The most important questions in girls’s faculty basketball coming into the 2021-22 season

The preseason polls are out. Conferences have named their preseason gamers of the 12 months. However what do we actually know concerning the 2021-22 women’s college basketball season?

Proper now, with the season a couple of week away from tip-off, there are various extra questions than solutions. Can the Stanford Cardinal repeat as nationwide champions? What’s in retailer for the South Carolina Gamecocks, UConn Huskies and Arizona Wildcats, the opposite three Closing 4 groups from final season?

Can anybody sustain with the high-scoring offenses of the Iowa Hawkeyes and Maryland Terrapins? How shortly can LSU Tigers coach Kim Mulkey and Duke Blue Devils coach Kara Lawson return their packages into nationwide powers? And what can we count on from among the nation’s greatest gamers, corresponding to Baylor Bears senior NaLyssa Smith, Iowa sophomore Caitlin Clark and Stanford’s Haley Jones.

Listed here are the ten questions we expect could have the largest affect within the nationwide championship race in 2021-22. We’d not have all of the solutions till March or April, however these are the largest storylines we’ll be watching early on.

How a lot better can defending champion Stanford be — or will there be some drop-off?

Creme: It is inconceivable to duplicate a magical season during which the Cardinal overcame being compelled to hit the highway for over two months on account of COVID-19 protocols, and received a pair of one-point nail-biters within the Closing 4 to seize their first title in 29 years. And even when Stanford can play to that very same stage, South Carolina and UConn may need jumped forward of the Cardinal within the nationwide pecking order. The Gamecocks and Huskies are loaded.

That mentioned, so is Stanford, which brings again 10 of the 11 gamers that noticed impactful minutes within the rotation. If junior Haley Jones, the Closing 4 Most Excellent Participant, and sophomore Cameron Brink take their video games to a different stage, Stanford very effectively could possibly be higher.

However I count on some drop-off, which could merely translate to some extra losses than final season’s 31-2 marketing campaign. The one participant who is not returning — Kiana Williams — led the staff in factors and assists per recreation and was Stanford’s coronary heart and soul. The Cardinal can probably compensate for the manufacturing, however who replaces the intangibles?

Voepel: This season could possibly be very huge in regard to what sort of chief Jones is. She is among the greatest gamers within the recreation, and she or he confirmed that within the NCAA event as a complete and Closing 4 specifically. Nice gamers do not lose any starvation as a result of they’ve received a championship; if something, it tends to make them extra hungry. Repeating is extraordinarily powerful, and I feel the final thought is that Stanford will not do it. However that alone needs to be main motivation for the Cardinal and Jones.

What are the largest challenges for No. 1 South Carolina? Can anybody problem the Gamecocks within the SEC?

Creme: South Carolina is way and away the perfect staff within the SEC. The Gamecocks received the convention event final season, reached the Closing 4, did not lose a single participant, added the nation’s greatest recruiting class and arguably the country’s top transfer in 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso. That is a giant mountain to climb for the remainder of the SEC. The Gamecocks have taken two steps ahead and the remainder of the convention took one step again.

Texas A&M misplaced 4 of its prime seven scorers. Georgia graduated its backcourt. Kentucky, which wasn’t deep to start with, misplaced beginning guard Blair Inexperienced to a preseason knee damage. Chelsea Dungee and Future Slocum are actually within the WNBA, not at Arkansas. Tennessee has to exchange Rennia Davis’ scoring and rebounding. Ole Miss and Missouri needs to be higher, in addition to LSU with Mulkey on the sideline. Nonetheless, enchancment is one factor; with the ability to push South Carolina is one other stage.

Successful the SEC should not be Daybreak Staley’s greatest subject, however holding all of her gamers pleased with their minutes could possibly be. The Gamecocks are so deep {that a} unit made up of simply their reserves would possibly compete for a end within the prime half of the SEC. That sounds hyperbolic, however contemplate that sophomore Eniya Russell is one 12 months faraway from being a McDonald’s All-American and could possibly be the ninth-best guard on South Carolina’s roster.

