Right now, with the season about a week away from tip-off, there are many more questions than answers. Can the Stanford Cardinal repeat as national champions? What’s in store for the South Carolina Gamecocks, UConn Huskies and Arizona Wildcats, the other three Final Four teams from last season?
Can anyone keep up with the high-scoring offenses of the Iowa Hawkeyes and Maryland Terrapins? How quickly can LSU Tigers coach Kim Mulkey and Duke Blue Devils coach Kara Lawson return their programs into national powers? And what can we expect from some of the country’s best players, such as Baylor Bears senior NaLyssa Smith, Iowa sophomore Caitlin Clark and Stanford’s Haley Jones.
Here are the 10 questions we think will have the biggest impact in the national championship race in 2021-22. We might not have all the answers until March or April, but these are the biggest storylines we’ll be watching early on.
How much better can defending champion Stanford be — or will there be some drop-off?
Creme: It’s impossible to replicate a magical season in which the Cardinal overcame being forced to hit the road for over two months due to COVID-19 protocols, and won a pair of one-point nail-biters in the Final Four to capture their first title in 29 years. And even if Stanford can play to that same level, South Carolina and UConn might have jumped ahead of the Cardinal in the national pecking order. The Gamecocks and Huskies are loaded.
That said, so is Stanford, which brings back 10 of the 11 players that saw impactful minutes in the rotation. If junior Haley Jones, the Final Four Most Outstanding Player, and sophomore Cameron Brink take their games to another level, Stanford very well could be better.
But I expect some drop-off, which might merely translate to a couple more losses than last season’s 31-2 campaign. The one player who isn’t returning — Kiana Williams — led the team in points and assists per game and was Stanford’s heart and soul. The Cardinal can possibly compensate for the production, but who replaces the intangibles?
Voepel: This season could be very big in regard to what kind of leader Jones is. She is one of the best players in the game, and she showed that in the NCAA tournament as a whole and Final Four in particular. Great players don’t lose any hunger because they’ve won a championship; if anything, it tends to make them more hungry. Repeating is extremely tough, and I think the general thought is that Stanford won’t do it. But that alone should be major motivation for the Cardinal and Jones.
What are the biggest challenges for No. 1 South Carolina? Can anyone challenge the Gamecocks in the SEC?
Creme: South Carolina is far and away the best team in the SEC. The Gamecocks won the conference tournament last season, reached the Final Four, didn’t lose a single player, added the nation’s best recruiting class and arguably the country’s top transfer in 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso. That’s a big mountain to climb for the rest of the SEC. The Gamecocks have taken two steps forward and the rest of the conference took one step back.
Texas A&M lost four of its top seven scorers. Georgia graduated its backcourt. Kentucky, which wasn’t deep to begin with, lost starting guard Blair Green to a preseason knee injury. Chelsea Dungee and Destiny Slocum are now in the WNBA, not at Arkansas. Tennessee has to replace Rennia Davis’ scoring and rebounding. Ole Miss and Missouri should be better, as well as LSU with Mulkey on the sideline. However, improvement is one thing; being able to push South Carolina is another level.
Winning the SEC shouldn’t be Dawn Staley’s biggest issue, but keeping all of her players happy with their minutes could be. The Gamecocks are so deep that a unit made up of just their reserves might compete for a finish in the top half of the SEC. That sounds hyperbolic, but consider that sophomore Eniya Russell is one year removed from being a McDonald’s All-American and could 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 in the espnW 100 — join Russell, senior Destiny Littleton and graduate student LeLe Grissett looking for minutes in the backcourt and on the wing behind starters Zia Cooke, Destanni Henderson, and Brea Beal.
Cardoso can either back up or play alongside All-American center Aliyah Boston, and either scenario is scary for SEC opponents trying to score inside. Laeticia Amihere, a star of South Carolina’s 2021 Final Four run, isn’t even a starter. Sania Feagin, a 6-3 forward and the fourth-rated recruit in the country, could also have a big role in the frontcourt.
Voepel: If there’s one thing that has helped prepare Staley for this much talent, it’s coaching the U.S. national team in the Olympics and FIBA World Cup. It’s on a different level than the pros, of course, but the Gamecocks are stocked at every position, and sometimes pushing the right buttons at the right time will be Staley’s biggest challenge.
