Four teams, 25 players: Ranking the best on the court in Cleveland

Which players might steal the show at the women’s Final Four? Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, UConn’s Paige Bueckers and South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso head to the national semifinals in the spotlight. But in ESPN’s final rankings of the top 25 players for the 2023-24 season, we narrow the focus considerably: the best players for teams that will compete in Cleveland.

Just seven players from our Sweet 16 ranking are still standing, led by Nos. 1-2 Clark and Bueckers, whose teams square off in the national semifinals Friday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN). The others who are still ranked are Cardoso, Te-Hina Paopao and MiLaysia Fulwiley, UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards and NC State’s Aziaha James.

In these rankings, we put a lot of emphasis on how the players have performed during the NCAA tournament to help get their teams this far. South Carolina leads the list with eight in the top 25, fitting as the Gamecocks are the undefeated overall No. 1 seed and the team with the most depth.

ESPN’s Charlie Creme, Alexa Philippou and Michael Voepel look at the top performers who are about to take women’s college basketball’s biggest stage.

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Guard | 6-foot-0 | senior
32.0 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 9.0 APG, 1.8 SPG

Just when you think you’ve seen it all from Clark, she drops 29 points and 15 assists in the Sweet 16, and 41 and 12 in the Elite Eight. In the regional final win over LSU, she also tied an NCAA single-game record with nine 3-pointers. Clark has led Iowa to back-to-back Final Four appearances and enters the last weekend of her college career with 3,900 points and 1,132 assists. She stayed in the top spot of our player rankings all season. — Voepel



Caitlin Clark among the finalists for the Wooden Award in women’s hoops

Andraya Carter and Chiney Ogwumike discuss the finalists for the Wooden Award, including Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and UConn’s Paige Bueckers.


Guard | 6-foot-0 | junior
22.0 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 41.8% 3FG

Bueckers has played at another level this month, and she didn’t slow her roll in the Portland 3 regional, where she won most outstanding player. She is averaging 27.9 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 3.1 steals and 2.6 blocks per contest in the postseason, and with a 28-point, 10-rebound, 6-assist night against USC in the Elite Eight became the first player with three 25/10/5 games in a single NCAA tournament over the past 25 years. — Philippou



The numbers behind NC State vs. South Carolina

Check out the most important stats surrounding NC State and South Carolina as they get set to face off in the Final Four.


Guard | 5-foot-9 | junior
16.0 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2.9 APG

One of the most improved players in the country, this NCAA tournament has brought out an even better version of James. After leading the Wolfpack in scoring in the first two games, James exploded in the regionals with 29 and 27 points against Stanford and Texas. In two games that also featured Cameron Brink, Kiki Iriafen and Madison Booker, James was the best player. Her first-half shooting (5-for-5 on 3-pointers) stunned the Longhorns and set the tone for the upset of the top seed. — Creme


Forward | 6-foot-3 | senior
17.6 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 59.5% FG

Edwards has a tough job down low for UConn, oftentimes the only big on the floor for the Huskies due to their depleted frontcourt. But she has been a steadying force and consistently comes through as a secondary scorer to Bueckers, as well as a top rebounder. Her interior defense also helped UConn impose its will by limiting what the likes of Syracuse, Duke and USC have been able to achieve in the paint. — Philippou


Center | 6-foot-7 | senior
14.1 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 2.5 BPG

The day after being named the most outstanding player of the Albany 1 Regional, Cardoso announced what everyone expected: She will enter the upcoming WNBA draft. A powerful presence inside, she seems certain to be a top-four pick. Cardoso will be the latest Brazilian to play in the WNBA; 13 others have spent time in the league. First, she hopes to win a second NCAA title with the Gamecocks. They are the top rebounding team in the Final Four (46.2), led by Cardoso. — Voepel


6. Raven Johnson, South Carolina Gamecocks

Guard | 5-foot-9 | sophomore
8.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 4.9 APG

She has been a steadying presence at point guard all season. During South Carolina’s four NCAA tournament games, Johnson had just three turnovers combined. And in the matchup when the Gamecocks most needed her as a 3-point shooting presence — a 79-75 Sweet 16 win vs. Indiana — Johnson was 3-of-3 from behind the arc. She is also one of the vocal leaders on the team, helping to keep everyone on the same page. — Voepel



The numbers behind UConn vs. Iowa

Check out the most important stats surrounding UConn and Iowa’s women’s Final Four clash this Friday.


