March 1, 2022
Daily Briefing — March 1, 2022: Better than the average Bears
And your Power 5 awards, awarded
It’s Tuesday, the barest [Editor’s note: Bearest?] day of the season. Welcome to The Next’s Daily Briefing, featuring the W Roundup, daily Watch List and Yesterday’s Recap! Day 112 of college basketball is here, following Baylor securing at least a share of its 12th-straight Big 12 regular-season title — except this one’s cool and fun because it featured some lights-out 3-point shooting and NaLyssa Smith having room to cook and Nicki Collen. It was also easily the Bears’ most impressive of any of those championships, given they’ve been playing with a 6.5-player rotation, a head coach in her first head college gig ever and first college stint since 2015, and by far the stiffest competition they’ve ever faced.
Seriously: should the final AP poll look like the current one, the conference I previously described here as “the little brother of the Power 5, the Sick Man of Texas/The Plains” would have three teams in the top 10 — the first time in Baylor’s run there’s been at least three Big 12 teams in the top 20. With Oklahoma sitting at No. 19, that’s double the conference’s previous high!
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Washington: Cut combo forward Sydney Wiese. The off-ball specialist shot 10.4% worse from three than her previous career mark, making her relatively expendable on a roster than needed to cut one of the 10 players under contract who finished 2021 on the team in order to eventually sign the No. 1-overall pick. She’s currently on waivers, where teams that have more than $82,400 available may try to claim her as a reclamation bench piece (*ahem* Phoenix).
Visit our offseason trackers page to see all the other free agent moves and how they affect teams’ caps, other front-office changes, and more — in neat, colorful fashion!
Watch List, Tuesday, March 1
Guess what? There’s only 10 games on today, only one of them coming from a conference that affects the national landscape — and that one involves Xavier. So we’re going to do something a little different this morning to celebrate the regular season once more. Without further ado, let’s run through the Power 5 conference awards and who I’d pick.
Please note: win shares and PER are not individual stats worth using, as they either are mostly team stats (win shares) or capture a lot of bad data (PER). All stats here are via CBB Analytics, the hoop-explorer database, or Her Hoop Stats.
(Full disclosure: I am a member of the Blue Ribbon Panel; the POY, FOY, and COY are how I actually voted. You can see my full ballot here.)
Player of the Year: Elissa Cunane, N.C. State center
Elissa Cunane’s defensive struggles this year are real, and have been well-publicized. But she still dominated offensively in matchups with players like Kansas State’s Ayoka Lee, Indiana’s Mackenzie Holmes, Maryland’s Angel Reese, and her season-finale rematch with Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley. Cunane is the player the third-best team in the country turns to when it needs points in crunch time, and her gravity, passing, and post movement are a huge part of why the Wolfpack are the eighth-best 3-point-shooting team in the country.
But honestly, you can’t really go wrong with any of the honorable mentions here either.
Honorable Mentions: Emily Engstler (Louisville), Elizabeth Kitley (Virginia Tech), Lorela Cubaj (Georgia Tech), Olivia Miles (Notre Dame)
Defensive Player of the Year: Emily Engstler, Louisville big wing
Emily Engstler had been the best playmaking wing/forward in the ACC in her time at Syracuse, and Louisville head coach Jeff Walz fully unleashed her in the Cardinals’ chaos of a defensive scheme this season. Among all Power 5 players, she ranks fourth in defensive rebounding rate, fourth in steal rate, 15th in block rate, and fourth in stock (steals + blocks) rate. She’s switched onto the point of attack, defended wings facing up, and been an elite secondary rim protector. She’s been, quite simply, the perfect defensive four.
Freshman of the Year: Sonia Citron, Notre Dame wing
Sonia Citron was the composite* No. 19 recruit in the country, fourth in the ACC. And not to take away from her great play, but it needs mentioning that the top-ranked freshman in the ACC was her teammate Olivia Miles, who will probably be some sort of All-American and was declared ineligible for this award by the conference for having enrolled early last year. And the third-ranked freshman in the conference tore her ACL in the preseason.
What I’m saying is it was a rough year for freshmen in the ACC — but Citron wasn’t part of that problem. She ranked in at least the 74th percentile in every shooting and defensive playmaking stat, including 54.1% true-shooting, a 93rd-percentile 17.1% defensive rebounding rate, and an 80th-percentile stock rate. Oh, and she nearly had a triple-double last week.
