March Madness must-see: 25 best players in the women's NCAA tournament

Since ESPN’s ranking of the top 25 players in the country in late February, a new NCAA scoring champ was crowned, USC won its first Pac-12 tournament title in 10 years and three teams are dancing for the first time in March Madness.

But not everything is new.

Caitlin Clark remains No. 1 in ESPN’s ranking of the nation’s best 25 players in the 2024 women’s NCAA tournament. The Iowa Hawkeyes guard has maintained her top spot all season long. But with games set to tip off — the First Four opens Wednesday and the round of 64 starts Friday — there are some changes from our most recent ranking.

Freshmen and their immediate impact have been a key storyline in 2023-24, and they’re expected to be a big factor in the tournament. Four first-year players are on our latest list — three of them in the top 10 — and several others were strongly considered.

Our panel — ESPN’s Charlie Creme, Alexa Philippou and Michael Voepel — are also in the same position as the NCAA selection committee: We aren’t sure of the status of some injured players. Elizabeth Kitley is the most high-profile, after missing the ACC tournament with a knee injury suffered March 3 in a regular-season finale. The Virginia Tech Hokies center is still on our list, but dropped a bit since February because of the uncertainty and her time away from playing.

Limiting the list to 25 players is always a difficult task, because many more have a good case to make the rankings. Creme, Philippou and Voepel will re-rank the top 25 players heading into the Sweet 16.


Guard | 6-foot-0 | senior
31.9 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 8.9 APG, 1.8 SPG
Previous ranking: 1

After a record-breaking regular season and third consecutive Big Ten tournament title, Clark will try to lead Iowa through a difficult NCAA tournament bracket. She had some 3-point shooting struggles in the Big Ten tournament that might have been caused in part by fatigue. The time off since the Big Ten final on March 10 should help. Clark knows Iowa will need her to be at superstar level for her final Big Dance. Last season, she scored a record 191 points in six NCAA games during Iowa’s march to the national championship game. — Voepel


Guard | 6-foot-2 | freshman
27.0 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 3.2 APG
Previous ranking: 2

Watkins helped lead USC back to the Pac-12 mountaintop as the Trojans won their first conference tournament title since 2014. In the title game, with Stanford throwing the kitchen sink at her defensively, Watkins was held to a season-low 9 points and committed 6 turnovers. Still, afterward USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb emphasized that even the best defensive game plans can’t completely account for the type of winner Watkins is, and that she’ll figure out what it takes to come out with the win. While it was confidence-instilling for USC that others stepped up in big ways to help make up for the freshman’s off night, Watkins will remain their centerpiece and spearhead any sort of run they make in March — and the basketball world eagerly awaits to see how she performs under the brightest spotlight yet. — Philippou



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Forward | 6-foot-4 | senior
17.8 PPG, 11.9 RPG, 3.5 BPG
Previous ranking: 2

Since the February ranking, Brink has maintained her status as the country’s most efficient player, according to Her Hoop Stats, and has added the Pac-12 player and defensive player of the year awards. It’s the third conference defensive honor for Brink, the national leader in blocked shots per game this season. That defense was crucial to Stanford’s run to a national championship in 2021 in Brink’s freshman season. If the Cardinal are to climb that mountain again, Brink will have to showcase her ever-evolving offensive game. Her scoring, rebounding, assist and blocked shots averages have improved each season of her career. Her value is only magnified in noting that Stanford lost the two games she missed (illness forced her out vs. Gonzaga after 11 minutes, and she sat out all of a game vs. Arizona). Those losses likely cost the Cardinal a No. 1 seed. — Creme



Why Paige Bueckers sees UConn as ‘flying under the radar’ this season

Paige Bueckers explains why the talent level in women’s college basketball has allowed UConn to fly under the radar this season.


Guard | 6-foot-0 | junior
21.3 PPG, 3.7 APG, 53.8%
Previous ranking: 3

Bueckers upped her game in the Big East tournament, averaging 27.7 points (62.1 eFG%), 8.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 4.0 blocks and 3.0 steals across three outings, while shouldering even more responsibility with teammate Aaliyah Edwards sidelined after breaking her nose in the quarterfinal. Big East opponents aren’t the same level of competition UConn will face in the NCAA tournament, but that sort of performance made UConn fans start to wonder if the best is yet to come for Bueckers as she enters her first March Madness since her magical 2022 run, when she catalyzed their trip to the championship game on one (fully) healthy knee. — Philippou


Guard | 5-foot-6 | freshman
23.3 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 5.5 APG, 4.6 SPG
Previous ranking: 10

