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Who's the top women's player of the year candidate in every conference?

Baylor's Lauren Cox, left, and TCU's Lauren Heard are among the top contenders for Big 12 player of the year. AP Photo/Jerry Larson

Sure, Sabrina Ionescu makes national awards more and more of a foregone conclusion with each triple-double she adds to the record book. But 32 players will soon earn conference player of the year honors, recognized as the most influential players in their own basketball kingdoms.

So as conference tournaments open as early as Sunday -- and the women's NCAA tournament tips off March 20 -- we handicap the player of the year races in all 32 Division I conferences.

Here's the criteria we emphasized:

  • Season-long performance matters for context, but these real-life awards are designed to reward performance in conference games. These picks therefore emphasize the same thing, and all statistics referenced are conference-only stats, unless otherwise noted.

  • The debate about most outstanding versus most valuable never ends when it comes to sports awards. But the reality is that a player from a team that isn't at least competitive in its conference has to do something truly spectacular to win. For the most part, the top half of any conference produces the award winners.

  • And yes, most conferences have more than two worthy candidates. But lest this run to the length of a Russian novel, we capped each conference at two players.

  • And while there are a few cases in which one team arguably had the conference's top two or three candidates (we're looking at you, UConn), we operated under the assumption that the best candidate from that team eliminates her teammates.


Navigate to each league:

American | ACC | America East | A10 | Atlantic Sun
Big East | Big Sky | Big South | Big Ten | Big 12 | Big West
CAA | C-USA | Horizon | Ivy | MAAC | MAC
MEAC | MVC | MW | NEC | OVC | Pac-12 | Patriot
SEC | SoCon | Southland | SWAC | Summit | Sun Belt | WAC | WCC

American Athletic Conference

Front-runner: Megan Walker, UConn

Like her team, she still is trying to prove she can score efficiently against the best in the country. But also like her team, she clearly is playing at a higher level than the rest of the conference. In the league, her 19.3 points per game come on 54% shooting overall and 46% 3-point shooting.

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Walker drills 3 straight triples for UConn

Megan Walker catches fire from deep, knocking down 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter.

Top competition: IImar'I Thomas, Cincinnati

Thomas (19.2 PPG, 8.4 rebounds per game, 59% shooting) has the Bearcats headed toward 20-plus wins and the postseason for the second year in a row.


Atlantic Coast Conference

Front-runner: Dana Evans, Louisville

One of the preseason's biggest questions was who would replace Asia Durr. Evans answered early and emphatically. Her ability to shoot (42% behind the arc), drive (89% free throws) and distribute (second in ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio) makes her so difficult to defend.

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Evans fakes and draws a foul for Louisville and-1

Dana Evans shows off her speed as she rushes into the paint, fakes out her NC State defender and hits an and-1 in the first quarter.

Top competition: Elissa Cunane, NC State

Coming off an impressive freshman season, she adjusted to the college game more quickly than defenses have adjusted to her as a sophomore.


America East Conference

Front-runner: Maeve Carroll, Maine

With reigning America East player of the year Blanca Millan out for the season, Carroll helped Maine remain Stony Brook's top challenger. Carroll averages close to a double-double in American East games (15.2 PPG, 8.9 RPG), but the forward also is seventh in the conference in assists.

Top competition: Kai Moon, Binghamton

The national scoring leader early in the season, Moon's offensive inefficiency took a toll. But she still is the league's most prolific scorer (20.1 PPG in all games, 18.9 PPG in conference) and creates far more turnovers than she commits.


Atlantic 10 Conference

Front-runner: Bre Cavanaugh, Fordham

While there are more efficient scorers, Cavanaugh gets the job done (20.9 PPG in A-10 games) in a way that consistently produces wins for the Rams. She has played roughly 98% of the available minutes in A-10 games, which indicates plenty about her value.

Top competition: Jayla Scaife, Dayton

She is the cornerstone of the league's stingiest defense. And that matters for a team running away with the league despite shooting 38% on offense.


