Conference play is officially underway in Division I women’s basketball, which means it’s time for the rubber to truly hit the road for programs with NCAA Tournament aspirations. It’s also a critical period when it comes to evaluating how WNBA Draft-eligible players may perform at the next level. With the increased level of competition and familiarity between conference rivals, it’s a great opportunity for those with professional aspirations to show what they’re made of. Let’s review a few players who have the most to gain from strong conference play in the coming months.
Jessika Carter (Mississippi State Bulldogs)
2023-24 statistics: 14.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game
It’s Carter’s fifth season with Mississippi State, and she’s playing some of the best basketball of her collegiate career, averaging a double-double for the first time in a career-high 29.6 minutes per game. She has started SEC play strong, too, recording a massive 22-point, 19-rebound performance in a Bulldog win over Arkansas.
In the SEC, performances like these simply mean more. In arguably the most competitive and physical conference in Division I, just about every one of Carter’s games will be under the spotlight, especially those against bigger teams like South Carolina and Tennessee. Carter has overcome a lot during her time at Mississippi State, and right now she’s playing plenty well enough for WNBA teams to consider drafting her early. How she finishes her storied career as a Bulldog will determine whether that’s still the case in the spring.
Genesis Bryant (Illinois Fighting Illini)
2023-24 statistics: 14.4 points, 3.4 assists and 1.6 steals per game
After nine consecutive sub-.500 seasons, Illinois certainly qualified as one of the nation’s pleasant surprises last year, going 22-10 in the program’s first season under head coach Shauna Green. It was also Bryant’s first season with the Illini. The former NC State guard played a key role in the ascent of Illinois’ offense, averaging 15.2 points per game and setting a program record by shooting 89.1 percent at the free throw line.
It’s now up to Bryant and the Illini to prove that last season wasn’t a fluke. At 5-foot-6, Bryant must rely on her quickness and shooting to create advantages, at which she’s been excellent at; for the second-straight season, Bryant is shooting over 40 percent on 3-pointers, and she’s shooting 5.2 of them per game. There’s plenty of outstanding guard play in the Big Ten, and Bryant isn’t typically one of the first backcourt players mentioned. But she has the offensive skills to take over games, and if enough of those go in the Illini’s favor during conference play, it will reflect well on their senior star.
Taiyanna Jackson (Kansas Jayhawks)
2023-24 statistics: 12.7 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game
The Jayhawks recently earned some well-deserved fanfare when they took down the No. 4-ranked Baylor Bears, but Jackson has been a force for them for quite some time. The 6-foot-6 center averaged at least three blocks per game for Kansas in each of her previous two season with the program, providing an irreplaceable interior presence matched by few players in Division I.
In a draft class featuring several highly-skilled centers, however, Jackson may need to do even more to separate herself from the pack, at least on the offensive end of the court. As it currently stands, Jackson is an efficient scorer when she gets the basketball (66.1 percent field goal shooting last season), but that’s almost entirely in the painted area; according to Synergy Sports, 83.8 percent of her shot attempts thus far have come at the rim. She’ll also need to improve her free throw shooting, which currently sits at 46.4 percent.
Diamond Johnson (Norfolk State Spartans)
2023-24 statistics: 19.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.0 steals per game
The rich got richer when Norfolk State, last season’s MEAC champs, added Johnson via the transfer portal. And while the former ACC Sixth Player of the Year had to wait for a legal ruling that would allow her to play for her new school, she’s more than made up for that lost time, leading the Spartans to a 5-1 record with her in the lineup while totaling an eye-popping 30 steals in those six games.
The 5-foot-5 Johnson has always been a tenacious defender—first at Rutgers, then at NC State—but she’s plenty capable of quarterbacking a team on the other end of the court, too. So far, Johnson is enjoying life as Norfolk State’s primary offensive option, getting more freedom to shoot the basketball than ever before, and in adding her playmaking ability to the program’s already-elite team defense (80.7 points allowed per 100 possessions, per Her Hoop Stats), the Spartans have a chance to do something special—not just in the MEAC, but later on in the NCAA Tournament. While it’s an unfortunate truth that players in mid-majors tend to get overlooked in the WNBA Draft, Johnson has already had success at several Power Five schools, and putting Norfolk State on the map nationally would be her biggest accomplishment yet.
Aliyah Matharu (Florida Gators)
2023-24 statistics: 18.3 points, 3.0 assists and 2.7 steals per game
Like Johnson, Matharu is a guard who is at her third NCAA program, though she had to sit out the 2022-23 season before being eligible to suit up for Florida. Needless to say, the Gators are lucky to have her; Matharu’s 18.3 points and three assists per game are both career-highs, and her 2.7 steals per game ranks 27th among all Division I players.
Those massive steal numbers certainly help fuel the Gators’ transition game, but Matharu is right at home making plays out of the pick and roll, too, where she ranks in the 70th percentile (Synergy Sports). Matharu is shooting just 25.5 percent on 6.5 3-point attempts per game, but there’s reason to expect that to improve, too, as she shot 42.1 percent from long range in her last full season at Texas. Florida earned some impressive non-conference wins over Georgia Tech and Michigan, though the Gators are off to an 0-3 start in SEC play. Should they turn things around, Matharu’s dynamic play will surely get much of the credit.