November 2, 2021
2021-22 Big 12 preview
Baylor leads the pack, but intriguing teams abound
Tier 1: Baylor isn’t going anywhere
1. Baylor Bears (28-3, 17-1 Big 12)
Team MVP: NaLyssa Smith (18.0 PPG)
Biggest addition: Ja’Mee Asberry (17.0 PPG at Oklahoma St.) & Jordan Lewis (17.0 PPG at Alabama)
Biggest subtraction: Dijonai Carrington (14.1 PPG), Moon Ursin (12.6 PPG) & DiDi Richards (Defense); the “Lady” in Lady Bears
Big question: With Kim Mulkey out and Nicki Collen in, how much will the Bears change their identity in 2021. Will those adjustments be enough to take Baylor back to the national championship?
After Dijonai Carrington’s last-second layup touched hardwood in the Elite 8 last year, few knew exactly what the future of Baylor women’s basketball would hold. Just weeks later, three-time national champion coach Kim Mulkey left for her “home” of LSU and Atlanta Dream coach Nicki Collen filled her spot. Frankly, a ghost could have filled Mulkey’s spot and Baylor would still be the team to beat in the Big 12.
Luckily for the Bears faithful, Collen is not only much better than a coach, but she’s also retained and added to most of last year’s core.
Big 12 Player of the Year NaLyssa Smith returns to the Bears with a chance to claim her spot atop 2022 WNBA Draft boards. Smith is a one-of-one talent and her ceiling is a fun thought experiment for Baylor, as she possesses a combination of athleticism and interior finishing that makes her the class’s best interior threat.
This offseason, Collen and Smith have been in the lab working on her perimeter skills, testing what might stick at the pro-level. Smith was already dangerous, but a version of NaLyssa Smith that can knock down 3-pointers or make quick reads out of the post is unfathomably skilled. It wouldn’t be surprising to see her add a few field goal attempts per game — last year, Mulkey seemed to underutilize Smith, with her usage ranking 14th in the conference, per Her Hoop Stats.
“I love that we spread the floor a lot more now,” Smith said with a big smile on media day. “I’ve been wanting to expand my game for a long time now, so I feel like with coach Nicki I’ll be able to do that.”
Coming off the loss of its entire backcourt, Baylor needed guards who could shoot at a high clip from outside, create their own shot and provide chemistry and playmaking alongside an elite lob-threat in Smith. The two transfers it brought in, Ja’Mee Asberry and Jordan Lewis, check all of those boxes. For Bears fans who are new to Asberry’s game, think of her as a 3-point-happy version of Moon Ursin. For Big 12 fans, think of Lewis as a Kysre Gondrezick-type of threat.
“I think everyone wanted to expand their games, that’s one of the reasons I came here is to have that pro mindset,” Lewis said. “The team is buying into the new system.”
As for the depth? Admittedly, we didn’t learn much about the underclassmen during Mulkey’s last year in Waco. Though all four of the team’s freshmen and sophomores entered college as top-20 recruits, not a single one averaged more than 12 minutes per game last season. Hannah Gusters followed Mulkey to LSU and Jordyn Oliver transferred to Duke in April, but Sarah Andrews and Jaden Owens could prove to be sleeping giants for the team in the upcoming year. Collen highlighted Andrews in particular as a player who could break out in 2021-22.
Baylor only has nine players this year, so there’s a dire need for the team to stay healthy. That short roster however, isn’t something Collen necessarily sees as a negative. “I think it creates a camaraderie among the team, knowing we’re all important,” she said.
Collen has already stressed that her offense will afford players more space and pace than the Baylor teams of old, and she told the media in late September that star forward Queen Egbo is just one example of a player who is ready to blossom from outside this year.
“I wish I could have gotten my hands on Queen her freshman year, because her growth on the perimeter … by the time July was coming, she was calling game on three,” Collen said.
As Baylor sets the path for its 12th consecutive conference championship, it’ll have tougher competition from a deeper second tier of Big 12 hopefuls. But this is still Baylor’s title to lose. As it stands in October, they’re the only Big 12 team who poses a threat to claim a national championship in March 2022.
“We’re all here to win a national championship at the end of the day,” Smith said.
Tier 2: The biggest group of preseason hopefuls in recent memory
2. Iowa State Cyclones (17-11, 12-6 Big 12)
Team MVP: Ashley Joens (24.2 PPG)
Biggest addition: Whatever the team gets out of Lexi Donarski (13.0 PPG) in year two
Biggest subtraction: Kristin Scott (11.7 PPG)
Big question: Ashley Joens will always show up, but can the Cyclones three-happy offense and just-decent defense survive against the country’s top teams?
