Five can’t-miss stars in the women’s NCAA tournament

Players to watch in the NCAA women's basketball tournament. (Illustration by Artur Galocha/The Washington Post)
7 min

The upsets and the last-second shots are great, but the NCAA women’s tournament also provides the opportunity to see the country’s best college players compete on the national stage — and many of them play for Final Four-caliber teams. With the tournament tipping off this week, here are five players to keep an eye on as the drama unfolds.

Caitlin Clark, Iowa

Whether it’s the logo three-pointers or the triple-doubles, one thing is for certain: Clark has become appointment television.

The two-time Big Ten player of the year and national player of the year front-runner spearheads an electric Iowa offense that leads the nation in scoring, field goal percentage and points per scoring attempt. Clark’s impressive range has captured the nation’s attention, but her ability to score at all three levels — at the rim, midrange and beyond the arc — and her knack for finding the open player make her a near-impossible defensive assignment.

Her statistics read like something from a video game. After becoming the first player in Division I history to lead the country in both points and assists per game last season, she nearly replicated the feat this year. Clark’s 8.3 assists per contest lead the nation, and her 27 points per game trail only Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist and Drexel’s Keishana Washington. The Iowa junior also has recorded four 20-point triple-doubles. The rest of the country has combined for only five such games against Division I opponents.

The one thing missing from the 6-foot Clark’s remarkable college résumé is a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Whether she can lead the second-seeded Hawkeyes to the program’s second Final Four will be a compelling storyline.

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Rickea Jackson, Tennessee

An all-SEC first-team selection, the 6-2 senior forward is one of the most versatile players in the country. What makes the Mississippi State transfer so dangerous is the multitude of ways she can score. From her quickness in the post to her unguardable fadeaway jumper, Jackson has been a matchup nightmare for opponents all season. Per stat database CBB Analytics, she also ranks in the country’s top 1 percent in fast-break points and second-chance points per game.

However, it’s the improvement in Jackson’s efficiency this season that has been eye-opening. Her scoring output is similar (19.6 points per game this season after notching 20.3 last season with Mississippi State), but she’s doing it on six fewer field goal attempts per game. She has improved her field goal percentage by more than 14 percentage points, the biggest jump of any Division I player with more than 10 attempts per game in each of the past two seasons. Jackson has accomplished this against the country’s toughest slate of opponents by winning percentage.

What’s even better for Lady Vols fans is that Jackson has been playing her best down the stretch, scoring at least 21 points in eight of her past nine games, including 26 in Tennessee’s upset of LSU in the SEC tournament semifinals. Tennessee, a No. 4 seed, could meet No. 1 seed Virginia Tech in the Sweet 16.

Azzi Fudd, Connecticut

Will U-Conn. keep its streak of 14 straight Final Four appearances alive? That largely hinges on Fudd. In the eight games this season in which Fudd played more than 20 minutes, U-Conn. averaged more than 85 points per game. The Huskies put up fewer than 73 points per outing in their other contests. Simply put, the sophomore guard has the potential to transform U-Conn. from a team with an outside shot at the Final Four into a championship contender.

Fudd compiled a national player of the year-caliber string of games to start the season before being sidelined with two knee injuries. In her first six games, which included three ranked opponents, she averaged 24 points on 54 percent shooting from the field, 43 percent from beyond the arc and 92 percent from the free throw line.

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When the 5-11 Fudd is 100 percent, she’s one of Division I’s best outside shooters. But will that player be available in the NCAA tournament? Fans caught glimpses in the Big East tournament, including in the championship game against Villanova, when Fudd knocked down three three-pointers in the third quarter.

Mackenzie Holmes, Indiana

Holmes has elevated her game to new heights this season, propelling herself into the national player of the year conversation. That boost was no small feat for a player named to the all-Big Ten second team last season. The 6-3 Holmes’s dominant interior play on both ends led to the Hoosiers’ first Big Ten regular season title in 40 years.

Astonishingly, Holmes has found room for improvement a season after she was one of only three players in the country to average more than 15 points on 60 percent shooting. This season, she’s on track to become one of only four players since the 2009-10 season to average more than 20 points on at least 65 percent shooting. Her efficiency in the post, coupled with the strong perimeter play of guards Grace Berger, Yarden Garzon and Sydney Parrish, has Indiana averaging 81.5 points, No. 6 in the country and 10 points more per outing than last season.

The Hoosiers led the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing only 64.1 points per game during regular season conference play — in a league that includes five of the country’s top 16 scoring offenses (one of which is Indiana). Holmes played a key role in Indiana’s defensive success, leading the Big Ten with more than two blocks per game against conference opponents on her way to Big Ten defensive player of the year honors.

If Holmes continues performing at that high level, don’t be surprised if it’s No. 1 seed Indiana cutting down the nets in Greenville, S.C., en route to the program’s first Final Four.

Myah Selland, South Dakota State

Poised to assume this year’s role of Cinderella, South Dakota State rides a 21-game winning streak into the NCAA tournament. The Jackrabbits cruised through the Summit League tournament with an average margin of victory of more than 32 points. If they hope for a repeat of 2019, when they advanced to the Sweet 16, the ninth-seeded Jackrabbits will need a strong performance from the two-time Summit League player of the year.

A finalist for the Becky Hammon Award, given to the country’s best mid-major player, Selland has shown she can score from almost anywhere. That includes beyond the arc, where the 6-1 forward is shooting 44.1 percent, including a whopping 51.4 percent against Summit League opponents. She’s one of only three players in the country on track to make at least 50 percent of her shots from the field, 40 percent from behind the arc and 80 percent from the free throw line (with a minimum of 100 field goal attempts, 50 three-point attempts and 50 free throw attempts).

Selland has stepped up her game against teams in the NCAA tournament field, averaging 15 points vs. such opponents. South Dakota State plays No. 8 seed Southern California on Friday.