The biggest questions in women’s college basketball entering the 2021
The 2021 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament is just five months away and there are still a lot of unanswered questions. The preseason top 25 has been replaced by the AP Top 25, which was voted on by members of the media. There will be one new coach in charge this year as well with James Wade leaving UNCW to take over at South Carolina.
The “nba gossip reddit” is a website that gives an overview of the biggest questions in women’s college basketball entering the 2021 season. The site also includes video clips and articles about the sport.
3 November 2021
Charlie Creme is a character in the film Charlie Creme
- For ESPN.com, Charlie Creme forecasts the women’s NCAA tournament bracket.
Mechelle Voepel Mechelle Voepel Mechelle Voepel
- Mechelle Voepel is an espnW reporter that covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports. Voepel has been with ESPN since 1996 and has covered women’s basketball since 1984.
The preseason polls have been released. The preseason players of the year have been recognized by each conference. But how much do we truly know about the women’s collegiate basketball season in 2021-22?
With the season just a week away from starting, there are a lot more questions than answers right now. Will the Stanford Cardinal be able to defend their national title? What does the future hold for the other three Final Four teams from last season, the South Carolina Gamecocks, UConn Huskies, and Arizona Wildcats?
Can anybody keep up with the Iowa Hawkeyes and Maryland Terrapins’ high-scoring offenses? How fast can Kim Mulkey of the LSU Tigers and Kara Lawson of the Duke Blue Devils restore their programs to national prominence? What can we expect from some of the top players in the nation, like Baylor Bears senior NaLyssa Smith, Iowa sophomore Caitlin Clark, and Stanford’s Haley Jones?
Here are the ten questions we believe will have the most influence on the 2021-22 national championship campaign. We won’t get all the answers until March or April, but these are the most important themes to keep an eye on right away.
Is it possible for defending champion Stanford to improve even more, or will there be a drop-off?
Creme: It’s tough to top a season in which the Cardinal overcame being compelled to travel for nearly two months due to COVID-19 procedures and won a pair of one-point Final Four nail-biters to win their first championship in 29 years. Even if Stanford is capable of playing at that level, South Carolina and UConn may have pushed ahead of Stanford in the national rankings. Both the Gamecocks and the Huskies have a lot of talent.
Stanford, on the other hand, is returning 10 of the 11 players who saw significant time in the rotation. Stanford might be even better if junior Haley Jones, the Final Four Most Outstanding Player, and sophomore Cameron Brink step up their games.
However, I predict a drop-off, which may just mean a few more defeats than last season’s 31-2 record. Kiana Williams, Stanford’s heart and soul, is the only player who isn’t returning. She led the team in points and assists per game. The Cardinal may be able to compensate for the output, but who will be able to replace the intangibles?
Voepel: This season might be pivotal in determining Jones’ leadership abilities. She is one of the top players in the game, as she demonstrated during the NCAA tournament and especially in the Final Four. Great athletes don’t lose their desire after winning a championship; in fact, it makes them even more eager. Repeating is incredibly difficult, and I believe Stanford will not be able to do it. However, the Cardinal and Jones should be motivated by this alone.
What are the most difficult obstacles facing No. 1 South Carolina? Is there anybody in the SEC who can beat the Gamecocks?
Creme: South Carolina is the best team in the SEC by a long shot. Last season, the Gamecocks won the conference tournament, advanced to the Final Four, didn’t lose a single player, recruited the nation’s greatest recruiting class and, in 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso, probably the best transfer in the country. For the remainder of the SEC, that’s a tough hill to climb. South Carolina has made two leaps ahead while the rest of the SEC has taken one step back.
Four of Texas A&M’s top seven scorers were gone. Georgia’s backcourt has graduated. Kentucky lost starting guard Blair Green to a preseason knee injury, a blow to a team that wasn’t particularly deep to begin with. Chelsea Dungee and Destiny Slocum are no longer at Arkansas and are currently in the WNBA. Rennia Davis’ scoring and rebounding must be replaced by Tennessee. Ole Miss and Missouri, as well as LSU with Mulkey on the bench, should be better. However, progress is one thing; being able to drive South Carolina to new heights is another.
