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NCAA tournament: 7 players to watch in the star-studded women's bracket

One glance at the NCAA women's tournament bracket proves what’s been apparent since this season began: It’s all about the freshmen.

The University of Southern California wouldn’t have its No. 1 seed without first-year phenom JuJu Watkins. The same goes for Notre Dame and Texas, who were led to success by their young players.

The overwhelming freshman talent is no slight against Iowa guard Caitlin Clark or LSU’s Angel Reese, who still highlight a vast field of incredible players who have proven to be more captivating than their male counterparts. Both standout seniors will compete in the loaded Albany 2 region, which is a testament to the parity on the women’s side this year.

From Cameron Brink, a projected 2024 WNBA draft lottery pick out of Stanford, to Paige Bueckers, who has already committed to another season at UConn, there’s star power anywhere you look this March.

Here are seven more players we’re excited to watch in the tournament — in no particular order.

Audi Crooks, center, Iowa State

There’s really no stopping Audi Crooks on a drive to the basket and odds are even worse if she already has deep post position.

The 6-foot-3 freshman is averaging 18.9 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.1 assists this season, earning a unanimous First-Team All-Big 12 nod. She's the first Cyclones freshman to earn first-team honors in the program’s history. That accolade came after she recorded 512 points this season, a new record for any Iowa State freshman.

Update: Crooks is up to 615 career points now, following the Big 12 tournament and a historic 40-point performance in Iowa State's comeback win over Maryland in first round of the NCAA tournament.

KANSAS CITY, MO - MARCH 11: Iowa State Cyclones center Audi Crooks (55) after making a three in the first quarter of a women's Big 12 tournament semifinal game between the Iowa State Cyclones and Oklahoma Sooners on Mar 11, 2024 at T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, MO. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Crooks is slowly adding to her game, as her ability to assist and even shoot from beyond the arc has started to come into play recently. She’s accomplished all of this despite ISU head coach Bill Fennelly’s early expectation that she’d only play 15-20 minutes per game. In her last four appearances, she never dipped below 20 points or 25 minutes of playtime. She has proven that she can mostly avoid foul trouble, which will be paramount for the Cyclones in Portland 4.

McKenzie Forbes, guard, Southern California

You want someone like McKenzie Forbes facilitating action on the floor. The graduate transfer, who previously played for Cal and Harvard, is smart in a way that can’t be overstated.

Recently named the final Pac-12 tournament Most Outstanding Player after scoring a game-high 26 points to beat Stanford, Forbes made it clear that USC is a team that doesn’t care about accolades. While JuJu Watkins stands to keep garnering recognition, Forbes is an exciting veteran leader. When Watkins scored 51 of USC’s 67 points in another win over Stanford last month, Forbes was the second-highest scorer of the team with 12.

Southern California guard McKenzie Forbes (25) and teammates celebrate an overtime win against UCLA in an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinals of the Pac-12 women's tournament Friday, March 8, 2024, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)
Southern California guard McKenzie Forbes offers a vital veteran presence for Southern California. (AP Photo/David Becker) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Forbes has shown that she’ll lift the team by any means necessary, like when she recorded a career-high 36 points, seven rebounds and four assists in a win over Long Beach State in December. Forbes had missed practices and shootarounds leading up to that game as she dealt with an illness, which is why Southern California head coach Lindsey Gottlieb labeled the performance a “flu game.”

Madison Booker, forward, Texas

It’s poetry in motion when Madison Booker pulls up from midrange. The Texas freshman modeled her game after former Longhorn Kevin Durant, which is why she wears the No. 35 jersey. Durant, who still wears the No. 35 in the NBA, told the Austin American-Statesman that it won’t be long before Booker’s jersey is hanging in the Moody Center rafters opposite his.

Her quick release is a bonus to her game, but its her ability to adapt that has made all the difference for Texas. Junior guard Rori Harmon sustained a season-ending torn ACL during a practice in December, which forced the team to move Booker from the wing to the point.

Texas forward Madison Booker (35) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, in Norman, Okla. (AP Photo/Garett Fisbeck)
Texas forward Madison Booker is a wing-turned-guard with one of the best midrange jumpers you'll see in the tournament. (AP Photo/Garett Fisbeck) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Texas has won 12 of its last 13 games with Booker at the helm of the offense, and she’s already made history as the first freshman to ever earn the Big 12 Player of the Year award. Her increased production in the new position came to a crescendo in the conference tournament as she averaged 21.3 points, four rebounds and five assists per game on 50% shooting from the field. She scored 26 points in the Big 12 title game en route to being named the most outstanding player of the tournament, and Texas has her to thank for the No. 1 seed in Portland 4.