HM: Shayeann Day-Wilson (Duke)
Coach of the Year: Niele Ivey, Notre Dame
Notre Dame may have finished in the top half of the ACC last year, but it absolutely floundered its way there, with a misshapen roster that couldn’t defend a chair. This year, it finished third in the conference, is a top-15 team in the country (the polls are wrong), and handed No. 3 N.C. State its only conference loss. All despite running a rotation of 6.5 players, two of whom are freshman (Miles and Citron) and another who’s playing her first minutes since she saw nine games in Palo Alto, Calif. two years ago (Maya Dodson).
You can make a great case for any of the honorable mentions, all of whom have had to integrate transfers into fairly complicated schemes while themselves staying excellent on the whiteboard throughout the season.
HMs: Kenny Brooks (Virginia Tech), Jeff Walz (Louisville), Courtney Banghart (North Carolina)
Player of the Year: Caitlin Clark, Iowa point guard
Who else would it be. Who else could it possibly be. It’s Caitlin Clark.
Defensive Player of the Year: Veronica Burton, Northwestern point guard
Veronica Burton is the best backcourt defensive playmaker in the country, and there’s no one else in the conversation. She forces ball-handlers into miniscule passing windows thanks to impeccable timing on entry passes, harasses posts with her unique aggressive digs, and remains stout at the point of attack. She’s an entire defense unto herself.
Freshman of the Year: Alexis Markowski, Nebraska center
Alexis Markowski was the composite No. 103 recruit in the country, 17th in the Big Ten. She ended up doing a bunch of great stuff, including scoring 25.1 points-per-40 minutes, but most notably shot 53.1% from deep on more than a full attempt a game! As a freshman center! She also ranked 13th in the whole conference in RAPM^. Pretty good!
Coach of the Year: Kim Barnes Arico, Michigan
Michigan finally figured out how to play around Naz Hillmon with its “island of misfit toys” of a roster, despite missing its point guard (Amy Dilk) and best wing (Leigha Brown) and Hillmon herself for separate extended stretches. The Wolverines’ seven-player rotation includes arguably just two players who are pluses on both sides of the court, and one’s a freshman. With Michigan having finished just one game shy of a first-ever Big Ten title, I fail to see anyone who did more with less.
HM: Lisa Bluder (Iowa)
Player of the Year: Ayoka Lee, Kansas State center
Kansas State has an adjusted net rating of +36.8 when Ayoka Lee’s on the court — significantly higher than No. 1 South Carolina — and a -0.4 with her off the court — the same as second-worst-in-the-SEC Vanderbilt. She scored 61 points in a game. What more is there to say?
Yeah, NaLyssa Smith’s excellent. But she hasn’t been the effective difference between Baylor being a national contender and a complete disaster.
HM: NaLyssa Smith (Baylor)
Defensive Player of the Year: NaLyssa Smith, Baylor big
NaLyssa Smith is the device that keeps Baylor’s defense afloat, guarding 3-through-5 with genuine switchability and rim protection. There’s not a defender who guards as well in as many ways as she does. She also might be the best defensive rebounder in the country.
HM: Rori Harmon (Texas)
Freshman of the Year: Rori Harmon, Texas point guard
Rori Harmon was the composite No. 10 recruit in the country, second in the Big 12. And she’s playing 31 minutes a game in conference play, while being one of the most effective facilitators in the country and an excellent defensive playmaker. Her shot-making has left a lot to be desired, but then again, so have the other freshmen in the Big 12.
Coach of the Year: Jennie Baranczyk, Oklahoma
Oklahoma features two players in the primary rotation this year who weren’t in last year’s: the composite No. 82 recruit in the country at backup point guard and a bench combo forward who played 65 minutes for a bad North Carolina team last year. And the Sooners have gone from 4-14 in the Big 12, ahead of exactly one team, to 11-5 (probably finishing 13-5), good for a top-20 national ranking and almost certainly third place in a drastically improved Big 12. The team has adapted to playing a 2-3 zone full-time as well as any team could, while every player on the roster looks dramatically better than they ever have before. Have I mentioned that this team has no centers?
Baranczyk has worked nothing short of a miracle. They swept Baylor, for God’s sake.
HM: Nicki Collen (Baylor), but it’s not particularly close.
Player of the Year: Cameron Brink, Stanford center
An odd choice for someone who regularly dedicates two lines after every Stanford game to monitoring her addiction to whacking opponents, I know. But she was so dang dominant in the minutes she played; Stanford was 14.8 points better with her on the court by RAPM, fifth-best in the country. She was a monster in the post, excellent working from the perimeter down, a deadly screener, and the best defensive playmaker this side of Aliyah Boston. In a year the Pac-12 was short on truly dominant performances, Brink rose to the occasion.
HM: Haley Jones (Stanford), Nyara Sabally (Oregon)
Defensive Player of the Year: Brink
God forbid they give this to Anna Wilson again.