South Carolina sophomore Aliyah Boston has her eyes set on a second national title for the Gamecocks. Sam Craft/AP Photo
Dawn Staley’s toughest challenge shouldn’t be winning the SEC, but keeping all of her players satisfied with their minutes could be. The Gamecocks have so much depth that a team made up entirely of reserves might challenge for a spot in the top half of the SEC. That may seem exaggerated, but consider that sophomore Eniya Russell was a McDonald’s All-American a year ago and may be South Carolina’s ninth-best guard.
Freshmen Raven Johnson, Saniya Rivers, and Bree Hall, the espnW 100’s second, third, and 14th-ranked recruits, will join Russell, senior Destiny Littleton, and graduate student LeLe Grissett in the backcourt and on the wing in search of playing time behind starters Zia Cooke, Destanni Henderson, and Brea Beal.
Cardoso can play as a backup or with All-American center Aliyah Boston, and both scenarios are dangerous for SEC opponents looking to score inside. South Carolina’s 2021 Final Four standout Laeticia Amihere isn’t even a starter. Sania Feagin, a 6-3 forward and the country’s fourth-best recruit, might possibly play a significant role in the frontcourt.
Staley’s experience coaching the US national team in the Olympics and the FIBA World Cup has helped him prepare for this level of quality. Of course, it’s not on the same level as the professionals, but the Gamecocks have depth at every position, and Staley’s toughest difficulty will be finding the right buttons at the right time.
But, in the end, this is Boston’s squad, just as A’ja Wilson’s Gamecocks were in 2017 and 2018. Boston is bearing the weight of her mistake at the conclusion of the national semifinals, despite the fact that it shouldn’t. Things didn’t go South Carolina’s way in some of its biggest games last season, but it was just a play or two that made the difference. This group understands that now, and even if they win the SEC, the Gamecocks will go into the NCAA tournament knowing how important every possession is.
How will all of the talent at UConn get along? Which players will be in the starting lineup for the Huskies?
UConn coach Geno Auriemma has previously said that he is unsure how he would share playing time to ensure that all of his players are satisfied. UConn might go 11 or 12 players deep depending on the growth of the freshmen, who are ranked second only to South Carolina’s. Even yet, just eight or nine will be in the regular rotation, and handling any possible unhappiness might be the coaching staff’s hardest problem this season.
I predict Paige Bueckers, Christyn Williams, Evina Westbrook, Aaliyah Edwards, and Olivia Nelson-Ododa to open the season as the Huskies’ starting five did at the conclusion of last season: Paige Bueckers, Christyn Williams, Evina Westbrook, Aaliyah Edwards, and Olivia Nelson-Ododa. As a freshman, Bueckers was widely regarded as the finest player in the nation. Williams, Westbrook, and Nelson-Ododa are all veterans who should know what Auriemma is looking for. As her rookie season drew to an end, Edwards was one of the most improved players in the nation. This is also the lineup that creates the least amount of havoc.
Last season, Christyn Williams’ 16.3 PPG was second only to Paige Bueckers’ 20.0 PPG at UConn. Eric Gay/AP Photo
Azzi Fudd, the fourth No. 1 recruit in the previous five years to chose UConn, seems too excellent to start the season on the bench, but it’s possible she will. Dorka Juhasz, an Ohio State transfer who started all but two games during her three years with the Buckeyes, might start ahead of Edwards at the start of the season. We’ll learn more when UConn plays its first exhibition game on Sunday; the Huskies face Arkansas on Nov. 14.
The dilemma for UConn isn’t so much about figuring out the starting lineup or even the allocation of minutes as it is about which player Auriemma trusts the most in key occasions. Who is the best at bringing games to a final conclusion? It will take some time for those answers to emerge, but an early indication of how Auriemma perceives his squad might come as early as Thanksgiving week. On Nov. 22, the Huskies might meet South Carolina in the finals of the Battle 4 Atlantis, which features eight teams. If that doesn’t happen, the two will face in a nonconference game in Columbia on Jan. 27.