Atlantic Sun Conference

Front-runner: Keri Jewett-Giles, Florida Gulf Coast

FGCU is almost UConn-like in its dominance relative to the rest of the conference, and Jewett-Giles leads the Eagles in scoring, free throws, assists and steals. She also leads the A-Sun in scoring (18.4 PPG) and steals (2.6 per game) in conference play.

Top competition: Keyen Green, Liberty

The 2017-18 Big South player of the year hardly missed a beat returning from a redshirt season, as she ranks second in the league in field goal shooting, third in scoring and fifth in rebounding.


Big East Conference

Front-runner: Kelly Campbell, DePaul

No one in the country is more valuable while averaging fewer than 10 points per game. She leads the Big East in assists (6.1) and is third in rebounding (8.8) in conference play. She also leads the NCAA by a country mile with a staggering 5.73 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Top competition: Kristen Spolyar, Butler

It's a photo finish with several contenders, but Spolyar is Butler's only double-digit scorer (18.1 PPG) in Big East play. For the Bulldogs to sit in third, she has had to be consistently good.


Big Sky Conference

Front-runner: Khiarica Rasheed, Northern Arizona

Northern Arizona is Montana State's closest competition because Rasheed has taken over in conference play, upping her scoring from 12.1 PPG in nonconference games to a league-best 19.1 PPG in Big Sky games. She also is second in field goal shooting and fourth in rebounding.

Top competition: Fallyn Freije, Montana State

Formerly a Big Sky standout at North Dakota, she now is the leading scorer (14.6 PPG in Big Sky games) for a team that is outscoring league opponents by nearly 19 points per game.


Big South Conference

Front-runner: Ashley Bates, Hampton

The reigning Big South player of the year isn't scoring as much this season for a team with plenty of options, but no one else in the league checks as many boxes. Bates is in the top 10 in the nation in steals (3.4 per game) and near the top 10 in the league in rebounds and scoring.

Top competition: Camryn Brown, High Point

Brown is third in the Big South in scoring (16.6 PPG) and assists (5.1 per game) and first in assist-to-turnover ratio in conference play, all while ranking among NCAA leaders in 3-pointers made.


Big Ten Conference

Front-runner: Kathleen Doyle, Iowa

Doyle has gotten the best of Big Ten opponents and Megan Gustafson's shadow this season, and it's debatable which is the more impressive achievement. Doyle is second in the league in scoring (20.4) and first in assists (6.3) in Big Ten games, meaning that even by a conservative estimate she has a direct hand in more than 40% of Iowa's points.

Top competition: Arella Guirantes, Rutgers

The Scarlet Knights are headed for the NCAA tournament, and Guirantes scores approximately 32% of their points in Big Ten games.


Big 12 Conference

Front-runner: Lauren Cox, Baylor

Baylor hasn't lost a game in which Cox played at least 20 minutes in nearly two calendar years. The Lady Bears haven't lost a regular-season game in which the senior played at least 20 minutes since well ... ever. Numbers don't always tell the whole story with Cox, but that stat does.

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Cox steals and Smith scores

Lauren Cox bats the ball away to come up with the steal. Te'a Cooper takes it to the paint and dishes it out to NaLyssa Smith for the Baylor layup.

Top competition: Lauren Heard, TCU

TCU wasn't expected to be a factor in the Big 12. Instead, Heard is posting big numbers in league play (19 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 4.2 assists per game), and the 25th-ranked Horned Frogs are in second place.


Big West Conference

Front-runner: Raina Perez, Cal State Fullerton

Perez hasn't been as dominant in conference games as she was earlier in the season, but we're still taking about someone who averages 19 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.8 steals in Big West competition. Fullerton would be far worse than middle of the road without her.

Top competition: Ila Lane, UC Santa Barbara

She leads the conference in rebounds (13.3 per game), and the gap between first and second is greater than the gap between second and 19th.


