Five freshmen who will take the 2022 NCAA Tournament by storm

Get ready for more young stars

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It was a historic women’s college basketball season in so many ways for freshmen this year, as players like Paige Bueckers, Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Cameron Brink, Hailey Van Lith, Kamilla Cordoso, and Te-Hina Paopao took the nation by storm.

In this year’s NCAA Tournament, one of the marquee games that many people hoped would come to fruition was a Sweet 16 matchup between No. 1 seed UConn and No. 5 seed Iowa. The game did happen, and the Bueckers-Clark matchup become one of the most anticipated in recent tournament memory.

While Reese returned late in the year from an early season injury, the No. 2-ranked player in the 2020 class proved that she can be an elite college player. Paopao had her season cut short at Oregon due to an injury but was a First-Team All Pac-12 player and led a team that lost three WNBA first-round draft picks to a strong season. Despite Paopao missing the NCAA Tournament, Oregon advanced to the Sweet 16 and the future is bright for her and the Ducks.

Young, confident, strong players have made a statement in the women’s game this year, and while it may be the first tournament for these freshmen, it’s also the first for players such as South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke, as well as Stanford’s Haley Jones and Maryland’s Ashley Owusu and Diamond Miller. These players are all sophomores, but due to the cancellation of last year’s tournament, this is their first experience in The Big Dance. They have certainly taken advantage of it and shown out for their teams.

Now, we have crowned a new national champion and are focusing our sights on the 2021-22 season. Many faces will remain the same—although the transfer portal may have something to say about that—but there will be many new faces on the women’s college basketball scene ready to make an impact. Ready to make a name for themselves on the big stage like Bueckers, Boston, Brink, and Miller have done this year.

In a really strong 2021 class, there are five names that stand out to me as players to watch. At this time next year, we will be marveling at their talents, focus, and drive while they lead their teams in March.

Azzi Fudd

Fudd is the top player in the 2021 class and deservedly so. She has come back strong following a devastating knee injury that saw her injure both her MCL and tear the ACL in her right knee. Fudd is a really tough, physical guard who can get to the rim at will, and she can really shoot the three and handle the ball extremely well. She just does everything and does it really, really well. She is a physically strong defender and her most underrated skill may be as a passer. She is an elite passer. Fudd is going to be playing alongside Bueckers, who also happens to be her good friend and former teammate in the Team USA program. UConn will be loaded, as they will return freshmen Bueckers and Edwards. With Christyn Williams, Evina Westbrook, and Olivia Nelson-Ododa also returning, the Huskies will be poised for another deep March run*. You can bet that Fudd will be a major reason why.

Saniya Rivers

Rivers is one of my favorite players in the 2021 class. Currently the third-ranked player, according to ESPN, the South Carolina commit is going to join another team that will be very well set up for a deep March run. Not only will Dawn Staley’s team return the likes of Boston and Cooke, but they add two other top-5 recruits in the 2021 class in Raven Johnson (No. 2) and Sania Feagin (No. 4). Rivers has the skillset to step in right away and contribute. At 6’, she has good size and length at the guard position that should equip her quite well alongside Cooke in the backcourt. Rivers has a terrific mid-range game and can really finish at the rim. In watching her play, opposing teams just never really seem to have a great matchup for her defensively, as her ability to score both at and away from the rim makes her a very tough guard. South Carolina will be loaded with talent, so she will need to play well to get the opportunity in March, but I can see her having an immediate impact.

Olivia Miles

For a couple of years, Miles spent time in the top two in the class before finishing in the No. 8 spot. She will already bring some experience into next season, as she joined Niele Ivey’s team earlier this year. Miles played in six games for Notre Dame, averaging over 22 minutes and just over 9.0 points per game. Miles, who is the second-ranked point guard in the class behind Johnson, is a very smooth guard and the best pure passer in the class. Miles can create for anyone on the court, including herself. She has terrific handle, supreme elusiveness, and while she stands out as a passer, I believe it’s her ability to consistently knock down the 3-point shot that may set her apart from other point guards in the class. I fully expect Ivey to help lead Notre Dame back to the NCAA Tournament next year and Miles to be a key piece for the Fighting Irish if they are going to make a run to the second weekend or beyond.

Payton Verhulst

Verhulst is another bigger guard with a very smooth game, especially on the offensive end. The Louisville commit will likely step in and play alongside Van Lith right away for head coach Jeff Walz. Verhulst, who is from De Soto, Kansas, was the MVP of the 2019 FIBA Americas U16 Championship and has received many other state and local accolades. With the likely departure of current Cardinals star Dana Evans, the opportunity will be there for Verhulst to make an impact. She is a really good shooter at both the mid-range level and behind the arc, and her size at 6’1 often creates a difficult matchup for her opponents at the off-guard spot. She is a good ball-handler and really proficient at creating space, getting her shots, and making tough shots. I think she is a high-level scorer and, with the opportunity that will likely present itself early at Louisville, come March, Verhulst will be ready to make a name for herself on the big stage.

Aaliyah Moore

Moore highlights a really terrific recruiting class for Vic Schaefer and the Texas Longhorns, who have three top-25 players in the class. We will see what happens with players deciding to return for another year and with the transfer portal, but Moore, who is from Moore, Oklahoma, is an electric talent. The 6'1 forward is really strong and physical around the rim and can stretch her offensive skill set to the mid-range very effectively. Moore goes and gets rebounds, can lead and run the break, and has a defensive skill set that should fit Schaefer’s system really well. I can see her making an immediate impact in Austin next year as well, especially with the probable departure of Charli Collier, the likely No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft. Moore will probably not play the center position, at least not right away, but she will have an impact at the four and if she can develop her outside shot a bit more, the sky is the limit for her. I think we will be hearing a lot about Aaliyah Moore next year, especially in March.


*An earlier version of this story suggested that Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams were WNBA Draft-eligible. They are not. The Next regrets the error.