Women's NCAA tournament 2022: Why centers could be the difference-makers in March Madness

After watching 6-foot-6 Ayoka Lee and 6-4 Lauren Ebo battle in the paint at the Big 12 women's basketball tournament, Kansas State coach Jeff Mittie made a prediction.

"I think the centers can be a big factor in the NCAA tournament," said Mittie, whose star Lee set an NCAA single-game scoring record with 61 points earlier this season. "One thing about the tournament is, it's so physical."

Texas coach Vic Schaefer, who calls Ebo the Longhorns' most improved player this season, echoed Mittie.

"There are not that many true 5s in the game anymore. Everybody wants to work on facing up and shooting the 3," Schaefer said. "There is a real value in having someone like Lauren. I have a real appreciation for those 5s that get it done down there and are physical, they're tough, they protect the paint."

Schaefer went to the NCAA championship game in 2017 and 2018 with 6-7 Teaira McCowan, a grind-it-out-on-the-block center who is now with the WNBA's Dallas Wings. In his first season with Texas last season, Schaefer constantly encouraged 6-5 Charli Collier -- who became the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft -- to stay closer to the rim.

For years, pro men's and women's basketball has been evolving to have more positionless players who can both execute the pick-and-roll and defend against it. To a degree, that has taken some root in the college game as well. But there is still a need for so-called old-fashioned bigs, even if their skill set has expanded. And whether they are listed as centers, center/forwards, or just posts, those who fit the bill as their team's bigs and rim protectors are likely to be a huge part of which teams reach the Final Four and cut down the nets in Minneapolis.

Here is a region-by-region look at some of the best in the 2022 women's NCAA tournament.

Greensboro Region

South Carolina's Aliyah Boston enters the NCAA tournament with an SEC-record 24 consecutive double-doubles. The 6-5 star is a perfect example of the metronome-like production provided by a great player inside. Boston has hit 28 3-pointers in her three seasons at South Carolina, but her bread and butter is still the hard work she does close to the basket. Strength, footwork, agility and persistence are all qualities that describe Boston, who is averaging 16.8 points, 12.0 rebounds and 2.6 blocks and has led the Gamecocks to the No. 1 overall seed.

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley has been Boston's biggest cheerleader and biggest critic, much as was the case with another Gamecock superstar, A'ja Wilson. That's because Staley knows how good Boston already is and how good she still can be. Wilson was the WNBA's No. 1 draft pick and rookie of the year in 2018 and the league's MVP in 2020.

Boston, who led South Carolina to the Final Four last season, has the ability to replicate those accolades.

"Her ball handling has gotten better, her decision-making, her ability to score," Staley said. "You can't do what she's done without being as complete a player as she is now."

No. 2 seed Iowa is anchored inside by Monika Czinano, who is all about efficiency, and as such is a perfect complement to teammate Caitlin Clark, the Division I leader in assists. For the second season in a row, Czinano is the D-I leader in field goal percentage (67.8%, 259 of 382). Last year when the Hawkeyes reached the Sweet 16, Czinano shot 66.8% from the field.

Czinano is a senior but already has announced she will return for her "super-senior" season. At 6-3, she is on the shorter side for centers, but her strength and footwork are solid. Clark and other Iowa guards are adept at getting her the ball in the right spots. And when they don't, Czinano has that true post's ability to get herself in the best position to make shots.

She averaged just 1.9 points per game her freshman season playing behind another 6-3 center who filled up the basket, Megan Gustafson (now with the Washington Mystics). But in her three seasons since, Czinano's scoring average has risen from 16.0 to 19.3 to 21.1.

"She goes so hard all the time," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said, "and I love her growth from her freshman year to now and how much she's matured."

Other standout centers in the region include No. 6 Georgia's Jenna Staiti, who is averaging 15.0 PPG and 7.8 RPG.

Wichita Region

No. 7 seed Ole Miss is back in the tournament for the first time since 2007, thanks in large part to 6-5 center Shakira Austin, who could be a WNBA lottery pick in April. She is averaging 15.4 points and 8.9 rebounds.

Austin transferred to Ole Miss after two seasons at Maryland in part to keep expanding her game. Coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin wanted Austin to feel confident taking some risks to improve. For this postseason, McPhee-McCuin is keeping her advice for Austin simple.

"Shakira just needs to continue to be efficient. She needs to lead," McPhee-McCuin said. "She needs to understand how important she is on the floor and use that for our advantage."

No. 2 seed Baylor has 6-3 Queen Egbo, who averaging 10.9 points and 8.3 rebounds. Egbo has taken just one 3-point shot this season, but Bears coach Nicki Collen said that isn't necessarily a key part to a center expanding her range.

Collen, formerly with the Atlanta Dream, put on her previous WNBA coach's hat when asked how centers can prepare themselves for pro basketball.

"It's not the 3, but you have to be able to face up," Collen said. "And with the goal over time to maybe develop a 3.

