The NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament is officially here. This will be the first year the bracket features 68 teams as it was expanded to mirror the men’s field for the first time. Also, if you’re interested in filling out your own bracket, you can check out the full Big Dance with our printable bracket for the women’s tournament. Among the teams looking to cut down the nets are perennial Women’s NCAA Tournament blue bloods UConn, NC State, South Carolina and Stanford — all of whom have been staples of the Sweet 16 and beyond in recent years.
From off the beaten path also come a few stars who could wind up being the Aari McDonald of 2022 — carrying a surprise team on her back all the way to the Final Four.
Lets take a look at some of the stars heading into the 2022 Women’s NCAA Tournament, and the group that leads the list of candidates to wind up as the Most Outstanding Player — and award Stanford’s Haley Jones won last year in the Cardinal’s championship run.
Aliyah Boston – South Carolina
The Gamecocks earned the No. 1 overall seed, even after an unexpected loss to Kentucky during the SEC championship game. Their not-so-secret weapon is the main reason why they stayed at the top of the rankings all season.
The junior forward has more than proven her strength on both sides of the ball by leading South Carolina in scoring, rebounds, blocks and steals. Boston, one of the strongest Player of the Year candidates, has registered an SEC record-breaking 24 straight double doubles this season — a streak that is still in tact heading into the Big Dance.
Caitlin Clark – Iowa
Sophomore guard Caitlyn Clark, another strong National Player of the Year candidate, leads the nation in points per game, assists, free throws and triple-doubles. She’s versatile and has a high basketball IQ that can benefit the Hawkeyes in many different ways.
Earlier this season, Clark became the first ever player in Division I college basketball to register back-to-back 30-point triple doubles. The Big Ten Player of the Year helped the Hawkeyes win both the regular season and tournament title in the same year for the first time in school history.
Paige Bueckers – UConn
After a terrific 2021 campaign when she became a household name, this was not an ideal season for the sophomore guard.
She suffered a knee injury early December that required surgery and healing time. After missing 19 consecutive games, Bueckers made her return late February when her team rolled through St. John’s with a 93-38 win. She was on a 15 minute restriction for that game but still contributed with eight points going 4-for-5 from the field.
She rounded into form late in the season, helping lead the Huskies to their 20th Big East Tournament crown, and she’ll look to avenge last season’s Final Four disappointment.
NaLyssa Smith- Baylor
Senior Forward NaLyssa Smith is one of the top three rebounders in the nation and a top 10 scorer. Her 6’4″ frame certainly helps her, but she has also shown good speed and skills throughout the season. Smith averages a double double of 22.5 points and 11.5 rebounds. She picked up 23 double-doubles this season, which tied Debbie Polk’s Lady Bears single-season record from 1980-81.
Cameron Brink – Stanford
Stanford is on a mission to win consecutive NCAA titles for the first time since UConn from 2013-16. The defending champions have the tools to do it, and one of them is sophomore Cameron Brink.
She leads her team in scoring with an average of 13.6 points per game while shooting at 56% from the field. However, her defense is something that cannot be overlooked. The 2022 Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Defensive Player of the Year is 15th nationally in blocks with a total of 72 this season.
Elissa Cunane – NC State
The Wolfpack owes a big part of its success to 6’5″ center Elissa Cunane. She has dominated the conference for a while, as she was named the ACC Tournament Most Valuable player two straight years. Cunane leads her team with 13.4 points per game and 7.6 rebounds. She brings talent but also lots of valuable experience with three straight conference titles with the Wolfpack.
Rhyne Howard – Kentucky
Kentucky’s 19-11 overall record is not particularly impressive, but the Wildcats showed they can’t be taken lightly when they upset No. 1 South Carolina in the SEC Tournament championship game.
March is about peaking at the right time, and that’s definitely the case with Howard. Her name can be seen all over the Kentucky record book, and one of her best games was on her final home game when the Wildcats beat Auburn 90-62. Howard led her team with 32 points, the most a Kentucky senior has registered on a Senior Day. Her eight successful shots from beyond the arc were also a school record for most three-pointers in a single game.
She currently leads this year’s roster in points, steals and blocks. The 2,273 points she has registered through her career as a Wildcat is the second most points in Kentucky basketball history, for both men’s and women’s programs.
Emily Engstler – Louisville
Senior forward Emily Engstler’s consistency on defense was rewarded when she was made the cut as a Naismith Women’s Defensive Player of The Year semifinalist.
She leads her team in steals, blocks and rebounds while also contributing 11.5 points per game. Engstler registered 10 double-doubles this season and will be a key piece for the Cardinals as they aim for their first NCAA Tournament title.
Naz Hillmon – Michigan
Senior forward Naz Hillmon leads the Wolverines with 21 points per game and 9.4 rebounds while shooting at 56.5% from the field. She is the first Michigan basketball player, male or female, to achieve 2,000 career points and 1,000 rebounds.
Hillmon has established herself as one of the top power forwards in the nation as she was named one of the finalists for the Katrina McClain Award for the third consecutive year. Her 14 double-doubles are the most in program history for a single season.