But ultimately, this is Boston’s team, just as the Gamecocks of 2017 and ’18 were A’ja Wilson’s team. Boston is carrying the miss at the end of the national semifinals with her, even though that really shouldn’t weigh her down. Last year, things just didn’t go quite right for South Carolina in some of its biggest games, but it was just a play or two that made the difference. This group knows that now, and even if they run the table in the SEC, the Gamecocks will go into the NCAA tournament with the knowledge of just how much every possession counts.
How will all the talent also coexist at UConn? Which players will be in the Huskies’ starting lineup?
Creme: UConn coach Geno Auriemma has already said he’s not sure how he’s going to distribute playing time to all his players’ satisfaction. Depending on the development of the freshmen — a class rated second only to South Carolina’s — UConn could go 11 or 12 players deep. Still, only eight or nine will factor into the regular rotation, and managing any potential discontent might be the biggest challenge to the Huskies’ coaching staff this season.
I expect the starting lineup at the beginning of this season to mirror the Huskies’ starting five to end last season: Paige Bueckers, Christyn Williams, Evina Westbrook, Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa. Bueckers was the consensus best player in the country last year as a freshman. Williams, Westbrook and Nelson-Ododa are veterans that should understand exactly what Auriemma wants. Edwards was one of the country’s most improved players as her freshman season came to a close. This is also the lineup that causes the least possible disruption.
Azzi Fudd, the fourth No. 1 recruit in the last five years to choose UConn, seems too good to come off the bench, but that might be where she starts the season. Dorka Juhasz, an Ohio State transfer who started all but two games in her three years with the Buckeyes, might also begin the season on the bench, but could get starts ahead of Edwards. We’ll know more when UConn plays its first exhibition on Sunday; the Huskies open the season Nov. 14 against Arkansas.
Figuring out the starting lineup and even the distribution of minutes really isn’t the question for UConn — it’s which player Auriemma trusts the most in big moments? Who is finishing close games? It’s going to take some time before those answers evolve, but an early indicator of how Auriemma views his roster could come as early as the week before Thanksgiving. The Huskies could face South Carolina in the finals of the eight-team Battle 4 Atlantis on Nov. 22. If that matchup doesn’t happen, the two meet in a nonconference game Jan. 27 in Columbia.
Voepel: It’s funny how too much talent can be a challenge — one that most coaches would say they would love to have. But team sports are about chemistry, and we’ve seen national champions who have less individual talent than either UConn, South Carolina or Stanford will have this year, but that have players who all understand their roles and accept them.
Keeping players happy has to depend on their expectations, not just the coach’s decisions. That takes maturity and big-picture thinking, but also a kind of selflessness that isn’t fostered as these players make their way up as “blue chip” recruits before college. The coaching staff has to understand that, and then be able to develop it once they are in college. We saw Stanford do it last season, and it paid off with a title.
Will coach Kim Mulkey’s impact at LSU be immediate, or will it take a season or two?
Voepel: The answer is both. There is already a big change with women’s hoops at LSU because of the excitement that Mulkey brings. She has some experienced players to work with, and she knows how to motivate them. For someone like Khayla Pointer, who was first-team All-SEC last season, this is a chance to be a big part of a new era for the program, and she seems to be embracing that along with a handful of fifth-year seniors.
The Tigers are more than a decade past the program’s peak of five consecutive Final Four appearances in 2004-2008 behind Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles. LSU went to the NCAA tournament six times under coach Nikki Fargas from 2012-18, and made the Sweet 16 twice (2013, ’14). But it felt like that was as far as those teams could get.
The Sweet 16 means a pretty great season, right? Yes, but it’s tough when your program has been on the doorstep of a national championship as much as LSU was. Mulkey’s goal is to get LSU back to that level, but it will take time to restock with recruits. For now, returning to the NCAA tournament (the Tigers’ last appearance was in 2018) and re-energizing the fan base are major goals.
In the process, Mulkey might be re-energizing herself. With three NCAA titles and dominance of the Big 12 over the last decade, she had done everything that could be done at Baylor. This is a chance to re-experience a program build, and in this case, doing so in her home state.
