It was during a summer tour of Italy nearly three years ago when Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell first fully grasped what the rest of women's college basketball subsequently learned.
Rhyne Howard might just be the best player in the country.
Howard wasn't even supposed to be in Italy on that trip. Mitchell had assured the incoming freshman, competing at the time with USA Basketball in a tournament in Mexico, that she didn't need to fly all the way to Europe to meet up with the Wildcats for the final few days of their tour. Howard wanted to go anyway. And neither jet lag nor fatigue from previous play prevented her from making an impression from the very first day she stepped on the court.
"She made everybody better that day," Mitchell recalled. "I think that was the point where I was thinking this is a little different from being an all-SEC freshman team player. This is somebody who could really do something like [national] freshman of the year. That was a day I remember vividly. That was very impressive."
So is what followed, most recently with Howard winning SEC Player of the Year, earning AP All-American honors and making the short list for basically every major individual award. And while Sabrina Ionescu swept those awards for the current season that ended so abruptly before the NCAA tournament, it's never too soon to think about a new season in which Howard and others will have a chance to craft their own legends.
Who are the favorites for national player of the year during the 2020-21 season?
Here is a look at 10 of the top candidates, and what could help or hurt their campaigns.
1. Rhyne Howard, Kentucky
Why she could win: She will be the nation's leading returning scorer after averaging 23.4 points per game this season. That's a good start. Howard does so much well. Kentucky's pressure allows her to influence games on the defensive end. She rebounds well from the perimeter and is remarkably sure-handed. But it's her ability to score that makes her a potentially generational talent. A 6-foot-2 guard who can get her own shot at any time and is highly proficient from the 3-point and free throw lines, she's almost impossible to defend on the college level.
What could get in her way: Whether it's the Wade, Wooden or even our own espnW award, players of the year historically come from teams near the top of the polls. Kentucky has its work cut out in replacing four seniors who played substantial minutes -- while also improving on a showing that likely wouldn't have earned it hosting privileges in this NCAA tournament. Is Howard so special that she can lift the Wildcats into the national championship discussion?
2. Aari McDonald, Arizona
Why she could win: McDonald will follow in the footsteps of Kelsey Plum and Ionescu as Pac-12 guards with the style and skill necessary to build a national player of the year campaign. She will be one of only four returning players in the major conferences who averaged at least 20 points per game this past season. The 5-6 guard was even Arizona's second-leading rebounder. Arizona returns its core group from a team that Charlie Creme projected as a No. 3 seed this season. So team success shouldn't be a problem.
What could get in her way: Arizona's continued emergence as a Final Four contender generally helps McDonald's case, but there are specific hindrances. McDonald's scoring average dipped by three points per game this past season, as her share of the team's overall field goal attempts dropped from 32% to 26%. That's because Sam Thomas, Cate Reese and others did more. That's good for Arizona. But when it comes to catching eyes for individual awards, it's a fine line.
3. Michaela Onyenwere, UCLA
Why she could win: Onyenwere will be the Pac-12's leading returning rebounder and second only to McDonald among returning scorers. That matters in a conference that should remain among the best in the country. Considering how much she already has expanded her offensive game, notably adding 3-point range the past two seasons without sacrificing overall efficiency, there is every reason to think she has even more room to grow. An explosive forward who also averages around one steal, one block and one 3-pointer per game would have a strong résumé.
What could get in her way: She certainly isn't as dependent on those around her as an old-school back-to-basket post player, but Onyenwere will be part of an offense that has to replace Japreece Dean. Dean accounted for 33% of UCLA's assists the past two seasons. Also, the fact that Onyenwere earned only third-team AP All-America honors this season, after missing entirely the previous season, suggests she's still a little underappreciated nationally.
4. Aliyah Boston, South Carolina
Why she could win: Boston had a triple-double in her first college game and somehow managed to live up to even that standard. The freshman provided a post presence largely unmatched in the SEC for a team that was poised to enter the NCAA tournament ranked No. 1. If that was her just getting started, it's difficult to imagine future player of the year races without her. Boston actually got more productive as the season progressed, averaging more points (13.1) and rebounds (10.4) per game in SEC play, while still averaging two blocks per game and shooting better than 60% from the floor and nearly 80% from the line.
What could get in her way: Exactly one sophomore has thus far won the Wade Trophy: Maya Moore in 2009. Boston had a wonderful freshman season, but that's a mighty high bar to clear. And while South Carolina might well look to her for more points next season, it will do so without point guard Tyasha Harris. Rising junior Destanni Henderson looks well equipped to take on more playmaking duties, but that's still an adjustment with ripple effects on the post players.
