NCAA Women’s Basketball: Top storylines for the 2021-22 season

Kirby Lee USA TODAY Sports

The 2020-21 NCAA women’s basketball season was one that will certainly never be forgotten. After gaining attention for gender disparities – sparked by player outrage on social media – the women’s tournament became one of the most-watched of all time, with Stanford claiming the division I NCAA championship title.

While the 2021-22 women’s college basketball season – which tipped off on Tuesday – makes somewhat of a return to normalcy, there are still plenty of intriguing storylines to follow.

Will Stanford repeat as NCAA women’s basketball champion?

After being forced to hit the road for 10 weeks due to Santa Clara County’s COVID-19 protocols, the Stanford Cardinal overcame all sorts of adversity to go 31-2 and claim its third national title in 2021 – and first since 1992.

Tara VanDerveer’s squad is the favorite to win the Pac-12 again this season, but the question remains as to whether they can replicate last season’s magic.

While going 31-2 again is a tall task, the Cardinal has the tools to do so, returning 10 of last year’s 11 rotation players.

Junior Haley Jones is at the helm after being named Most Outstanding Player of the 2021 Final Four.

Alongside Jones, Stanford is returning sophomore forward Cameron Brink, who made an immediate impact in her freshman season going undefeated in her 20 starts, as well as senior guard Lexie Hull.

However, Kiana Williams’ departure leaves big shoes to fill, as she led the team in points and assists last season. Reigning Pac-12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year Anna Wilson and Northwestern graduate transfer Jordan Hamilton will combine to fill her role at guard.

Facing one of the toughest slates in the country with 12 AP top-25 matchups on their schedule, including six in non-conference play, Stanford has a tough battle ahead. But coming off one of the best seasons in program history, it certainly has the momentum and star power to be one of the top competitors in the nation again.

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Can any team challenge No. 1 South Carolina?

Ranked No. 1 in the AP preseason poll, South Carolina is expected to make a run at its second national title and first since 2017.

With one of the deepest rosters in all of college basketball, the Gamecocks should have no trouble capturing their seventh overall and third consecutive SEC title. While Kentucky and Tennessee are talented teams, they are nowhere near as deep as Dawn Staley’s squad.

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After making the Final Four last year, South Carolina didn’t lose a single player and added the best recruiting class in the country and the nation’s top transfer in Kamilla Cardoso.

The program also returns Aliyah Boston, who has been its centerpiece since she arrived two years ago. Boston averaged 13.7 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game last season and is expected to keep improving this year.

Under Staley – who signed a seven-year, $22.4 million contract this offseason, making her the highest-paid Black coach in women’s basketball – South Carolina certainly has the talent to win a national title. It had its first real test on Tuesday afternoon against No. 5 NC State, winning 66-57.

Louisville and NC State are poised for another tight ACC women’s basketball battle

If last year’s battle for the ACC title wasn’t close enough, this year’s competition between NC State and Louisville could be even tighter.

After going 22-3 last year, winning its second consecutive conference tournament title and earning its first-ever No. 1 seed, NC State fell short in the NCAA tournament, getting upset by Indiana in the Sweet 16.

For the 2021-22 season, NC State returns its top eight scorers from last year – nearly 94% of its total scoring production. While the Wolfpack will lean on ACC Preseason Player of the Year Elissa Cunane again this year, it will also turn to Rutgers transfer Diamond Johnson and Mississippi State transfer Madison Hayes, who only add to the team’s talent.

Louisville, on the other hand, has huge shoes to fill, as now-WNBA champion Dana Evans graduated last spring. The All-American led the Cardinals with 20.1 points and 3.9 assists per game and was their most reliable player in late-game situations. Senior Kianna Smith and sophomore Hailey Van Lith are expected to carry the bulk of the load. With the additions of Syracuse transfer Emily Engstler and Vanderbilt graduate transfer Chelsie Hall, the Cardinals could replicate last season’s success despite the loss of Evans.

Can Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark replicate last year’s success in their sophomore seasons?

Having a freshman as your best player certainly bodes well for the future, but for programs like UConn and Iowa whose freshmen were nearly flawless, it begs the question of how they can sustain that success and further improve as sophomores.

UConn guard Paige Bueckers is coming off one of the most impressive campaigns by a freshman of all time. She led the Huskies to its 13th consecutive Final Four by averaging 20 points and six assists per game. She also became the first freshman to win the Naismith Trophy, Wooden Award and AP Player of the Year. Bueckers will be joined on the court this season by Ohio State transfer Dorka Juhasz and No. 1 overall recruit Azzi Fudd.

As a freshman, Iowa’s Caitlin Clark quickly established herself as the single most valuable offensive player in the nation last season. Lisa Bluder’s up-tempo offense has proven perfect for her skill set, as she scored 20 points in all but three games last season. With the Hawkeyes returning their top seven scorers, Clark and her team are poised to dominate again offensively.

How quickly can Kim Mulkey and Kara Lawson return their programs to national powerhouses?

