Editor's note: Charlie Creme, Graham Hays and Mechelle Voepel each voted to determine espnW's 2015-16 national player, freshman and coach of the year. Hays determined the mid-major awards.
When Breanna Stewart started her college career at UConn in 2012, there didn't seem to be any doubt that she would become one of the best players in NCAA history. About the only question was, how fast would it happen?
Stewart had just a few games her freshman season that suggested a little uncertainty, although it's actually kind of hard to remember that. As we announce Stewart our espnW player of the year following the least-suspenseful voting imaginable, we simply acknowledge this: She was the easiest of choices.
The 6-foot-4 senior from Syracuse, New York, has done exactly what she set out to do, so far anyway. There is one more big trophy she wants to win: a fourth NCAA championship. She and the Huskies are now six games away from that.
And Stewart's individual reign atop women's college basketball has been largely unchallenged during the past three years of her career. With the senior "3 To See" of Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins in 2013, the then-freshman Stewart was in the wings, waiting to take center stage.
But she did that at the Final Four that year, eclipsing everybody on the way to winning Most Outstanding Player honors with UConn taking its eighth NCAA title.
Since then, the Huskies have won more national championships (two) than they have lost games (one). Some might think this could get a little boring for Stewart, but she hasn't shown that. She has continued to improve every nuance of her game and be a perplexing puzzle to try to guard.
Stewart is averaging team highs with 19.2 points and 8.3 rebounds, plus 107 blocked shots. She's second on the team in assists with 125. For her UConn career, she has scored 2,554 points and pulled down 1,113 rebounds, plus she has a double-double no one has ever had before in Division I women's basketball: topping 300 in assists (404) and blocked shots (395).
"It's coming to an end, and it's coming very quickly. ... The best way to remember everything is to enjoy it and to go out the way you want to go out." Breanna Stewart
And when she steps onto a WNBA court to start that season in May as Seattle's No. 1 draft pick, she'll have a new challenge to tackle. Does anyone have the slightest doubt she'll soar at the next level, too?
However, Stewart would just as soon keep that out of her mind for now, as she relishes every moment.
"It's coming to an end, and it's coming very quickly. I'm just trying to enjoy it," Stewart said. "Obviously it is going to be sad. Nothing is going to be like this here at [UConn] with these coaches and these players. The best way to remember everything is to enjoy it and to go out the way you want to go out." -- Mechelle Voepel
Coach of the Year: Geno Auriemma, UConn
There was a moment after a game this season when UConn coach Geno Auriemma got that look on his face that is half-irritated, half-lost in thought. He clearly was miffed with himself.
"I've got to find a way to get the ball to Stewie more," he said. "That will take care of a lot of this crap."
Of course, only in Auriemma's exacting view was there actually any, ahem, "crap" to address after another double-digit win. But his observations are what have led the Huskies to 10 national championships. He sees things in whatever shade is the opposite of rose-colored glasses.
Auriemma, who is always trying to find ways to get better than "perfect," is our espnW coach of the year. His Huskies are 32-0 this season and on a 69-game winning streak; their only loss in the past three years came in November 2014. They have won 116 of their past 117 games.
They are on track for a sixth undefeated season, and at this point it can be too easy to assume that ... well, it's easy, that Auriemma just cherry-picks the best recruits and hands them the basketball, then piles up the championships.
But there are plenty of great recruits who don't go to UConn, and the ones who do must be taught how to fit into the culture of constant excellence. Auriemma can project not just how a player's game will develop, but how her personality will evolve, too. And in a program where the standards are so high, that's critical.
Ultimately, he excels at the teaching part, which is how UConn can lose two players the caliber of Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Kiah Stokes from last season's NCAA title team and still not miss a beat. -- Mechelle Voepel
Freshman of the Year: Katie Lou Samuelson
Even the No. 1 recruit in the country can have a hard time adjusting to college basketball. It's probably even more difficult when suddenly surrounded by national champions, All-Americans and a legendary coach.
That's likely the best explanation for some of Katie Lou Samuelson's early struggles as the newest big-name high school player to join the UConn juggernaut. Her vaunted jump shot didn't look smooth at the beginning. She struggled at times to get meaningful minutes.
But eventually, things began to fall into place. So well, in fact, that Samuelson emerged as espnW's freshman of the year.
She made just nine of her first 33 3-point attempts while coming off the bench. Against Florida State in mid-December, she played just three minutes.
But the confidence grew as the minutes did and by Jan. 16, Samuelson -- whose two older sisters, Bonnie and Karlie, play at Stanford -- celebrated becoming a starter for good with 21 points against Tulsa.