Colonial Athletic Association

Front-runner: Kamiah Smalls, James Madison

She isn't very far from the 50-40-90 club, shooting 48% from the field, 39% from the 3-point line and 87% from the free throw line. All of that while also leading the second-place Dukes in assists and averaging better than five rebounds per game.

Top competition: Eva Hodgson, William & Mary

It's difficult to leave out Bailey Greenberg from league-leading Drexel, but Hodgson (21.3 PPG) scores 30% of her team's points in conference play and is third in the CAA in assists.


Conference USA

Front-runner: Erica Ogwumike, Rice

Rice controls its own championship destiny because Ogwumike has been as unstoppable as any player in the country since conference play began, leading Conference USA in both scoring (21.6 PPG) and rebounding (11.7) and ranking second in field goal shooting (51%).

Top competition: Raneem Elgedawy, Western Kentucky

The 6-foot-4 Egyptian gives away some points at the free throw line, but that's about the only limitation for someone averaging 17.5 PPG and 10.9 RPG and providing interior defense.


Horizon League

Front-runner: Macee Williams, IUPUI

She is eighth in the nation in field goal percentage overall this season, and she is shooting a torrid 64% in Horizon games. The league's leading scorer (19.5 PPG) and a prolific rebounder (8.5), she has IUPUI on the verge of its first Horizon title.

Top competition: Angel Baker, Wright State

The sophomore has lived up to the billing as a playmaker (second in the league in assists), but it is her emergence as a scorer (17.5 PPG) that has Wright State fighting for second place.


Ivy League

Front-runner: Bella Alarie, Princeton

Fortunately for everyone but the Ancient Eight's other teams, Alarie has played every game in the conference season after missing time earlier. The result is the Ivy League's top scorer (18.8 PPG) and one of its top rebounders (8.4) and shot blockers (2.0). No wonder the Tigers are rolling.

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Highlights: Princeton 80, Penn 44 - Via Ivy League

Bella Alarie's 21 points leads Princeton past Penn in Ivy League play

Top competition: Eleah Parker, Penn

Parker actually leads Alarie (and the rest of the conference) in blocks and rebounds in Ivy League play while sharing more of the scoring load previously hefted by Kayla Padilla.


MAAC

Front-runner: Stella Johnson, Rider

She is the nation's leading scorer in all games (24.8 PPG). And even if she is scoring at a marginally slower rate in MAAC play, Johnson is doing it just as efficiently and while ranking sixth in the league in rebounding (8.1), seventh in assists (3.8) and first in steals (2.9).

Top competition: Rebekah Hand, Marist

A guard who leads players in MAAC games in field goal shooting (56%) and ranks third in scoring (18.3 PPG) and sixth in assists (3.8) would win a lot of conference awards.


MAC

Front-runner: Micaela Kelly, Central Michigan

Moving on this season without two stars and a longtime coach, Central Michigan's continued success is remarkable. And it has everything to do with Kelly, who in MAC games is third in the league in scoring (20.1 PPG), seventh in rebounding (7.9) and second in assists (5.6).

Top competition: Erica Johnson, Ohio

She narrowly edges teammate Cece Hooks by doing everything. Johnson is in the top 10 in the league in scoring, rebounding, 3-point shooting, assists, assist-to-turnover ratio and steals.


MEAC

Front-runner: Chelsea Mitchell, Morgan State

Morgan State isn't an offensive juggernaut, so it matters that Mitchell is third in MEAC scoring (16.6 PPG). Now in her second stint at the school as a redshirt senior who completed the rare move of transferring away and back, the 5-foot-9 guard also leads the MEAC in rebounding (11.5).

Top competition: Chanette Hicks, Norfolk State

Norfolk State missed a chance this week to push for the title, but Hicks was typically productive in the loss. She leads the MEAC in scoring (18.4 PPG) and is second in assists (4.6).