Freshmen Raven Johnson, Saniya Rivers and Bree Hall — the second-, third- and 14th-rated recruits within the espnW 100 — be part of Russell, senior Destiny Littleton and graduate scholar LeLe Grissett on the lookout for minutes within the backcourt and on the wing behind starters Zia Cooke, Destanni Henderson, and Brea Beal.

Cardoso can both again up or play alongside All-American heart Aliyah Boston, and both state of affairs is frightening for SEC opponents making an attempt to attain inside. Laeticia Amihere, a star of South Carolina’s 2021 Closing 4 run, is not even a starter. Sania Feagin, a 6-3 ahead and the fourth-rated recruit within the nation, may even have a giant function within the frontcourt.

Voepel: If there’s one factor that has helped put together Staley for this a lot expertise, it is teaching the U.S. nationwide staff within the Olympics and FIBA World Cup. It is on a unique stage than the professionals, after all, however the Gamecocks are stocked at each place, and generally pushing the appropriate buttons on the proper time can be Staley’s greatest problem.

However finally, that is Boston’s staff, simply because the Gamecocks of 2017 and ’18 had been A’ja Wilson’s staff. Boston is carrying the miss on the finish of the nationwide semifinals along with her, though that actually should not weigh her down. Final 12 months, issues simply did not go fairly proper for South Carolina in a few of its greatest video games, however it was only a play or two that made the distinction. This group is aware of that now, and even when they run the desk within the SEC, the Gamecocks will go into the NCAA event with the information of simply how a lot each possession counts.

How will all of the expertise additionally coexist at UConn? Which gamers can be within the Huskies’ beginning lineup?

Creme: UConn coach Geno Auriemma has already mentioned he is undecided how he will distribute enjoying time to all his gamers’ satisfaction. Relying on the event of the freshmen — a category rated second solely to South Carolina’s — UConn may go 11 or 12 gamers deep. Nonetheless, solely eight or 9 will issue into the common rotation, and managing any potential discontent is perhaps the largest problem to the Huskies’ teaching employees this season.

I count on the beginning lineup initially of this season to reflect the Huskies’ beginning 5 to finish final season: Paige Bueckers, Christyn Williams, Evina Westbrook, Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa. Bueckers was the consensus greatest participant within the nation final 12 months as a freshman. Williams, Westbrook and Nelson-Ododa are veterans that ought to perceive precisely what Auriemma needs. Edwards was one of many nation’s most improved gamers as her freshman season got here to an in depth. That is additionally the lineup that causes the least potential disruption.

Azzi Fudd, the fourth No. 1 recruit within the final 5 years to decide on UConn, appears too good to come back off the bench, however that is perhaps the place she begins the season. Dorka Juhasz, an Ohio State switch who began all however two video games in her three years with the Buckeyes, may additionally start the season on the bench, however may get begins forward of Edwards. We’ll know extra when UConn performs its first exhibition on Sunday; the Huskies open the season Nov. 14 towards Arkansas.

Determining the beginning lineup and even the distribution of minutes actually is not the query for UConn — it is which participant Auriemma trusts essentially the most in huge moments? Who’s ending shut video games? It should take a while earlier than these solutions evolve, however an early indicator of how Auriemma views his roster may come as early because the week earlier than Thanksgiving. The Huskies may face South Carolina within the finals of the eight-team Battle 4 Atlantis on Nov. 22. If that matchup does not occur, the 2 meet in a nonconference recreation Jan. 27 in Columbia.

Voepel: It is humorous how an excessive amount of expertise could be a problem — one that the majority coaches would say they’d like to have. However staff sports activities are about chemistry, and we have seen nationwide champions who’ve much less particular person expertise than both UConn, South Carolina or Stanford could have this 12 months, however which have gamers who all perceive their roles and settle for them.

