There are two names that have dominated the college basketball dreamscape since the younger of the two No. 1 recruits announced she would attend Connecticut.
Sophomore Paige Bueckers and freshman Azzi Fudd will have all eyes on them as they team up again — they have gold with Team USA's youth squads — in an attempt to bring the Huskies out of a five-year title drought. No, that's not long to nearly anyone else, but this is 11-time champion UConn we're talking about.
These nine players, and hundreds others outside of Storrs, Connecticut, won't let that happen without a good battle. For those who aren't aware of Bueckers and Fudd, read on for more on the duo below. But first, their peers who may not receive as much attention.
Caitlin Clark, Iowa
So., PG, 26.6 PPG, 7.1 APG, 5.9 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 47.2%, 40.6% 3FG
Clark, another AP All-America selection, might have shared national freshman of the year honors with Bueckers for good reason. The 6-foot guard ranked first or second in nearly every scoring and assist category. She had nine double-doubles and notched a triple-double in late December despite a rough scoring night.
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) March 23, 2021
Clark is relied upon more than Bueckers to score and her gaudy stats show it. Iowa will look to better its Sweet 16 berth, where it lost to UConn with Clark scoring 21 and Bueckers scoring 18. Neither are eligible for the WNBA draft until after their junior seasons.
Highlight games: Jan. 23 vs. Indiana; Feb. 6 at Michigan; Feb. 14 vs. Maryland; Feb. 20 at Indiana; Feb. 27 vs. Michigan
Aliyah Boston, South Carolina
Jr., F/C, 13.7 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 1.6 APG, 2.6 BPG, 48.5% FG, 13-49 (26.5%) 3PG
Boston has remained on this list since she entered college, building with improvements every season. South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley told the AP her 6-foot-5 forward further developed her footwork and agility this past offseason.
— GamecockWBB (@GamecockWBB) March 6, 2021
Her two triple-doubles lead the Gamecocks' record books and she already ranks fifth in blocked shots (167) and eighth in double-doubles (30) over her South Carolina career. To put her offense into perspective, listen to Arkansas head coach Mike Neighbors and Georgia head coach Joni Taylor talk about trying to defend.
"We're going to try to sneak two players on the floor and have two on her all the time," Taylor joked last year. "No, she's, good lord, she's a problem. She is a grown woman, and she is a professional already. She was a pro when she got there, and she's just gotten even better."
Boston is a two-time Lisa Leslie Center of the Year and earned her second All-America first-team honors last month. However, she wasn't a unanimous selection, surprising many, including Staley and analyst Carolyn Peck. That snub, combined with the heartbreaking missed shots at the end of the Final Four loss to Stanford, will provide plenty of motivation — not that she needs it to dominate.
Highlight games: Nov. 9 at N.C. State; Dec. 21 vs. Stanford; Jan. 27 vs. Connecticut
Rhyne Howard, Kentucky
Sr., G/F, 20.7 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 3.8 APG, 2.5 SPG, 44.4% FG, 37.3% 3FG
Howard was the only player in the nation to average at least 20 points and 7.3 rebounds per game last season as the Wildcats' key offensive threat. She averaged more (22.3 PPG) in 11 games against ranked opponents while shooting 47.1% from the field and 39.7% from 3-point range. Three of her four 30-plus games came against top-25 ranked teams.
— WSLAM (@wslam) January 10, 2021
Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy told the AP that the 6-foot-2 Howard, an AP first-team All-America preseason selection, committed to the weight room in the offseason to improve her fitness. She's considered by many to be the No. 1 pick in the 2022 WNBA draft for her versatility and size at the guard position.
Highlight games: Nov. 14 at Indiana; Dec. 12 vs. Louisville
NaLyssa Smith, Baylor
Sr., F, 18 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 56.1% FG
Smith is coming off one of the most decorated single-season performances in Baylor women's basketball history, including becoming the first Bears player to win the Katrina McClain Award for the nation's best power forward.
— NCAA Women’s Basketball (@NCAAWBB) March 27, 2021
The 6-foot-2 star was named to the second-team All-America team last spring and earned first-team honors in the preseason team. New head coach Nicki Collen has had her watch film of Natasha Howard and Breanna Stewart to keep expanding her game outside of the paint.
Highlight games: Nov. 21 at Maryland; Dec. 19 vs. Michigan
Naz Hillmon, Michigan
Sr., F, 24 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 1.3 APG, 62.3% FG
Hillmon dropped 50 points against a top-20 ranked team last year, which is fair enough reason to keep an eye on the 6-foot-2 forward. It earned her a shoutout from LeBron James, a basketball and pop culture superstar with 100 million followers on Instagram. It's another reason to keep an eye on her through her senior season and the WNBA draft.