One of the biggest storylines in women’s basketball this offseason was Kim Mulkey announcement she would be leaving Baylor to become the head coach at LSU. In her two decades with the Bears, the program won three national titles and made the NCAA tournament every year but one.

In taking the reins at LSU, Mulkey will look to make the program competitive again. After appearing in the Final Four for five consecutive years between 2004-2008, LSU hasn’t made the tournament since 2017.

In the ACC, all eyes will be on Kara Lawson, who will coach her first full season at Duke this year. From 1998-2013, Duke made 11 Elite Eights, four Final Fours, and two national championships. It hasn’t reached the Elite Eight since.

After just four games last year, Lawson’s squad opted out due to COVID-19, but her impact on the program has already been seen. Since she took over, nine players have transferred to Duke, including six this offseason, begging the question of whether the Blue Devils will finally have their long-awaited rebirth.

Lawson also had a busy offseason of her own, coaching the U.S. women to gold in the Olympic debut of 3×3 basketball.

Can any Big 10 basketball team dethrone Maryland?

Almost every year the Maryland Terrapins are favored to win their conference, and this season is no different. The Terrapins have the Big Ten title six of their seven years in the conference.

But with five Big Ten teams in the AP preseason Top 25, Brenda Frese’s No. 4-ranked team may face more challenges in conference play this season.

  • No. 8 Indiana is poised for another strong year returning all five starters including All-Americans Mackenzie Holmes and Grace Berger. Alongside seventh-year guard Ali Patberg and senior forward Aleksa Gulbe, who both earned All-Big Ten honors last season, the veteran Hoosiers will be one of Maryland’s toughest tests in the regular season.
  • Also a threat? No. 9 Iowa, led by the sophomore Caitlin Clark. (See above.)
  • Lastly, the Michigan Wolverines are coming off their deepest postseason campaign ever and return three starters, including reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Naz Hillmon. Hillmon averaged a double-double and became the first Michigan player of any gender to score 50 points in a single game. With 11 returning players, Kim Barnes Arico’s squad is set to make another run at the conference title.

While the Big Ten is stacked, expectations are as high as ever for a Maryland team that returns all but one player from last year’s roster. The Terps don’t have an easy road to the conference title, but behind stars like All-American Ashley Owusu and All-Big Ten First Team selection Diamond Miller, it’s no shock that they’re the favorites once again.

What impact will top recruit Azzi Fudd have on UConn?

While UConn attracts the top recruits year after year, including the No. 1 recruit four out of the last five years, the chatter around freshman Azzi Fudd has reached a new level. The Virginia native went down as one of the best high school players of all time during her four years at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C. and opted to join Geno Auriemma’s squad.

Fudd was just 12 years old when she received her first college scholarship offer and concluded her decorated high school career – which was interrupted by an ACL tear as a junior – as the 2021 Morgan Wootten High School Basketball Player of the Year.

While expectations are rightfully high for Fudd as she enters college, it’s uncertain how she will fit into a talented UConn squad. Not only did UConn lose no seniors, but it is also adding four new freshmen and Ohio State transfer Juhasz. For Auriemma, his greatest problem appears to be having too much talent.

Even with the lineup of Christyn Williams, Evina Westbrook, Aaliyah Edwards, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Paige Bueckers, Fudd – the unanimous Preseason Big East Freshman of the Year – seems too skilled to come off the bench.

Despite making 13 straight Final Fours, the Huskies haven’t won the title since 2016. Fudd could be the difference-maker to put them over the edge to win their 12th national championship this season.

How will name, image and likeness impact women’s college hoops? 

When the NCAA implemented a new policy this summer – allowing its athletes to profit off their own name, image and likeness – the college sports landscape changed. Some of the game’s stars have already taken advantage of the rules, like Aliyah Boston (who signed with Bojangles) or Fudd (who partnered with Chipotle).

While female college athletes receive less than four percent of traditional media coverage, a recent study found that the median male and female college athletes have a comparable number of social media followers. Because of this, NIL could allow some of the biggest stars to become even bigger. According to the Wall Street Journal, Bueckers is projected to make more than $1 million off NIL deals this year. Additionally, Fresno State’s Haley and Hanna Cavinder, who have over three million TikTok followers, could make more money than their coach this season thanks to NIL deals.

Will we see progress on issues of gender equity in women’s college basketball?

Sparked by a TikTok posted by Oregon’s Sedona Prince about the inequities between the men’s and women’s tournament bubbles at the start of last season’s championships, the NCAA came under fire for its unequal treatment of its women’s players.

The NCAA announced in September that it will begin using March Madness branding for both the men’s and women’s tournaments. It is also expected to decide by mid-November whether it will expand the women’s tournament to include 68 teams like the men. There have also been discussions about a combined Final Four for the men and women in the future.

While some progress has been made in women’s basketball, the second NCAA gender equity report released last week indicated that women across all sports are far from receiving equitable treatment.