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ESPN Doesn't Quite Get the Top 25 Women in College Basketball Right

A team is a complex entity, it is full of many people with different personalities, abilities and strengths. Ideally, coaches, managers and scouts want to recruit the best players, but what makes the best players stand out?

For me, I love my hometown teams and some players that stand out to me are Arizona Cardinal Larry Fitzgerald and Phoenix Suns Steve Nash. Why do these players stand out to me? Fitzgerald is one of the best wide receivers in NFL history and has carried the Cardinals on his back for many of the 13 seasons he has been with them. While some seasons are better than others, he has improved and honed valuable blocking skills over the most recent seasons as well as raked in almost 14,000 receiving yards on over 1,000 receptions making him 11th all-time in receiving yards and 6th all-time in career receptions. Nash led the NBA in assists on five separate occasions averaging over 10 assists a game. He was a great leader on the court and while never winning a championship, his ability spoke for itself.

Notice what I focused upon here. I didn't make a very complex statistical argument. My defense of Fitzgerald and Nash focused on the sort of stuff most fans focus on. And I did that because I am obviously a fan of Fitzgerald and Nash.

But when you are working on your masters you certainly can do more advanced analysis. And you definitely expect "experts" to do the same.

So let's talk women's college basketball.

When it comes to college basketball, the best men’s players often play one-season and then they go pro. Women however, often stay in school and this leads to many great female collegiate athletes who often play four seasons of college basketball. Recently, ESPN released their list of the top 25 returning players for women’s collegiate basketball. So how did the "experts" at ESPN do?

Let's start with the dominant characteristics of the players on the list. In general -- as the following table indicates -- these players come from winning teams and most are able to score. Last year, the average winning percentage of the teams employing these players was 0.809 and only one player -- Kristine Anigwe -- played on a losing team.

In addition, the players on this list average 20.9 points per 40 minutes (the average player from one of the top six conferences -- where all these players come from -- only offers 13.9 points per 40 minutes). So those who constructed this list seemed to focus on basically what you would think fans would focus on.

But let's take a bit more sophisticated look. Wins in basketball are about gaining possession of the ball (i.e. rebounds and steals), keeping possession (i.e. avoiding turnovers), and shooting efficiently (i.e. getting the ball to go in the basket).

When we look at shooting efficiency we see that the players on ESPN's list are above average. The players on the list have an effective field goal percentage of 0.530, while the average player from these six conferences has a mark of 0.464. Despite this general trend, five players -- Nia Coffey (Northwestern), Kelsey Plum (Washington), Victoria Vivians (Mississippi State), Diamond DeShields (Tennessee) and Jordin Canada (UCLA) -- were actually below average shooters. And when we turn to Wins Produced per 40 minutes (calculated in a fashion similar to the NBA) we see that three of these players -- Coffey, Vivians, and Deshields -- were actually below average.

So who could ESPN have chosen instead? Well let's think about a player who didn't over 20 points per 40 minutes but still managed to produce wins. Consider Chantel Osahor. Her wins produced per 40 minutes was 0.314. Overall she produced 9.3 of her teams 26 wins in the past season. How did she contribute so much to her team but isn’t anywhere on ESPN’s list? Well, while she averaged 14.14 rebounds and 4.31 assists per 40 minutes (and was above average in her effective field goal percentages) she only averaged 12.6 points per 40 minutes. So yes, she played for a winner. But she didn't score enough for the "experts" to see.

So what does all this tell us? Well, the "experts" at ESPN aren't much different from fans. ESPN focused on scoring and team wins. But actually producing wins requires rebounding, minimizing turnovers and shooting efficiently. And when we focus on what produces wins, we see ESPN's list is not really the "top" women in college basketball.

Written by Tiffany Greer

Edited by Molly Cosby

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