5. Ashley Joens, Iowa State
Why she could win: The nation's only 20-10 player this season, averaging 20.5 points and 10.9 rebounds per game, Joens quietly put together one of the nation's most impressive statistical seasons. She is versatile enough that she ranked third nationally in free throw attempts and showed off 3-point range and accuracy. She even built a bit of legend by returning from a dislocated shoulder to lead the Cyclones to a win. And she'll have help next season, with Iowa State adding four top-100 recruits, including her sister, Aubrey, and point guard Lexi Donarski.
What could get in her way: Iowa State should be much better than barely .500 in the Big 12 next season, but is much improved enough in the context of this discussion? Joens should put up monster numbers, but she's still introducing herself to a lot of fans and media. It took Megan Gustafson until her senior season to really make that breakthrough at Iowa, so Joens could be building a campaign for the 2021-22 season.
6. Dana Evans, Louisville
Why she could win: Evans already cleared one barrier to entry in the race, emerging from Asia Durr's shadow and proving this season that she could be the best player on a Final Four-caliber team. The ACC Player of the Year displayed a knack for memorable moments -- remember the deep 3-pointer that helped beat Oregon over Thanksgiving? -- but also the consistency to provide double-digit points every time out for a team that had a 28-4 record. She also managed to set career highs in assists while shouldering the greater scoring responsibility.
What could get in her way: Even former Louisville legends Durr and Angel McCoughtry didn't win player of the year. And Evans will star for a team that has reshaping to do. The Cardinals lose four of their top six scorers. They have the usual stellar recruiting class and plenty of remaining depth, but for the second season in a row, this will be a team that has to figure out a new identity. Can Evans respond by scoring 25 points per game? Will Louisville even want that?
7. NaLyssa Smith, Baylor
Why she could win: She led a balanced veteran championship-caliber team in scoring this season while playing just 24 minutes per game. Imagine what she might be able to do when Baylor needs to lean on her for points and minutes next season. Baylor adds two top-10 recruits, point guard Sarah Andrews and 6-4 post Hannah Gusters. A point and a post could be just the kind of supporting talent that should put Smith in position to shine.
What could get in her way: Look at history again. Taking the Wade Trophy as the example, who was the last player to go from ensemble piece to player of the year in a single season? Perhaps Diana Taurasi in 2002-03, and she was only an ensemble piece because she was surrounded by arguably the greatest senior class in women's college basketball history. It's conceivable that both Baylor and Smith will be gearing up to win everything in sight in 2021-22.
8. Evina Westbrook, UConn
Why she could win: Megan Walker's decision to enter the WNBA draft once again leaves UConn without a clear plan of succession. But someone is going to be the standout player on what likely will be a top-five team. Freshman Paige Bueckers is the nation's No. 1 recruit, but lest we forget, Westbrook was the nation's No. 2 recruit three seasons ago at Tennessee. The scoring and playmaking potential displayed in Knoxville did little to suggest that assessment was off the mark.
What could get in her way: The advent of the transfer portal and increased athlete mobility might suggest this will change, but the history to date remains transfers don't win player of the year. Also, Westbrook was not an efficient scorer at Tennessee. Players who take the kind of shots that lead to shooting 41% don't continue getting looks at UConn. Odds are she'll improve in that regard because that's what the UConn system does, but it's still an adjustment.
9. Elissa Cunane, NC State
Why she could win: If the development between her sophomore and junior seasons is anything like that between her first two seasons, we will be talking about one of the best post presences in recent memory. But even if she just adds a little polish to her All-American sophomore effort, Cunane is in this mix. Among players returning next season in major conferences who are at least 6-3, only Oklahoma State's Natasha Mack scored more than the 6-5 Cunane.
What could get in her way: Will Boston box her out? To be the player of the year, Cunane needs to be the post player of the year. If Boston proves to be a comparable scorer in her second season, while also outpacing Cunane in blocks for a higher-ranked team, it will be as difficult to evade her in the awards race as it is in the paint.
10. Kiana Williams, Stanford
Why she could win: There is a very good chance she could end up as the key senior who leads the No. 1 team in the country in scoring and assists. That's about as spot-on as you can get for a player of the year profile. She will be Stanford's most important senior and will almost certainly lead the Cardinal in assists for the third consecutive season. The points might depend on the development of players such as Haley Jones, Lexie Hull and incoming freshman Cameron Brink, but that depth is also the reason the Cardinal will challenge South Carolina for supremacy.
What could get in her way: It's all there in the reasons she could win. If all of the talent around her develops to the extent that it could, Williams might be even more the leader of an ensemble than she currently is. That's good for Stanford and doesn't make Williams any less a talent, but it will be up to voters to reward the subtlety of her performance.