With apologies to Trey Burke, Victor Oladipo and Ben McLemore, the nation’s most outstanding college basketball player does not play on the men’s side this season. Loaded with perhaps the best stable of stars in a decade, the 2012-13 season will be defined by the women.
The only problem is actually answering the question of who reigns supreme in women’s college hoops. Most would peg Baylor’s Brittney Griner as the nation’s best and most dominant force—and deservedly so. She’s been nothing short of phenomenal this season, and her Bears are the No. 1 team in the country.
However, there are a stable of top-tier ladies on the precipice of taking her spot. With the National Player of the Year race causing much debate, there may only be one fair way to settle it, with on-court performance when it counts.
In a star-dominated sport like women’s college hoops, the best players are almost always leading the top-ranked teams. That means whichever squad cuts down the nets in New Orleans this year will ultimately decide this “best player” debate.
Who are those ladies (and thus teams) to watch?
Brittney Griner (C, Baylor Lady Bears)
The reigning National Player of the Year, Griner’s performance in 2012-13 has been so spectacular it’s hard seeing anyone else taking the crown. The 6'8" Griner is inside the top six in the nation in points (22.4), field goal percentage (58.9) and blocks (3.8) per game while leading Baylor to what will likely be the No. 1 overall seed.
In other words, she’s been everything she has been since setting foot on campus. A senior, Griner will finally get her opportunity to be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft—an honor she probably would have been given if she had been a one-and-done player like many of her male counterparts.
But, alas, Griner has unfinished business. She has “only” one national championship on her resume, and history says you need more than that to be considered among the all-time greats. Cheryl Miller, Maya Moore and Chamique Holdsclaw were all leaders on more than one championship team.
So this tournament will matter for Griner. There have been many who have jumped to call her the greatest women’s player of all time. I wouldn’t quite go that far. But if she’s cutting down the nets again in April, Griner may have cemented her place in the discussion.
Based on what we’ve seen this season, don’t count it out.
Chiney Ogwumike (F, Stanford Cardinal)
There are plenty of stars in women’s college hoops, but the quest for dominance comes down to two: Griner and Ogwumike. While Griner may get more national accolades, the 6'4" Ogwumike may be the most outstanding player in the nation on a purely statistical level.
Heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale, Ogwumike is among the nation’s five-best players in points (22.7), field goal percentage (58.2) and rebounds (12.7) per contest. The only places she doesn’t eclipse Griner is n shooting percentage and blocks. The latter is understandable considering Ogwumike isn’t a towering force.
Ogwumike’s Cardinal are even responsible for Baylor’s only loss, a 71-69 thriller in the season’s third game for both squads. It’s been so long ago that everyone has forgotten. But with tournament time almost upon us, memories of that game may come flooding back.
However, that win over Baylor only tells part of the story. Stanford was also obliterated by Connecticut in a game in which Ogwumike seemingly lost all ability to make a basket, and fell in a semi-upset versus California in Pac-12 play.
As the seminal force in Stanford’s attack on both ends of the floor, Ogwumike’s play often dictates the game’s ultimate result. If necessary, she should have the luxury of working her way into tournament form in the early rounds, as Stanford is more than talented enough to handle those games.
But that won't be the case in the later rounds against stiffer competition. Then the Cardinal will be looking for Ogwumike to not only hit her season averages, but eclipse them.
Skylar Diggins (G, Notre Dame Fighting Irish)
Speaking of players with something left to prove, this will be Diggins’ final opportunity to cut down the nets. Though that’s the case for all seniors, most weren’t on the precipice of winning a national championship only to have that dream ripped away...twice.
Notre Dame has made the season’s final game in each of the past two seasons, losing to Texas A&M by six in 2011 and getting obliterated by Baylor last season. Both times, it’s been Diggins’ brilliant play at the point guard spot leading the way.
Though she’s not prone to gaudy statistical dominance, Diggins is arguably the best distributor in the nation. She’s averaging six assists per contest heading into Saturday’s matchup versus Providence and is averaging 16.5 points a game. She’s the driving force behind the nation’s third-highest scoring offense and fourth-best shooting team.
Diggins’ leadership is especially notable because of the Irish’s struggles on defense. Notre Dame ranks outside the top 50 in points allowed and opponent’s field goal percentage.
That makes Diggins’ performance absolutely vital in March. If the Irish want to do their best Buffalo Bills impersonation and make it three straight appearances in the final game, Diggins can't have an off night.
She’s shown the ability to rise to the occasion plenty of times before.