Missouri Valley Conference

Front-runner: Sara Rhine, Drake

Teammate Becca Hittner's resurgence makes this a close call, but it is Rhine who kept Drake in both games against league leader Missouri State (albeit both losses). In MVC games, she is third in scoring (17.3 PPG), first in rebounding (8.9), second in blocks (1.6) and first in field goal percentage (67%).

Top competition: Lexi Wallen, Illinois State

The answer here might be Hittner, but Wallen's candidacy has a great story. A four-year volleyball player, this is the fifth-year senior's only full basketball season. And Wallen is second in MVC play in both scoring (18.5 PPG) and field goal shooting (56%).


Mountain West Conference

Front-runner: Maddi Utti, Fresno State

Fresno State's three leading scorers have from 258 to 262 points in conference games, so it's not like Utti is an obvious choice ahead of freshmen twins Haley and Hanna Cavinder -- and all three are player of the year candidates. Utti averages nearly a double-double (15.4 PPG, 9.9 RPG) and leads the league in steals (2.4) for the regular-season champions.

Top competition: Ayzhiana Basallo, San Jose State

It's no coincidence that San Jose State went from a six-win season to the conference title race when Basallo (17.6 PPG, 4.2 APG) got on the court as a transfer from Cal Poly.


Northeast Conference

Front-runner: Denia Davis-Stewart, Merrimack

The 6-foot-1 senior is averaging more rebounds than anyone in the nation and more blocks than all but two players. That kind of inside presence, along with a league-best 18.4 PPG in NEC games, is why Merrimack is in third place in its first full Division I season.

Top competition: Nneka Ezeigbo, Robert Morris

She is the league's reigning defensive player of the year, and first-place Robert Morris is currently holding NEC opponents to 48 points and 33% shooting per game.


Ohio Valley Conference

Front-runner: Chelsey Perry, UT Martin

This is perhaps the closest race in the country, with Perry and her main rival starring for teams tied atop the standings. Perry has been almost unstoppable in league play (26 PPG on 53% shooting). She also is among national leaders at 3.1 blocks per game on the season.

Top competition: Ellie Harmeyer, Belmont

The reigning conference player of the year averages 20.6 points and 13.1 rebounds per game in OVC play, so she isn't giving up her title without a fight.


Pac-12 Conference

Front-runner: Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon

Even in the best conference in the country this season, Ionescu makes player of the year a no-brainer. She is second in scoring, first in assists and fourth in rebounding in Pac-12 play. Just as importantly, whether winning at UConn on short rest or coping with Kobe Bryant's death, she is imperturbable.

Top competition: Michaela Onyenwere, UCLA

The respective and contrasting fortunes of their teams in Pac-12 play explains Onyenwere passing Oregon State's Mikayla Pivec, while Aari McDonald's injury status at Arizona also opens a door. But Onyenwere (18.6 PPG, 8.8 RPG) does plenty to make her own case.

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Onyenwere's clutch steal sets up 3

Michaela Onyenwere steals the ball on an inbounds play and Charisma Osborne knocks down a 3-pointer in overtime.


Patriot League

Front-runner: Ellie Mack, Bucknell

The 6-foot-3 senior is five missed free throws away from the rare 50-40-90 club. In league play, she is both one of the Patriot's most accurate 3-point shooters (44%) and one of its better rebounders (7.4 per game), while also tying for the team lead in assists for the first-place Bison.

Top competition: Rachel Thompson, Colgate

Picked to finish in the middle of the pack, Colgate is instead challenging for first place thanks to the senior guard putting up big numbers across the board (17.9 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 4.9 APG).


SEC

Front-runner: Rhyne Howard, Kentucky

Howard has scored 28% of her team's total points in SEC games -- and she missed three games with an injury. She is the most indispensable player in the country. She fuels Kentucky's transition (2.6 steals per game), leads the team in 3-pointers and is much improved around the basket.

Top competition: Tyasha Harris, South Carolina

Baylor's Lauren Cox might be the only comparable player when it comes to making an impact without scoring a lot of points. Harris' distribution (5.7 APG) sets up South Carolina's youth.