Protecting gamers completely satisfied has to depend upon their expectations, not simply the coach’s selections. That takes maturity and big-picture pondering, but in addition a form of selflessness that is not fostered as these gamers make their manner up as “blue chip” recruits earlier than faculty. The teaching employees has to know that, after which have the ability to develop it as soon as they’re in faculty. We noticed Stanford do it final season, and it paid off with a title.

Will coach Kim Mulkey’s affect at LSU be instant, or will it take a season or two?

Voepel: The reply is each. There’s already a giant change with girls’s hoops at LSU due to the thrill that Mulkey brings. She has some skilled gamers to work with, and she or he is aware of the right way to inspire them. For somebody like Khayla Pointer, who was first-team All-SEC final season, this can be a probability to be a giant a part of a brand new period for this system, and she or he appears to be embracing that together with a handful of fifth-year seniors.

The Tigers are greater than a decade previous this system’s peak of 5 consecutive Closing 4 appearances in 2004-2008 behind Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles. LSU went to the NCAA event six instances underneath coach Nikki Fargas from 2012-18, and made the Candy 16 twice (2013, ’14). Nevertheless it felt like that was so far as these groups may get.

The Candy 16 means a fairly nice season, proper? Sure, however it’s powerful when your program has been on the doorstep of a nationwide championship as a lot as LSU was. Mulkey’s aim is to get LSU again to that stage, however it should take time to restock with recruits. For now, returning to the NCAA event (the Tigers’ final look was in 2018) and re-energizing the fan base are main targets.

Within the course of, Mulkey is perhaps re-energizing herself. With three NCAA titles and dominance of the Huge 12 during the last decade, she had accomplished all the pieces that could possibly be accomplished at Baylor. This can be a probability to re-experience a program construct, and on this case, doing so in her house state.

Voepel: The Wolfpack look to be the perfect staff within the ACC, with Diamond Johnson, a switch from Rutgers, including one other sturdy 3-point shooter to an offense that was already potent. Madison Hayes, who spent final season at Mississippi State and was on the SEC’s all-freshman staff, is one other sophomore switch who ought to assistance on the wing.

NC State has a whole lot of expertise within the backcourt, and Elissa Cunane is among the greatest pure facilities within the nation, and able to have a giant senior season.

NC State is coming off a powerful 2020-21 season during which it went 22-3 and received its second ACC event title in a row. The frustration of shedding within the Candy 16 as a No. 1 seed needs to be gas for the Wolfpack.

As for Louisville, it misplaced main scorer Dana Evans, who received a WNBA title in October with the Chicago Sky. She led the Cardinals in scoring (20.1 PPG) and assists (3.9), and was their go-to participant within the clutch. Her absence possible means slightly extra scoring manufacturing can be wanted from senior Kianna Smith and sophomore Hailey Van Lith.

However Louisville additionally expects to get a lift from transfers, together with Emily Engstler, who’s a workhorse ahead who averaged practically a double-double (10.5 PPG, 9.1 RPG) at Syracuse final 12 months.

Georgia Tech, which reached the Candy 16 final season, is the opposite ACC program with the perfect shot on the league title.

What is going to Kara Lawson and 9 transfers do to rework the Duke program in Lawson’s first full season?

Creme: The expectations for the Blue Devils are modest this season, however the anticipation is that Lawson will finally reach Durham in a giant manner. This 12 months needs to be the beginning of that rebirth of Duke basketball. That 9 gamers transferred in speaks volumes to Lawson’s attraction. How she places all these items collectively will decide how briskly this system will get rolling.

Junior guard Celeste Taylor (Texas) and senior ahead Imani Lewis (Wisconsin) are the headliners of the remade roster. They’re every confirmed producers. Taylor was a key motive the Longhorns reached the Elite Eight final March, and Lewis averaged double figures in all three of her seasons with the Badgers.

With Elizabeth Balogun (Louisville), Nyah Green (Louisville) and Lexi Gordon (Texas Tech) to hitch Taylor on wing, Lawson ought to have the ability to develop some perimeter scoring.

