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South Carolina's Aliyah Boston should win 2022 women's college basketball national player of the year

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No. 11 LSU picks up road win over No. 17 Gators (0:51)

Led by Alexis Morris with 20 points, the Tigers take down Florida, 66-61, in a Top 25 matchup. (0:51)

The 2021-22 women's college basketball regular season is winding down, and it's that time of year when everyone is finalizing ballots for a variety of honors. But in the case of the Division I national player of the year, the race has been narrowed to one.

South Carolina junior forward Aliyah Boston was ESPN's unanimous choice at No. 1 in our January rankings of the country's top 25 players. If anything, her case has gotten stronger as the Gamecocks are poised to go wire to wire in the top spot in The Associated Press poll. There isn't much suspense with this honor.

So which other players might join Boston on the All-America first team? And in a season when some coaches are making successful debuts at new schools and others are lifting their programs to new heights, will Boston's mentor, Dawn Staley, earn coach of the year honors?

The top-ranked player in Staley's vaunted 2021 recruiting class was felled by injury in November, and the overall No. 1 freshman missed a couple of months of the season when she got hurt. So who has been the top freshman this season?

ESPN's Charlie Creme, Alexa Philippou and Mechelle Voepel break down the top candidates for honors as we stand a week from March.

How has Aliyah Boston emerged as the front-runner for national player of the year?

Alexa Philippou: It can be tempting to default to picking the best team's best player when arguing player of the year candidates. I'd argue that that description doesn't even properly encapsulate just how good Boston has been this year.

Boston leads the nation in win shares at 11.7, according to Her Hoop Stats, and excels on both ends of the floor (she comes in third in offensive win shares and second in defensive win shares). And if you dive deeper into the advanced stats, they show that Boston is what makes South Carolina great. According to Pivot Analysis, the Gamecocks' net rating is 43.04 when Boston is on the floor. That number drops to 3.41 when she is off it. No other South Carolina player's on-off swings are nearly as drastic, including star guards Destanni Henderson and Zia Cooke.

Maybe South Carolina would still be a good team without Boston. But would it be 25-1, including 11-0 against ranked teams, the undisputed No. 1 team in the country all season and the favorite to take home the title in Minneapolis? I highly doubt that.

Take it from Dawn Staley herself.

"It's hard for me to imagine not having her and her contributions in so many different areas outside of the stat sheet," the South Carolina coach told reporters last week. "She's a communicator, she's a captain, she's a leader, she's a great teammate, she's a great competitor on top of the stats. You'd lose a cornerstone, and I don't want to imagine what [life without Boston] looks like until she graduates."

Mechelle Voepel: Everything you would want a top post player to work on as she moved into her upper-class years, Boston has done. She got stronger, improved her footwork and embraced her leadership role. She was already an outstanding player her first two seasons, but she has taken that to a higher level as a junior with her poise and consistency.

"I think Aliyah has grown into that," Staley said Sunday after Boston's 19th consecutive SEC double-double in a victory over Tennessee. "I think her first couple of years, teams could speed her up and make her play faster than she wants to play. Over time, people doubling and tripling her has made her relax a little.

"She sees it and has the skill set to maneuver through it. Her ballhandling has gotten better. Her decision-making has gotten better. And her ability to just score, to figure out a way. A lot of times, it's from her rebounding. She's basically a really complete player."

Boston has several scoring threats around her, but she's still the No. 1 option. She doesn't rely on just her size; she has become very nimble around the basket and has a quiet, unshakeable confidence that opponents notice.

Tennessee coach Kellie Harper played four seasons as a Lady Vols point guard with one of the greatest post players in women's basketball history, Chamique Holdsclaw, and she admires what Boston is doing.

"She is so good. She is so strong and so mobile and so skilled with great hands," Harper said. "I love her personality. I love watching her play. She deserves every award that she's going to get."

Creme: As Mechelle mentioned, Boston's improvement is obvious. She's gone from very good to great in her three seasons and doesn't appear to have hit her ceiling. Alexa hit on the key statistical measures that illustrate that greatness. To me all those numbers boil down to two things: efficiency and winning. Boston's Player Efficiency Rating tops the country. This means that Boston's positive contributions outweigh her negative ones by a greater margin than any other player. Boston is consistently doing something to benefit her team and rarely hurting it.

Alexa had it right: The Gamecocks wouldn't be what they are without Boston. Boston is not a perfect player. She is, however, as close to one as we have in the game today.

What other players do you expect to be first-team All-Americans?

Philippou: Baylor's NaLyssa Smith, the reigning Wade Trophy winner as well as a 2021 first-team All-American, has followed up her breakout season with an impressive 2021-22 campaign. Now under the tutelage of former Atlanta Dream coach Nicki Collen, Smith's versatility in a more modern offensive system has been on full display; Smith has attempted a career-high 25 3-pointers so far this season, making seven. Moreover, she's simply still getting it done for the new-look Bears and is giving WNBA GMs every reason to take her top two (and maybe No. 1 overall) in the upcoming draft.

