At the start of this season, American Athletic Conference coaches and media members selected junior guard Kia Nurse as the conference’s Player of the Year. While Nurse has put in a solid season before missing the final few games of the season due to a right ankle injury, UConn’s ninth perfect regular season was made possible due to the play of sophomore standouts Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson. Both players demonstrated flashes of talent in their first season in Storrs, but their unprecedented growth and development have thrust them into the national spotlight and given the Huskies a legitimate chance at a fifth-straight national title. With the American Athletic Conference awards set to be announced Friday, March 2, beat writers Dan Madigan and Matt Kren debate whether the conference Player of the Year award should go to the always-efficient Collier or the sharp-shooting Samuelson.
Kren: Collier has been the backbone of the undefeated Huskies from game one against Florida State to game 29 against USF. In the closest game of the season, the 78-76 victory on the road against No 12 Florida State, Collier led the team with 28 points and eight rebounds. She has led the team in scoring a team-high 13 times and led in rebounding a team-high 14 times. In wins against No.14 Texas, No. 2 Notre Dame, No.12 Ohio State and No.23 Temple, Collier has led the way in scoring, including a 31 point, 13 rebound performance on 13-14 shooting against the Owls. This season she is averaging a second best 20.4 points per game and is coming off a career night where she scored a ridiculous 39 points on 15-19 shooting. It would be an understatement to say she is finishing the season on fire, as this whole season has just been a clinic for her, that we have been lucky to watch.
Madigan: Collier has been clutch, no doubt, but Samuelson has been no stranger to getting buckets. Even with Collier’s 39-point outburst, Samuelson remains UConn’s leading scorer at 20.7 points per game. She’s also had her time to shine this season, including scoring 34 points in just 29 minutes on 13-18 shooting with seven 3-pointers on the road against Tulsa. Those 34 points came in seven fewer minutes than Collier’s 39-point game against USF. Had the Tulsa game been closer, Samuelson easily could’ve had a chance to have the first 40-point game since Maya Moore. The Tulsa game was part of a three-game, 94-point stretch for Samuelson to tie Moore for the most points in three-straight games. Any time your name is associated with a legend like Moore, you’re in good company.
Kren: Coming into this season Samuelson was only thought to be a big time 3-point shooter and has transformed herself into a better all-around scorer, but Collier is a much better all-around player. She only trails Samuelson by eight points in scoring but she leads the team with nine rebounds a game and is first on the team in total blocks. In fewer minutes than Katie Lou Samuelson per game, Collier has gone to the line more often and leads the team in free throws made. While Samuelson is the team leader in points, she has also attempted 81 more field goals then Collier but has made 32 less. Collier is above and beyond one of the best finishers in the NCAA as she is second in the nation in field goal percentage shooting 68.6 percent while KLS has dropped under 50 percent to 48.6 percent. Collier is also second in the nation behind Kelsey Plum in total field goals made, as Collier has made 87 fewer while attempting 261 less shots.
Madigan: Collier’s efficiency is astonishing, and her ability to finish from seemingly every angle near the basket is what makes her one of the best players in the country. However, Collier has not had to deal with being the focal point of the offense like Samuelson does night in and night out. Opposing teams play tough, physical defense on Samuelson in an attempt to wear her down, and she almost always is guarded by the best defender on the other team. This increased defensive effort on Samuelson combined with the threat of her shooting from pretty much anywhere on the court creates great spacing, allowing for Collier to take advantage of frequent one-on-one matchups in the post. Not to mention, Samuelson’s growth as a passer and on the defensive end have help her transform from a spot-up shooter to a versatile superstar. Samuelson’s offensive and defensive abilities combined with her ability to stay out of foul trouble gives the Huskies a mismatch at the wing basically every night that Samuelson can exploit for easy baskets. When she’s hot, she cannot be stopped and is a major reason why the Huskies look simply unbeatable for long stretches.