NCAA Women: All-Australian Preseason Top 10

With 83 Australian women taking to the court in NCAA Division I this season, there was no shortage of players making a case to be included in the preseason All-Australian teams heading into the 2018-19 season.

Further to this, three players who were among the best in the nation in 2016-17 - Alicia Froling, Carly Turner and Grace Lennox - will make their returns to the court after spending most or all of last season out with injury. With that trio returning and a number of Aussies proving to be vital members of their respective teams, competition for spots was fierce and that trend looks set to continue throughout the season.

All-Australian First Team

G | Tiana MANGAKAHIA | Junior | Syracuse

An absolute revelation for Syracuse in her opening season of Division I basketball, Tiana Mangakahia electrified the Orange’s offence from day one. The junior college transfer tallied 10 assists on debut to start a season that finished with the then-sophomore averaging 17.5 points and 9.8 assists per game - just six dimes shy of a double-double average but still good for best in the nation. That outstanding season in a Syracuse team that secured an NCAA Tournament berth before falling in the first round, landed Mangakahia a Nancy Lieberman award nomination, establishing her position as one of the top point guards in college basketball.

With outstanding athleticism and the vision to match, Mangakahia’s ability to push the pace and find a teammate in transition makes the Orange an immediate threat anytime they get a stop at the defensive end. The junior is also more than adept at running the offence in the half court, and whilst the flair that Mangakahia plays with can result in a few too many turnovers for any coach’s liking at times, she more than makes up for it with her ability to set up teammates and also score in multiple ways. If the Queenslander can keep those turnovers under control this season whilst maintaining similar assist numbers to last year, Syracuse might just be able to break through into that upper echelon in the ACC. They finished 10-6 and in equal sixth last season before falling to Virginia Tech in their conference tournament opener.

Syracuse have not lost a single player that played significant minutes last season, and with two five-star recruits joining the team, Mangakahia will have plenty of support as the Orange look to go a few steps further than last season’s NCAA Tournament first round loss to Oklahoma State. The Queenslander will have to handle the loss of that surprise factor she brought last season, but Mangakahia has more than enough class to overcome defences that now know what they’re up against.

G | Funda NAKKASOGLU | Senior | Florida

The Florida senior may have thrown her lot in with the Turkish national program, but Funda Nakkasoglu remains Aussie and also remains one of her team’s most potent players. She is a vital cog in a young Gators team that returns just two starters, of whom Nakkasoglu is one.

Having averaged 20.8 points per game in her second season at Utah State before transferring to Florida, the dynamic guard managed to tally 14.8 points per contest despite playing for a Gators team that won just 3 conference games in a far tougher league than what Nakkasoglu had experienced at Utah State.

Undoubtedly a scorer before a facilitator, Nakkasoglu finished last season in the top 50 in the nation for three pointers made per game, a feat made possible by her solid 37% clip from beyond the arc. The Turkish national squad member also has the ability to get to the basket with regularity, and hit her shots from 2-point range at 49%. Nakkasoglu did finish third on the team for assists last season with 68, and with a pair of players who also dished out a number of dimes having now graduated, that may yet be a part of the Victorian’s game that becomes more prevalent in her senior season. However, those players also took nearly 20 points per game with them when they graduated, so maintaining the balance between the two facets of the game will be imperative if Nakkasoglu is to continue to make the same impact that she has both in Logan and now at Gainesville.

Having lost four seniors to graduation after last season, Florida’s roster is decidedly young and inexperienced, with Nakkasoglu the only senior alongside three freshmen, four sophomores, and four juniors. One of those freshmen, Ariel Johnson, is an ESPN 100 recruit, but this may turn out to be a year that sees Nakkasoglu play a mentoring role as the Gators look to consolidate for the future, with two more top 100 recruits slated to join in 2019.

