The 2021 women's NCAA Tournament is back -- played exclusively in the San Antonio area. This season, more so than in recent years, there is plenty of parity when it comes to a national championship favorite.
That also means there's plenty of individual X-factors in this year's field. Some players are undisputed stars, while others are valuable to their respective teams in ways not always seen on the scoresheet. Here are 20 such players to keep an eye on.
One of several semifinalists for the Naismith Women's Player of the Year Award on this list. The sophomore will be making her NCAA Tournament debut for the No. 1 seed Gamecocks. Thus, plenty of eyes will be fixed on the way Boston deals with the bright lights of the Big Dance. She averaged 13.7 points and 11.7 rebounds this season as a sophomore. As South Carolina's most complete player, she needs to play at a high level if the Gamecocks are to live up to their seed.
Fans and analysts of women's college basketball will be talking about Bueckers' freshman season for a long time. Regardless of the No.1-ranked Huskies increase their NCAA record with a 12th national title. Bueckers averaged 19.7 points, shot 47.4-percent from 3-point range, and 6.1 assists to earn both Big East Player and Freshman of the Year. Sure, UConn has plenty of talent, but if Bueckers is anything less than her usual spectacular self, then the Huskies could be in trouble.
The Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Clark is the nation's leading scorer at 26.7 points per game and second with 7.2 assists per contest. Her Hawkeyes are a No. 5 seed, so there is some work to be done in San Antonio. It will be interesting to see if the nerves of playing in a first NCAA Tournament will get to Clark, who has not played like a freshman at any point this season.
As a No. 6 seed in the Hemisfair Region, the Longhorns have their work cut for them in order to make a deep NCAA Tournament run. However, they also have one of the best players in the country in Collier. Averaging 20.1 points and 11.7 rebounds, she's the kind of player capable of carrying a team in this type of setting. If Collier is able to dominant more than usual, then Texas will certainly be worth watching.
N.C. State grabbed one of the four No. 1 seeds, somewhat surprisingly to those analysts who thought perhaps Texas A&M was more suited for such an honor. Still, the Wolfpack are a quality program, which won the ACC tournament and has one of the nation's best in Cunane. At 6-foot-5, Cunane averages 16.8 points, 8.2 boards, and 1.5 assists. She's one of the most complete post players in the country and is the kind of player who's capable of taking over inside.
The senior Davis would love for the Volunteers to make a deep tournament run. If that's to be the case, Davis (17.2 points per game, 8.8 rebounds per game) must be at her best. The Volunteers are a No. 3 seed behind top-seeded UConn and No. 2 Baylor. Not an easy task to reach the Final Four, but if Davis is playing at a high level, then the Vols might have a chance to take down at least one or both of those fellow powers.
As the fourth seed in the Alamo Region, Arkansas could be looking at a date with top-seeded Stanford. Arkansas already has wins over Baylor and UConn this season, so taking down another giant of the game would mean Dungee is likely playing at a dominant level. The SEC scoring leader averaging 22.2 points, Dungee paces a squad that puts up 96.0 points per game and hopes to run its way to a deep tournament stay.
The ACC Player of the Year, Evans ranks among the national leaders averaging 20.0 points and shooting 93.8 percent from the free-throw line. Evans is the undisputed heart and soul of the Cardinals, a team that should be motivated as a No. 2 seed in the Alamo Region and after losing to N.C.State in the ACC tournament. As Evans goes, so does Louisville. If she's off, even a little bit, then the Cardinals
Though Rutgers is a six seed, it's become a team that women's hoop experts like to make it into the Sweet 16. Of course, it's never wise to completely count out a C. Vivian Stringer team. It also helps that the legendary coach has one of the Big Ten's best guards in Guirantes (20.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 5.3 assists per game, 2.1 steals per game, 1.9 blocks per game). There might not be a player more valuable to her team than Guirantes, who does just about everything for the Scarlet Knight.
