NCAAW 10 players to watch: UConn's 'Paige Kardashian', cancer-free Tiana Mangakahia lead pack

The 2020-21 women’s college basketball season tips off Wednesday with eyes on completing the season and possibly making it to the NCAA tournament in March. Conferences have designed shorter, more regionally structured schedules and non-conference matchups are at a minimum.

Even so, it’s nice to have college hoops back on the schedule since the last time we saw (most) of these players they were preparing for a national championship run. With the season upon us, here are 10 players to keep an eye on — including one sensational freshman and a fifth-year senior back on the court after beating breast cancer.

Paige Bueckers — UConn

Paige Bueckers in a Team USA jacket.
All eyes are on Paige Bueckers at UConn. (Brad Horrigan/Hartford Courant/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Stats (2019-20 HS): 21.4 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 9.4 APG, 5.4 SPG

Paige Bueckers — called “Paige Kardashian” by UConn coach Geno Auriemma since she’s “famous for being famous” — is the No. 1 recruit in the 2020 class and was named the Gatorade Female Athlete of the Year in July. The 5-foot-11 point guard is heralded as the savior for UConn, which will have another boost next season with the 2021 No. 1 recruit, Azzi Fudd.

Bueckers was one game away from her second Minnesota state championship with Hopkins High School when the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated the sports shutdown. Much like Sabrina Ionescu’s jump to the pros, fans shouldn’t expect a sensational start as it’s a major jump from one level to another. But she remains one of the brightest stars to watch in the veins of Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart.

Tiana Mangakahia — Syracuse

Stats (2018-19): 16.9 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 8.4 APG

Mangakahia, 25, will be back on the court next month after beating breast cancer last season. The NCAA granted the 5-foot-6 point guard an extra year of eligibility and she’ll rejoin a team that had deep NCAA tournament aspirations going into 2019-20.

Mangakahia was a projected second-round pick in the 2019 WNBA draft, but opted not to enter. Her return to the Orange set up a compelling competition with former Oregon sensation, and current New York Liberty star, Sabrina Ionescu for the nation’s best point guard.

The Australian national team member is back on that Lieberman Award watch list this season and will boost her school-record 591 career assists. The Orange finished 16-15 last season — the first time in coach Quentin Hillsman’s tenure they didn’t have 22 wins — but will get an automatic boost from Mangakahia, who was with the team on the bench for much of the year.

Aliyah Boston — South Carolina

South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston (4) blocks a shot by Maryland guard Ashley Owusu (15) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019, in College Park, Md. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston is only a freshman, but will have a big impact on the 2020 NCAA women's basketball tournament. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Stats (2019-20): 12.9 PPG 9.1 RPG, 2.63 BPG

The 6-foot-5 sophomore forward burst onto the scene by becoming the first player to notch a triple-double in her collegiate debut and did it with blocks.

She’s the third Gamecock to win SEC Freshman of the Year honors (Alaina Coates 2014, A’ja Wilson ’15) and was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Boston drew high praise from Dawn Staley, who way back in November 2019 said her young star was already farther along than Coates and Wilson. She had better things to say when the budding star was named an Associated Press All-American.

“Aliyah’s a great player,” Staley said, via the AP. “I can say that I can see it every day. You see great players get better and how they did it. It’s unbelievable to me. Unbelievable how much better she’s gotten.”

Boston has the communication piece down and has elite shot-blocking skills. She ranked top-20 in with total blocked shots (76) and per game (2.61).

Her season-highs in points, made field goals and rebounds came against top-25 opponents as a freshman. And her 61.4 percent shooting percentage was seventh in the NCAA.

South Carolina is entering as the preseason favorite with the No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press poll.

Haley Jones — Stanford

Stats (18 games): 11.4 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 2.4 APG

Jones became the first No. 1 recruit to join Stanford since 2010 (Chiney Ogwumike) when she came to campus ahead of the 2019-20 season. The 6-foot-1 guard played only 18 games her first year after suffering a knee injury in January.

“I’m not trying to come back as the same player I was before my injury — I’m trying to be better than I was,” Jones told Just Women’s Sports.