F | Courtney WOODS | Senior | Northern Illinois

A Cheryl Miller Award watch list nominee, three-point shooting may be the cornerstone of Courtney Woods’ game, but the Northern Illinois senior is by no means a one-dimensional player, even at the offensive end. Woods finished 11th in the nation for points in 2017-18, averaging a mammoth 22.1 per game, helped by a three-point shooting clip of 40.8%, which sat the Northern Illinois sharpshooter firmly in the top 50 in the nation. However, nearly 60% of Woods’ field goal attempts still came from inside the arc last season, and with 7.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game, outside shooting is certainly not the only way that Woods has hurt teams in the past.

Just seeing Woods open in the corner is enough for opposition coaches to cringe, with the Queenslander close enough to automatic given the opportunity from what seems to clearly be her favourite spot on the court. That can force defenders to over-commit to a close-out, something Woods can sense with aplomb before simply waltzing into the space left by her opponent and grabbing an easy basket from close range when the opportunity arises. The 6’0 senior also plays well above her height on the glass, grabbing 8 rebounds per game last season to lead the Huskies. Add in a more than respectable 3.3 assists per game, and it is obvious that Woods is an extremely well-rounded player who will almost certainly be the barometer for Northern Illinois’ performances this season.

Woods won’t have to do it all on her own if the Huskies are to improve on last season’s slightly disappointing 7-11 conference record though. Two other starters return, whilst red shirt sophomore Janae Poisson averaged 10.8 points before going down with injury after just four games last season. It is worth remembering that Northern Illinois are just one season removed from a trip to the conference championship game, and Woods, along with the other members of the squad that played in that game, will no doubt be hungry to return and make amends for their upset loss to Toledo.

F | Alanna SMITH | Senior | Stanford

After a breakout second half of the 2016-17 season, 2017-18 proved to be a continuation of that outstanding back-end of the previous year for Alanna Smith, who transformed herself into one of the undoubted leaders of the Stanford side. She parlayed that form into a spot in the Opals squad and an eventual World Cup silver medal. Having increased her scoring and rebounding numbers every year at Stanford, Smith emerged with a solid 13.5 points and 7 rebounds per game, a vast improvement on the previous season’s 9 points and 5.4 boards, but those numbers only tell part of the story. The Opal’s defence has also come on in leaps and bounds, leading to a top 50 spot in the nation for blocks and almost doubling her steal numbers to just shy of 1.3 per game.

Smith is by no means a three-point sniper, but shoots well enough from the perimeter for defences to respect her ability, which brings an extra dimension to her game and also helps Stanford space the floor. However, it is in the paint that Smith truly excels, with an ability to find room for herself in close quarters on offence and grab vital rebounds with regularity. With former front court partner Kaylee Johnson having now graduated, that will have to continue as none of the team’s other returning interior players averaged more than 12 minutes per game last season. However with the Australian senior already demonstrating her leadership qualities time and again for the Cardinal, Smith’s presence alone will certainly help to ease the transition for Stanford as the season develops.

Despite finishing 24-11 last season, Stanford somehow reached the Pac-12 championship game and the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 before falling to eventual final four team Louisville. Whilst the Cardinal have lost two outstanding starters in Johnson and current Perth Lynx import Brittany McPhee, they have retooled with some outstanding freshmen, and with Smith among four seniors on the team, the pieces are there for Stanford to once again be a factor heading deep into March.

C | Megan McKAY | Senior | Saint Mary’s

An imposing presence in the front court, Megan McKay has been a dominant force in the paint for Saint Mary’s since the day she arrived in Moraga, and a 2017-18 All-WCC First Team nod officially recognised what a lot of people already know – that the Western Australian is one of the top front court players in the conference. This season, with the graduation of Gonzaga’s Jill Barta, McKay can lay claim to being the undisputed number one this season, particularly after garnering a preseason All-Conference First Team selection earlier this month.

McKay’s touch around the basket is simply sublime, leading to the senior shooting at or above 60% from the field in two of her three seasons to this point, with last season’s 60.8% mark good enough for 13th in the nation. The Western Australian has also improved her free throw percentage from the low-60s in her first two seasons to almost 70% last season, and with 18 career double-doubles and seasonal averages of 15.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game in 2017-18, McKay has developed into an outstanding all-round interior presence for the Gaels. The senior can also step out slightly and knock down the midrange given the chance, and whilst three-point shooting is not in her repertoire, that ability to score from a little further from the basket certainly adds an extra dimension of sorts to McKay’s game.