In the never-say-never category, No. 14 seed MTSU pulling off a first-round upset of mighty Tennessee would be the biggest victory in the history of the program -- and for the school in any sport. Hayes, who enters the NCAA Tournament second in the country averaging 26.5 points, is the kind of offensive talent that can make things interesting for an underdog. If the Vols can't contain her and Middle Tennessee catches some breaks, who knows what can happen?
As long as Hillmon is on the court, the No. 6 seed Wolverines will have a chance. Hillmon enters the NCAA Tournament fourth in the country averaging 25.1 points and the Big Ten Player of the Year. Who can forget that 50-point effort against Ohio State in January? In the NCAA Tournament, if Hillmon is on to near that level offensively, and Michigan's opponent is collectively off, then she and the Wolverines could hang around a while.
For the second straight season, Howard (20.7 ppg) was named SEC Player of the Year. The formula is rather simple of the fourth-seeded Wildcats: it's Howard's team and in order for them to be a factor in the NCAA Tournament, their star has to be at her best. There aren't many pundits giving Kentucky a serious chance this year, but with a player as talented as Howard, anything's possible.
No. 1 seed Stanford is quite the balanced team. There really isn't one true star, but Jones is the motor that makes this vehicle run -- especially in transition, where the Cardinal seems to excel. She averages 13.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, and nearly 3.0 rebounds per contest. If Jones continues to play her game, and not try to do too much on the floor, then the Cardinal should feel good about their chances to contend for a third national title -- and first since 1992.
The Aggies didn't get a No. 1 seed many pundits of the women's game thought they deserved after winning the SEC regular-season title. Losing to Georgia in the league tournament had something to do with that, along with N.C. State's recent emergence. That said, Texas A&M still has one of the game's best in Jones (12.3 ppg, 10.3 rpg). The junior forward excels in the paint, and that must continue if the Aggies are to reach the Final Four and prove the selection committee wrong.
Another of the nation's top offensive players, Kelly (23.9 ppg) is a special talent who will be pitted against Clark and Iowa in a first-round matchup of two of the country's top scorers. If the Chippewas have a shot at the upset, which some pundits don't think would actually be one, Kelly probably needs to outplay Clark. From there, Kelly and CMU would be playing with house money. When you've got nothing to lose, then a player like Kelly can be even tougher to stop.
The Pac-12 Player of the Year, McDonald is a dynamite talent who was also named the league's co-defensive player of the year. She leads the conference averaging 19.3 points and fourth with 4.5 assists. Arizona is a No. 3 seed in the Mercado Region, so the chance of reaching the Sweet 16 is a real possibility. Behind McDonald, who's one of the most confident players in the country, the Wildcats are certainly a team to watch.
As a No. 3 seed, Georgia is a trendy pick to perhaps upset the likes of Louisville and Stanford in the Alamo Region. That's because the Bulldogs get the job done defensively, allowing 60.9 points per game. A big reason for that is the senior Morrison (1.8 ppg). The SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year (with South Carolina's Boston), Morrison recorded a team-high 50 steals and has the ability to play the lockdown defense that's needed in March.
The Bruins are a No. 3 seed, and expectations are rather high this month. Why? Because their senior star Onyenwere (18.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg) is playing at an even higher level than usual. In the four games prior to the NCAA Tournament, Onyenwere averaged 24.0 points. If she can keep up that offensive production, Onyenwere will be a terror for the opposition and a reason UCLA enjoys potential success in the Big Dance.
Maryland is one of the deepest teams in the country (six players averaging at least 10.0 points), and leading the way is Owusu. She pretty much does it all for the Terrapins while averaging 18.3 points, 5.8 assists, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.3 steals. She's only a sophomore, so this is a pretty big stage for Owusu, But, if she can handle any pressure associated with the tournament, then the second-seeded Terps should make a deep run.
Yes, NaLyssa Smith is a player-of-the-year candidate and DiJonai Carrington is one of the top freshmen in the nation for the Bears, but when it comes to one athlete truly capable of leading her team to a national championship, it's Richards. Baylor's top playmaker (6.3 apg) and a defensive wiz, the senior Richards has plenty of big-game experience and understands it takes a complete effort to result in greatness. Not to mention, Richards is likely more perseverant than any player in this year's tournament field.
Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.