In many seasons, Hidalgo would be national freshman of the year. This year, that will likely go to USC’s Watkins, but Hidalgo has had a brilliant first season. She ranks third in Division I in scoring average, first in steals and 11th among Power 5 players in assists. Hidalgo was ACC tournament MVP as Notre Dame won the title. She’s one of the nation’s best perimeter defensive players. If seeds hold in the Albany 1 Regional, Hidalgo will get a second chance at South Carolina. The teams met in the season opener in Paris, won 100-71 by the Gamecocks. Hidalgo had 31 points, 3 steals and 3 assists in that game. — Voepel


Forward | 6-foot-2 | graduate
19.4 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 47.1 FG%
Previous ranking: 13

As Tennessee hit the stretch run of its season, Jackson just seemed to get better. She averaged 23.3 points and 8.0 rebounds in three games against South Carolina in the final month, a good sign for the Lady Vols’ NCAA tournament hopes and for Jackson’s WNBA draft status. Had she not missed eight games in November and December with an injury, her 19.4 points per game would have qualified to lead the SEC. That the Lady Vols only went 4-4 in those games underscores Jackson’s value and how important she will be to Tennessee’s efforts to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2008. — Creme


Guard | 5-foot-6 | senior
19.2 PPG, 6.9 APG
Previous ranking: 7

With Kitley’s status uncertain for the remainder of the postseason, Amoore will likely need to do even more for the Hokies — with some help from the complementary players around her — to keep their season alive. We’ve already seen what that could look like: Amoore scored a career-high 39 points against Virginia in the game in which Kitley went down with the injury, and later attempted a career-high 29 shots in their ACC tournament semifinal matchup against Notre Dame (both were eventual losses). The Hokies have had some time these last few weeks to gameplan around Kitley’s potential absence and what that means for Amoore, so we’ll have to see what coach Kenny Brooks and Co. came up with. — Philippou


Forward | 6-foot-3 | senior
17.8 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 59.4%
Previous ranking: 8

Edwards missed most of the Big East tournament with a broken nose, but should be good to go for the NCAA tournament — and the Huskies will need her playing her best basketball if they want to make a run. UConn is down to two post players for the rest of the postseason (Edwards and redshirt freshman Ice Brady) after junior Amari DeBerry was ruled out for the remainder of the year with a concussion, making it even more imperative that Edwards stays healthy, out of foul trouble and on the floor. — Philippou



Why Texas is a team to fear in the women’s tourney

Charlie Creme, Rebecca Lobo, Carolyn Peck and Andraya Carter break down Regional 4 in the women’s NCAA tournament.


Forward/guard | 6-foot-1 | freshman
16.9 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.9 APG
Previous ranking: 14

Texas was considered a solid pick for the Final Four last fall, but then lost point guard Rori Harmon for the season to a knee injury in late December. At that point, Booker was already standing out, but she stepped into an even bigger role. The star freshman’s ability to rise to the occasion came fully into focus as she was MVP of the Big 12 tournament won by the Longhorns. Booker’s size, smooth shooting, playmaking and confidence are key factors for Texas’ hopes of reaching the Final Four for the first time since 2003. — Voepel



Why Albany 2 Region could be the toughest in the women’s NCAA tournament

Andraya Carter, Rebecca Lobo and Charlie Creme break down why Albany 2 Region will be so difficult.


Forward | 6-foot-3 | junior
19.0 PPG, 13.1 RPG, 1.8 SPG
Previous ranking: 11

Reese ranks second in Division I in rebounding, one of LSU’s biggest strengths and a key to the Tigers defending their national championship. They are third in D-I — and first among Power 5 teams — on the boards (46.5 RPG). Only five players have repeated as the Final Four Most Outstanding Player; the last to do so was UConn’s Breanna Stewart, who won the honor all four of her seasons (2013-2016). Reese could repeat this year, but LSU first must get through what looks like the toughest region just to advance to the Final Four. — Voepel


Center | 6-foot-6 | graduate
22.8 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 55.6 FG%
Previous ranking: 6

Kitley’s availability is one of the top storylines heading into the NCAA tournament. The knee injury she suffered against Virginia in the March 3 regular-season finale has kept the three-time ACC player of the year sidelined since. Including the loss to the Cavaliers, Virginia Tech is 1-2 without her. The Hokies managed to hold a No. 4 seed and the right to host first- and second-round games, but if Kitley is unable to go — and early in the week coach Kenny Brooks still called her status day-to-day — then repeating last year’s Final Four run seems unlikely. Even if Kitley plays, she likely wouldn’t be 100%, and that cost her a few spots in these rankings. A healthy Kitley is the preeminent low-post offensive player in the country — and the best player in Virginia Tech history. — Creme


