NCAA Women: All-Australian Preseason Top 10

With all fifteen members of Pick and Roll's 2016/17 All-Australian teams returning to college this season, spots in this year's preseason top 10 were incredibly hard to come by, with seven of the ten spots filled by players who were in the 2016/17 end-of-season top 10, even despite the recent news of a season-ending injury to 2016/17 Player of the Year, Alicia Froling. Whilst it was a stacked collection of players last year, the return of Funda Nakkasoglu after sitting out a year following her transfer from Utah State to Florida makes for an exciting set of players to watch throughout the season that extends far beyond just the preseason top 10.

All-Australian First Team

G | Kristy WALLACE | Senior | Baylor

The undoubted backcourt leader of what is an increasingly young Baylor side as the years progress, Kristy Wallace will be tasked with not only facilitating scorers, but shouldering her own share of the scoring load and continuing to play the lockdown defence for which the Queenslander is already well-known around college basketball. A Big 12 preseason Honourable Mention this season, Wallace will be one of the go-to players as the Bears look to make amends for last season’s loss in the Big 12 Championship to West Virginia, as well as improve on last year’s NCAA Tournament run, which ended with an overtime loss to eventual national runner-up Mississippi State. Whilst Wallace improved her assist numbers significantly last season - from 2.3 to 5.6 per game, the senior’s scoring has remained at or around the 8 point per game mark for the entirety of her college career. This is one area where the senior will be expected to make an improvement in 2017/18, especially with Baylor needing to replace the scoring 2016/17 senior guards Alexis Jones and Alexis Prince, who each averaged in excess of 12 points per game last season. Wallace will no doubt receive help from a much-vaunted recruiting class alongside an already outstanding roster, but scoring is the main area the senior needs to improve on, something Wallace herself has pointed out in the past.

G | Stephanie REID | Senior | Buffalo

A facilitator for teammates the likes of which is rarely seen in college basketball, Stephanie Reid obliterated a number of assist records for Buffalo in 2016/17, also making her way onto a number of national statistical rankings. Reid finished in the top 10 in the nation for assists per game, total assists, and assist to turnover ration last season, and also increased her scoring numbers from 10.2 to 11.5 points per game to become the undoubted leader of the Buffalo side, whilst also being named to the MAC All-Defensive team after registering 62 steals for the season. However, it is the scoring improvement from Reid that could prove vital for Buffalo if the upward trajectory continues, especially in the face of the graduation of fellow guard JoAnna Smith, who put up 17 points per game last season.

Whilst Reid may be putting up almost obscene assist numbers at times, her play doesn’t smack of stat-padding as can sometimes occur, and this ability and willingness to make the right play for the team rather than for her own stat line could prove vital as the Bulls attempt to atone for last season’s MAC Championship game loss to Toledo in a tournament where neither team was expected to reach the semi-finals, but after defeating #2 seed Ball State in the quarter-finals, Buffalo may have felt that they should have defeated a Toledo side that eventually won the conference title as a #6 seed. The Bulls have already been tabbed as favourites in their division of the Mid-American Conference, making them immediate favourites to at least make the conference title game.

G/F | Courtney WOODS | Junior | Northern Illinois

Courtney Woods made a solid enough impression in her freshman season at Northern Illinois, averaging double figures in scoring, but the Queenslander’s improvement in her sophomore season, particularly from outside the arc, was telling for Northern Illinois as the Huskies improved from an 11-19 record in 2015/16 to 21-12 last season. Woods proved herself to be one of the top three-point shooters in the country, finishing in the top 50 in the nation for shooting percentage from beyond the arc, and completing the season in the top 10 for three-pointers made per game.

Woods is hardly just a three-point gunner though. A disruptive defender at times, the wing averaged more than one steal per game last season, and also pulled down in excess of five rebounds per game. This all-round play helped Northern Illinois secure the #4 seed in the MAC conference tournament last season, where the Huskies reached the final before going down to the same #6 seeded Toledo team that had already ended the dreams of the Australian quartet at Buffalo in the semi-finals. The Huskies lose two starters from that team to graduation, including Ally Lehman, who dropped 47 points and 21 rebounds in a game early last season. Whilst not all of the load of those two starters will fall to the junior, Woods will still have to be one of the leaders, both in terms of rallying the troops and in the box score, as the Huskies look to go one better than last season.

