Six players to watch
West Virginia's Asya Bussie tops list heading into tourney play
It's conference tournament week in women's basketball with the NCAA tournament about two weeks away.
Here's a look a six players to watch among the top leagues in tournament action, which began with the Atlantic Coast Conference's first-round games Wednesday afternoon. Strong performances by these players could help determine whether their teams can hoist the championship trophy.
Asya Bussie, West Virginia: The 6-foot-4 senior missed last year with a knee injury, but has averaged 13.2 points and 7.7 rebounds for the No. 7 Mountaineers. She has seven double-doubles this year and nearly half her team's blocked shots while leading active players nationally with 133 career starts. West Virginia tied No. 9 Baylor for first in the Big 12 and split the regular-season meetings, with Bussie averaging 19 points in those two games for the second-seeded Mountaineers.
Reshanda Gray, California: The 6-3 junior averaged 17.3 points and 9.1 rebounds while shooting 60 percent from the floor, good for second in the Pac-12 for the No. 20 Bears. Gray had eight 20-point performances, cracked 30 points twice and scored a career-high 43 points on 17-for-20 shooting against Washington State last week. The only hiccups game against tournament top seed Stanford, when she managed a combined seven points on 3-for-9 shooting while battling foul trouble in the two regular-season meetings. Cal is the No. 2 seed in the Pac-12 tournament.
Jordan Hooper, Nebraska: The 6-2 senior was the Big Ten's player of the year by proving to be an inside-out threat for the No. 16 Cornhuskers. Hooper ranked third in the league in scoring (20.1) and rebounding (9.3) while shooting 36 percent from 3-point percentage during the regular season, helping Nebraska finish a game behind Penn State and Michigan State atop the league. Hooper was part of the team's 2012 run to the tournament final, a double-overtime loss to Purdue. "I think anybody who watches Jordan on a daily basis in our practices knows that Jordan works really hard," head coach Connie Yori said after Hooper's final home game against Illinois. "That's how you get better — by working hard on a regular basis and being consistent. And that's what she's been."
Tiffany Mitchell, South Carolina: Mitchell was the Southeastern Conference player of the year in the fifth-ranked Gamecocks' historically successful season. Mitchell averaged 15.5 points and 5.6 rebounds while shooting 52 percent both from the floor and behind the 3-point arc. The 5-9 sophomore guard sparked South Carolina to its first SEC regular-season title and has the Gamecocks as the No. 1 seed aiming for a first tournament title to go with it.
Shoni Schimmel, Louisville: Schimmel guided the No. 3 Cardinals to their surprising run to the NCAA tournament's championship game last year. They're the No. 2 seed in the American Athletic Conference tournament behind top-ranked and unbeaten Connecticut. The senior guard ranked among the league's leaders in numerous categories, including scoring (16.9 points), assists (3.7), free-throw percentage (77.9), 3-point percentage (37.8) and made 3s per game (3.2). Louisville's two losses to the Huskies this year came by 17 and 20 points, but Schimmel's ability to hit from outside could spark the Cardinals in this week's tournament.
Alyssa Thomas, Maryland: The 6-2 senior is a three-time ACC player of the year for No. 8 Maryland, the third seed in the ACC tournament. If the Terrapins have any chance of stopping Notre Dame's unbeaten run in its league debut, Thomas will have to come up big. She's averaging 18.7 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists while shooting nearly 53 percent from the field. She also had 29 points and 12 rebounds in an 87-83 loss to the Fighting Irish on Jan. 27, which was Notre Dame's closest call all year. "A kid that can be powerful inside and pass like that is just a special, special player," Florida State head coach Sue Semrau said this season.
• Conference-by-conference breakdown