"I'd love to say that as college coaches, if we've got kids that are capable of being pros, that we're developing them to be pros. But that's also not our job. At the same time, that's how I want to play, so I can tell a kid, 'It will work here, but it will also work at the next level.'"

No. 4 seed Tennessee's 6-6 junior Tamari Key is one of the nation's most elite interior defenders, leading D-I with a school single-season record 115 blocked shots. Key has 273 blocks in her three seasons and needs just three more to pass Lady Vols' legend Candace Parker for the Tennessee career record. Key is also averaging career highs in points (10.3) and rebounds (8.1).

Key has never taken a 3-pointer at Tennessee, which makes her similar to WNBA centers such as the Minnesota Lynx's Sylvia Fowles and the Phoenix Mercury's Brittney Griner.

"And then you also have someone like [the Mystics'] Elizabeth Williams," Collen said, "who is not going to shoot from much beyond a few feet. But she plays so hard, she rim-protects, she rebounds. There is still a place for those kinds of players."

Other standout centers in the region include No. 8 Nebraska's Alexis Markowski, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, who is averaging 12.8 points and 8.0 rebounds.

Spokane Region

Top-seeded Stanford doesn't list a center on its roster, but 6-4 forward Cameron Brink fits the bill. She has led the Cardinal in scoring (13.6), rebounding (8.0) and blocked shots (72) and was Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.

Brink is more a new-age post player with her offensive skill set -- she's 8 of 23 on 3-pointers this season -- and her ability to guard on the perimeter. Foul trouble -- she leads the Cardinal there, too, with 85 fouls and two disqualifications -- has been about her only struggle.

No. 5 seed Virginia Tech's Elizabeth Kitley, a 6-6 junior, was the ACC Player of the Year this season. Behind her 17.4 PPG and 9.9 RPG, the Hokies have their best NCAA tournament seed since being a No. 4 in 1999.

Kitley has taken 18 3-pointers in her Virginia Tech career and made five of them. But for the most part, she is going to succeed the traditional way. She is shooting 54.8% from the field this season, almost identical to her 54.6 career mark.

"She's a strong low post player who can help herself for the next level by developing more on the perimeter," Collen said.

The No. 3 LSU-No. 14 Jackson State game features a matchup of one of the best small conference centers, Ameshya Williams-Holliday, vs. Faustine Aifuwa. The 6-4 Williams-Holliday was the SWAC Player of the Year and defensive POY and is averaging 19.6 points and 11.4 rebounds, with 79 blocked shots.

One of her best performances of the season came against Arkansas, with 18 points and 21 rebounds. So going against an SEC team like LSU is not new to her; Jackson State also faced Ole Miss and Mississippi State this season. LSU is more guard-oriented, but Aifuwa is the team's top post threat (9.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG).

And there is Texas' Ebo, who played her first two seasons at Penn State and has come into her own in her second year with the Longhorns, averaging 8.2 points and 6.9 rebounds. Without her, Texas wouldn't have won the Big 12 tournament title.

"She is somebody I can rely on and we can count on," Schaefer said. "She handles her business. She has had to guard some really good inside players this year, and we don't have to help her very much."

Bridgeport Region

Lee is averaging 22.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and has blocked 93 shots for No. 9 seed Kansas State.

Lee's 61-point performance against Oklahoma on Jan. 23 was one of the individual highlights of the college season. When Lee gets the ball where she wants it, there's not much opposing defenses can do. She can score with either hand and has a nice touch around the rim, along with her sheer strength.

After a knee injury delayed her freshman season in 2018 -- Lee still wears a brace -- her mobility is not what it could be. But she is a major force every game. "For me, it's just about staying with the fundamentals and keeping with what I do well," Lee said of playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time. "Just continuing to work and grind through it."

If Kansas State beats Washington State in the first round, the Wildcats are almost sure to face No. 1 seed NC State and 6-5 center Elissa Cunane. It would be a rematch of a Nov. 19 game in Raleigh, North Carolina, in which Lee had 19 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks. Cunane had 18 points and six rebounds as the Wolfpack won 90-69.

On a balanced Wolfpack team, Cunane's numbers this season -- 13.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 19 blocks -- don't stand out. But NC State's success with her does. She is the centerpiece of a team that is a No. 1 seed for the second year in a row.

Collen thinks she has a chance to fill a role in the WNBA: "I feel like Cunane has shown she can make the 3, and she's just really steady."

No. 13 seed IUPUI is in the NCAA tournament for the first time thanks in large part to 6-2 center/forward Macee Williams. She is averaging 18.7 points, 10.6 rebounds and is shooting 64.9% from the field, which is fourth in Division I.

The Jaguars' foe, No. 4 seed Oklahoma, has had a terrific season with the country's third highest-scoring offense (83.3 PPG). But as Lee's 61-point game showed, the Sooners don't have a lot of size inside or an established rim protector. So that could be a first-round game to keep an eye on.