With the Gaels receiving a pair of first-place votes in the West Coast Conference preseason poll to slot into second spot behind defending champions Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s will no doubt be bullish about their chances this season. McKay will be a big reason for that confidence, particularly given her All-Conference First Team selection alongside teammate Sydney Raggio. Ironically enough, Saint Mary’s have hung with Gonzaga for the last three seasons, with three wins and a pair of close losses in their seven contests, but have slipped up against lesser opposition at times. If they can rectify that issue, the sky is the limit for McKay and the Gaels.

All-Australian Second Team

G | Grace LENNOX | Senior | Eastern Illinois

Grace Lennox all but carried Eastern Illinois before injury forced the point guard out last season, with the team’s performances without the Tasmanian providing incontrovertible evidence pointing to her importance to the team. Despite playing just eight of the Panthers’ 29 games last season, Lennox still managed to finish fifth for total assists with 39. Furthermore, no other player on the roster came within five points of Lennox’s scoring average of 15.4 points per game as Eastern Illinois limped to a 3-26 record after putting together a 9-19 record in 2016-17.

Although the Tasmanian stands at just 5’4, that short stature has hardly proven to be a limitation for Lennox as she has put herself in line to end her college career as one of the greats of Eastern Illinois women’s basketball. Already eighth in school history for career assists after three consecutive seasons in triple figures, Lennox is also just five points shy of becoming the 24th member of the Panthers’ 1,000-point club. Whilst Lennox is no stranger to knocking down shots from deep as a 31% career three-point shooter, it is her speed in getting to the basket that can really give defences major headaches. Not only does that result in close-range finishes, the Tasmanian also averaged a very reasonable 4.5 free throw attempts per game. Throw in solid defence that saw Lennox average almost 2 steals per game in 2016-17, and it is not hard to see why the senior is an integral part of the Eastern Illinois side.

With head coach Matt Bollant continuing to build his own roster after joining in April 2017, Lennox will no doubt be one of the leaders that looks to not only dominate on the court, but also mentor an Eastern Illinois side that will be looking to lay the foundations for the future, with the Tasmanian one of five players in their final season of college basketball in 2018-19.

G | Carly TURNER | Senior | Saint Mary’s

The second of three players on this Second Team to make a return from a season away from the court due to injury, Carly Turner makes her way back into the Saint Mary’s side as one of five Australians on the roster this season. Prior to her injury, which she sustained as a member of the Emerging Opals side at the World University Games, Turner had enjoyed a breakout 2016-17 season in which she started all 33 games after starting just one in each of the previous seasons, and all but doubled her minutes as the then-junior developed into something of a leader for the Gaels.

Able to play either guard spot as well as slot into the three with aplomb, Turner will likely spend most of her time in the back court, potentially filling the hole left by recent Townsville Fire signing Stella Beck, who finished her career at Saint Mary’s last season. Ironically enough, Beck and Turner each finished with 165 total rebounds in the last season they played together, and with the Gaels finishing 2nd in the nation for rebound margin last season, Turner’s return will help to ensure that they remain dominant on the boards as they look to finally knock off presumptive champions Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference. Rebounding is hardly Turner’s only skill though, having finished as one of four Gaels in double figures last season as well as finishing second in the team for assists.

If Turner is able to return to her pre-injury level for the start of the season, we could very well see three Australians in the Gaels’ lineup from day one as Megan McKay and Jasmine Forcadilla have cemented their spots in the starting five. With five seniors and a number of outstanding juniors returning, the time seems to have never been better for Saint Mary’s to secure a first conference title since 2001 and make a first NCAA Tournament appearance in 18 years.