For the second year in a row, the Big 12 will probably have two lottery picks in the WNBA Draft, with Iowa State’s Ashley Joens likely to fall closely behind Baylor’s Smith on early-round big boards. There’s a good reason those two are up top: each possess the ability to tear up even the best of game plans. Joens, as if she needed to prove that statement in the box score, scored at least 20 points in 22 of her 26 games last season (only cross-state rival Caitlin Clark had more, per Her Hoop Stats). So the Cyclones enter 2021 the same way they ended last year: a whole lot of offense, a young and talented backcourt and with the best perimeter scorer in the conference.
“Any time you can say you have both your starting guards back and one of the best players in the country back, that’s a good thing,” Iowa State head coach Bill Fennelly said.
The Cyclones were a 3-point heavy team (4th most attempts in DI) last season, should continue on that path into 2022 with much of the roster returning, though the departures of Kristin Scott and Kylie Feuerbach will hurt on the inside and outside, respectively. This ranking is a bet on the superstardom of Joens and the second-year growth of Lexi Donarski and Emily Ryan. Questions will remain on the defensive end of the court without a true defensive stopper, but if there’s a team out there who is looking to out-shoot Iowa State, it should probably look for a new game plan. Iowa State’s ceiling will rise if it finds cohesion on the defensive end of the floor, as the team’s defensive efficiency ranked around the middle of the pack in the Big 12 without a post defender who could match up with the conference’s best post players.
The Cyclones started three freshmen last year, two of whom are back for this season. While that might have been seen as a negative last season — though in reality, both Donarski and Ryan were fantastic offensive players — the decision should pay even greater dividends this season. The tradition of starting freshman guards will likely continue with first-year Cyclone Denae Fritz, who Fennelly pegged as a potential day-one starter. Fritz scored over 2,000 points and brought down over 1,100 rebounds in her high school career.
As for the type of senior season we can expect for Iowa State’s superstar? It’s tough for Joens to get much better than she already is, but the program is doing everything it can to get her ready for the professional game. Fennelly said that her improvement will have to come with better ball-handling and ball-control in the upcoming season. He added that the staff and her teammates have to help her out a little more, and she’ll have to trust her teammates a bit more in turn. He also guessed that Ashley’s sister, sophomore Aubrey Joens, will be an X-factor because of her shooting ability.
The team is on the right trajectory. Last year, it ended Baylor’s 61-game home winning streak and is the only Big 12 team to defeat Baylor since the 2016-17 season. If there’s any team in the Big 12 that is closing the gap on Baylor — among teams that are actually staying in the Big 12 — it’s this Iowa State squad.
3. Texas Longhorns (21-10, 11-7 Big 12)
Team MVP: Joanne Allen-Taylor (12.1 PPG)
Biggest addition: Aaliyah Moore (ESPN’s #6 ranked prospect)
Biggest subtraction: Charli Collier (19.0 PPG) & Celeste Taylor (12.3 PPG)
Big question: After a wild run to the Elite 8, will Vic Schaefer’s pressure-heavy, defense-first scheme carry right on over to the 2021 season?
There’s another team that’s just a likely to close the Big 12 gap on Baylor, even if it’s leaving the conference in the coming years. The Texas Longhorns are the antithesis of Iowa State, with an upper-echelon defense and an offense that’s just good enough to make do, for now. Texas head coach Vic Schaefer acknowledged as much before the season: this is becoming a “Vic Schaefer type of program.”
“I want them to look back [at last season] a little,” Schaefer said. “There’s a reason a rear-view mirror is ‘this’ size [Hands imitating the size of a rear-view mirror] and a windshield is ‘this’ big [Hands imitating the size of a windshield],” Schaefer said.
Though Charli Collier’s departure will hurt Texas, the team learned how to play compete when she wasn’t the focal point of the offense in late-season play. In the Sweet 16, for instance, Texas’ upset over second-seeded Maryland came with just a five-point outing from Collier. Then, the team relied more on its defensive identity and flurry of wings, both of which should come back stronger in 2022. To be clear, Texas was certainly much better with Collier on the floor, as the Longhorns were 19-2 in regular-season play when Collier scored at least 16 points, per Her Hoop Stats. But a different side of the team emerged in the tournament, which justifies another high ranking in 2021.
Among its new additions, Texas boasts the conference’s Preseason Freshman of the Year, 6’1 forward Aaliyah Moore. ESPN ranked Moore as the sixth-best prospect in her high school class, and noted her ability to produce mismatches as a shot-creator on the wing. Lineups with her and seniors Joanne Allen-Taylor and Audrey Warren should have no problem penetrating most defensive schemes, and Schaefer also noted that freshman forward Latasha Lattimore has a chance to be really special for the program. Joining Moore in the freshman class is 10th-ranked prospect Rori Harmon, who could provide instant offense and a quick burst off of the bench — if Schaefer doesn’t choose to start her.
Texas fans should keep an eye out on sophomore forward DeYona Gaston, who showed flashes of defensive upside in limited playing time last year. Gaston averaged 1.9 blocks while averaging just 17.1 minutes per game — on a per-minute basis, that puts her in the same stratosphere as reigning NCAA Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Mack. Gaston won’t be Mack — but she will be a difference-maker.
