The women’s college basketball season is underway, and experts are debating who will be the best player in women’s college basketball, now that former Baylor star Brittney Griner has graduated to the WNBA. Michelle Smith covers the sport for ESPNW and Left Coast Hoops. She joined Bill to talk about her pick.
BL: Michelle, your pick [for the best player in women’s college basketball] is?
MS: I’m going to go with Chiney Ogwumike of Stanford.
BL: No surprise, you cover Stanford women’s basketball and you picked a Stanford woman. Last week Chiney Ogwumike became just the ninth player to be named a unanimous pre-season All-American. What got her all those votes?
MS: Well she had a great season as a junior last year. Her older sister Nneka, for those who will remember, played at Stanford and was the number one pick in the WNBA draft two years ago. And when she left, Chiney had to figure stuff out on her own and she’s figured things out to the tune of about 23 points and 13 rebounds a game last year. She had 36 double-doubles. She had a great year. So if you’re going to name the five best players in the country, I think Chiney was on everybody’s list which is how she ended up being a unanimous pick.
BL: The Ogwumike family is originally from Nigeria, but Nneka and Chiney were raised in Cyprus, Texas and they have two younger sisters, Olivia and Erica, also talented athletes. Is this the women’s basketball equivalent of the Manning family?
MS: Yeah, it’s the dynasty. It’s the pipeline. Yes, the younger sisters are coming through and there’s some good genes in the family. The best part about this story is that these girls were doing gymnastics when they were young and they got too tall for it, if you can imagine, and they tried basketball and there’s a story about Nneka in a pair of jean shorts with her glasses on and Chiney hiding in the bathroom ’cause she didn’t feel like she wanted to play. And look what its brought us.
BL: Brittney Griner isn’t the only star to move on, of course. Delaware’s Elena Delle Donne and Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins also graduated and joined the pros. But you seem to relish the opportunity to talk about somebody else, so maybe there’s an upside to losing the biggest starts to the WNBA?
MS: You know Brittney Griner was such a dominant figure in the women’s college game, literally and figuratively the past couple of years. I have really grown to love Brittney Griner and who she is, but things move on and it’s time to have an actual debate, I think, about who’s the best player in the country. It’s fun because it’s not clear cut. It’s Chiney Ogwumike. It’s Breanna Stewart, the sophomore at Connecticut who was the MVP of the Final Four last year. We’re talking about Alyssa Thomas at Maryland. We’re having a conversation about who the best player could be and I think it’s a nice change of pace.
BL: There was another unanimous choice among those who cover women’s college basketball. The University of Connecticut received all the preseason No. 1 votes. Stanford lost to UConn 75-57 earlier this week. So it seems in the early going, one great player isn’t enough to allow Stanford to challenge Connecticut.
MS: No, not at this point. I think there are a lot of differences in that game, but Connecticut is very experienced, very talented, and even when Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis went out of the game with the injury — which was heartbreaking for her and her teammates — they still won by 20 points. They are that much better I think than everybody in the country right now. That’s not to say that some other good teams that we know couldn’t close that gap between now and March. But I think to start the season far and away right now, Connecticut is the best team in the country.