F | Alex SHARP | Junior | Wake Forest

Whilst the Wake Forest junior may not put up massive numbers in any one category, Alex Sharp has demonstrated her ability at both ends of the court throughout her first two seasons in college, and will now come into this season as one of the more experienced players on a Demon Deacons’ roster that features five freshmen but just two seniors. Officially listed as a guard, there is certainly a case to be made for adding “/forward” to that as Sharp regularly does her best work close to the basket. Tallying 8 double-doubles last season, Sharp shot 47% from two-point range on her way to 10.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per contest, good enough for third and second on the team respectively, whilst also leading the Demon Deacons in total assists with 94.

The only player to start every game for the Demon Deacons last season, Sharp’s all-round ability has seen her develop into an integral part of a Wake Forest team that has found itself hovering around the .500 mark for the past few seasons. Whilst perimeter shooting may not be a hallmark of the junior’s game, Sharp more than makes up for it with her work in other facets. The junior regularly grabs rebounds that the situation dictates she shouldn’t, and whilst turnovers have been an issue, the athletic wing’s assist to turnover ratio swung from a fairly dismal 0.77 in her freshman year to 1.08 this year. Should this trend continue, it bodes well not only for Sharp as a ball-handler, but for a Wake Forest team that finished with more turnovers than assists last season.

As one of just two returning players to average double figures in points in 2017-18, Sharp will certainly be called upon more as a scorer than a facilitator this coming year, particularly as the player who finished second on the team in assists last season played just 18 minutes per game and will no doubt command more playing time, which should hopefully allow Sharp to improve upon her scoring from last season as the Demon Deacons attempt to replace Amber Campbell’s 10.5 points per game in their attempt to finally break free of the mid-pack and aim for the upper echelon of the ACC despite being picked to finish 12th by both coaches and media this year.

F | Alicia FROLING | Senior | Southern Methodist

The 2017 All-Australian Player of the Year, Alicia Froling found herself requiring knee surgery prior to last season, forcing the senior to red shirt and instead round out her outstanding college career this season. Prior to the injury, Froling put up numbers like few other Aussies have been able to do on her way to two AAC All-Conference Second Team selections and an All-Conference Freshman Team selection in 2015. Froling put up double-doubles in 17 of her 34 games in 2016-17, finishing a single rebound shy of a double-double average with 14.3 points and 9.97 rebounds per game in an SMU side that finished 19-15 before tumbling to 10-20 last season with Froling out injured.

Prior to her injury, Froling was a dominant force in the paint for three years, putting the Mustangs team on her back on numerous occasions and for a time forming a formidable front court pairing with fellow Australian Stephanie Collins. The pair traded the program’s single-season blocks record, with Froling now just 33 rejections shy of breaking the Mustangs’ career record, a number she should easily pass should she return to the same form we saw prior to her injury.

Froling’s name litters the Southern Methodist career and single-season record lists, with her tenacity on the boards and ability to finish in traffic and through contact helping to build one of the most acclaimed college careers of any Australian of the last few years. Froling’s game isn’t all crash and bash around the basket though, having improved her passing ability to increase her assist numbers from 0.6 per game in her freshman year to an even two per contest as a junior to add yet another string to an ever-growing bow.

As with any player returning from injury, the success of Froling’s return remains to be seen, but having already tallied 15 points and 9 rebounds in an exhibition game earlier this week, it certainly looks as though the senior is ready to perform for the Mustangs. As the only senior on a side that lost three regular starters and six of the eight players that started any game last season, Froling will certainly be called upon to do plenty of the heavy lifting as the Mustangs look to do slightly better than their preseason poll position of seventh in the 12-team American Athletic Conference, but she will certainly need some help not only from the other players with college experience, but a seven-member freshman class that includes fellow Queenslander Paige Bayliss, who at 6’5 is the tallest player on the roster.

C | Courtney WEST | Senior | Portland State

A shot-blocking machine for Portland State, Courtney West is perhaps the unluckiest player in the nation having missed out on All-Conference honours in the Big Sky for the last two seasons. Only knowledge of the inevitable damage that West would do to shots saw the Sutherland product’s block numbers drop from 2.8 to 2.5 per game last season, but the number of shots that the Vikings centre changed or simply scared opponents out of more than made up for that reduction.