Center | 6-foot-7 | sophomore
14.7 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 65.3%
Previous ranking: 9

It’s clear how central Betts is to UCLA’s ceiling. Just look at how the Bruins fared when she was absent for four games during the Pac-12 regular season. But we still might not have seen the full extent of that play out. After UCLA fell to USC in double overtime in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals, coach Cori Close lamented that the Bruins didn’t get Betts the ball enough. Still, her presence defensively and on the glass is everything for a Bruins team that’s eyeing its first NCAA Final Four — if it can get through the gauntlet that is the Albany 2 Regional. — Philippou



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Find out why Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese and other stars have taken women’s college basketball to new heights.


Center | 6-foot-7 | senior
14.0 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 2.6 BPG
Previous ranking: 10

One of the best true centers in the college game, Cardoso will need to be big for South Carolina to win the championship. She will miss the NCAA tournament opener after being ejected for fighting in the SEC final vs. LSU. But Cardoso should have plenty of opportunity to assert herself after that expected victory. In last season’s national semifinal loss to Iowa, Cardoso had 14 points and 14 rebounds and was one of the hardest players for the Hawkeyes to defend. — Voepel


Forward | 6-foot-2 | senior
20.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG
Previous ranking: 12

Utah was the last team to beat Pac-12 tournament champion USC, and in that game Pili finished with a team-high 23 points on just 10 shots from the field (she went 12-for-14 from the free throw line). She hasn’t been consistently dominant throughout the Pac-12 season, but we know what happened the last time the Utes faced a nonconference opponent, a team not as familiar with her and Utah’s unique style of play: Pili scored a career-high 37 points against South Carolina, which narrowly escaped with a win. Pili will have to be aggressive and efficient, and get some help from her teammates, for Utah to advance to the Sweet 16 once more this year. — Philippou


Guard | 6-foot-1 | junior
16.5 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 2.6 SPG, 1.2 BPG
Previous ranking: 15

Morrow didn’t get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament last season; her team then, DePaul, didn’t make the field. She transferred to LSU and has formed a powerful duo with Reese. Morrow is second on the team in scoring and rebounding, and leads in steals and blocked shots. She might be the X factor for LSU in this NCAA tournament because she’s so capable of huge performances. — Voepel


Guard | 5-foot-10 | graduate
18.1 PPG, 3.8 APG, 50.1% FG
Previous ranking: 16

If the Buckeyes are going to make another run at the Elite Eight or beyond, they will rely on their full-court press to lead the way. And it’s Sheldon, along with Celeste Taylor, the Big Ten defensive player of the year, who lead the way in that press. Sheldon was second to Taylor in the Big Ten in steals, but also led Ohio State in scoring and field goal percentage. It’s what makes Sheldon one of the best two-guards in the country and Ohio State’s most important player. It’s no coincidence that the Buckeyes’ most disappointing result of the season, a loss to Maryland in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament, came when Sheldon scored just 10 points. Her speed, range, instincts and steady demeanor make her vital to Ohio State’s postseason chances. — Creme


Guard | 6-foot-3 | junior
18.6 PPG, 11.0 RPG
Previous ranking: 22

Iriafen wasn’t on earlier iterations of this list but has moved up the ranks as she made waves in the Pac-12. Her 28 points, 18 rebounds and 5 rebounds against Cal in the Pac-12 quarterfinals were particularly memorable, especially as the Cardinal fell down early in that matchup. But this is her first March with an outsized role for Stanford (she played just less than five minutes in their loss to Ole Miss in the 2023 tournament). The Portland 4 Regional is fairly open, but the Cardinal will need a stellar tournament from their junior star to not simply get past the second round, where they fell last year, but to potentially make it to Cleveland. — Philippou


Forward | 6-foot-3 | graduate
20.0 PPG, 6. RPG, 66.7 FG%
Previous ranking: 17

While the reports on Holmes’ status seem to be getting more positive as the NCAA tournament approaches, the knee injury she suffered against Maryland in the March 3 regular-season finale remains a concern. She has been practicing full-time, which is much better news than this time last year when she was still limited by a knee injury suffered in the Big Ten tournament. Holmes couldn’t play in the NCAA tournament opener against Tennessee Tech and was not herself as Miami upset the top-seeded Hoosiers in the second round. Her low-post presence and nation-best field goal percentage are vital to Indiana getting out Bloomington and into the regionals this year. — Creme


