There have been a lot of COVID-19 postponements during the 2020-21 season, but the best players in women’s college basketball have persevered. Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard continues to headline the ESPN.com midseason top 25 after topping the preseason list. But there are several other changes, including six players that didn’t make the November edition. That doesn’t mean the players who are now left off have played poorly; they and others might make a case to join the top 25 as we head into March Madness.

These rankings — as determined by ESPN.com’s Mechelle Voepel, Graham Hays and Charlie Creme — reflect the improvements a lot of players have made, despite all the challenges of playing during a pandemic.

1. Rhyne Howard

The preseason favorite for every major player of the year award and No. 1 on this preseason list in November, Howard didn’t start the season playing that way. In fact, she didn’t start the season playing at all, sitting out the Wildcats’ first two games under suspension by new coach Kyra Elzy. Then an eight-point output in her debut and a pair of underwhelming 13- and 14-point games the following week created some doubts. Turns out that was nothing that a 27.8 PPG average in four straight games against top-15 opponents in Arkansas, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and South Carolina couldn’t cure. Howard’s 25 points in the fourth quarter and overtime in the win over Mississippi State are moments on which player of the year awards are built. — Charlie Creme


2. Dana Evans

Evans has completed a difficult progression for any player, going from complementary standout as a freshman to an emerging star in her own right as a junior and now finally the reigning ACC player of the year with all of that responsibility and pressure as a senior. She’s responsible for 22 percent of Louisville’s attempts this season. That isn’t quite Asia Durr territory (26 percent as a senior), but it gives the otherwise balanced depth chart a cornerstone. — Graham Hays


3. Haley Jones

  • Stanford Cardinal | G | 6-foot-1 | sophomore

  • 2020-21 stats: 15.2 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 3.5 APG52.8% FG

Watching her glide around the court for the No. 1 Cardinal, scoring from all over while also playmaking for others, you really know how much we missed her when injury cut short her freshman season last January. Jones is a special talent who is blossoming before our eyes. She shot 52.8 percent from the floor last season and is at 57.0 percent this year. The long ball is not her thing — she’s 0-for-4 from behind the arc and was 3 of 11 as a freshman — but considering everything else she does, that’s not a big concern. Plus, she’ll likely add that at some point. — Mechelle Voepel


4. Aari McDonald

  • Arizona Wildcats | G | 5-foot-6 | senior

  • 2020-21 stats: 18.8 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 5.2 APG

The new year is showing how narrow the margins are at the very top of the sport, with McDonald’s own struggles in a loss against Stanford and the overall team miscues in a loss against Washington State. But it’s also McDonald who is most responsible for lifting Arizona to the outskirts of the top five in the first place. January aside, she’s putting up the best assist-to-turnover ratio and 3-point efficiency of her career despite all that is being asked of her. — Graham Hays


5. Charli Collier

  • Texas Longhorns | F/C | 6-foot-5 | junior

  • 2020-21 stats: 21.6 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 57.9% FG

She wasn’t on our preseason top 25, but it was clear early on — she had 44 points and 16 rebounds versus North Texas on Nov. 29 — that she belonged. She averaged 5.9 points as a freshman and 13.1 as a sophomore. She has also made strides as a defensive player this year under new coach Vic Schaefer. Collier is a draft-eligible junior because of her age, and she was the projected No. 1 pick in ESPN’s WNBA mock draft in December. She’s coming off her worst game this season, with five points against West Virginia, so how she does against other tough Big 12 defenses will be a further measuring stick. — Mechelle Voepel


6. Paige Bueckers

  • UConn Huskies | G | 5-foot-11 | freshman

  • 2020-21 stats: 18.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 5.1 APG

When a freshman is leading the Huskies in scoring and Geno Auriemma feels she still isn’t shooting enough, something special might be happening. Bueckers has outdone the lofty expectations that she brought with her to Storrs and is already UConn’s best player. She leads the team in scoring and assists, and as a point guard is second in rebounding and shooting percentage. Defense is still a work in progress, and the 3.0 turnovers per game are too many, but Bueckers is as polished and well-rounded an offensive player as Auriemma has ever had this early into a career. — Charlie Creme


7. Michaela Onyenwere

  • UCLA Bruins | F | 6-foot-0 | senior

  • 2020-21 stats: 18.7 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 2.7 APG

She doesn’t have to do it alone this season, with Charisma Osborne’s emergence forming one of the best tandems in the country. But sharing the spotlight hasn’t diminished Onyenwere’s excellence. Her performance in UCLA’s recent win at Oregon (33 points, 10 rebounds) showed why she has been a fixture in the top 10 all season (she was No. 3 in our preseason rankings) — and why the eighth-ranked Bruins remain in the top 10. — Graham Hays