— Michigan Women’s Basketball (@umichwbball) October 26, 2021
She bettered her stats in nearly every category, including a better percentage from the free throw line. She's a threat for a double-double every night out.
Highlight games: Nov. 26 vs. Oregon State; No. 27 vs. Mississippi State; Dec. 2 at Louisville; Dec. 19 vs. Baylor
Haley Jones, Stanford
Jr., G/F, 13.2 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 2.9 APG, 54.6% FG
Jones was the first No. 1 recruit since 2010 to choose Stanford, which is 45 miles from her hometown, and after a knee injury her freshman season, she took off as expected. Jones averaged 20.5 points and six rebounds per game in the 2021 NCAA tournament title run to earn the Final Four Most Outstanding Player award.
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) April 3, 2021
The 6-foot-1 wing will take a larger role for the Cardinal with Kiana Williams graduating. Coach Tara VanDerveer said she's noticed more confidence in the junior's game, which could expand to beyond the arc.
Highlight games: Nov. 25 vs. Indiana; Nov. 27 vs. Maryland; Dec. 21 at South Carolina
Ashley Joens, Iowa State
Sr., G, 24.2 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 46.3% FG
Joens averaged a school record in points per game and her rebound average ranks seventh. The 6-foot-1 guard/forward notched a double-double in nearly half of her 2020-21 outings (13 of 26). She scored at least 30 points eight times, including the two NCAA tournament games.
Joens, who contributes one-third of the team's offense, will look to lead the Big 12 in scoring for a third straight year as the reigning Cheryl Miller Award winner for the nation's best small forward.
Highlight games: Dec. 2 vs. LSU; Dec. 8 vs. Iowa
Elissa Cunane, N.C. State
Sr., C, 16.3 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 1.8 APG 53.3% FG
Cunane returned from a bout with COVID-19 to help lead N.C. State over then-No. 1 Louisville in February. The Wolfpack find more success when they get Cunane a touch, and she's an anchor on one of the conference's best defenses.
The 6-foot-5 center was named the ACC Tournament MVP averaging 23.3 points and nine rebounds in shooting 62.5% in the postseason. Her 70 points ranked fifth by a player in the tournament over the last two decades. In their Sweet 16 exit, Cunane became the first Wolfpack player with 15 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a tournament game since 2000.
Highlight games: Nov. 9 vs. South Carolina; Nov. 25 vs. Maryland; Dec. 2 at Indiana
Ashley Owusu, Maryland
Jr., G, 17.9 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.3 SPG, 49.3% FG
Maryland's offense trounced most opponents (90.88 PPG) and Owusu led the charge. The 6-foot guard was named co-MVP at the Big Ten Tournament with teammate Diamond Miller (17.3 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 2.9 APG). They were both part of Team USA's win at the AmeriCup over the summer.
Owusu will look to develop her 3-point shot (11-for-38) and bring Maryland past its shocking Sweet 16 upset to Texas.
Highlight games: Nov. 21 vs. Baylor; Nov. 25 vs. N.C. State; Nov. 27 vs. Stanford; Dec. 12 at South Carolina
Honorable mentions: Shakira Austin (Ole Miss), Kamilla Cardoso (South Carolina), Christyn Williams (UConn), Cameron Brink (Stanford), Zia Cooke (South Carolina).
Paige Bueckers, Connecticut
So., PG, 20.0 PPG, 5.8 APG, 4.9 RPG, 2.3 SPG, 52.4% FG, 46.4% 3FG
Bueckers became the first player to win the Wooden Award as a freshman, completing a sweep of the national player of the year awards for which she was eligible. Since the Wooden Award began honoring a women's player in 2003, six women have won the Wooden award twice and no one has done it three times.
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) January 22, 2021
Bueckers could very well become the first, though expect her scoring to dip this season with another entry on this list joining the Huskies' roster. The 5-foot-11 guard was the only unanimous selection to the 2021-22 Associated Press All-America team and is coming off ankle surgery in April.
Azzi Fudd, Connecticut
Fr., G, HS stats as a junior: 19.2 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 2 APG
Fudd is the third No. 1 recruit on the UConn roster, joining Christyn Williams and Bueckers. She and Bueckers are best friends, having already won two gold medals for Team USA, and are the most anticipated duo in college basketball.
Fudd, a 5-foot-11 guard, is the reigning high school player of the year. UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said this summer "her game is much older than her age" and commended her footwork and consistency. She was the first sophomore to ever win the Gatorade Player of the Year award and twice won the 3-point shooting contest at Steph Curry’s SC Select Camp.
Highlight these nonconference games: Nov. 14 vs. Arkansas; Dec. 19 vs. Louisville; Jan. 17 at Oregon; Jan. 27 at South Carolina; Feb. 6 vs. Tennessee