Guard | 5-foot-8 | sophomore
21.3 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 4.0 APG
Previous ranking: 18

A year ago the Seminoles entered the NCAA tournament without Latson. A late-season injury prevented the ACC’s top scorer and freshman of the year to miss Florida State’s first-round game against Georgia. And she was missed as the Seminoles scored just 54 points in a 12-point loss. That won’t be the case this year. After playing all 32 games, Latson is healthy headed into the NCAA tournament. She remained one of the nation’s most consistent scorers, duplicating her scoring output from a year ago while improving her assist numbers. With big performances against Stanford, UCLA and Notre Dame, Latson averaged 21 PPG against teams in this year’s field. — Creme


Guard | 5-foot-5 | graduate
22.0 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 3.5 APG
Previous ranking: 19

Syracuse losing three of its last four games can’t be attributed to Fair and her uncanny scoring skills. She averaged 25.4 in Syracuse’s final five games and in that stretch passed Brittney Griner for fifth place on the NCAA women’s all-time scoring list. Only Hidalgo and Kitley averaged more points per game in the ACC this season, and Fair led the conference with a 37.9 3-point shooting percentage. Fair is a threat nearly anywhere on the floor, whose range is second only to Iowa’s Clark among the nation’s top players. — Creme


21. Te-Hina Paopao, South Carolina Gamecocks

Guard | 5-foot-9 | senior
11.1 PPG, 3.79 APG, 73 3-pointers
Previous ranking: 20

The narrative of Paopao filling a 3-point shooting need for the Gamecocks after transferring from Oregon has been oft-told, but that’s because it’s such an important part of this season for undefeated South Carolina. The Gamecocks don’t have a star on the level of Aliyah Boston this year. But with Paopao leading the way, they have a more effective attack from behind the arc. It has made them even harder to guard. — Voepel


Center | 6-foot-6 | senior
20.1 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 2.7 BPG, 62.2 FG%
Previous ranking: 23

Lee missed the 2022-23 season with a knee injury, and not surprisingly the Wildcats missed the NCAA tournament. With her back this season, they got a No. 4 seed and will host the early rounds. That’s how much difference it makes to have a star center whose production is typically a given. Lee was out seven games this season — one was a forfeit victory — with an ankle injury. But she showed she was ready for the NCAA tournament with a strong Big 12 tournament performance: 47 points and 21 rebounds in K-State’s two games. — Voepel


Forward | 6-foot-4 | sophomore
17.7 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 66%
Previous ranking: 24

Arguably one of the more unheralded Pac-12 stars, Beers was massive for the Beavers to take down Colorado in double overtime of the Pac-12 tournament (27 points, 13 rebounds) before the team went cold offensively and gave up a big lead to Stanford in the next round. Last decade, coach Scott Rueck took Oregon State to one Final Four, another trip to the Elite Eight and two additional trips to the Sweet 16. For this year’s young (albeit surging) Beavers to reach at least the regional semifinals, Beers will have to be a breakout star of the tournament — but she has the promise to do it. — Philippou


Center | 6-foot-3 | freshman
18.9 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 58.4 FG%
Previous ranking: NR

A lot was asked of the freshman this season, and she delivered. Crooks led the Cyclones in scoring, helped them finish fourth in the Big 12 and make it to the league tournament final. She totaled 73 points (shooting 59.6% from the field) and 24 rebounds — all against ranked foes — in her three Big 12 tournament games. All this propelled her into our top 25 for the first time this season. — Voepel


Forward | 6-foot-1 | senior
19.8 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 61.3FG%
Previous ranking: NR

As consistent as any player in the country, Ejim has scored in double figures in 51 of her past 52 games. She dominated the WCC, but also averaged 25.0 points per game against NCAA tournament teams Alabama, Arizona, Louisville and Stanford. Her post game is the centerpiece of the Bulldogs offense with a field goal percentage that ranks seventh in the country. Only Brink has a higher player efficiency rating than Ejim. She not only captured the WCC’s player of the year award, but also the league’s defensive player of the year after ranking in the top-10 in both blocks and steals. — Creme

Also considered: MiLaysia Fulwiley, South Carolina Gamecocks; Abbey Hsu, Columbia Lions; Aziaha James, NC State Wolfpack; Charisma Osborne, UCLA Bruins; JJ Quinerly, West Virginia Mountaineers; Kiki Rice, UCLA Bruins; Shyanne Sellers, Maryland Terrapins; Jaylyn Sherrod, Colorado Buffaloes; Mikaylah Williams, LSU Tigers

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