The wait is almost over. Almost. Half the year has dragged on without college basketball, and our appetite for hoops is enormous.
Today, we check out the American Athletic Conference.
Best player: Napheesa Collier, UConn
It’s tough to name the best player in a conference with both Co-Players of the Year returning for another go-round, but that’s the reality of a conference led by the best program in the country.
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The Huskies’ Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier dominated the American last year, both averaging over 20 points per game, with Collier taking on the mantle of the inside-out forward who owned the boards (9.1 rebounds per game) while Samuelson was the Huskies’ dead-eye shooter (41.9 percent from deep on 277 attempts).
Is there a best player in the conference? It’s hard to say. There are probably two, and they’re on the same team.
But the edge might have to go to Collier, whose game is essentially problem-free: she shot nearly 70 percent from the field as a sophomore, racked up 75 blocks and 82 assists, and still managed to hit almost half of her 50 threes while normally operating down low. She is the ultimate all-around threat, a player opposing teams plan their nightly defense around.
Best team: UConn
Of course, when the margin between the first- and second-best player in the conference is that thin, and the two candidates are teammates, it’s much easier to choose the best team.
The Huskies lost once in 37 tries last season. The one, you might remember, was a stunner, a 66-64 loss in overtime to a Mississippi State team of destiny led by the most enjoyable player in the country in the Bulldogs’ Morgan William. UConn was the better team going into that matchup, but the Huskies fell, as every great team must do now and again.
And if last year’s team went 36 games without losing, this year’s edition — which returns its four double-digit scorers from last season — could be even better. Samuelson and Collier are studs without peer in the American. Gabby Williams, a double-double threat every night, also returns, as does Kia Nurse, who nearly buried half of her 158 three-point attempts last year.
Barring the unthinkable — a Space Jam-style talent steal, maybe? — UConn will be the best team in the American this season, and a joy to watch.
Sleeper team: South Florida
USF will probably finish second in the American, which doesn’t exactly make the Bulls a huge “sleeper” pick. But when you’re facing a team like UConn in your conference, everyone else is a sleeper.
The Bulls return two key playmakers in Kitija Laksa and Maria Jespersen, both of whom finished last season as First-Team All-Conference players. Laksa was more than proficient from deep as the team’s top scorer, while Jespersen was a force under the hoop (14.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per game) in leading a Top 50 rebounding team in the country on the glass.
Freshman of the Year Tamara Henshaw (6.8 rebounds per game) and senior point guard Laia Flores (4.4 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game) also help do the little things that keep good teams in games with a superior squad like UConn, waiting for the right moment to pull off an upset.
It’ll be tough to actually reach the pinnacle, but the returning talent and good coaching should keep USF near the top of the conference as they fight for the spotlight.
Freshman to watch: Megan Walker, UConn
Walker isn’t just a freshman to watch, she is the freshman to watch. Walker led her high school, Monacan High in Virginia, to three straight state titles as the team’s best player, and now she brings her championship pedigree to the winningest program in women’s basketball. It sounds like a pretty good match.
Walker is a 6-1 wing with the ability to do it all when she wants to score: shoot, drive, and work from down low. She plays defense with a tenacity Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma is going to like having on his side (she averaged more than three steals during her senior year), and she’s used to winning: Monacan went 32-0 her senior year.
Adding a talent like Walker to an already-stacked UConn team is going to be a sight to behold. Don’t take it for granted.