As important as stars are to team success, winning doesn't happen without veteran contributors. Every contender needs them, even if they're often underrated.
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said he thinks the 2020-21 women's basketball season has a rather open feel to it, making those players all the more valuable as X factors.
"Is there a great team right now? No, I don't believe there is," Blair said. "There's a lot of very good teams that have great moments. But it's open for someone who can get on a roll about doing the little things right on the court to become a championship team."
Here's a look at five less-heralded players on top-10 teams who could help their teams lift a trophy (listed in order of their team's ranking).
Kayla Jones, NC State
The No. 2 Wolfpack were back in action Sunday after a three-week pause for COVID-19 protocol, but they didn't have starting center and leading scorer Elissa Cunane. NC State trailed Virginia Tech by 11 with 4:26 left in the fourth quarter.
But that's where players like Jones know how to dig deep. The senior forward had 22 points, seven rebounds and four assists in helping NC State come back for an 89-87 victory to remain undefeated. Fellow senior Kai Crutchfield came up big, too, with 20 points, 10 of them in the final four-plus minutes.
Jones is averaging 12.9 PPG and 7.0 RPG, and is shooting 57.3 percent from the field. She came off the bench Sunday for the first time since her sophomore year, but coach Wes Moore said that was because she got less practice time than some of her teammates during the COVID-19 pause. He knew she would still make as big an impact even if she didn't start.
"She just does so many things for us," Moore said. "She rebounds, she defends, she keeps everybody focused and on track. Couldn't ask for a better leader; what a year she's having."
Natalie Chou, UCLA
Forward Michaela Onyenwere is the athletic phenom who leads the sixth-ranked Bruins in rebounding (9.2 RPG) and is second in scoring (18.0 PPG) to guard Charisma Osborne (18.6). They are the Bruins' 1-2 punch, but Chou is a key part of UCLA's attack, too.
The redshirt senior guard started her career at Baylor, but injuries impacted her and she transferred to UCLA after two seasons. After averaging 7.4 PPG as a part-time starter last season, she's averaging 11.5 points and 3.9 rebounds this season. Chou is shooting a team-best 43.5 percent from behind the arc (20 of 46) and had 12 points and five rebounds in the Bruins' victory over Stanford on Friday.
Katie Benzan, Maryland
Ivy League followers knew what a smooth shooter Benzan was the past three seasons at Harvard, when she made 287 3-pointers. Now she leads the Big Ten in 3-pointers per game (3.6) and 3-point percentage (43 of 85, 50.6).
When Benzan decided in the spring to play her final season elsewhere, she initially opted for Texas. But when Karen Aston was fired, Benzan changed her mind and picked Maryland. It was a great break for the Terps, who had lost leading 3-point shooter Taylor Mikesell, who transferred to Oregon.
Benzan is the third-leading scorer (15.3 PPG) for the No. 7 Terps (11-1), and is also averaging 2.4 assists and 2.1 rebounds. She has scored in double figures in all but one game for Maryland, which meets Ohio State on Monday (ESPN2/ESPN App, 7 p.m. ET).
Ciera Johnson, Texas A&M
If you're not talking about the Aggies' guard depth, you're talking about the double-double prowess of forward N'dea Jones, who on Sunday had her second game this season with 18 rebounds (her career high is 21). But No. 8 Texas A&M also relies a lot on Johnson, a 6-foot-4 senior, to be an anchor inside.
Johnson spent her freshman year at Louisville in 2016-17 and sat out the next season after transferring. At Texas A&M, she has been the model of consistency. Her averages of 11.4 points and 8.1 rebounds this season are similar to what she has done the past two years.
"She's very good at what she does," Blair said. "She knows that shot selection is the key, and being able to finish inside. She's a natural leader, and she takes responsibility and accountability when she's not doing well."
Moon Ursin, Baylor
In an era where so many players are quick to transfer, Ursin is an old-style example of perseverance. After starting just five games over her first three years at Baylor, she has started all 12 games her senior season and is averaging career bests in points (10.7) and rebounds (5.9).
"This is an example of the type of student-athlete you need more of today," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. "Most of them would bail out on you after one or two years. But Moon is going to go down in the history of our program as one of the all-time favorite kids. She makes things happen; she's pleasant to coach."
