll, bolstering their résumé with wins over Gonzaga and Ole Miss. Their sole loss of the season came to a then-undefeated Alabama Razorbacks squad at the Betty Chancellor Classic the day after Thanksgiving.

1 p.m. ET Saturday, FloHoops

One of the few remaining undefeated teams, the Lady Rebels visit a Seton Hall team that fell to three solid teams in Columbia, USC and Princeton (in double overtime). UNLV entered the AP rankings this past week following double-figure wins over Arizona and Oklahoma.

5 p.m. ET Saturday, BIG12/ESPN+

Both teams enter the game undefeated. Baylor passed its first major test of the season with a win over Utah, while Miami’s came with a victory at Mississippi State in the ACC/SEC Challenge. The Hurricanes know what it takes to pull off upsets after their Cinderella run to the Elite Eight last season.

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