Freshman of the Year: Jenna Johnson, Utah big
Jenna Johnson was the composite No. 107 recruit in the country, 15th in the Pac-12. And she finished sixth in the conference in true-shooting and 28th in usage — as a big!
HMs: Jayda Curry (Cal), Talia von Oelhoffen (Oregon State), Gianna Kneepkens (Utah)
Coach of the Year: Cori Close, UCLA
UCLA dealt with injury trouble so bad it played with only six players for the better part of two months. And those weren’t even the Bruins’ best six: Their preseason projected starting point guard (Gina Conti), center (Emily Bessoir), and backup center (Angela Dugalić) have all missed multiple months, while their top three scorers on the season have themselves missed considerable time. While Bessoir was always going to be out for the year, Conti and Dugalić were expected back by Christmas; the latter ramped up this month, the former is missing the season. And yet UCLA kept battling.
The fact that this team finished just 2.5 games back of second place is genuinely astounding.
HMs: Tara VanDerveer (Stanford), Lynne Roberts (Utah)
Player of the Year: Aliyah Boston, South Carolina center
She’s the best player in the country by a decent margin. She was among the top players in the conference in usage, at center, while taking 1.5 threes a game and making a third of them — at center. The difference between her RAPM and the No. 2 player is the difference between that player and Evina Westbrook at No. 91. She had 18 points and 11 rebounds and five blocks and four steals against Cameron Brink.
HM: Rhyne Howard (Kentucky)
Defensive Player of the Year: Boston
The most valuable defensive position is center, and Boston is by far the best defensive center in the country. No one else combines her ability to lock down the paint and be a plus on the perimeter. No one else may for a long time.
HMs: Shakira Austin (Ole Miss), Brea Beal (South Carolina)
Freshman of the Year: Samara Spencer, Arkansas point guard
Samara Spencer was the composite No. 110 recruit in the country, 19th in the SEC. And all she did was finish above the 70th percentile among guards in assist-to-turnover ratio, usage rate, and foul efficiency and above the 80th in true-shooting and assist rate. All while playing 30 minutes a game and forcing her way into the starting lineup.
Coach of the Year: Dawn Staley, South Carolina
The Gamecocks have made a mockery of nearly every opponent they’ve faced this season. Their only loss all season came in overtime to a mid-level conference opponent (Mizzou); they’ve beaten five current-top-11 teams — including the Nos. 2 and 3 and a fully healthy UConn — by an average of 8.4 points; and they’ve eased top freshmen into an already-stacked rotation as the season went on. And by “they,” you bet I mean Dawn Staley.
There’s a lot of folks beating the drum for Florida’s Kelly Rae Finley, and her getting the Gators to fifth in the SEC was magnificent. But to me, South Carolina’s sheer dominance and Staley’s recruiting prowess is overwhelming; and getting above the bottom tier of the SEC this year is frankly not the hardest thing in the world this year.
Fun fact: Florida’s run started on Jan. 23. Over that period, it had a +3.7 net rating; the Gamecocks were +39.5.
HMs: Kelly Rae Finley (Florida), Kim Mulkey (LSU)
Monday, Feb. 28 recap
#5 Baylor, #8 Iowa State: The Bears beat the Cyclones 87-62. Iowa State led in the mid-second quarter — meaning Baylor was a +26 in about the final 25 minutes. The Bears shot 51.5% overall, while holding the Cyclones to 35.7% from the field and 18.2% from three; Baylor had a +18 rebounding margin; the Bears assisted on 19 of their 34 buckets; Iowa State committed 19 fouls. Big NaLyssa Smith led Baylor with a 28-point, 20-rebound double-double on 11-for-15 shooting (6-7 FT) with seven offensive boards and four blocks against four turnovers; point guard Jordan Lewis had 23 points on 7-for-14 from the field and 5-for-7 from three, six assists, and two steals against two turnovers; big Caitlin Bickle scored a career-high 13 points on 6-for-8 FG to go with five rebounds and two assists; off-ball guard Ja’Mee Asberry notched 10 points on 4-for-10 from the field and 2-for-6 from three, three rebounds, two assists, and two steals; center Queen Egbo was limited to 15 minutes by four fouls, finishing with 10 points on 5-for-8 FG, eight rebounds (four offensive), two steals, and three blocks.
The Cyclones were led by wing Ashley Joens’ 19 points on 4-for-19 from the field, 0-for-8 from three, and 11-for-12 from the line, five rebounds, two steals, and three turnovers, despite fouling-out in 33 minutes; point guard Emily Ryan played all 40 and finished with 10 points on 4-for-11 shooting (0-1 3pt.) and six assists against four turnovers.