Voepel: The Wolfpack look to be the best team in the ACC, with Diamond Johnson, a transfer from Rutgers, adding another strong 3-point shooter to an offense that was already potent. Madison Hayes, who spent last season at Mississippi State and was on the SEC’s all-freshman team, is another sophomore transfer who should help on the wing.
NC State has a lot of experience in the backcourt, and Elissa Cunane is one of the best pure centers in the country, and ready to have a big senior season.
NC State is coming off a strong 2020-21 season in which it went 22-3 and won its second ACC tournament title in a row. The disappointment of losing in the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed should be fuel for the Wolfpack.
As for Louisville, it lost leading scorer Dana Evans, who won 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 player in the clutch. Her absence likely means a little more scoring production will be needed from senior Kianna Smith and sophomore Hailey Van Lith.
But Louisville also expects to get a boost from transfers, including Emily Engstler, who is a workhorse forward who averaged nearly a double-double (10.5 PPG, 9.1 RPG) at Syracuse last year.
Georgia Tech, which reached the Sweet 16 last season, is the other ACC program with the best shot at the league title.
What will Kara Lawson and nine transfers do to transform the Duke program in Lawson’s first full season?
Creme: The expectations for the Blue Devils are modest this season, but the anticipation is that Lawson will ultimately succeed in Durham in a big way. This year should be the start of that rebirth of Duke basketball. That nine players transferred in speaks volumes to Lawson’s appeal. How she puts all those pieces together will determine how fast the program gets rolling.
Junior guard Celeste Taylor (Texas) and senior forward Imani Lewis (Wisconsin) are the headliners of the remade roster. They are each proven producers. Taylor was a key reason the Longhorns reached the Elite Eight last March, and Lewis averaged double figures in all three of her seasons with the Badgers.
The league’s coaches pegged the Blue Devils for an eighth-place finish in the ACC. I see this team as better than that. This is an interesting mix of talent and Lawson seems like the right coach to make it work.
How should we expect Caitlin Clark’s game to have matured since last season? And will her Iowa Hawkeyes or the Maryland Terps have the top offense in the Big Ten?
Voepel: With the ball in her hands, Clark was magical as a freshman, both in her scoring (led Division I at 26.6 PPG) and distribution (second in the nation at 7.1 APG). Two things are probably next in her evolution: playing off the ball a little better and improving her defense.
The Hawkeyes are at their best when Clark is directing things, so we’re talking about subtle offensive changes, not dramatic ones. Clark would be the first to say that a good part of her success had to do with having an automatic bucket like Monika Czinano to pass to, and she will have that again. Czinano shot 67.8% from the field last season, and she and Clark seemed to have instant chemistry.
The Hawkeyes were second in Division I in scoring last season at 86.1 PPG, and we’d expect that to continue. But Big Ten rival Maryland ranked first in the country at 90.8 PPG. The teams met for the Big Ten tournament title, and a strength vs. strength matchup turned into a 104-84 Terps victory.
Iowa lost in the NCAA Sweet 16 to UConn 92-72, while Maryland was upset by Texas 64-61 in the same round. Neither the Hawkeyes or Terps were able to maintain their offensive identities at that level of the NCAA tournament, mostly because they ran up against teams determined to make them seem one-dimensional (no defense).
Maryland is a former national champion (2006) and made the Final Four as recently as 2015. Iowa’s only Final Four appearance was in 1993, long before any of today’s players were born. They did, however, make the Elite Eight in 2019, but were no match for eventual champion Baylor.
The Terps come into virtually every season with the thought that if things go right, they could contend for another NCAA title. The Hawkeyes aren’t there on a consistent basis, and it’s unrealistic to expect them to be. But with a talent like Clark, the idea of a Final Four return is realistic. But the Hawkeyes know what they have to do differently than last season. With a lot of young talent, they have a real chance to grow into that kind of contender.
With Ohio State eligible again, is the Big Ten capable of breaking its own record of putting seven teams in the NCAA tournament?
Creme: Thanks to players like Clark and Michigan‘s Naz Hillmon, plus the rise of Indiana, the Big Ten has experienced a rebirth. All three of those teams, plus Maryland, reached the Sweet 16. Seven made the NCAA tournament — and had the Buckeyes not pulled themselves out of a potential bid with some self-imposed penalties, it would have been eight.