Guard | 6-foot-0 | senior
13.1 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 2.4 APG

The fifth-year senior is having her best season, and her stats during the NCAA tournament are even better. During those four games, Martin is averaging 14.3 points and 9.8 rebounds. She has been the primary scoring threat behind Clark during this run to the Final Four, and is a fierce rebounder. Martin has spent the season guarding posts and big guards and is fearless mixing it up inside. — Voepel


Guard | 6-foot-1 | junior
12.7 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 3.8 APG

After beginning her career at South Carolina, Rivers — who has blossomed with the Wolfpack — now gets the opportunity to meet her former team on the biggest stage. Her connection to this Final Four goes further: Rivers scored a career-high 33 points against UConn in November, the win that made people take notice of a team that was picked eighth in the ACC preseason poll. Electrifying in transition, Rivers is equally adept at finishing the break as she is at leading it as NC State’s point guard. After struggling to end the regular season, Rivers has bounced back in the NCAA tournament, scoring in double figures in all four games. — Creme



UConn reaches record 23rd Final Four behind Bueckers’ 28-point night

Paige Bueckers scores 28 points to go with 10 rebounds and 6 assists as UConn tops USC to reach its 23rd Final Four.


Guard | 5-foot-11 | senior
6.8 PPG, 6.5 APG, 1.2 SPG

Muhl’s stats aren’t always flashy, but she doesn’t need to score much to make an outsized impact on this UConn team, whether it be through her defense, rebounding or quarterbacking of the offense. She took the primary assignment of guarding JuJu Watkins on Monday and helped hold the USC star freshman to just 9-for-25 shooting from the field. The rest of Muhl’s stat line: 8 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 steals and a block. — Philippou



Staley discusses transformation of ‘incredible’ Gamecocks team

With her sixth Final Four ahead, Dawn Staley joins Alyssa Lang on SEC Now and explains how coaching her current South Carolina team has been a unique experience.


10. Te-Hina Paopao, South Carolina Gamecocks

Guard | 5-foot-9 | senior
10.9 PPG, 3.7 APG, 46.3% 3FG

Paopao has been a bit quiet scoringwise since putting up 18 in the first round for the Gamecocks, but she’s still capable of doing a little bit of everything on the floor for Dawn Staley, as evidenced by her 5-rebound, 6-assist game against North Carolina. Between that, her threat as a 3-point shooter and her veteran poise, it’s no surprise Paopao and Johnson have played the most minutes of any South Carolina players this tournament. — Philippou


Guard | 5-foot-11 | junior
8.3 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 2.3 APG

Affolter moved full time into the starting lineup after Molly Davis was injured in Iowa’s regular-season finale. She was ready for it. During the NCAA tournament, Affolter has increased her averages to 13.3 points and 6.0 rebounds. She was named to the Albany 2 Regional and Big Ten all-tournament teams and has become one of Clark’s top targets to pass to for transition scoring because she runs the floor so well. — Voepel



NC State rides hot first half to Final Four berth

Aziaha James’ five first-half 3s power the Wolfpack to their second Final Four berth in school history.


Forward | 6-foot-5 | graduate
10.6 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 54.2% FG

After watching James carve up Texas in the first half of the Wolfpack’s Elite Eight win, Baldwin became NC State’s catalyst in the second. The Longhorns made adjustments to keep the ball out James’ hands, leaving Baldwin to operate one-on-one in the post. She delivered with 16 points after halftime to help the Wolfpack maintain the double-digit lead. Baldwin, who played three seasons at Florida State before arriving in Raleigh for the past two, hit career highs in points and rebounds in her first full season as a starter. — Creme


Forward | 6-foot-2 | sophomore
13.8 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.2 APG

Stuelke was limited to 10 minutes and didn’t score in Iowa’s NCAA tournament opener because of a migraine, but she has been a key contributor in the three games since. She had double-doubles against West Virginia in the second round and Colorado in the Sweet 16. In the Elite Eight, she battled some foul trouble against LSU, but still finished with 8 points and 5 rebounds. She has faced many tests from more experienced post players this season, and UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards will be the next. — Voepel


14. Ashlyn Watkins, South Carolina Gamecocks

Forward | 6-foot-3| sophomore
9.4 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 55.6% FG

After playing behind last season’s crop of veterans, Watkins has had more opportunity to show off her immense talent (she dunked earlier in the season). Her minutes doubled, and her points and rebounds did too. Things really seemed to come together for Watkins in February, when she averaged nearly 13 points per game, which included 15 against UConn. Defense and rebounding is where she contributes most, and Watkins’ 14 boards and four blocks in the win over Oregon State was one of her best games of the season. — Creme


15. KK Arnold, UConn Huskies

Guard | 5-foot-9 | freshman
8.8 PPG, 3.1 APG, 2.2 SPG

One of the major differences between UConn’s team last season versus this season, coach Geno Auriemma has said, is the presence of KK Arnold. Playing alongside Muhl and Bueckers, the freshman gives the Huskies a third ball handler in their starting lineup, and is a shifty player who can also get downhill and bring energy on defense. Her 12 points against Duke were clutch on a night when scoring was difficult for the Huskies. — Philippou


16. Zoe Brooks, NC State Wolfpack

Forward | 5-foot-10 | freshman
8.9 PPG, 3.5 APG, 1.4 SPG

The Wolfpack, along with UConn and Iowa, have proved having a deep bench is not a requirement to reach the Final Four. No one in Raleigh knows that better than Brooks — she is the NC State bench. The only reserve Wes Moore turns to for any significant minutes, Brooks is second on the team behind Rivers in assists and has been a key to NC State’s transition game. Her 16 points against Tennessee in the regional semifinals were Brooks’ second-highest point total of the season. She has scored in double figures in the Wolfpack’s past three tournament games. — Creme



Undefeated South Carolina advances to Final Four

Tessa Johnson scores 15 points, Kamilla Cardoso adds 12 and the Gamecocks advance to the Final Four for the fourth straight time with a 70-58 win over Oregon State.