Of course, there is far more to West’s game than simply swatting shots into low Earth orbit, although the Sutherland product finished in the top 20 in the nation for both total and average blocks last season. West’s finishing around the basket led to an average of 9.7 points per game, and her underrated passing ability in close quarters delivered a season average of 2.1 assists for a Portland State side that finished 19-13 last season before falling to Geraldine McCorkell and Idaho in the Big Sky semi-finals. West also led the Vikings in rebounds with 8 per game, totalling 80 more than the team’s next best for the season as her all-round ability shone through with regular outstanding performances at both ends, with a 25-point, 12-rebound performance against Sacramento State in late January that also featured five blocks and four assists a highlight.

The Vikings were unfazed by playing away from campus as their home court at Viking Pavilion was renovated last season, putting together a 10-2 record on their temporary home floor across town at Lewis & Clark College. After last season’s efforts, the Vikings will be expected to do the same in their new 3,000-seat arena, particularly with a squad that returns every player from last season and features a senior-heavy starting lineup that includes West. Portland State have been picked to finish second in the Big Sky this season, and it may yet come to pass that West rounds out her college career with a first appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

Honourable Mentions

With Grace Lennox, Alicia Froling, and Carly Turner all returning from a season out with injury, the number of players who had cases to be named in the preseason All-Australian teams swelled in comparison to previous years. An exciting set of point guards led by juniors Eliza West of Utah State and Jasmine Forcadilla of Saint Mary’s will be pushing for a spot in this same list come the end of the season, with St. Francis Brooklyn’s Amy O’Neill not out of the running. O’Neill’s Terriers teammate Jade Johnson was The Pick and Roll’s Most Improved Player last season and looks set to continue her upwards trajectory in 2018 as she looks to help the team atone for the loss of program legend Alex Delaney.

Boston College pairing Georgia Pineau and Taylor Ortlepp could consider themselves among the unluckiest to miss out on a spot in the second team, and with both players making large strides in their sophomore years in 2017-18. There is scope for the duo to not only make a real name for themselves in the ACC, but also upset the apple cart in a Boston College side tipped to finish second from bottom in the conference.

Finally, there are always a number of freshmen who step up to make a name from themselves from the outset. Whilst the likes of Miela Goodchild and Jasmine Simmons, among others, could potentially make an impact at some powerhouse programs, others at mid-majors may have put themselves in position to succeed from the outset. Don’t be surprised if the likes of Jess McDowell-White at Eastern Washington, Steph Gorman at Utah State, or Eve Braslis at Utah Valley, among others, get off to a flyer. However, with 30 freshmen this year, the next big name could come from literally anywhere in the country.

Preseason Player of the Year: Alanna Smith

For the second straight season, Alanna Smith is the Preseason Player of the Year, but plenty of water has flowed under the bridge since the Stanford senior narrowly missed out on the final award to Kristy Wallace earlier this year. Smith returns to Stanford for her senior year as a World Cup silver medallist after playing a significant role for the Opals in their run to the final and more than holding her own against the star-studded US side in the team’s loss in that gold medal game.

Not only has Smith shown herself to be developing into an integral part of the Opals setup, her class was recognised by those on the other side of the Pacific this week. The senior earned a Pac-12 All-Conference First Team selection alongside last season’s Nancy Lieberman Award winner Sabrina Ionescu and Katrina McClain award winner Ruthy Hebard, both of whom play for Oregon. Both Hebard and Smith were also named to this year’s watchlist for the Katrina McClain award, which is awarded to the top power forward in college basketball.

At a glance, Tiana Mangakahia shapes as Smith’s main competition for the end-of-season Australian Player of the Year in 2018-19 but if the Stanford senior can continue to dominate at both ends whilst also reducing her turnovers and improving her free throws from last season’s dismal 53% clip, her all-round game will not only seal her position as the undoubted top Australian in college, but also see her name begin to inch up WNBA draft boards. Smith has already shown at the World Cup that she can hang with the world’s best, something that will have not escaped the attention of scouts not only in the WNBA, but in Europe and closer to home.