The league is still loaded at the top with the Terrapins, Hoosiers, Hawkeyes and Wolverines all in our preseason top 10. Each one could be better than they were a year ago, all with Elite Eight or Final Four potential. That might be the better measure of the conference this season because the fortunes of getting that eighth team in the NCAA tournament aren’t as good.
Expect Michigan State and Northwestern to be there; the Spartans should improve on last season’s No. 10 seed, while the Wildcats aren’t expected to be as good as last season’s 7-seed. Ohio State should also slide back into the field. Those are the seven teams.
Finding that eighth team is difficult. Rutgers was a No. 6 seed and finished third in the Big Ten standings, but the Scarlet Knights suffered massive personnel losses. The rest of the conference has just as much catching up to do. Nebraska, with the addition of Oregon transfer Jaz Shelley and the return of leading scorer Sam Haiby, should have the best chance to get the Big Ten to its record number of tournament teams. But because their nonconference schedule doesn’t provide much resume-building material, the Huskers will need to score a few upsets of the teams near the top the conference to do it.
What is more important to Baylor’s season: NaLyssa Smith’s return or Mulkey’s departure?
Creme: The Bears were a non-factor on the national stage before Mulkey’s arrival, and within five years Baylor was a national champion. Over time, Mulkey’s departure might have the biggest impact.
But for this one season, having Smith back is more important than Mulkey leaving. Former Atlanta Dream coach Nicki Collen has experience and knows how to work with talent. There might not be a bigger talent in the sport this season than Smith. Collen can build an offense around Smith, with her supreme athletic gifts on display in the paint or in transition. If Smith can improve her perimeter jump shooting, she would become impossible to guard.
Voepel: Smith’s fellow post, Queen Egbo, felt like she never reached her potential under Mulkey and looks to expand her game in a different system under Collen. If that happens, it will help Baylor and her pro future.
That thing that’s tough for Collen and Baylor is that there is nowhere to go but down in the Big 12. The Bears have owned the league for as long as any of today’s players can remember. That said, Collen brings in a pro-style offense, and she will be part of what is — for better or worse — a different Big 12 once Texas and Oklahoma leave and Cincinnati, Houston, Utah and UCF come into the league. Mulkey mostly recruited regionally, and there is so much talent in Texas, she could be very successful. Collen’s biggest challenge, other than just measuring up to Baylor’s past, will be recruiting.
How does Arizona build off its NCAA runner-up finish and evolve without Aari McDonald?
Creme: The Wildcats run to the championship game validated coach Adia Barnes’ plan to resurrect the program. Arizona is more relevant nationally than it has ever been, and the Wildcats have a chance to stay that way for a long time with a coach as passionate as Barnes, an engaged fan base and the exposure the Pac-12 provides.
However, maintaining the profile will have to look different than getting there. McDonald was special. Much of the growth of the Wildcats over the past three years came on her shoulders. In Arizona’s last four NCAA tournament games, McDonald scored 43 percent of the Wildcats’ points. With her gone, the chemistry, offensive structure and the distribution of the production will have to be different. Fortunately, three top transfers have arrived in Tucson: Koi Love, who averaged over 20 points per game last season in eight games for Vanderbilt, Ariyah Copeland, who was fourth in the country with 61.1 field goal percentage last season and scored 14.4 PPG at Alabama, and Taylor Chavez, the Pac-12’s Sixth Player of the Year at Oregon.
This still looks like an NCAA tournament team with the new additions. And the dividends of last season’s success keep coming. Barnes has already signed what many believe to be the best recruiting class in program history.
Voepel: The thing about Barnes is that she’s remarkably insightful for still being so young in her coaching career. She will say quite frankly that the Wildcats making the NCAA championship game last year put the program ahead of schedule. At the same time, she looked like a natural once she was there. Barnes is a players’ coach who can demand and maintain discipline, which is not the easiest combo to pull off. She’s also proving to be a very good recruiter, and that’s the lifeblood of college sports.
McDonald wasn’t just a special talent, but one who played her very best in her last NCAA tournament. Many people will remember the 2021 tournament for Arizona’s run as much as Stanford’s title because it was such an exciting part of March Madness. The Wildcats might not have that one player right now who can transcend everyone else, but as Charlie said, that means different roles and other players rising to the occasion. Barnes as a motivator is already in the top tier of coaches, so this will be a different experience for her, too.