When scouting college players for their ability to play the next level, the trickiest part is projecting how they will do against players with similar talent levels. There just aren’t that many players good enough to play in the W. The NCAA tournament can be a perfect time to watch, for instance, two WNBA sized centers play each other and get a sense of their game. A 6’5” player dominating smaller opponents may be necessary for their chances at the next level, but it is not sufficient. Plenty of very good college bigs, as well as guards and wings, have not made it at the next level
With all that in mind, here are some of the best matchups to watch and root for in this year’s tournament. Not just seniors either. Rhyne Howard facing off with NaLyssa Smith would be fun, but there are WNBA prospects in other classes as well that can give a good test and we can start seeing who might be drafted in 2023 and beyond as well.
While I write here about second round and beyond potential games, this also serves as a what to watch for in the first round, since there are some upsets I will be rooting against and some I will be rooting for.
Oregon vs. Tennessee: Nyara Sabally vs. Tamari Key
Assuming both Oregon and Tennessee both win their first round matchups, this is a great center head to head matchup. Sabally has had an unfortunate injury luck with her knees, but she has the talent to be a top 10 pick if she comes out this year. Key can struggle with foul trouble, but she is a great test for other W prospects as a true 6’5” shot blocker who can move her feet ok. While Key is not likely a first round pick next year, she has W size to test Sabally, and could make teams want to follow her next year for the 2023 draft.
This game would also give a chance to see Rae Burrell against strong competition again. Burrell has not been the same player this year after being injured early on. A smooth athlete, can she recapture any of that, and be effective against an Oregon team with good size in the middle? How is her shooting? 34% from 3 is not bad, but down from her 40% last year. More promisingly, her free throw shooting is for a second year 80%.
Ole Miss vs. Baylor: Shakira Austin vs. NaLyssa Smith
If these two teams meet in the second round, Austin and Smith would likely not start the game matched up, but would likely end up matching up at times. Smith has shown herself to be the clear number 2 pick in this draft. Austin, for me, is definitely top 5 pick, but whether she is third is still an open question. To show up against the Baylor front line would be a good sign. Can Austin generate offense for herself and teammates? That is a good test as to whether she is a franchise level center, or as is more likely, merely a good center who might be an average starter.
Centers are a more replaceable position outside of the very best, which is why i have leaned towards wings in that third position, but Austin might be good enough to be the choice there. We saw this last year with teams taking swings on athletic wings over centers in the first round.
NC State vs. Kansas St.: Elissa Cunane vs. Ayoka Lee
This would require Kansas St. beating a solid 8 seed in Washington St, but I am hopeful, as i would love to see this center matchup. The optimistic case for Cunane relies on her being able to hold up as a post defender, while using her face up skills at the next level. She is likely not strong, nor skilled enough to be a post player at the next level. But if she can use her shooting to force Kansas St. to adjust their defense and maybe bring Ayoka Lee out of the paint, that would show how she could be used in the W. And for Lee, this would be a test of her defense. Blocking shots near the basket when you are as big as she is is one thing, but defense, especially at the higher levels, is a lot more than that.
FGCU vs. Maryland: Kierstan Bell vs. Diamond Miller/Angel Reese
Questionable seeding from the NCAA committee has made the chances of seeing Bell and FGCU past the first round lower than it should be, but they have the talent to beat Virginia Tech. I will be rooting for it, because getting to see Kierstan Bell against two long athletes in Miller and Reese would be a perfect way to get to watch the potential top 5 pick in Bell. She has spent most of the past two years the biggest player on the court, but will have to transition to a hybrid 3/4 role at the next level. This would be a good way of seeing how that would look, at least on offense.
Virginia Tech is an interesting matchup for FGCU, but Bell may have to guard 6’6” Elizabeth Kitley. That is the kind of matchup an undersized mid-major is forced to deal with, but would not happen were Bell to find herself on the Indiana Fever.
UConn vs. Sweet 16 and beyond: Evina Westbrook/Christyn Williams vs. the best
Westbrook is higher than her teammate Williams in plenty of draft boards and mock drafts, but I have them reversed myself. One reason is who has shown up in big games against the best opponents. Westbrook generally puts up better all around numbers, with more assists and rebounds than Williams, though this year Westbrook has slumped shooting from 3. But Westbrook’s best games tend to come in conference against over matched Big East opponents.
For Westbrook to be a first round pick for me, I would like to see her have one of her strong 12 points/8 rebounds/ 8 assist games against an elite opponent and make herself actually felt. As a contrast, Williams has done that. Against Baylor last year Williams scored 21 points, got herself to the line for 6 free throws and contributed to UConn’s win. Westbrook wasn’t bad per se, including shooting 3-5 from 3, but was not able to contribute when UConn needed to the degree either Williams or Paige Bueckers as a freshman did.