What do you appreciate in a National Player of the Year? Are the stats more flamboyant? Production against stiff competition? The moves on the field? The ability to improve others? The way you carry teammates on your back? What a team can’t do without?
There are so many ways to qualify an award that has no qualifications. And that’s why National Player of the Year awards, or MVP, or what have you, are so ripe with heated and often angry debates. There is only one prize to be awarded and, in the case of women’s college basketball, more than 2,000 players who could theoretically win it.
There are three players who have taken over most of the conversation this season, and while all are incredibly talented, they meet very different qualifications a voter might consider.
South Carolina’s 6-foot-5 center Aliya Boston: Ability to improve others
Iowa’s 6-foot point guard Caitlin Clark: Carry the team on your back
LSU is 6-3 forward Angelo Reese: Stats more flamboyant
Each player has his own “against” to match the professional he provides. Boston’s pure stats are down due to the talent around her, the defenses over her, and the fact that she’s played fewer minutes in those easier non-conference contests. Clark’s team has the most losses of the group. And Reese has matched almost no high-quality competition, let alone her team has played against strong teams in both the vision test and NET rating.
I’m not a voter. But after watching Boston and Reese in Sunday’s highly anticipated battle of the undefeated, I don’t think Reese should win the award over Boston or Clark given her lack of equivalent competition and how she fared against the limited number of best. And there’s a fourth contender that should be talked about in Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist, with the lead trio.
Angel Reese’s complicated NPOY case
Reese’s stats are among the best in the country and his skill set is strong. Hers 23.2 ppg ranks fifth and 15.3 rpg ranks second. He can overcome his own problems, take his place, appear defensive. Reese hit a double-double in every game walking home to No. 1 South Carolina, where it was snapped. She set the program record for rebounds in a game (28) and is the only Division I player with multiple 20-20 games.
The question becomes, how many other players could say all that during the competition that LSU played? Surely if South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was dropping her starters for full games against low competition, Boston could. And that’s not Reese’s fault, nor is it something to blame head coach Kim Mulkey for after explaining that the schedule had been set before they arrived in a strong transfer group. No one is taking away how good of a player Reese is and will become in her future seasons at LSU. There’s time to showcase her talents against adequate competition, and she’ll be all the better for it.
The Tigers (23-1, 11-1 SEC, NET 3) didn’t face a team ranked in the top 25 by the Associated Press until Arkansas in December, and that team quickly fell. Their non-conference schedule included one team (Oregon State, NET 55) from the six power conferences. And the SEC schedule isn’t stacked with only South Carolina, LSU and Tennessee (NET 19) in the NET top 20. It is ranked fifth in program strength (and future program strength) by Massey Ratings, leaving it behind all but the Big East.
Against Tennessee and South Carolina, the two strongest teams on the schedule, Reese looked frustrated and largely lacked her dominance throughout the game because the post players were bigger, stronger, and more talented than nearly everyone else. that he had faced before. Against the Gamecocks, she had a season-low rebounds (four) and shooting (33.3%, 5-of-15) and came close to a season-low (16). Her three worst games were South Carolina, Tennessee (5-of-14, 18 points), Kentucky (5-of-14, 26 points mostly off free throws), and Alabama (4-of-11, 14 points).
It might be more of a note about both physical and mental experience going through good competition on a regular basis, particularly since Reese played for Maryland in the tough Big Ten before the move. In fewer minutes last season with the Terps, but with a higher utilization rate, Reese is averaging 17.7 ppg — 0.95 ppg — and 10.6 rpg. His numbers this season are up 31%, 44%, and 10%, respectively, and he ranks second in win shares (13.3), via his circle stats.
I don’t think boosting stats against inferior talent is what makes a player of the year. Boston, Clark and Siegrist are stronger candidates on my qualifying list.