According to Her Hoop Stats, Smith is one of four players in Division I averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game, with 21.3 points on 55.2% shooting, plus 11.0 rebounds. She ranks No. 7 in the nation in win shares (9.2).

Creme: Smith was my preseason player of the year, and despite her great season she has gotten lost a bit with so much attention going to Boston and Iowa's Caitlin Clark. However, no star player has flown under the radar more than Smith's Big 12 counterpart, Kansas State center Ayoka Lee. The entire sports world stood up and noticed when Lee went for 61 points against Oklahoma on Jan. 23, but she just as quickly disappeared from prominent conversation right after that -- despite the 6-foot-6 junior scoring over 30 points eight times and averaging 23.5 PPG, 10.5 RPG, and 3.1 BPG.

Lee's points and blocks are both good for fifth nationally and per Her Hoop Stats, only Boston registers a higher win share than Lee (10.3). By no means should Lee win over Boston, Clark or Smith, but Kansas State, largely on the back of Lee, is about to return to the NCAA tournament after missing it a year ago. That deserves more than just a mention.

Voepel: Iowa's Clark leads Division I in scoring (26.9 PPG) and assists (8.2 APG), plus is averaging 8.0 rebounds. In short, her games are frequently triple-double watches, and she has five on the season. Monday was a near-miss with 29 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in a victory over Indiana. Clark's ability to hit shots from anywhere on the court while also being a premier passer makes her a fantastic offensive force.

In a season without Boston's brilliance for the No. 1-ranked team, Clark would have a stronger candidacy for national player of the year. But being a first-team All-American is a big deal for any sophomore, and Clark almost certainly will have that honor. As a freshman, she was on the 10-member WBCA All-American team, and was a second-team Associated Press All-American.

Michigan's Naz Hillmon is also likely to get All-American first-team status, as is Stanford's Haley Jones. Hillmon, a senior forward, helped lead Michigan to its highest ranking in program history, and is averaging a double-double: 23.9 PPG and 11.4 PPG. Consistency has been one of Hillmon's hallmarks.

Jones' numbers on a team as deep as Stanford don't stand out as much; she is averaging 12.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.0 assists. She has been a very good "team" player on a squad that wears opponents down with its stockpile of talent.

But as she proved in taking over the Final Four last season to earn Most Outstanding Player honors, Jones can assert her dominance in the times when Stanford most needs her to. She did that Sunday when the Cardinal had to overcome a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter at Oregon. Jones, a junior guard, was the top-rated recruit in the class of 2019, with Boston third. Both are multifaceted stars looking to lead their teams back to the Final Four.

Who are the top candidates for coach of the year?

Philippou: Dawn Staley's squad has long established itself as the team to beat come March. The Gamecocks have been ranked No. 1 in the polls since the preseason, and haven't given voters any reason to knock them from that top spot as they've rolled through the season with a 25-1 record to date. Only two other teams in the AP Top 25 poll (BYU and Florida Gulf Coast) have fewer than three losses on the season.

It's not just that Staley's group has the best record in the country that makes her deserving of coach of the year to me; it's how she and the Gamecocks have gone about it. South Carolina is 11-0 in games versus ranked teams this season, six of which were by 14 or more points, and the team has demonstrated composure to pull out wins in tight games. In the process, Staley became the first coach to beat UConn's Geno Auriemma, Stanford's Tara VanDerveer and LSU's Kim Mulkey all in the same season.

Most impressively, Staley has managed to elevate a roster that is mostly the same as last year's (all five starters and seven of South Carolina's nine players who average at least 10 minutes per game were on the 2020-21 squad). The 2020-21 group went 26-5 and fell short of winning the SEC regular-season title; this season's team has already clinched a share of the league's regular-season crown with no signs of slowing down, in conference play or with March right around the corner.

Voepel: I believe Staley will be coach of the year and deserves the honor. As Alexa points out, Staley has a lot of talent to work with, and that's part of coaching, too: Being a great recruiter. She has brought the talent to Columbia, South Carolina, and then developed it. But two of the leading challengers come from Staley's own conference.

Kim Mulkey shook up the women's basketball world in April when she left Baylor after 21 seasons and three national championships to take over at LSU. With Mulkey's track record, everyone assumed she would get the Tigers back near the top of the SEC. But this fast?

Considering the bulk of the team returned from last year's squad that went 9-13 overall and 6-8 in the SEC, the fact that Mulkey has them ranked No. 8 at 23-4 overall and 11-3 (second) in the league is a testament to how powerful and immediate her impact has been.