F | Alanna SMITH | Junior | Stanford

Alanna Smith came to prominence in wider basketball circles in the off-season following her call-up to the Opals for the FIBA Asia Cup tournament, but for those who follow the college game, it was her back half of the 2016/17 season in which the Stanford forward really shone. Whilst the first half of Smith’s sophomore season looked to be more of the same after making minor contributions in her freshman year, one game against Oregon in early January showed just what the Opals forward is capable of. Knocking down 9 of 15 shots, Smith tallied 24 points in 20 minutes in what was the first of 14 double-figure scoring efforts after Christmas last season, in comparison to the two that she had prior to the holidays. Smith proved her big-game mettle by averaging 22 points in back-to-back games against rivals California, before tallying six consecutive double-figure scoring efforts to end the season, finishing with a Pac-12 All-Tournament Team selection and helping lead Stanford to a slightly unexpected Final Four berth as a #2 seed, edging out #1 seed Notre Dame 76-75 in the Elite Eight before falling to South Carolina in the national semi-final.

Following her outstanding college season, Smith received a call-up to the Opals side for the FIBA Asia Cup in India, where the rookie finished second in points and third in rebounds per game to be one of the stars of the tournament as the Opals went down to Japan in the championship game.

Returning to Stanford, Smith will be expected to step up following the progression of mentor Erica McCall to the WNBA. Whilst Smith has previously stated that she isn’t fussed as to whether she starts or comes off the bench, there is absolutely zero doubt that the Australian will be one of Stanford’s main weapons at both ends of the court.

C | Megan McKAY | Junior | Saint Mary’s

A no-nonsense, hard-working post player, Megan McKay may not be a headline grabber, but time and again she has done the job required of her at Saint Mary’s, and in many cases, a whole lot more. Emerging as a solid member of the rotation in her freshman season, a starting spot opened up in the frontcourt in 2016/17 and McKay not only grabbed it with both hands, but strangled every last bit out of the opportunity. Despite a slight drop in field goal percentage - perhaps fair considering she sent the Saint Mary’s single-season record in her freshman season - the Western Australian improved her scoring from 7.3 to 10.6 points per game, and also secured 9 double-doubles as her physicality on the glass combined with her 6’3” height came to the fore on her way to an All-WCC Honorable Mention alongside fellow Australian Carly Turner.

The Gaels have lost four players from last season’s team to graduation, and whilst the only starter of those four was guard Devyn Galland, there is still a significant amount of experience to replace, and McKay, as one of the more experienced players in the squad, will now surely become more of an on-court leader as the Gaels look to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament after regularly making appearances in the WNIT in recent years.

All-Australian Second Team

G | Grace LENNOX | Senior | Eastern Illinois

Grace Lennox went from solid starter at Eastern Illinois in her sophomore year to dominant scorer for the Panthers in her junior season in 2016/17, and there is no reason to believe that the Tasmanian won’t continue in the same vein this season. The Eastern Illinois faithful will be crying out for Lennox to continue her outstanding play, as the side finished with just 9 wins in 28 games last season, and if you believe the media, little room for optimism in the upcoming season. However, the Panthers return all bar one player from last season’s team, and with a new coach in place in the form of former Illinois coach Matt Bollant, things may be looking up for Eastern Illinois.

Much will depend on Lennox maintaining or even improving on her performances from last season, but considering she was able to improve her scoring from 8 to 16 points per game whilst maintaining a rate of just over 4 assists per contest, the Tasmanian should have little issue in keeping things going, whether as a scorer, facilitator, or both as the situation demands.

G | Funda NAKKASOGLU | Junior | Florida

She may have put her hand up for the Turkish national team after failing to catch the eye of those involved with the Australian program, but Funda Nakkasoglu is still as Aussie as they come, and after sitting out a season following her transfer from Utah State to Florida, is back in the game and ready to captivate fans once again.

Nakkasoglu was named to the watchlist for the Nancy Lieberman award for the best point guard in women’s college basketball in 2016/17 before announcing her transfer, alongside the likes of WNBA #1 draft pick Kelsey Plum and Townsville Fire import Sydney Wiese, proving that whilst she may have slipped under the radar in Australia, those in the know in the US have noticed her class. Nakkasoglu averaged in excess of 20 points and 4 assists per game in her second season at Utah State, but playing in the SEC will be a whole different animal for the junior. With the conference supplying both teams - South Carolina and Mississippi State - to the NCAA Championship game last season, the SEC is certainly one of the premier conferences in women’s college basketball. Meanwhile, Florida are a team tipped to struggle slightly in conference play, but with Nakkasoglu coming in, as well as graduate transfer Paulina Hersler from UCLA, and a new head coach in Cameron Newbauer, the Gators may yet prove to be an underrated entity.

F | Alex SHARP | Sophomore | Wake Forest

An ACC-All Freshman selection last season, Alex Sharp proved her worth as a solid all-round player by tallying solid enough numbers in a variety of areas to rank in the top 10 amongst conference freshmen in three-point percentage, assists per game, and points per game, and finishing top amongst conference freshmen in rebounding. Now, with a season of college experience and a World University Games gold medal under her belt, Sharp returns to a settled Wake Forest side that returns four starters, of which the Victorian sophomore is one, having started 25 of 32 games in her freshman year.