17. Tessa Johnson, South Carolina Gamecocks

Guard | 6-foot-1 | freshman
6.2 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 1.1 APG

The Gamecocks’ depth has been one of their strongest assets, and Johnson is a big part of that. For the season, she is averaging 17.4 minutes, but it has increased to 24.5 in the NCAA tournament. The Elite Eight victory over Oregon State was probably her best game of the season considering how high the stakes were. She had a team-high 15 points, including a pivotal 3-point play in the fourth quarter. — Voepel


Guard | 5-foot-9 | senior
6.1 PPG, 1.1 RPG, 1.7 APG

Marshall’s stats don’t always stand out, but her defense does. Known as Iowa’s most talented defender, she is relentlessly energetic and effective in both player-to-player and zone coverage. She doesn’t always score a lot, but she can hit 3-point shots. Her best offensive game of the tournament was in the Sweet 16 when she scored 14 points and made 4 of 5 from long range. — Voepel


Guard | 5-foot-10 | freshman
11.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 36.0% 3FG

Shade showed off her shot-making abilities in the first two rounds with 26 and 19 points against Jackson State and Syracuse, respectively, demonstrating why she’s such a strong complementary scorer for the Huskies. She went scoreless at Duke and got into foul trouble early against USC, but she had a big second half with a few big shots and had six rebounds to help UConn keep up on the glass. — Philippou


20. Bree Hall, South Carolina Gamecocks

Guard | 6-foot-0 | junior
9.5 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 1.5 APG

Hall has steadily gotten more court time in her three seasons at South Carolina and become a bigger presence as one of the team’s most reliable players. She averaged 9.1 minutes per game when the Gamecocks won the NCAA title her freshman season, 13.9 as a sophomore and 26.3 this season. She had eight points in the Sweet 16 and 10 in the Elite Eight. — Voepel


Guard | 5-foot-10 | freshman
11.9 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 2.1 APG

Fulwiley has had an up-and-down tournament, putting together a sensational performance against UNC with 20 points and nine rebounds off the bench, but then playing 24 minutes combined in the Albany 1 regional, including just 11 minutes against Oregon State. It speaks to Staley’s depth that she can go with different players based on the matchups she likes or how someone looks on any given day, but it’ll be interesting to see how often the coach turns to her star freshman, the SEC tournament most outstanding player, in South Carolina’s most important moments of the season. — Philippou


Guard | 6-foot-0 | senior
10.4 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 40.7% 3FG

After the best season of her career, Hayes has taken an offensive backseat as the Wolfpack made their run. A double-figure scorer through the ACC tournament, Hayes has taken just 20 shots in the NCAA tournament and is averaging just over four points per game. She has turned her attention to defending and rebounding, securing 10 boards against Stanford’s front line and eight in the first-round win over Chattanooga. — Creme


23. Ice Brady, UConn Huskies

Forward | 6-foot-3 | redshirt freshman
4.4 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 17.5 MPG

Brady’s playing time has fluctuated over the course of the season, but being forced into a starting role during the Big East tournament when Edwards was out with a broken nose paid dividends. With that extra confidence and experience in tow, she played crucial minutes against USC on Monday, putting up some strong defense and eight points, including a big-time 3-pointer that helped the Huskies keep momentum. — Philippou


24. Chloe Kitts, South Carolina Gamecocks

Forward | 6-foot-2 | sophomore
9.3 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 54.4% FG

After rarely seeing the floor as a freshman, Kitts moved into the starting lineup to start the season and has mostly been there ever since. She came off the bench for South Carolina’s first three NCAA tournament games and then got the start again in the regional final against Oregon State. She led South Carolina against Presbyterian with 21 points and 13 rebounds. Staley uses Kitts in the high post, where she has been an effective passer and midrange shooter when the defense keys on Cardoso down low. — Creme


Forward | 6-foot-3 | graduate
10.7 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 39.1% 3FG

The well-traveled Collins has been a utility forward for Moore the past two seasons after playing at Maryland and Tennessee. From screen-setter to physical defender to spot up 3-point shooter, Collins has filled a variety of roles. She had her best game of the tournament in the biggest game of her life. Her 10 points, which included 2-for-4 3-point shooting, were a key contribution in the Wolfpack’s upset of Texas. — Creme

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