The league’s coaches pegged the Blue Devils for an eighth-place end within the ACC. I see this staff as higher than that. That is an fascinating mixture of expertise and Lawson looks as if the appropriate coach to make it work.

How ought to we count on Caitlin Clark’s recreation to have matured since final season? And can her Iowa Hawkeyes or the Maryland Terps have the highest offense within the Huge Ten?

Voepel: With the ball in her palms, Clark was magical as a freshman, each in her scoring (led Division I at 26.6 PPG) and distribution (second within the nation at 7.1 APG). Two issues are most likely subsequent in her evolution: enjoying off the ball slightly higher and enhancing her protection.

The Hawkeyes are at their greatest when Clark is directing issues, so we’re speaking about delicate offensive modifications, not dramatic ones. Clark can be the primary to say {that a} good a part of her success needed to do with having an computerized bucket like Monika Czinano to move to, and she or he could have that once more. Czinano shot 67.8% from the sphere final season, and she or he and Clark appeared to have immediate chemistry.

The Hawkeyes had been second in Division I in scoring final season at 86.1 PPG, and we would count on that to proceed. However Huge Ten rival Maryland ranked first within the nation at 90.8 PPG. The groups met for the Huge Ten event title, and a power vs. power matchup changed into a 104-84 Terps victory.

Iowa misplaced within the NCAA Candy 16 to UConn 92-72, whereas Maryland was upset by Texas 64-61 in the identical spherical. Neither the Hawkeyes or Terps had been in a position to keep their offensive identities at that stage of the NCAA event, largely as a result of they ran up towards groups decided to make them appear one-dimensional (no protection).

Maryland is a former nationwide champion (2006) and made the Closing 4 as not too long ago as 2015. Iowa’s solely Closing 4 look was in 1993, lengthy earlier than any of as we speak’s gamers had been born. They did, nevertheless, make the Elite Eight in 2019, however had been no match for eventual champion Baylor.

The Terps come into nearly each season with the thought that if issues go proper, they may contend for one more NCAA title. The Hawkeyes aren’t there on a constant foundation, and it is unrealistic to count on them to be. However with a expertise like Clark, the thought of a Closing 4 return is life like. However the Hawkeyes know what they must do in another way than final season. With a whole lot of younger expertise, they’ve an actual probability to develop into that form of contender.

With Ohio State eligible once more, is the Huge Ten able to breaking its personal report of placing seven groups within the NCAA event?

Creme: Because of gamers like Clark and Michigan‘s Naz Hillmon, plus the rise of Indiana, the Huge Ten has skilled a rebirth. All three of these groups, plus Maryland, reached the Candy 16. Seven made the NCAA event — and had the Buckeyes not pulled themselves out of a possible bid with some self-imposed penalties, it could have been eight.

The league continues to be loaded on the prime with the Terrapins, Hoosiers, Hawkeyes and Wolverines all in our preseason prime 10. Each could possibly be higher than they had been a 12 months in the past, all with Elite Eight or Closing 4 potential. That is perhaps the higher measure of the convention this season as a result of the fortunes of getting that eighth staff within the NCAA event aren’t pretty much as good.

Count on Michigan State and Northwestern to be there; the Spartans ought to enhance on final season’s No. 10 seed, whereas the Wildcats aren’t anticipated to be pretty much as good as final season’s 7-seed. Ohio State must also slide again into the sphere. These are the seven groups.

Discovering that eighth staff is tough. Rutgers was a No. 6 seed and completed third within the Huge Ten standings, however the Scarlet Knights suffered huge personnel losses. The remainder of the convention has simply as a lot catching as much as do. Nebraska, with the addition of Oregon switch Jaz Shelley and the return of main scorer Sam Haiby, ought to have the perfect probability to get the Huge Ten to its report variety of event groups. However as a result of their nonconference schedule does not present a lot resume-building materials, the Huskers might want to rating a couple of upsets of the groups close to the highest the convention to do it.

What’s extra necessary to Baylor’s season: NaLyssa Smith’s return or Mulkey’s departure?

