Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball and other college sports for espnW. Voipel began covering women’s basketball in 1984 and joined ESPN in 1996.
Asked about Paige Bucher’s first guard making the 2020-21 women’s college basketball team, UConn coach Geno Auriemma emphasized the overall impact.
I’m sure people will vote for a lot of different players, he said after UConn won the Big East tournament title. I’d say so: Name one player who has done as much for his team as Paige has done for ours.
Name one player who has led such a young team to where it is today. Who has done more than them? And if you can give me a better argument, I’ll say I’ll vote for her too. But I don’t think you can.
Many people would have accepted this debate with Auriemma because it was a season where you could field a few decent players. But in the end, in her first season on a team that will become No. 1, Bueckers is energetic enough to be named the 2020-21 Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year by ESPN.com.
Booker is averaging 19.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 2.3 steals in 35.8 minutes per game. She is shooting 53.9% (186-of-345) from the field and 47.4% (55-of-116) from 3-point range. She was part of a Huskies defense that, especially in recent weeks, has stepped up to meet Auriemma’s high standards.
WNBA point guard and former UConn star Sue Bird said Buchers is at a high level, not only as a scorer, but as a facilitator.
If she gives five assists, she gets as much acclaim as if she makes five three-pointers, said Bird, who is also a women’s basketball analyst at ESPN. This is my favorite part of their game.
The Huskies’ dominance in their 18-0 Big East comeback can be looked at two ways. It shows that Buchers played a key role in keeping UConn on track as a freshman. But it also increases the level of competition he’ll face in the league, especially compared to the Power 5 conferences, all of which will have at least five teams in the NCAA tournament, according to ESPN broker Charlie Creme. The SEC and ACC should have eight teams each. Three of the 64 teams should qualify for the Big East.
That means players like sophomore Alia Boston, who won the SEC Tournament with South Carolina, and senior guard Dana Evans, who finished second in the ACC Tournament with Louisville, are also strong contenders for Player of the Year.
Someone other than Booker will win the Wade Cup, as rookies are not eligible for the annual tournament. But he could win the Wooden, Naismith and Associated Press awards. It can also be a season where the awards are split between different players.
It could be a season where multiple players share the National Player of the Year award. But UConn freshman Paige Buchers is our pick. Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire
The biggest challenge for Bucher’s Rookie of the Year comes from Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, who leads Division I in scoring (27.2 PPG) and provides the second most assists per game (7.0). The Hawkeyes (17-8) have not had as much success as the Huskies (24-1), but Iowa enters the competition with seven NCAA Tournament participants. Iowa advanced to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament by beating Rutgers Thursday.
Louisville and Baylor, two of the more high-profile opponents that UConn has on the schedule but can’t play because of the COVID-19 issue, are solid defensive teams. If Buchers succeeds against her, it would strengthen his case as well.
She scored 31 points against South Carolina, another top team, and her consistency and efficiency throughout the season were key points in her favor.
Buchers is trying to do what freshmen have only accomplished twice in the NCAA women’s basketball era: lead the national championship team in scoring during a season. Cheryl Miller did it for USC in 1983 and Shamik Holdsclaw did it for Tennessee in 1996.
If she makes five quick attempts, she’s just as upset as if she made five three-pointers. This is my favorite part of their game.
ESPN analyst and former UConn star Sue Bird on Paige Buchers.
Auriemma also praised the Bueckers for their contribution to team cohesion during a difficult and unpredictable season due to the pandemic.
She’s a great teammate, he said. She is one of those kids who understands the big picture and the purpose of a team. And how she can give the team confidence with her special skills.
Auriemma said Buchers recently told her about UConn’s negativity on social media, which she now understands is part of the game for the Huskies. UConn’s fatigue comes from her 11 NCAA titles, though the last was five years ago. The Buccaneers hope to put the Huskies back on the winning side in April.
She’s very sensitive to a lot of things that kids her age don’t care about, Auriemma said. And everything about them… She never wrecks anything.
This attitude seems to have worked for Buchers; she has an eye for detail in everything, including criticism. But for the most part, even Auriemma, who admits he had to muzzle himself a bit with seven top players, wasn’t so lucky.
After Monday’s Big East finale, Auriemma reflected on the impact of the new recruits on the Huskies.
Those little kids coming in really gave life to everyone involved in our program, he said. My life doesn’t change that much by winning another championship. But today my life has changed because I had the chance to see them celebrate.
Coach of the Year: Brenda Freeze, Maryland
Despite losing five starters last season, coach Brenda Frese has rebuilt Maryland. The Terps are 21-2 and are the highest ranked team in the country. Mitchell Leighton/Getty Images
The Terrapins shared the Big Ten title (2020) with Northwestern, won the league tournament, but then lost five of their top six scorers due to departures or transfers to another league. What did Freeze do? They received reinforcements and finished first in the league with 17-1 points.
In his 19th season at Maryland, Frese earned his 500th career victory. Victory on the 14th. February also to the best basketball coach in school history. She now has 508 wins and the Terps advance to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament on Friday. Maryland is 22-2 overall and 7.
As with the Player of the Year, there are many very worthy candidates for the Coach of the Year award. Gary Blair of Texas A&M lost to star player Chennedy Carter in the WNBA, but won his first SEC regular-season title. Also in the SEC, Don Staley led South Carolina to its sixth championship and Georgia State’s Johnny Taylor led the Bulldogs to their first SEC final since 2004.
Maryland won its sixth Big Ten regular season title in seven years. AP Photo/Terrance Williams
Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer brings back most of her team from last year, but she had to keep the Cardinals off campus for nine weeks this season because of COVID-19 rules in Santa Clara County. Stanford won the regular season and the Pac-12 tournament, and VanDerveer became the winningest coach in Division I women’s history.
Wes Moore led NC State to its second consecutive ACC Tournament title and two wins over No. 1 ranked teams. Baylor’s Kim Mulkey led the Lady Bears to their 11th consecutive Big 12 title after losing three seniors in the 2020 WNBA draft.
Then there’s Auriemma, whose team of seven freshmen won the regular season and Big East tournament and will be No. 1 in the NCAA.
But it’s Freeze who gets the credit for reshaping Maryland’s roster without losing any results. The Terps struggled to an 83-73 Big Ten quarterfinal victory over Nebraska on Thursday, but Frese was proud of the way they did it.
Our attitude is really tough, and I think the last 10 minutes really showed the psyche of this team: where the resilience and the confidence factor is, Freeze said. They all believe in each other, on both sides of the floor, and that bodes well for March.
Much of that confidence comes from Freeze, who has 565 wins in his coaching career, including two years at Ball State and one year at Minnesota before taking over at Maryland. She is only the third coach in Terps history, following Dottie McKnight (four seasons) and Chris Weller (27 seasons).
Transfers Katie Benzan, Chloe Bibby and Mimi Collins have worked well for Maryland this season. Sophomores Ashley Owusu (18.8 points per game) and Diamond Miller (17.5 points) are the Terps’ leading scorers. Owusu, who was named to the ESPN.com All-American second team on Thursday, also leads the Terps in assists (5.9 APG). These players are part of Freeze’s ongoing recruiting success, including young Angel Reese. She was only able to play 10 games this season due to injury, but returned to action on the 23rd. February’s return and an average of 10.4 PPG.
With so many new faces joining the team in the midst of the pandemic, Freeze said the Zoom sessions between the players helped them form a cohesive team before coming to Maryland. Bibby, for example, has agreed to transfer from Mississippi State without even visiting the Maryland campus.
They’re really made for each other. Freeze said of the Terps that they will be seen off the field and on the field. They are truly selfless. They understand how to succeed.
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