Right behind LSU at 10-4 is Florida, which is the biggest surprise in women's basketball this season. The Gators appeared in full meltdown mode over the summer as coach Cameron Newbauer stepped down amid what was later revealed as allegations of abusive behavior. The team's top scorer and rebounder, Lavender Briggs, was shut down for the season in January due to a stress reaction in her leg and then transferred to Maryland.

But interim head coach Kelly Rae Finley has led the Gators to a 20-7 overall record. And they weren't far from winning at LSU on Sunday before the Tigers prevailed 66-61.

Outside the SEC, Oklahoma's Jennie Baranczyk is another coach who has made an immediate impact in her first season at a program. After nine seasons at Drake, Baranczyk took over for legendary Sooners coach Sherri Coale, who retired after 25 seasons. Baraczyk has the Sooners tied for fourth in the Big 12, and they've beaten conference giant Baylor twice. The Sooners have hit the 20-win mark for the first time since 2016-17.

And it's also important to mention NC State's Wes Moore, whose Wolfpack have clinched a share of their first ACC regular-season championship since 1990. NC State's 16 league victories are the most in program history, and the Wolfpack will go for No. 17 against Virginia Tech on Sunday.

Creme: What has happened at Florida is remarkable and Finley would get my vote. The greatness of South Carolina and Staley also must be recognized and certainly will be. Yet each time coach of the year gets mentioned, Georgia Tech's Nell Fortner enters my mind. In so many ways it defies logic that the Yellow Jackets have 10 ACC wins and remain a top-25 NET team. Fortner has managed to get them there with mostly a six-player rotation, no point guard, and without a single player that averages more than 11 points per game.

A foot injury knocked last year's second-leading scorer and point guard Kierra Fletcher out for the season. Then three games later, another starting guard, Loyal McQueen, elected to transfer. That left Fortner with no experienced ball handler and a thin bench. No matter. With 6-4 post player Lorela Cubaj often bringing the ball up the court, Georgia Tech has managed to score enough to complement one of the best defenses in the country that allows the fourth fewest points per game. That's how Georgia Tech managed wins over Georgia, UConn and North Carolina.

That lack of depth is starting to catch up to the weary Yellow Jackets, but Georgia Tech is a lock to make a second straight NCAA tournament under Fortner. While she won't win the award, Fortner has played the game of survival as well as any coach this season.

Who are the top candidates for freshman of the year?

Philippou: She might not get as much love compared to some freshmen in Power 5 conferences, but Aneesah Morrow has been an absolute force on both ends for DePaul. You know Boston's streak of 19 straight double-doubles, matching the SEC record set by Sylvia Fowles in 2007? Well, Morrow sports 21 consecutive double-doubles dating to Dec. 5. Only three other players in Division I women's basketball history compiled at least 20 in a row.

And while the Big East might not be the strongest conference top-down, Morrow has showed up big against some of DePaul's toughest competition this season. She dazzled in a 30-point, 14-rebound outing against UConn in late January and also managed to put up 24 and 16 against Arizona earlier this season. According to Her Hoop Stats, Morrow's 9.6 win shares aren't just the best of any freshman in the country, but the fourth-best mark in the country.

Voepel: Morrow is also my pick for top freshman; there's just no arguing with her production.

But it has been an odd year for the freshman class, as the top two ranked players -- UConn's Azzi Fudd and South Carolina's Raven Johnson, both guards -- have been impacted by injuries. Johnson suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Gamecocks' victory over South Dakota in their second game of the season on Nov. 11.

Fudd returned in late January after a foot injury kept her out for more than two months. She has displayed some of the brilliance that was expected of her, but she has only played 13 games and is averaging 12.7 points.

Guard Caroline Ducharme is the freshman who has had the most impact all season for UConn. She has played in 19 games, averaging 12.3 points and 3.5 rebounds.

Guard Rori Harmon has provided a big lift to Texas; she was our ESPN.com player of the week Monday and is averaging 10.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and team-best 4.6 assists and 2.5 steals. She is a defensive force on a team geared toward winning with defense.

Cal guard Jayda Curry is the top scorer in the Pac-12 as a freshman (18.9 PPG).

Creme: Sure, Notre Dame's Olivia Miles played six games last season as an early entrant, but she still qualifies as a freshman and is one of the best. Second only to Clark nationally in assists per game, Miles is already a dynamic passer with a flare rarely seen in a player this young.

I agree with Mechelle and Alexa that Morrow is this year's best rookie, but I also think that Miles is on the verge of becoming a star and one of the future faces of the game. Her shooting confidence has already grown, and on a team with last year's ACC rookie of the year Maddy Westbeld, as well as veteran Maya Dodson, it's Miles who is the Irish's leading scorer (13.9 PPG). With Sonia Citron also excelling as a freshman (11. 4 PPG, 6.5 RPG) in South Bend, Notre Dame's future appears secure.