Voepel: It’s strange how having too much skill may be a challenge — one that most coaches would welcome. However, team sports are also about chemistry, and we’ve seen national winners with less individual skill than either UConn, South Carolina, or Stanford will have this year, but with players who all know and embrace their positions.
It is up to the players’ expectations, not only the coach’s, to keep them satisfied. That requires maturity and big-picture thinking, as well as a level of selflessness that isn’t cultivated when these athletes rise up the ranks as “blue chip” prospects prior to college. The coaching staff must comprehend this and be able to build it after the players have entered college. Stanford did it last season, and it paid off with a championship.
Will head coach Kim Mulkey have an instant effect at LSU, or will it take a season or two?
Voepel: Both, really. Mulkey’s enthusiasm has already made a significant difference in women’s basketball at LSU. She’ll be working with some seasoned players who she knows how to encourage. For someone like Khayla Pointer, who was named first-team All-SEC last season, this is a chance to be a key part of a new era for the school, and she, along with a handful other fifth-year seniors, seems to be relishing the opportunity.
Guard Last season, Khayla Pointer led LSU with 16.9 points per game and will be a crucial component in Kim Mulkey’s rebuilding efforts in Baton Rouge. USA TODAY Sports/Dawson Powers
The Tigers are more than a decade removed from their five-year run of Final Four appearances behind Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles from 2004 to 2008. From 2012 through 2018, Nikki Fargas led LSU to six NCAA tournament appearances, including two Sweet 16 appearances (2013, 2014). But it didn’t seem like those teams could go much farther.
Isn’t the Sweet 16 a sign of a fantastic season? Yes, but it’s difficult when your program has gone so close to winning a national title as LSU has. Mulkey’s objective is to return LSU to that level, but restocking with prospects will take time. For the time being, the Tigers’ main objectives are to return to the NCAA tournament (their last participation was in 2018) and re-energize the fan base.
Mulkey could be re-energizing herself in the process. With three NCAA crowns and a decade of dominance in the Big 12, she had accomplished everything possible at Baylor. This is an opportunity for her to re-experience a program construction, this time in her home state.
Voepel: With Diamond Johnson, a transfer from Rutgers, adding another excellent 3-point shooter to an already explosive attack, the Wolfpack seem to be the best team in the ACC. Another sophomore transfer who could assist on the wing is Madison Hayes, who spent last season at Mississippi State and was named to the SEC’s all-freshman team.
NC State’s backcourt is experienced, and Elissa Cunane is one of the greatest pure centers in the nation, poised for a huge senior season.
NC State is coming off a great 2020-21 season in which the Wolfpack went 22-3 and won their second consecutive ACC tournament championship. The Wolfpack should use the disappointment of losing in the Sweet 16 as motivation.
Elissa Cunane of NC State has been named the ACC preseason player of the year for 2021-22. via AP/Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer
Louisville lost top scorer Dana Evans, who won a WNBA championship with the Chicago Sky in October. She was the Cardinals’ go-to player in the clutch, averaging 20.1 points per game and dishing out 3.9 assists per game. Due to her absence, senior Kianna Smith and sophomore Hailey Van Lith will most certainly be called upon to provide a bit more scoring.
However, transfers like as Emily Engstler, a workhorse forward who averaged almost a double-double (10.5 PPG, 9.1 RPG) at Syracuse last year, are expected to help Louisville.
The other ACC team with the greatest chance of winning the conference is Georgia Tech, which advanced to the Sweet 16 last season.
What will Kara Lawson and nine transfers accomplish in Lawson’s first full season at Duke to overhaul the program?
Creme: The Blue Devils’ expectations are low this season, but Lawson is expected to be a great success in Durham. This year should be the start of Duke basketball’s revival. Lawson’s attractiveness is shown by the fact that nine players have transferred in. The speed with which she puts all of those elements together will decide how quickly the program gets started.
The revamped roster is led by junior guard Celeste Taylor (Texas) and senior forward Imani Lewis (Wisconsin). Each of them has a track record of success as a producer. Lewis averaged double digits in all three of her seasons with the Badgers, while Taylor was a significant reason the Longhorns reached the Elite Eight last March.