Whilst her rebounding numbers - 7.5 per game - are outstanding for a wing, one focus this season for Sharp will no doubt be improving her shooting percentage, which sat at 33% last season even though she shot 34% from beyond the arc. However, with a full year at a Division I program behind her, an improvement in physicality should assist Sharp in those contests around the rim that can lead to second chance baskets, especially given that the sophomore finished second on the team in offensive rebounding last season with nearly 3 per game.

F | Louise BROWN | Junior | Washington State

Injury curtailed Louise Brown's junior season in 2016/17 after just seven appearances, but if those seven games are anything to go by, the now-redshirt junior will be back with a vengeance in 2017/18, poised to yet again be one of the frontcourt leaders for a Washington State side brimming with international talent. Before injury struck, Brown had improved her scoring output from 5.5 points to 10.2 points per game, and had also upped her rebound numbers from 4 to nudging 7 per contest. The Victorian has also developed a reasonable midrange and perimeter shooting game, and whilst defences won't be viewing her as a three-point threat, Brown does have the range to do damage if given the room, having connected at over 35% from beyond the arc in each of her last two seasons, good enough for third on the Washington State roster in both years.

In a Washington State side that finished below 200th in the nation in rebound margin, the return of Brown will be a welcome addition to the Cougars' front court, and with the team losing only one senior to graduation, a vast improvement on the glass should be all but certain to follow. In turn, the Cougars will hope to use Brown's return to aid the team in improving on last year's 16-20 record and make a run at an NCAA Tournament berth following last year's WNIT semi-final run.

C | Courtney WEST | Junior | Portland State

Rim protection is the signature facet of Courtney West’s game, and with good reason. Twice last season, the Sutherland product swatted away 8 opposition shots, finishing with 94 blocks for the season, good enough to lead the Big Sky by more than 30 by the end of the campaign. Those 94 blocks were also good enough to finish 10th in the nation, an outstanding effort for a player in her first year of NCAA Division I play.

Although West’s block numbers border on mind-boggling for such an inexperienced player, her all-round play was vital to ensuring Portland State finished 2016/17 with a respectable 16-17 record and plenty of room to grow. A decent touch around the basket allowed West to shoot 52% from the field on her way to 10.4 points per game. Like Alex Sharp, a full year of play and off-season spent in the weight room will no doubt have a positive effect on West’s ability to handle contact and improve not only her shooting percentage, but also her ability to clean the glass at both ends. However, having collected 7.4 rebounds per game last year, anything in excess of that alongside the scoring and blocking prowess would almost be considered a bonus.

Honourable Mentions

The list of honourable mentions can almost be split into two parts - those who have performed admirably in recent seasons at Division I level but just missed out, and those who are coming in with outstanding resumes but still with something to prove at this level. It was incredibly difficult to leave out the likes of Utah State trio Rachel Brewster, Shannon Dufficy, and Eliza West, who all contributed heavily to their team’s successes last season. While the likes of Geraldine McCorkell, Sam Lubcke, and Alex Delaney, among others, all had excellent seasons at positions stacked with Aussie talent.

There are also a raft of players with national team experience coming in this season who will be hot on the heels of the preseason Top 10, with little doubt that at least one of them will make their way into the conversation by the end of the season. Junior college teammates Tiana Mangakahia and Bride Kennedy-Hopoate will be suiting up for Syracuse and Iowa State respectively, whilst the freshman trio of UCLA’s Chantel Horvat, Mississippi State’s Chloe Bibby, and Oregon’s Anneli Maley all bring with them outstanding pedigree. However, all five will be heading to big-name programs, and will certainly have to prove themselves on the biggest stage. However, there are always a couple of players who fly under the radar only to end the season as stars amongst the Aussies - one needs to look no further than Grace Lennox as an example, who looked to be a little more than a solid starting guard for Eastern Illinois going into last season, only to emerge as the team’s star player and one of the top Australian players in 2016/17.

Preseason Player Of The Year: Alanna Smith

With Alicia Froling out for the season due to an ACL injury, the preseason player of the year award could almost be a coin-flip between Opals rookie Alanna Smith and fellow selection camp invitee Kristy Wallace. However, with Stanford stalwart Erica McCall moving on, the opportunities for Smith to put her stamp on the Stanford side will be enormous this year, and with the form that the junior has showcased since January, it is all but impossible to look past her. With that said, it will no doubt be absolutely captivating to see Australia’s best showcasing their talents over the next five months. Smith and Wallace each ooze talent, and both players, as well as many others will no doubt be contending for the Player of the Year award come April.