It’s also a scary thought for opponents that a star will come back even better, having gained skills and team knowledge during her time away. Jones was the first Stanford freshman to score in double figures her first four conference games since Nicole Powell in 2001.

She was named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week three times before her injury and will have the benefit of two returning all-conference selections in Kiana Williams and Lexie Hull.

Aari McDonald — Arizona

Stats: 20.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 3.5 APG, 2.5 SPG

McDonald, a 5-foot-6 senior guard, helped transform the Wildcats from a six-win team while she sat out her transfer year to a team rewriting Arizona history books. Her scoring output was down slightly from the 2018 WNIT championship run, but remained top-10 in the nation last year.

She ended the season with a NCAA-leading 66 straight double-digit scoring games. But it’s her speed and defense — she was named Pac-12 DPOY — that has been clutch for Arizona. McDonald considered leaving early for the WNBA, but instead stayed and is the program’s first AP All-American.

Rhyne Howard — Kentucky

Stats: 23.3 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 2.4 APG, 2.32 SPG

Howard is one of the nation’s most depended-upon players, scoring 28.8 percent of Kentucky’s points in conference play even while missing three games to injury. The 6-foot-2 junior guard averaged the most points per game of any player that would have been in the NCAA Tournament, even after returning with a cast following a broken finger, and shot 43 percent from the field.

She was named the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2018 and one-upped it as the SEC Player of the Year. Known as quiet, the Wildcats communications team brought in her mother to conduct a sweet surprise interview.

Michaela Onyenwere — UCLA

Stats: 18.8 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 0.94 BPG

The 6-foot senior forward is one of the Pac-12 conference’s best scorers and rebounders. She’s scored at least 20 points in 12 games this season and had some of her best against the highest competition.

Onyenwere became the fourth Bruin to score 600 points in a season in 2018-19 (642) and was on pace to do so again (she had 567) if the NCAA tournament had been played. She was one of the six Team USA members, along with Ionescu, for the FIBA 3x3 series last summer.

Dana Evans — Louisville

Stats: 18.1 PPG, 4.2 APG

Dana Evans earned ACC Player of the Year honors by successfully stepping into the role left by Asia Durr. She’s the first former Sixth Player of the Year to be named POY and started every game last season after only six starts in her collegiate career.

The 5-foot-6 senior guard nearly doubled her scoring average from her sophomore season and led the ACC in 3-point shooting (43.1 percent) and free throws (97 of 109, 89.0 percent). She’s attempted at least nine 3-pointers in seven games.

Olivia Nelson-Ododa — UConn

Stats: 10.9 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 3.2 BPG

Nelson-Ododa is one of four Huskies named to the 50-player Naismith Trophy preseason watch list and the junior will be relied upon heavily by Geno Auriemma. There are no seniors on the roster and a total of six freshmen, plus Evina Westbrook, a transfer who had to sit out last season.

“I would say Liv has been really, really top-notch since we’ve been back. She’s been great,” Auriemma told media in October. “As a player, she’s been different. As a leader, she’s been different. We are getting what we need.”

The 6-foot-5 forward built confidence in her sophomore campaign and will need to take a larger, more consistent role in the post for the Huskies to keep their Final Four streak alive.

Elissa Cunane — N.C. State

Stats: 16.4 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 1.09 BPG

Cunane continues to be more and more of a problem for ACC opponents. The 6-foot-5 junior center had 10 games of at least 20 points and 15 games of at least 10 rebounds in 2019-20. Her 14 double-doubles were a conference high and nearly top-25 in the nation.

As with every other elite player in the nation, Cunane spent the offseason working at her game.

“Elissa is playing really well right now, I think she’s in the best condition of her life,” head coach Wes Moore said, via Inside Pack Sports. “Her hook shot has gotten unbelievable, left or right hand. Today she made a stepback three when we were going at it a little bit, the players loved that.”

Moore said she did cross-training over the summer with more outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking and biking. The program’s first All-American selection has improved her range and will be a contender for national player of the year. N.C. State, which won its first ACC championship since 1991, will revolve around her play.

Honorable mentions: Lindsey Pulliam (Northwestern), Erin Boley (Oregon), Sedona Prince (Oregon), Ashley Joens (Iowa State), Kiana Williams (Stanford), Christyn WIlliams (UConn).

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