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When the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament tips off on Saturday, many of the nation’s best WNBA prospects will take center stage. And if history’s any indication, W fans should pay attention.
Over the years, the NCAA Tournament has been a venue where many current WNBA stars first burst onto the scene. Since the first WNBA Draft in 1997, there have been 12 different Most Outstanding Players in the NCAA Tournament. Of those 12, five went on to be the No. 1 pick in the draft and eight of them went on to be drafted in the top 5. Unlike the NBA, where one-and-done phenoms and international players flood the talent pool, the NCAA Tournament provides, hands-down, the best place to scout future pros in the women’s game.
Below are 10 senior prospects that will likely factor heavily in this year’s tournament, as well as the upcoming WNBA Draft. These are not necessarily the draft’s top-10 prospects, but they are the highly touted seniors that figure to be playing deep into March with their teams.
Sasha Goodlett has really turned the corner this year. Towering above her opposition at 6-foot-5, the Mississippi native failed in her first three years to dominate the way you would assume someone with her length would. Prior to her senior year, Goodlett never averaged more than 10 points or six rebounds a game. This year, Goodlett has upped her scoring average to 14.8 points and now grabs 7.5 rebounds per contest.
Georgia Tech comes into the Tournament having won seven of its last eight and the Yellow Jackets, earning a No. 4 seed in the Des Moines Region – the highest seed ever for this program. Goodlett, a big reason for that seed, presents a matchup problem for just about any team and the Yellow Jackets will rely on her presence in the paint to take them past the second round for the first time in school history. Any WNBA team looking for rebounding help and an enforcer in the paint near the end of the first round could have interest in Goodlett.
Connecticut is no stranger to deep tourney runs, and if UConn, the top seed in the Kingston Region, is to grab its eighth national title, the Huskies will need Tiffany Hayes to be, well, Tiffany Hayes. The Florida native does it all for Connecticut, leading the team in scoring (15.1), steals (2.1), 3-point shooting percentage (.432) and field-goal percentage (.515). She also rebounds well for a guard, grabbing just under six boards a game, second on the team.
Without much depth inside, Connecticut is going to have to lean on the versatility of Hayes, something that helped spark the Huskies to a Big East Tournament title. Now, look for Hayes to use what looks to be another long tournament run by UConn to impress WNBA scouts. Hayes’ scoring touch – she’s scored more than 30 points three times this season – and ability to fill up the box score will likely have her positioned to be selected in the second half of the first round.
Glory Johnson is yet another star in the great line of post players for Tennessee, which comes into the Tournament with the No. 2 seed in the Des Moines Region. A rock-solid force in the paint, Johnson is ninth in the nation with a 54.8 percent field-goal percentage. Averaging 14.1 points and 9.4 rebounds per night, she is one of the most refined and consistent seniors in the nation on a team that has not been consistent throughout the year - at least for Tennessee’s standards. She is a challenge to contain on the blocks, as evidenced by her getting to the free-throw line over six times per game.
She was at her best in Tennessee’s run through the SEC Tournament. In three games she averaged 19.3 points and 9.7 rebounds on her way to being named Tournament MVP. Her double-double in the SEC Championship was the 35th of her career, tied for third most in Lady Vols history. A team with a need for an all-around post player – maybe San Antonio, who picks fifth and finished last in rebounding margin last year – could potentially select Johnson.
There are few, if any, guards in the nation that can score like Shenise Johnson. Johnson’s averaged at least 12 points a game in every season she’s been in Miami, highlighted by a 19.6 points per game average her junior campaign. Her scoring is a little down this season (16.8) but the New York native nearly cut her turnover total in half, showing a growth in maturity and poise. Johnson is a threat from behind the arc and is an efficient shooter for a guard, shooting a combined 48 percent from the floor her last three years.
Johnson, the 2011-12 ACC Player of the Year, will team with fellow senior and backcourt mate Riquna Williams, who will appear on this list below, to give Miami a realistic shot at making it to Denver, site of the 2012 Final Four. Miami, on the strength of a 25-5 record, is a No. 3 seed in the Kingston Region. In the Tournament, Johnson will likely display her lethal scoring ability that could be coveted by a team as early as Seattle at No. 2 or Minnesota at No. 3.
While much of the attention for Notre Dame gets placed on point guard Skylar Diggins, you’d be remiss not to mention Natalie Novosel very quickly thereafter. In fact, Novosel and Diggins work so well in tandem that, under their guidance, the Irish brought home their first-ever Big East regular season title. While Diggins is a prolific scorer, she is also a great distributor, and there is no bigger beneficiary than Novosel, one the best pure shooters in the country. This season, Novosel hit 40 of her 88 attempts from behind the arc - an astonishing 46 percent. Novosel also connects on 84 percent of her free throws.