Abbey Hsu, guard, Columbia

Columbia is set to make its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance against Vanderbilt in the First Four. While Columbia head coach Megan Griffith made a public plea to the selection committee, it feels like senior Abbey Hsu essentially willed the bid into existence with her play. She has improved each year since averaging 14.3 points per game as a freshman. She's currently averaging 20.6 points, which is a top-20 mark in the nation. She became Columbia’s all-time leading scorer among men and women last month.

NEW YORK CITY, NY - MARCH 28: Columbia Lions guard Abbey Hsu (35) handles the ball while being defended by Seton Hall Pirates guard Lauren Park-Lane (3) during the first half of the WNIT Elite Eight basketball game between the Seton Hall Pirates and Columbia Lions on March 28, 2022 at Columbia University in New York, NY (Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Columbia Lions guard Abbey Hsu (35) led her team to the tournament against the odds.(Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The accomplishment is a credit to her steady growth, but also a result of her dedication to getting open and getting shots off quickly (she holds the record for most 3-pointers made in Columbia’s history). During a semifinal matchup with Harvard in the Ivy League tournament, Hsu led Columbia to the win with a game-high 22 points. She added a career-high 14 points for her sixth double-double of the season, all of which featured at least 20 points. Even during Columbia’s loss to No. 9 seed Princeton, Hsu scored 20 and came within two rebounds of another double-double. That’s when Griffith made her plea.

"I can't say enough about Abbey Hsu," Griffith said. "She's one of the best players in the country and she needs to be seen. I really hope the (NCAA selection) committee gives her and this team a chance.”

It’s exciting that the selection committee obliged, as Hsu will be a must-watch.

Ayoka Lee center, Kansas State

Good luck to opposing teams who have to reckon with Kansas State senior Ayoka Lee in the paint. The all-time leader in career rebounds at K-State (1098), Lee is the complete package for the Wildcats. She is averaging 20.1 points on 62.2% shooting from the field and 8.4 rebounds this season. Her 43.6 player efficiency rating is also fourth in the nation behind Stanford’s Cameron Brink, Yvonne Ejim of Gonzaga and Caitlin Clark.

Kansas State center Ayoka Lee (50) grabs a rebound during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa State, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022, in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Kansas State center Ayoka Lee is tough on the boards. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

There were questions about whether Lee would be at full strength after being sidelined for the entire 2022-23 campaign due to knee surgery, which was followed by ankle surgery that kept her out for a month during the current season.

But the Naismith DPOY semifinalist cooled those concerns during the Big 12 tournament. She recorded 22 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks during a quarterfinal win over West Virginia. Lee followed up that performance with 25 points and 10 rebounds during the semifinal loss to Texas two days later. Don’t be surprised if she throws a block party on defense as Kansas State competes in the Albany 2 region.

Hannah Hidalgo, guard, Notre Dame

If you ask reigning WNBA Rookie of the Year Aliyah Boston which women’s college basketball player doesn’t get enough recognition, the former NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player will tell you about Notre Dame’s Hannah Hidalgo.

A freshman from New Jersey, Hidalgo has garnered almost every possible accolade. The ACC Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year was also named the conference tournament MVP after leading the Irish to the conference title with 22 points. She could very well earn the Naismith Player of the Year award to boot.

SOUTH BEND, IN - FEBRUARY 29: Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Hannah Hidalgo (3) dribbles the ball down court during a college basketball game between the Virginia Tech Hokies and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on February 29, 2024 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Hannah Hidalgo is receiving well-deserved accolades. (Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Hidalgo is so fun to watch because she’s rarely still on either side of the ball. Her 23.3 points per game this season were the third most in the country behind Caitlin Clark and JuJu Watkins. Meanwhile, she recorded a Notre Dame record of 147 steals. No one in women’s basketball recorded more than her 4.6 steals per game. The No. 2 seeded Irish will need all of her production to make it out of Albany 1, which also boasts undefeated South Carolina.

MiLaysia Fulwiley, guard, South Carolina

From the opening game of this season, Fulwiley made it clear that her offensive bag is liable to leave defenders simply asking: “How?”

You’ve likely seen the play by now, a coast-to-coast highlight that featured an automatic move behind her back and a stunning up-and-under layup. It received a lot of praise, even from Magic Johnson, who claimed that NBA players weren’t bringing Fulwiley’s level of flair. But South Carolina coach Dawn Staley was quick to emphasize that the play was normal for Fulwiley, who has proved that point all season.

South Carolina guard MiLaysia Fulwiley shoots against Clemson during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Columbia, S.C., Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)
South Carolina guard MiLaysia Fulwiley is a walking highlight. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

South Carolina is the staggering favorite to win the title, even without star senior center Kamilla Cardoso for the first round. Fulwiley will be important for the team’s success, as she leads the team in scoring off the bench. From averaging 11 points per game during this regular season, Fulwiley exploded for 24 points in the dramatic SEC championship win over LSU. She’s from Columbia, South Carolina, and there’s no doubt that she’ll give her all as the dominant program hopes to bring home its third national championship in the last seven seasons.