UConn's Paige Bueckers, Kentucky's Rhyne Howard, Louisville's Dana Evans and South Carolina's Aliyah Boston were named the finalists for the 2021 Naismith Women's College Player of the Year on Thursday.
"Despite the challenges of the pandemic, once the games began it was very clear which players emerged as the leading candidates for the Jersey Mike's Naismith Trophy," said Eric Oberman, executive director of the Atlanta Tipoff Club. "Each finalist's consistency throughout the course of the season and ability to dominate games make them among the top performers, and we look forward to honoring one of them at the end of the season."
Whereas three freshmen men have won college basketball's top individual honor, no women's player has ever captured the Naismith in her first season.
Bueckers, one of the most hyped prep prospects in basketball history, may just wind up being the first. The UConn guard averaged 19.7 points, 6.1 assists and 4.5 rebounds during the regular season while leading the Huskies to a 24-1 record and the top seed in the NCAA tournament. Her brilliance has left even UConn's all-time greats in awe of her poise at a young age.
"What she's done this year, in such a year of unknown, is actually ridiculous," former UConn great Breanna Stewart told Mechelle Voepel of ESPN. "She doesn't look like a freshman, that's for sure. Even when I look back on my freshman year, I had moments where it was like, 'Stewie is a freshman.' Paige has the confidence in leading her team as a freshman, which is crazy in itself."
Bueckers joined Maya Moore as the only player to win Big East Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year honors in the same season.
If Bueckers is the favorite, her competitors aren't far behind. Howard averaged 20.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists during the regular season, guiding Kentucky to a No. 4 seed. The junior guard was the only player in the SEC to lead her team in points, rebounds and assists. She was also the SEC Player of the Year for a second straight season.
Evans averaged 20.0 points, 4.2 assists and 2.7 rebounds for Louisville, which went 23-3 to win the ACC regular-season championship and earn a No. 2 seed in the Big Dance. She scored in double figures in all but one of the Cardinals' 26 games this season.
Boston is the only big on the list, and she's been by far the best in the nation at her position, putting up 13.7 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game as a senior. She is also a semifinalist for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year.
The ultimate award winner may come down to which of these women can best lead their team in the NCAA tournament. Bueckers, leading a strong No. 1 seed that looks like the national title favorite, again stands out as the likeliest possible option. However, if Kentucky can make a deep run with Howard continuing her one-woman show, there's a strong argument to be made in her favor.