After No. 9 Baylor was upset by Iowa State on Jan. 16, the Lady Bears bounced back with victories over Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. Ursin had 20 points and eight rebounds against the Cowgirls, and 14 and 11 against the Sooners.
"I've learned a lot being in the program four years," said Ursin, who has shown no ill effects after a concussion suffered during a practice collision with teammate DiDi Richards in October. "I had to be patient. My turn's here, and I'm not going to waste it."
Player of the week: Aliyah Boston, South Carolina
The same week South Carolina dedicated a statue of one 6-5 forward (2018 graduate A'ja Wilson), a current 6-5 forward was at the center of everything with one triple-double and two double-doubles in three Gamecock victories.
Boston started with 26 points, 16 rebounds and six blocked shots in beating No. 15 Arkansas 104-82 on Monday. In a 62-50 victory Thursday against No. 22 Georgia, she had 16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 blocked shots, making her just the third SEC player to have two triple-doubles in a career. According to ESPN Stats & Information, no SEC player has done that three times (and remember, Boston is just a sophomore).
Then at LSU on Sunday, she had 20 points and 14 rebounds in a 69-65 win. For the season, Boston is averaging 14.8 PPG, 11.3 RPG and 3.2 BPG.
"She played huge minutes for us, and I know she was probably tired," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said Sunday. "But Aliyah is embracing her role."
A shout-out goes to Michigan's Naz Hillmon for her 50-point, 16-rebound performance in a loss to Ohio State. Unfortunately, we won't see her again for a while, as all Michigan sports are on at least a two-week pause for COVID-19 protocol.
Team of the week: Tennessee
Coach Kellie Harper and the No. 25 Lady Vols aren't into moral victories, but it does matter how well they played in their 67-61 loss to UConn on Thursday. They made it an entertaining and exciting game. And with both coaches expressing an interest in extending the series, the rivalry got a little spark from this game that it didn't quite get last year when the Huskies won 60-45 in Hartford.
But how Tennessee responded to the loss was also important. The Lady Vols shut down No. 12 Kentucky 70-53 on Sunday as Harper coached against former Tennessee teammate Kyra Elzy.
Tennessee senior Rennia Davis had 15 points and 20 rebounds, joining Glory Johnson as the only Lady Vols players in the last 20 years to hit the 20-rebound mark. It has happened 12 times overall in Tennessee history.
Coach of the week: Geno Auriemma, UConn
With wins over Butler, Tennessee and Georgetown, Auriemma is now at 1,101 victories for his career, moving into second place on the Division I list ahead of the late Pat Summitt of Tennessee (1,098) and behind Stanford's Tara VanDerveer (1,106).
After the 72-41 win over the Hoyas on Saturday, Auriemma dismissed the Huskies' play as being "like another bad practice," and expressed frustration with his team's mistakes. It was Geno being Geno, which irritates his critics. His fans see his perfectionism as being why the Huskies have 11 NCAA titles. Auriemma wants them to be ready for what could be a test Thursday, when they travel to No. 15 Arkansas (ESPN2/ESPN App, 5 p.m. ET).
Win of the week: UCLA
First, we must say this: There were some huge "almost" wins Sunday. No. 1 Louisville and No. 2 NC State won by two, and No. 4 South Carolina and No. 8 Texas A&M won by four, all pushed to the brink by unranked Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, LSU and Missouri, respectively.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, it would have been Wake's first win over a top-5 foe; the Demon Deacons are now 0-62 in that category. And it would have been the second such win for Virginia Tech; the Hokies did it in November 1985 against then-defending national champion Old Dominion, ranked No. 5. Alas, now Virginia Tech is 1-52 against top-5 opponents.
With the monumental upset bids falling short, we'll go with a win that barely registered as an upset rankings-wise, but was still big in the Pac-12 race: No. 6 UCLA over No. 5 Stanford 70-66 on Friday. The Bruins got revenge for their worst offensive outing of the season, a 61-49 loss at home to Stanford on Dec. 21. UCLA knew it had to rebound far better than it did in the first meeting; the Bruins won that battle 44-31, with 21 offensive boards.