Nicknamed “Nasty” by her teammates, Novosel can put up points in a hurry. She averaged 15 points a night on the season, highlighted by a season-high 32 against South Florida on Feb. 12, which saw her shoot 9-for-16 from the floor and hit all 12 of her free throws. A team looking for a shooter later in the first round, maybe a team like the Washington Mystics that struggled shooting from the field and from 3-point range last year, could certainly find a place for Novosel.
The consensus No. 1 prospect in the nation right now, Nnemkadi Ogwumike has the makings of a star on the next level. Relentless in the paint, the Pac-12 Player of the Year can score and rebound almost at will. This season, she averaged 21.8 points and 10.5 rebounds, 10th and 15th in the nation respectively. She led Stanford, which is on a 28-game winning streak, to a Pac-12 Tournament title by amassing a tournament-record 71 points in Stanford’s three games in the postseason. On a team that has been to four straight Final Fours, you expect Ogwumike to be showcasing her talent for several more games.
Normally a player that does most of her work in the paint, Ogwumike began to add another facet to her already impressive repertoire this year. She worked relentlessly on her perimeter game and even stepped back and went 3-for-4 from behind the arc, her first 3-pointers of the season, in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Adding a perimeter threat to Ogwumike’s set of skills is like giving a jet engine to a Ferrari. As things stand now, Los Angeles is going to be hard-pressed to let her slide past the first pick.
If you’re looking for toughness, look no further than Devereaux Peters. Having battled back from two ACL injuries, Peters has returned to the Irish to give Notre Dame its post complement to Diggins and Novosel on the wing. Averaging 13.2 points and a team-high 10.9 rebounds a game, Peters uses her athletic ability and tenacity to take over in the paint. Defensively, she is as stout as they come. A two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year, the Illinois native averages over two steals and a hair under two blocks a contest.
With top prospects Peters and Novosel, Notre Dame, the No.1 seed in the Raleigh Region, figures to be around for a while in the NCAA Tournament, therefore scouts will get a good look at them. While Peters has some injury concerns, any team that is looking for someone that can make an immediate impact defensively, run the floor and consistently make a mid-range jumper would be wise to take a chance on Peters in the late first round, early second round.
Accompanied by Glory Johnson, Shekinna Stricklen was the other driving force behind Tennessee’s SEC Tournament Championship. Not only did Stricklen score, but she did it when it mattered most. The Arkansas native scored 50 points in her three tournament games, all but two of which were scored in the second half. She is one of the most coveted wing players in the nation and her 15.2 points per game are essential to Tennessee, which has shown itself to be a bit of an inconsistent defensive team.
If Tennessee is to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, Stricklen – who’s averaged over 12 points a game every year since coming to Tennessee – will have to bring her patented scoring touch and her ever-important senior leadership. As with Shenise Johnson of Miami, Stricklen could be a target for a WNBA team in the first half of the first round that’s looking for someone to come in and put points on the board immediately.
Riquna Williams and Shenise Johnson form one of the most high-powered backcourts in the nation. Like her teammate, Williams’ scoring dipped a little this season – from 21.7 last year to 16.6 this year. With that, however, Williams not only lowered her turnovers by nearly a full turnover per game, but she became more efficient from the 3-point and free-throw line. Williams’ well-rounded game has quickly made her one of the most sought-after point guard prospects in this year’s draft.
Guard play is especially important this time of the year and Miami, with Williams and Johnson, will have an advantage over just about any team it will face. Scouts will be intently watching this duo that could make a Final Four run because both are very likely to be top-10, potentially even top-5 picks. With the possible exception of Samatha Prahalis from Ohio State, Williams is the top prize for teams seeking a point guard.
If anyone on this list knows about NCAA Tournament success, it’s Tyra White. White, selected to the Final Four All-Tournament Team last year, helped propel her Aggies team to a National Championship in 2010-11. With standouts Sydney Colson and Danielle Adams moving onto the WNBA from that squad, White became the focal point for this team this year and she responded, leading Texas A&M to a 22-10 record and No. 3 seed in the Raleigh Region.
Despite leading the team with 13 points a game this year, her shooting percentages took a hit, likely because opposing defenses are now keying solely on her. If she can duplicate some of the success she had in the Tournament last year where she scored in double figures every game, her draft stock could certainly rise. A steady scorer and proven winner, a team late in the first round could take a chance on her.