Creme: The Bears had been a non-factor on the nationwide stage earlier than Mulkey’s arrival, and inside 5 years Baylor was a nationwide champion. Over time, Mulkey’s departure may need the largest affect.

However for this one season, having Smith again is extra necessary than Mulkey leaving. Former Atlanta Dream coach Nicki Collen has expertise and is aware of the right way to work with expertise. There may not be a much bigger expertise within the sport this season than Smith. Collen can construct an offense round Smith, along with her supreme athletic items on show within the paint or in transition. If Smith can enhance her perimeter bounce taking pictures, she would turn into inconceivable to protect.

Even with the additions of proficient guard transfers Jordan Lewis and Ja’Mee Asberry, Smith is the participant who retains Baylor within the nationwide championship image no matter who’s on the sidelines.

Voepel: Smith’s fellow submit, Queen Egbo, felt like she by no means reached her potential underneath Mulkey and appears to increase her recreation in a unique system underneath Collen. If that occurs, it should assist Baylor and her professional future.

That factor that is powerful for Collen and Baylor is that there’s nowhere to go however down within the Huge 12. The Bears have owned the league for so long as any of as we speak’s gamers can bear in mind. That mentioned, Collen brings in a pro-style offense, and she or he can be half of what’s — for higher or worse — a unique Huge 12 as soon as Texas and Oklahoma go away and Cincinnati, Houston, Utah and UCF come into the league. Mulkey largely recruited regionally, and there may be a lot expertise in Texas, she could possibly be very profitable. Collen’s greatest problem, different than simply measuring as much as Baylor’s previous, can be recruiting.

How does Arizona construct off its NCAA runner-up end and evolve with out Aari McDonald?

Creme: The Wildcats run to the championship recreation validated coach Adia Barnes’ plan to resurrect this system. Arizona is extra related nationally than it has ever been, and the Wildcats have an opportunity to remain that manner for a very long time with a coach as passionate as Barnes, an engaged fan base and the publicity the Pac-12 supplies.

Nonetheless, sustaining the profile must look totally different than getting there. McDonald was particular. A lot of the expansion of the Wildcats over the previous three years got here on her shoulders. In Arizona’s final 4 NCAA event video games, McDonald scored 43 p.c of the Wildcats’ factors. Along with her gone, the chemistry, offensive construction and the distribution of the manufacturing must be totally different. Luckily, three prime transfers have arrived in Tucson: Koi Love, who averaged over 20 factors per recreation final season in eight video games for Vanderbilt, Ariyah Copeland, who was fourth within the nation with 61.1 area aim share final season and scored 14.4 PPG at Alabama, and Taylor Chavez, the Pac-12’s Sixth Participant of the 12 months at Oregon.

Barnes can flip to a veteran in Shaina Pellington to take McDonald’s level guard spot, and Cate Reese, the staff’s second-leading scorer, may blossom with extra scoring accountability.

This nonetheless seems like an NCAA event staff with the brand new additions. And the dividends of final season’s success hold coming. Barnes has already signed what many consider to be the perfect recruiting class in program historical past.

Voepel: The factor about Barnes is that she’s remarkably insightful for nonetheless being so younger in her teaching profession. She’s going to say fairly frankly that the Wildcats making the NCAA championship recreation final 12 months put this system forward of schedule. On the similar time, she seemed like a pure as soon as she was there. Barnes is a gamers’ coach who can demand and keep self-discipline, which isn’t the simplest combo to drag off. She’s additionally proving to be an excellent recruiter, and that is the lifeblood of faculty sports activities.

McDonald wasn’t only a particular expertise, however one who performed her best in her final NCAA event. Many individuals will bear in mind the 2021 event for Arizona’s run as a lot as Stanford’s title as a result of it was such an thrilling a part of March Insanity. The Wildcats may not have that one participant proper now who can transcend everybody else, however as Charlie mentioned, which means totally different roles and different gamers rising to the event. Barnes as a motivator is already within the prime tier of coaches, so this can be a unique expertise for her, too.

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