Lawson should be able to establish some perimeter scoring with Elizabeth Balogun (Louisville), Nyah Green (Louisville), and Lexi Gordon (Texas Tech) joining Taylor on the wing.
The Blue Devils are expected to finish ninth in the ACC, according to the league’s coaches. This squad, in my opinion, is superior than that. This is an intriguing combination of skill, and Lawson seems to be the proper coach to bring it all together.
What can we anticipate Caitlin Clark’s game to look like this season compared to last? And, in the Big Ten, would her Iowa Hawkeyes or Maryland Terps have the best offense?
Paige Bueckers of UConn and Caitlin Clark of Iowa were two of the greatest women’s collegiate basketball players in 2020-21. Eric Gay/AP Photo
Clark was a wizard with the ball in her hands as a freshman, both in terms of scoring (leading Division I with 26.6 PPG) and distribution (second in the nation at 7.1 APG). Playing off the ball a bit better and strengthening her defense are definitely the next steps in her development.
Clark’s Hawkeyes are at their finest when he’s in charge, so we’re talking about subtle offensive shifts rather than big ones. Clark is the first to admit that having an automatic bucket like Monika Czinano to pass to was a big part of her success, and she’ll have one again. Last season, Czinano shot 67.8% from the field, and she and Clark seemed to have immediate connection.
Last season, the Hawkeyes were second in Division I in scoring with 86.1 points per game, and we anticipate it to continue this season. Big Ten foe Maryland, on the other hand, was top in the nation with 90.8 points per game. The teams played for the Big Ten tournament championship, and the Terps won 104-84 in a strength-vs-strength duel.
Iowa was defeated 92-72 by UConn in the NCAA Sweet 16, while Maryland was defeated 64-61 by Texas in the same round. At that level of the NCAA tournament, neither the Hawkeyes nor the Terps were able to sustain their offensive identities, mostly because they were up against teams intended to make them seem one-dimensional (no defense).
Maryland won the national championship in 2006 and advanced to the Final Four in 2015. Iowa’s last participation in the Final Four came in 1993, long before any of the current players were born. In 2019, they did make it to the Elite Eight, but they were no match for eventual winner Baylor.
The Terps enter almost every season with the expectation of contending for another NCAA championship if everything goes well. The Hawkeyes aren’t always present, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to be. However, with a player like Clark, a return to the Final Four is a possibility. The Hawkeyes, on the other hand, know what they need to accomplish differently this season than last. They have a great possibility to develop into that sort of competitor because they have a lot of youthful talent.
Is the Big Ten capable of shattering its own record of sending seven teams to the NCAA tournament now that Ohio State is eligible again?
Creme: The Big Ten has resurrected thanks to talents like Clark and Michigan’s Naz Hillmon, as well as Indiana’s resurgence. All three teams, as well as Maryland, advanced to the Sweet 16. Seven teams qualified for the NCAA tournament, and it would have been eight if the Ohio State Buckeyes hadn’t withdrawn themselves out of contention with some self-imposed sanctions.
The top of the league remains stacked, with the Terrapins, Hoosiers, Hawkeyes, and Wolverines all ranking in our preseason top ten. Each of them has the potential to be better than they were a year ago, with all of them having Elite Eight or Final Four aspirations. Because the chances of getting an eighth team into the NCAA tournament aren’t as favorable this season, it could be a better assessment of the league.
Expect Michigan State and Northwestern to be there; the Spartans should improve on their No. 10 seed from previous season, while the Wildcats aren’t projected to be as good as their No. 7 seed from last year. Ohio State should also return to the game. The seven teams are listed above.
It’s tough to find an eighth team. Rutgers had a No. 6 seed and placed third in the Big Ten standings, but the Scarlet Knights lost a lot of players. The rest of the conference will have to catch up as well. With the addition of Oregon transfer Jaz Shelley and the return of top scorer Sam Haiby, Nebraska should have the greatest chance of bringing the Big Ten’s record number of tournament teams to a close. However, given their nonconference schedule doesn’t afford much in the way of resume-building opportunities, the Huskers will have to score a few upsets of teams at the top of the conference to do this.
Which is more crucial for Baylor’s season: the return of NaLyssa Smith or the departure of Mulkey?