8. Elissa Cunane

She’s a traditional low-block threat, an old-fashioned center in the best ways, but she can also shoot the 3-pointer (6 of 13 this season, and 27 of 63 for her career). Cunane had 16 double-doubles last season, when the Wolfpack won their first ACC tournament title since 1991. She has three in 10 games so far, which is mostly a reflection on the Wolfpack being a better overall rebounding team than when she had to dominate the boards last year. NC State has the pieces to be a Final Four team, and Cunane is a big one. — Mechelle Voepel


9. Caitlin Clark

  • Iowa Hawkeyes | G | 6-foot-0 | freshman

  • 2020-21 stats: 25.6 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 6.5 APG

Sure, Clark was the fourth-rated recruit in the 2020 class, but did anyone outside of Iowa City expect this kind of scoring output this soon? Confident in an up-tempo offense perfectly suited to her play-fast style, Clark was Iowa’s catalyst from day one with 27 points in her debut. Less than two months into her career, Clark, along with Michigan’s Naz Hillmon, is a front-runner for Big Ten player of the year. She has already had four 30-point games and a triple-double, quite a bar for the rest of long career. — Charlie Creme


10. NaLyssa Smith

Smith leads the Lady Bears in scoring for the second season in a row. Baylor being on a COVID-19 pause is about the only thing that has slowed her down. With the quickness and agility she has at her height, she’s often a mismatch to guard. One concern is that with Lauren Cox gone to the WNBA, Smith has gotten more defensive attention and her shooting percentage has dropped from 58.6 percent last year to 46.9 this year. But that’s something she’ll work on. — Mechelle Voepel


11. Naz Hillmon

She assumed the mantle of Kelsey Griffin, Megan Gustafson and other Big Ten frontcourt players responsible for regularly putting up ridiculous numbers. Among those who have played more than three game this season, she ranks in the top 10 nationally in points, rebounds and field goal percentage. She has put up at least 20 points in all but one game and at least 10 rebounds in all but two games. — Graham Hays


12. Aliyah Boston

Boston’s scoring average, field goal percentage and free throw percentage have dropped from her national freshman of the year season. Part of that can be attributed to the defenses she sees without graduated forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan (now in the WNBA) on the floor. But Boston is figuring it out: Take Sunday’s victory over Kentucky, when she had 20 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks. On Dec. 31, she had 28 points and 16 boards against Florida. That’s how dominant Boston can be. In between those games, though, she was limited to five points on 2 of 10 shooting against Alabama. Avoiding those games is what she’ll keep working on. — Mechelle Voepel


13. Arella Guirantes

She leads Rutgers in minutes, points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. So there’s that. Rutgers is thus far struggling to provide consistent support in Big Ten games, but the guard who could have gone to the WNBA after last season continues to improve her stock. Forget the team leads, she ranks in the top five in the conference in all of the aforementioned statistics — and she’s a more than respectable 12th in the league in rebounding. — Graham Hays


14. Zia Cooke

Cooke has upped her scoring average by five points over her freshman season and leads the Gamecocks in that category. She’s also their leading 3-point shooter at 50 percent (18 of 36), and on a team that doesn’t have a lot of long-ball threats, she is very important. Other than a Dec. 3 loss to NC State, the Gamecocks’ record is unblemished, despite losing an experienced senior point guard, Tyasha Harris, to graduation and the WNBA. A lot of credit goes to Cooke, who has played well in the backcourt alongside junior guard Destanni Henderson. — Mechelle Voepel


15. Ashley Joens

The points per game are up. The field goal and free throw percentages are also improved. After a sophomore season that was one of the best in Cyclones’ history, Joens keeps getting better. Not the tallest or biggest leaper, Joens has turned resourcefulness and basketball IQ into a science. She consistently uses angles and leverage to get the best of opponents, and she possesses a natural ability to finish plays that many other cannot. — Charlie Creme


16. Rickea Jackson

The evolution of Jackson’s game continues. Already possessing smooth, elusive movements in the lane, Jackson is expanding her range with more 3-point attempts already this season than she took all of 2019-20, and her work in the high post is a centerpiece of the Bulldogs’ offense. Jackson and the much-improved low-post play of Jessika Carter give Mississippi State one of the best interior combinations in the SEC. Last season Jackson was much better in February and March than she was in December and January. If that is the case again, the Bulldogs will challenge for the conference title. — Charlie Creme


17. N’dea Jones

  • Texas A&M Aggies | F | 6-foot-2 | senior

  • 2020-21 stats: 13.1 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 58.4% FG

