When asked to make the case that freshman guard Paige Bueckers should be the 2020-21 women's college basketball national player of the year, UConn coach Geno Auriemma pointed to overall impact.
"I'm sure people are going to vote for lots of different players," he said after UConn won the Big East tournament title. "I would say: Name one player who has done as much for their team as Paige has done for our team.
"Name one player that has taken a team this young to where we are today. Who's done more than her? And if you can give me a better argument, then I would say I'll vote for them, too. But I don't think you can."
Plenty of folks would take up that debate with Auriemma, because it has been a season in which you could advocate for multiple deserving players. But in the end, doing this much in her first season for a team that will be a No. 1 seed gives Bueckers enough edge to make her the 2020-21 ESPN.com player and freshman of the year.
Bueckers is averaging 19.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 2.3 steals in 35.8 minutes per game. She is shooting 53.9% (186 of 345) from the field and 47.4% (55 of 116) from 3-point range. She has been part of a Huskies' defense that, especially in the past few weeks, has elevated to impress even Auriemma's exacting standards.
WNBA point guard and former UConn star Sue Bird said that as adept as Bueckers is as a scorer, her ability to facilitate is at a high level, too.
"If she goes out and has five quick assists, that's going to get her just as hyped as if she went out and hit five 3s," said Bird, who is also a women's college basketball analyst for ESPN. "That is my favorite part of her game."
The Huskies' dominance in their return to the Big East (18-0) can be seen two ways. It shows that Bueckers as a freshman has had a key role in keeping UConn on track. But it also brings up the caliber of competition she has faced in league play, especially compared with the Power 5 conferences, all of which are projected by ESPN Bracketologist Charlie Creme to get at least five teams into the NCAA tournament. The SEC and ACC are projected to get eight teams each. The Big East is projected to get three teams into the field of 64.
It means those such as sophomore forward Aliyah Boston of SEC tournament champion South Carolina or senior guard Dana Evans of ACC tournament runner-up Louisville are also strong player of the year candidates, among others.
Someone other than Bueckers will win the Wade Trophy, as freshmen are not eligible for that annual player of the year honor. But she could take the Wooden, Naismith and Associated Press awards. This could also be a season when the awards are split among multiple players.
Bueckers' biggest challenge for national freshman of the year comes from Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, the Division I scoring leader (27.2 PPG) who is second in assists per game at 7.0. The Hawkeyes (17-8) haven't had as much success as the Huskies (24-1), but Iowa is in a league that's projected to have seven NCAA tournament teams. Iowa advanced to the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament by defeating Rutgers on Thursday.
Louisville and Baylor, two of the most high-profile opponents UConn had scheduled but didn't face because of COVID-19 issues, are strong defensive teams. If Bueckers had had success against them, it also would have bolstered her case.
She had 31 points against South Carolina, another top team, and her consistency and efficiency all season were big points in her favor, too.
Bueckers is trying to do something that has been done by freshmen just twice before in the NCAA era for women's basketball: lead a national championship team in scoring for the season. Cheryl Miller did it for USC in 1983 and Chamique Holdsclaw for Tennessee in 1996.
"If she goes out and has five quick assists, that's going to get her just as hyped as if she went out and hit five 3s. That is my favorite part of her game." ESPN analyst and former UConn star Sue Bird on Paige Bueckers
Auriemma also has complimented Bueckers for how much she has contributed to the team's cohesion in a challenging and unpredictable season because of the pandemic.
"She's a great teammate," he said. "She's one of those kids that just gets the big picture and understands what the purpose is of being on a team. And how her special skills can infuse confidence in a team."
Auriemma said Bueckers has talked to him recently about noticing a lot of negativity nationally on social media toward UConn, something she now realizes is part of playing for the Huskies. The UConn fatigue comes from its 11 NCAA titles, although the last one came five years ago. Bueckers hopes to help the Huskies get back into the winner's circle in April.
"She's very sensitive to a lot of things that kids her age would not concern themselves with," Auriemma said. "And everything affects her ... she never blows anything off."
That attitude seems to have worked in Bueckers' favor; she's detail-oriented about everything, even criticism. But for the most part, there hasn't been much of that even from Auriemma, who admits he has had to muzzle himself a bit with seven first-year players.
After Monday's Big East final, Auriemma reflected on how all the rookies have impacted the Huskies.
"These young kids that have come in, really, they've reinvigorated everyone associated with our program," he said. "My life doesn't change that much, winning another championship. But my life was changed tonight because I got a chance to see the way they celebrated."
Coach of the Year: Brenda Frese, Maryland
The Terrapins shared the 2020 Big Ten regular-season title with Northwestern, won the league tournament -- and then lost five of their top six scorers to graduation or transfer. What did Frese do? She got reinforcements, and finished atop the league at 17-1.
In her 19th season at Maryland, Frese also became the winningest basketball coach in school history, notching her 500th victory on Feb. 14. She now has 508 wins with the Terps heading into Friday's Big Ten tournament semifinals. Maryland is 22-2 overall and ranked No. 7.
As with player of the year, there are plenty of very deserving candidates for coaching honors. Texas A&M's Gary Blair lost star guard Chennedy Carter to the WNBA, but won the SEC regular-season title for the first time. Also in the SEC, Dawn Staley led South Carolina to its sixth league tournament title, and Georgia's Joni Taylor guided the Bulldogs to their first SEC final since 2004.
Stanford's Tara VanDerveer brought back most of her team from last year, but had to help the Cardinal navigate nine weeks of this season away from campus because of COVID-19 regulations in Santa Clara County. Stanford won the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament titles, and VanDerveer became the winningest coach in women's Division I history.
Wes Moore guided NC State to its second consecutive ACC tournament title and had two victories over No. 1 ranked teams. Baylor's Kim Mulkey led the Lady Bears to their 11th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title after losing three seniors to the 2020 WNBA draft.
There's also Auriemma, whose team with seven freshmen won the Big East regular-season and tournament titles, and will be a No. 1 NCAA seed.
But Frese gets the nod for how seamlessly she was able to remake Maryland's roster with no drop-off in results. The Terps had to battle for their 83-73 Big Ten quarterfinal win over Nebraska on Thursday, but Frese was proud of the way they did it.
"Our mindset is really tough, and I thought the last 10 minutes really displayed the psyche of this team: where the resiliency is and the confidence factor," Frese said. "They all have a belief in each other on both ends of the floor, and that bodes well for March."
A lot of that confidence comes from Frese, who has 565 victories overall in her coaching career, including two years at Ball State and one at Minnesota before taking over at Maryland. She is just the third coach in Terps' history, following Dottie McKnight (four seasons) and Chris Weller (27 seasons).
Transfers Katie Benzan, Chloe Bibby and Mimi Collins have stepped in well as starters this season for Maryland. And sophomores Ashley Owusu (18.8 PPG) and Diamond Miller (17.5) are leading the Terps in scoring. Owusu, who was named an ESPN.com second-team All-American on Thursday, also leads the Terps in assists (5.9 APG). Those players are part of Frese's consistent recruiting success, which includes freshman Angel Reese. She has been limited to 10 games this season due to injury, but returned Feb. 23 and is averaging 10.4 PPG.
With so many news faces joining the team in the midst of the pandemic, Frese said Zoom sessions among the players helped them form a bond before they got to Maryland. Bibby, for instance, committed to transfer from Mississippi State without even visiting Maryland's campus.
"They're been truly committed to one another. You're seeing that off the court and on the court," Frese said of the Terps. "They're really unselfish. They get how to be successful."