Aliyah Boston’s ability to improve the players around her
Boston, whose Gamecocks are 25-0 (12-0 SEC, NET 1), is the easier comparison in the conversation because it’s also in the SEC. His numbers aren’t as flashy at 13.4 ppg and 9.9 rpg, although his points per game of 1.13 is the highest of the three favorites. It ranks fifth in winning odds (9.5). The play around her and South Carolina’s deep bench impacted the numbers she put up last season. One of her best games was Kentucky (9-of-11 for 21 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, four blocks) and Alabama (8-of-10, 16p, 12r, 4a) as game comparisons with Reese.
South Carolina’s schedule strength is rating crowds higher than LSU because it has scheduled UConn (NET 2), Stanford (NET 4), and UCLA (NET 27) on the road. Boston had a double-double of 26 points and 11 rebounds against UConn and one of 14 points and 13 rebounds against Stanford.
It could be argued that Boston is South Carolina’s most valuable, because the focus on her opens up her teammates to stronger stats. As for her talent, she is widely believed by scouts to be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA April draft. Her ability to find her low cut, or find the open player through those doubles, is easy to see. And she comes up against some good competition. Having won it already certainly helps.
Caitlin Clark’s flamboyant stats, team MVP status
Clark played in a tougher conference for Iowa (20-5, 12-2 Big Ten, NET 8) with flashy stat numbers of 27.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg and 8.3 apg. The Big Ten has nine teams in the top 50 NET rankings (and five in the top 16), which the selection committee uses primarily to determine seeding, and is the highest ranked conference in Division I.
He reached 40 points twice and each was against an AP ranked conference foe. Her three triple-doubles lead the nation and she is consistently on alert for them, including a 25-point, seven-rebound, six-assist day against UConn in November with Azzi Fudd in the Huskies’ lineup. She is third in winning odds (10.9).
Discussions for Reese largely center on how invaluable he is to LSU (although Alexis Morris may have punched a hole in it on Sunday). Clark is probably even more valuable to Iowa. Monika Czinano is the nation’s most efficient on the post, but it’s Clark who gets her the ball. The junior point guard assists with a team-best 47.1% of field goals.
Clark’s ability to strike from deep ground is fun to watch, but it also extends the defense to help get Czinano open. She has also been stronger in her drives in the paint and is attempting more free throws than in both previous years.
Maddy Siegrist, the forgotten NPOY contestant
There’s a fourth candidate that should be hotly debated with the trio: Siegrist. The 6-2 senior forward is averaging near double-double with 29.1 ppg (first in DI) and 9.4 rpg.
His 1.17 points per game eclipse Boston and his high usage rate (37.6%) is on par with Clark. His 53.6% shooting on the field is similar to Reese’s, but his game pushes all the way to the 3-point line where he’s 41% on an average of nearly two per game. His effective field goal percentage of 57.5 beats all others on the above NPOY list except Boston (59.2%).
Big East schedule strength ranks 6, and Villanova as a program ranks 50, right around LSU’s statistical SOS. The Wildcats (22-4, 13-2) are 11th in NET and have played Princeton (NET 50), Baylor (NET 24), South Florida (NET 32), and Iowa State (NET 15) in non-against games.
Siegrist, the reigning Big East Player of the Year, had 32 points and 12 rebounds against Iowa State. His two worst shooting nights were against UConn (9-for-23), where he still scored 25 points with eight rebounds, and Baylor (8-for-24), but still with 22 points, eight rebounds and four steals. Against Seton Hall on Saturday, she scored a career-high 50 points to become the leading scorer in the history of Big East conference games.
The one all of the above Player of the Year contenders are chasing is Siegrist, whose 13.8 game-winning mark leads the nation. When it comes to scoring, he leads the nation in points (and points per 40 minutes) and field goals made (and field goals per 40). Its turnover rate is 5.9% in fifth place, sweeping all others out of the competition (Boston is 11.5% in 238th place). And that’s with the highest utilization rate of the four players on this list (surpassing Clark’s 36.6%, Reese’s 29.2%, and Boston’s 21%).
If Reese is in the conversation for Player of the Year — which is fine considering the largely stat-based award — then Siegrist should definitely be a contender for what she’s done this season. Given the strength of the program and performance, she’s actually a stronger candidate than Reese in the eyes of at least this viewer.