From that tough start, the 3-point field goal percentage has grown to 38.6 percent, and Samuelson is now the fourth offensive option on a 32-0 team heavily favored to win a fourth consecutive national championship. She is averaging 10.8 points and 3.3 rebounds, but more importantly, seems to have grown quickly enough to assume some leadership responsibility next season after Stewart and Moriah Jefferson are gone.
The next stage of the maturation process comes next week when Samuelson takes part in her first NCAA tournament, where UConn will be the No. 1 overall seed. Back in December it wasn't clear if Samuelson would even have a major role at this key time of year. Now there is no question for this freshman, who did live up to expectations after all. -- Charlie Creme
Mid-Major Player of the Year: Kelsey Minato, Army
Kelsey Minato wanted to attend the United States Military Academy because West Point offered something other than an ordinary college experience.
She, in turn, offered Army something other than an ordinary college basketball career -- never more so than in a senior season that makes her espnW's mid-major player of the year.
It was a good year for mid-major performances, the race for individual honors much closer at the finish line than Breanna Stewart's wire-to-wire win as national player of the year. The most WNBA-ready mid-major player, and one of the seniors most ready for the next level, period, George Washington's Jonquel Jones missed nearly a third of the regular season to slow her bid. BYU's Lexi Rydalch and South Dakota's Nicole Seekamp suffered conference tournament upsets, but those results take nothing away from the bodies of work they compiled.
But whether the criteria is defined as the most outstanding or most valuable performance, whether based on individual brilliance or importance to a team, Minato's season stands apart.
She entered the final weekend before the NCAA tournament ranked sixth in the nation in scoring at a career-best 23.7 points per game. (Top-seeded Army still hosts the semifinals and final of the Patriot League tournament.)
"She does some NBA-type things ... I think her body control is something people don't realize is so good. She plays so balanced and so under control that it does look effortless." Bucknell coach Aaron Roussell on Kelsey Minato
It's not just how many points she scores but how the 5-foot-8 guard scores them. Minato ranks fifth in the nation in 3-point field goals per game and second in 3-point field goal accuracy. No other player ranked in the top 10 in those measures of both quality and quantity.
Minato also ranks in the top 50 nationally in free throws made. Coach of the only team to keep her off the line in a game this season, Bucknell's Aaron Roussell was under no illusions as to the fluky quality of that particular accomplishment.
"There's just a lot of nuance to her game," Roussell said. "She does some NBA-type things, just body control. I think her body control is something people don't realize is so good. She plays so balanced and so under control that it does look effortless. She's able to take contact and still finish -- she's able to jump in the air, even at her size, and get contact and control her body."
She's neither careless nor selfish with the ball, traits that sometimes go hand in hand with prolific point production. Minato leads Army and ranks fourth in Patriot League in assists per game. She averages a turnover every 23.3 minutes, compared to a point every 90 seconds.
In the season she became the Patriot League's all-time leading scorer, Minato helped Army win a share of the regular-season title for the second time in her four seasons -- something Army did only once in its history prior to her arrival. What she meant to the program was evident when Army retired her number during the season. What the program meant to her was evident in in her reaction.
It was anything but an ordinary season for anything but an ordinary player. -- Graham Hays
Mid-Major Coach of the Year: Karl Smesko, Florida Gulf Coast
For someone who has an undergraduate degree in broadcast news journalism and a master's in education, Karl Smesko has a firm command of mathematics -- as in a basketball equation that gives a Florida Gulf Coast team without overpowering resources or even ideal circumstances its best chance to win games, 21 of them in a row entering the Atlantic Sun championship game.
Smesko is espnW's mid-major coach of the year not so much because the Eagles exceeded expectations (the five-time defending league champions a near-unanimous preseason pick to make it six in a row), but for how his team managed to yet again meet those expectations.
In that respect, it's the same path traveled by Geno Auriemma, except that UConn's coach and the Huskies didn't have to play the first month of the season without Breanna Stewart. But FGCU redshirt senior Whitney Knight was sidelined by injury before the opener.
Yet after losing two if its first three games, FGCU won three of its next four -- including arguably its most important result of the season at George Washington -- without its star. A game-changing presence on any court, Knight made the Eagles that much better when she returned, but she didn't need to be a savior.
If it played every game on equal footing, trading 2-point shot for 2-point shot, FGCU would still win its share. But if it can take vastly more shots than its opponents, and make those shots count for more points, the odds tilt in its favor. Even without Knight's defensive presence, that's what the Eagles did all season. They rank second in the nation in scoring defense and No. 20 in field goal defense. They also rank seventh in the nation in 3-point attempts per game and attempt nearly 10 more total shots per game than opponents.
How does a mid-major program succeed? Finding players like Knight helps. Developing a philosophy that can withstand her absence helps even more.