Before Mulkey arrived, the Bears were a non-factor on the national scene, but within five years, they had won the national championship. Mulkey’s departure may have the most long-term effect.
But, for this season, Smith’s return is more crucial than Mulkey’s departure. Nicki Collen, a former Atlanta Dream coach, has expertise and understands how to deal with talent. This season, there may not be a more talented player in the sport than Smith. With her great athletic talents on show in the paint or in transition, Collen can create an attack around Smith. Smith would be hard to defend if she could improve her perimeter jump shooting.
NaLyssa Smith of Baylor averaged 18.0 points and 8.9 rebounds per game last season, including 13 double-doubles. She’s one of the game’s most enthralling players, scoring alley-oops on a regular basis. Getty Images/NCAA Photos/C. Morgan Engel
Despite the acquisitions of outstanding guard transfers Jordan Lewis and Ja’Mee Asberry, Smith is the player that puts Baylor in contention for the national title no matter who is on the bench.
Queen Egbo, Smith’s fellow post, thought she never achieved her full potential under Mulkey and hopes to enhance her game under a new system under Collen. If that occurs, it will benefit Baylor and her professional prospects.
The problem for Collen and Baylor is that they have nowhere else to go except down in the Big 12. For as long as any of today’s players can remember, the Bears have dominated the league. Collen, on the other hand, adds a pro-style offense to the Big 12, which will be a different Big 12 after Texas and Oklahoma depart and Cincinnati, Houston, Utah, and UCF join the conference. Mulkey mostly recruited locally, and with so much talent in Texas, she has a good chance of succeeding. Collen’s greatest obstacle, apart from matching Baylor’s history, will be recruiting.
Without Aari McDonald, how can Arizona build on their NCAA runner-up performance and evolve?
Creme: Coach Adia Barnes’ attempt to rebuild the program was confirmed by the Wildcats’ journey to the title game. Arizona is more nationally relevant than it has ever been, and with a coach like Barnes, an active fan base, and the exposure the Pac-12 affords, the Wildcats have a chance to remain that way for a long time.
Maintaining the profile, on the other hand, will need a different approach than getting there. McDonald was unique. Her shoulders bore a large part of the Wildcats’ expansion during the last three years. McDonald scored 43 percent of Arizona’s points in the Wildcats’ past four NCAA tournament games. With her gone, the production’s chemistry, offensive structure, and distribution will have to change. Fortunately, three top transfers have arrived in Tucson: Koi Love of Vanderbilt, who averaged over 20 points per game in eight games last season, Ariyah Copeland of Alabama, who was fourth in the country with a 61.1 field goal percentage last season and scored 14.4 points per game, and Taylor Chavez of Oregon, the Pac-12’s Sixth Player of the Year.
Barnes may look to Shaina Pellington, a veteran, to fill McDonald’s role at point guard, while Cate Reese, the team’s second-leading scorer, might flourish with additional scoring responsibilities.
With the latest acquisitions, this squad still looks like an NCAA tournament team. And the benefits of last season’s triumph continue to accrue. Barnes has already signed the finest recruiting class in school history, according to many.
Voepel: The thing about Barnes is that she’s really perceptive for someone who is still so early in her coaching career. She’ll tell you straight out that the Wildcats’ appearance in the NCAA championship game last year placed them ahead of schedule. At the same time, once she got there, she seemed to be a natural. Barnes is a player’s coach who can both demand and maintain discipline, which is a difficult combination to do. She’s also proven to be an excellent recruiter, which is crucial in college athletics.
McDonald was not just a great talent, but she also gave it her all in her last NCAA tournament appearance. Because it was such an exciting aspect of March Madness, many people will remember the 2021 tournament for Arizona’s run as much as Stanford’s triumph. The Wildcats may not have that one guy who can transcend everyone else right now, but as Charlie pointed out, it means changing roles and other players stepping up to the plate. Barnes, as a motivator, is already among the best in the business, so this will be a new experience for her as well.
The “ncaa basketball standings 2021” is a question that many women’s college basketball fans are asking. The answer to this question will be revealed in the upcoming season.
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