The Aggies were known for one superstar the last three years: guard Chennedy Carter, who went to the WNBA after her junior season. Now they are so deep and balanced, it’s hard to spotlight one player. But Jones is averaging a double-double for the second season in a row, and her shooting percentages from the field and the foul line (72.5) are both career highs. She’s a big component to why the Aggies are shooting 50.4 percent from the field and are unbeaten at 12-0. — Mechelle Voepel


18. Fran Belibi

  • Stanford Cardinal | F | 6-foot-1 | sophomore

  • 2020-21 stats: 12.0 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 57.6 FG

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said before the season that Belibi was poised for big things in 2020-21. It turns out you don’t win more games than any coach in women’s basketball history without possessing good instincts. Belibi is indeed in the midst of a sophomore surge. She’s averaging 23.9 points and 12.9 rebounds per 40 minutes. That will concern opponents — more than her admittedly viral-ready dunks –because her actual minutes continue to climb. — Graham Hays


19. Chelsea Dungee

  • Arkansas Razorbacks | G | 5-foot-11 | redshirt senior

  • 2020-21 stats: 20.5 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 4.0 APG

Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors wants his teams to play fast and shoot quickly, whether it’s on the perimeter or at the rim. The more 3-pointers and free throws, the better. Dungee embodies that philosophy. Her relentlessness in driving to the basket is the only part of her game that exceeds her fearless jump shooting. The heart of Arkansas basketball since transferring from Oklahoma following her freshman season, Dungee ranks 11th in the country in 3-point attempts and second in trips to the free throw line. Her free throw percentage is down, but her efficiency is otherwise up in what has been the best season of an already outstanding career. — Charlie Creme


20. Christyn Williams

  • UConn Huskies | G | 5-foot-11 | junior

  • 2020-21 stats: 14.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 3.4 APG

Williams’ sophomore season was good, just not good enough by her standards. This season, her rebounding and assists averages are up, while her scoring is the same. Williams shot 45.6 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from 3-point range last season, both of which she wanted to improve. She’s at 47.1 percent now, with the same 3-point percentage. Williams’ best game of the season so far was against Xavier on Dec. 19 (24 points), and she’s coming off her worst, going scoreless Saturday versus Providence. But it’s hard to make too much of any of it, with the starts and stops of this particular season due to COVID-19. — Mechelle Voepel


21. Olivia Nelson-Ododa

  • UConn Huskies | F | 6-foot-5 | junior

  • 2020-21 stats: 16.3 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 2 BPG

Maybe she would command more attention as the star elsewhere. Maybe she’s the perfect fit alongside those who do command attention, like Paige Bueckers and Christyn Williams. What isn’t up for debate is that she’s invaluable to a program that makes it darned difficult to earn that label. The rebounds, blocks and even points are easy to appreciate from a post player. But her ability to consistently provide assists only underscores how well she fits her surroundings. — Graham Hays


22. Ashley Owusu

Despite winning Big Ten freshman of the year, Owusu still had something to learn about consistency. She started just half of Maryland’s games in 2019-20. Consider the lesson mastered. Owusu is now the catalyst on the second-highest scoring team in the country and has scored in double figures in every Terps game this season. She has become even more important and has played even better since star freshman Angel Reese went down with a foot injury in the fourth game, dropping Maryland to a seven-player rotation. — Charlie Creme


23. Kiana Williams

Stanford’s 10-0 record is the best statistical testament to Williams’ continued value. As sophomores Haley Jones and Fran Belibi and freshman Cameron Brink stepped into leading roles, Williams had to adjust. When needed — like when she buried USC with a big second half in December — she still has the potential to take over a game. And even when her shot isn’t falling, she’s almost always on the court because the No. 1 team in the country is better with her there. — Graham Hays


24. Rennia Davis

A starter since her freshman season, she will join the Lady Vols ranks in the WNBA this summer. Davis is a first-round pick; how high she goes might depend on how she does against the remainder of Tennessee’s best competition, including UConn and South Carolina. Her performance in beating Arkansas on Jan. 7 — 26 points, 11 rebounds — helped the Lady Vols move into the Top 25 rankings for the first time this season. Davis’ scoring average is down from 18.0 last season, but that’s because Tennessee — with players like junior Rae Burrell stepping forward at 17.8 PPG — is a better overall team. — Mechelle Voepel


25. Destanni Henderson

With point guard Tyasha Harris gone, Henderson has made the most of her opportunity. She leads the Gamecocks in minutes played (32.3 MPG) and has a team-high 47 assists. Her rebounding average for her size also stands out, and she has game-changing quickness with the ball. Henderson was the top-rated point guard by ESPN HoopGurlz in the class of 2018, and now that she is in a starting role, the full range of her abilities is on display. — Mechelle Voepel

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here