Freshmen to watch during the Sweet 16

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Notre Dame
Notre Dame guard Hannah Hidalgo has set the bar high during her freshman season, leading the country in steals. | Photo by Michael Hickey/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Does it seem like this season’s freshman class is getting a lot of attention? There’s good reason for that. Several first-year players have been key cogs in their respective teams’ success thus far in the 2024 NCAA Tournament.

The 2023-24 freshman class has gotten a considerable amount of attention this NCAA season, which is no surprise given the amount of hype it garnered during recruiting. Highly-touted players like JuJu Watkins and Hannah Hidalgo give the class instantly-recognizable names, and they’ve largely lived up to the expectations set during their first season in Division I.

That success has continued throughout the 2024 NCAA Tournament, and through the first two rounds, several big-name freshmen have played large roles for their respective programs. Of the freshmen who will be competing in this year’s Sweet 16, there are a handful that have been particularly impressive.

JuJu Watkins (USC Trojans)

ESPN HoopGurlz recruiting rank: No. 1

First, the most obvious freshman. Watkins has led the rebirth of a Trojans program that won its first Pac-12 Tournament since 2014, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and reached its highest ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 (No. 3) since the days of Cheryl Miller. She’s one of four finalists for the Naismith Player of the Year award, and two highly impressive NCAA Tournament games have shown why. Watkins scored a game-high 23 points and added six defensive stats in USC’s opening-round win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and recorded a 28-point, 11-rebound double-double against Kansas, and there’s surely more to come from arguably the brightest young star in the country.

Hannah Hidalgo (Notre Dame Fighting Irish)

ESPN HoopGurlz recruiting rank: No. 5

Looking for a guard who makes an impact on both ends of the court? Hidalgo racked up 12 steals in just her second Division I game back in November and hasn’t slowed down; she led the country in steals per game (4.6) as a freshman, rounding out an incredible stat line of 22.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.6 assists. The 14 points, 11 assists and six steals Hidalgo recorded against Kent State and the 19 points, four assists and four steals she followed that up with against Ole Miss almost seemed routine, which speaks to just how good she’s been. The Irish are peaking as a team at the right time, so don’t get spoiled by Hidalgo’s heroics too quickly.

Madison Booker (Texas Longhorns)

ESPN HoopGurlz recruiting rank: No. 12

Booker has played an integral role in not only keeping the Longhorns afloat after point guard Rori Harmon’s season-ending knee injury, but she has them thriving. The 6-foot-1 forward grew up quickly, leading her team to a Big 12 Tournament championship and an NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed; she’s continued her strong play on a national stage. Booker’s versatility has been on full display. She set a Texas record for assists in an NCAA Tournament game with 14 in a beatdown over Drexel and scored an efficient 21 points in her team’s second-round win over Alabama. There’s a lot of things on the court that Booker makes look easy, and she’s still scratching the surface of her potential as Texas continues its tournament run.

MiLaysia Fulwiley (South Carolina Gamecocks)

ESPN HoopGurlz recruiting rank: No. 13

Described by Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley as a “generational talent,” Fulwiley is already one of the most dynamic players in the country, and she stands out even on a South Carolina team that’s currently undefeated at 34-0. The 2024 SEC Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, Fulwiley is a walking highlight reel, and though she comes off the bench behind a pair of excellent guards in Te-Hina Paopao and Raven Johnson, the sixth woman role seems to suit her just fine. Fulwiley showed just how explosive she can be with five 3-pointers in the Gamecocks’ opening-round win over Presbyterian, and her defense and full-court play stood out as South Carolina demolished North Carolina in the second round. It takes a special player to stand out on this loaded Gamecocks squad, and Fulwiley certainly fits that bill.

Mikaylah Williams (LSU Tigers)

ESPN HoopGurlz recruiting rank: No. 2

The defending national champions got off to a slow start in this year’s tournament, but are still alive in the Sweet 16, and the play of their freshman guard is a big reason why. Williams was one of the more efficient scoring guards in the SEC during the regular season, averaging 14.5 points per game on 1.15 points per attempt, and she’s been steady shooting the ball in two NCAA Tournament wins, totaling 30 points and four made 3-pointers against Rice and Middle Tennessee. LSU’s play in the paint is the team’s greatest strength, and the Tigers also have an athletic playmaker on the perimeter in Flau’jae Johnson. While Williams can also push the envelope physically, her steadiness shooting the ball will likely be of greater importance to LSU as the Lady Tigers try for a second-consecutive championship.

Ashlynn Shade (UConn Huskies)

ESPN HoopGurlz recruiting rank: No. 15

It would be difficult for a freshman to stand out on a roster that includes Paige Bueckers and Aaliyah Edwards, but Shade hasn’t needed to do anything special, only step up when her number is called. UConn has once again been riddled with injuries, with Azzi Fudd, Aubrey Griffin and Caroline Ducharme all out for the remainder of the season. Shade has stepped into that tertiary scoring role, scoring 26 points against Jackson State and 19 against Syracuse in her first two NCAA Tournament games. Shade hit five 3-pointers in both efforts; her outside shooting will be crucial if the Huskies are going to continue to advance, given how much attention defenses are paying to Bueckers.

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