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South Carolina's Harris dishes sweet wraparound dime

Tyasha Harris drives to the rim, draws a help defender and delivers a wraparound pass to LeLe Grissett for the easy layup.


Southern Conference

Front-runner: Sarah Myers, Samford

Just as the standings are muddled, the player of the year race is difficult to handicap. But Myers, a transfer from Maryland, rarely leaves the court for a team picked to finish near last but is instead challenging for first place. She is sixth in scoring, fifth in rebounding and 13th in assists in league play.

Top competition: Nadine Soliman, UNC Greensboro

There are some highs and lows in the Egyptian senior's game-to-game flow, but she is the leading scorer (14.6 PPG) for a team far exceeding preseason expectations.


Southland Conference

Front-runner: Breanna Wright, Abilene Christian

She leads all players in Southland competition in points and assists per game. She also leads Abilene in steals and 3-pointers and even gets some rebounds at 5-foot-8. And she was at her best in the team's biggest Southland win, scoring 29 against first-place Sam Houston State.

Top competition: Amber Leggett, Sam Houston State

It's no coincidence that she is the Southland's third-best scorer and also second in steals, fueling a first-place team that forces the most turnovers in conference play.


Summit League

Front-runner: Ciara Duffy, South Dakota

Duffy is third in Summit League games in scoring and sixth in field goal percentage. She leads the league in assists and is around the top 10 in steals and rebounds. More than numbers, she is the best player on a team that is unbeaten in the league and ranked No. 20 in the country.

Top competition: Madison Nelson, Denver

She has been so good that you have to at least pause before just handing the award to Duffy. Nelson leads the Summit in scoring, rebounds and steals and is second in blocks.


Sun Belt Conference

Front-runner: DJ Williams, Coastal Carolina

Williams could have gone scoreless in the game in which she scored 51 points and still led the Sun Belt in scoring by a wide margin. In reality, the 51-point outburst was an exclamation point on a remarkable conference run that also sees her averaging 8.1 rebounds and 5.9 assists.

Top competition: Marie Benson, UT Arlington

Benson (16 PPG) accounted for 23% of her team's scoring in Sun Belt games, while also providing the rebounds (8.4) and steals (1.7) to help the league's stingiest defense.


SWAC

Front-runner: Niya Mitchell, Texas Southern

It's difficult to separate Mitchell and teammate Ciani Cryor, the former Rutgers player. But after generally acquitting herself well against the likes of Ruthy Hebard, Ashley Joens and Erica Ogwumike out of conference, Mitchell is tearing up the SWAC. In league play, she is shooting 71% and averaging 18.2 points, 13 rebounds and 2.3 steals.

Top competition: Dariauna Lewis, Alabama A&M

The Missouri State transfer made herself right at home, averaging 17.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game in SWAC play to keep Alabama A&M in the chase.


WAC

Front-runner: Ericka Mattingly, UMKC

New Mexico State star Gia Pack's midseason ankle injury opened the door on what seemed a settled player of the year race. The league's leading scorer and rebounder could end up missing more than a third of the conference season. Mattingly has played among the most conference minutes and is a worthy replacement (15.7 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 3.6 APG) from the first-place Roos.

Top competition: Kamira Sanders, Seattle U

Picked to finish next to last, Seattle could yet end up in the top four. A 5-foot-7 senior, Sanders is the biggest reason why (17.1 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 3.9 APG, 2.8 SPG).


West Coast Conference

Front-runner: Jill Townsend, Gonzaga

Gonzaga remained an ensemble as it climbed toward its current place near the top 10, but Townsend has clearly become first among equals. She is now the only healthy player averaging double digits in WCC play (13.7 PPG). Townsend also rebounds well and is the team's best 3-point shooter.

Top competition: Alex Fowler, Portland

Portland couldn't challenge Gonzaga this season, but its Australian duo of freshman Fowler (17.9 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 2.2 SPG) and sophomore Haylee Andrews signals a bright future.