The Longhorns probably won’t win the Big 12 this year. But their defense should give them a shot at it.
4. West Virginia Mountaineers (22-7, 13-5 Big 12)
Team MVP: Esmery Martinez (13.6 PPG)
Biggest addition: Ari Gray (13.3 PPG at Xavier)
Biggest subtraction: Kysre Gondrezick (19.5 PPG)
Big question: With Kysre Gondrezick gone, does the team still need a go-to scorer?
West Virginia is an interesting case study ahead of the 2021-22 season. Though the team relied significantly upon Kysre Gondrezick in 2021, she alone did not make the team great. In fact, the team had five high-level starters suited up throughout last season, all of whom (sans Gondrezick) are back. Head coach Mike Carey has also added reinforcements, including Xavier transfer and fifth-year floor-running forward Ari Gray.
The highs were quite high for the Mountaineers last season, as an 11-game win streak catapulted them toward the top of the Big 12 in early February. But a slew of close losses and an injury bug hampered the team’s ascension late in the season, eventually culminating in a 73-56 loss to Georgia Tech in the second round of the tournament. There, Gondrezick scored just three points.
West Virginia certainly has other scorers in the backcourt in KK Deans (13.7 PPG) and Madisen Smith (8.2 PPG), but the performance of the team’s post players will ultimately drive results in the upcoming season. Esmery Martinez, Kari Niblack and Gray will all feature heavily around the rim, while Carey has five potential bench options who stand at least 6’2.
“We have four starters back and we lost our leading scorer, Kysre, so we cannot afford our guards that are returning to try to make up Kysre’s scoring,” Carey said. “Some of them will score a little bit more, but we don’t need one guard to make up the 20 points. We need to look at other ways to score, and we’re hoping we can get that on the inside.”
Earlier in October, Carey told assembled media that this year’s squad is the deepest West Virginia has had in a long time. Last year, the Mountaineers averaged just 10.4 points of production off of their bench (per CBBAnalytics), which ranked as the second-worst figure in the Big 12. This year, they can go big or small, and have plenty of lineup permutations to work with.
Though Carey is excited about the three freshmen that the team brought in, he doesn’t expect them to see much of the floor this season because of the team’s depth and expectations. That could hurt in the long run: Emma Shumate, ESPN’s 59th-ranked player in the 2021 class, entered the transfer portal in mid-October. In the short term, however, the Mountaineers could make a run in the NCAA Tournament without a big-name scorer on the roster.
5. Oklahoma Sooners (12-12, 9-8 Big 12)
Team MVP: Madi Williams (20.0 PPG)
Biggest addition: Kelbie Washington (ESPN’s #66 ranked recruit)
Biggest subtraction: Nobody, really
Big question: How much of Oklahoma’s late-season firepower will carry over under a new coach and a deeper roster?
Quietly, Madi Williams might have been the single most important player to her team in the Big 12 last year. As a junior, Williams led her team in points, blocks and steals and ranked second on her team in assists and rebounds. Alongside senior Taylor Robertson, who is on track to become one of the most prolific 3-point shooters in NCAA history, and junior Gabby Gregory, who averaged 16.6 points per game last season, the Sooners have retained their entire core and should build on last season’s end-of-year breakout.
Oklahoma’s floor is just about what it accomplished last season. Last year the Sooners rattled off six wins in their final nine games, including upsets over Texas Iowa State and West Virginia, and just missed out on the NCAA Tournament. They did so with just seven healthy players, and with no players standing taller than 6’1. It’s hard to imagine they’ll regress.
Williams is one of the most unique mismatches in the league. If there’s a smaller player on her, she’s going to bully them to death in the post, but if teams switch a post or a bigger wing on her, she’ll have no issue taking them off of the dribble. As such, the senior wing substantially raises Oklahoma’s ceiling because of how much she can do on her own. The question for Oklahoma in 2022, then, is which players might emerge as the ceiling raisers.
It could be freshman guard Kelbie Washington, the team’s top recruit in 2021 who is an all-around two-way player that she fits the criteria of what a high-impact freshman does: she doesn’t need the ball in her hands to succeed. It also might be junior forward Liz Scott, who fills a spot in the post that the team so desperately lacked last year as she missed all but two in-conference games.
Since Sherri Coale is out after 25 years at the helm in Oklahoma, it might even be new head coach Jennie Baranczyk and a revamped offensive system. Baranczyk may not have been one of the architects of modern, analytics-friendly basketball, but she certainly got a copy of the blueprint with the assists-and-threes-and-layups heavy sets and shots that her teams at Drake were known for. With Williams and Robertson as the cornerstones of the offense, it’s hard to see how that scheme could fail.
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Tier 3: In this group of five, which one can make the leap?
6. TCU Horned Frogs (10-15, 4-14 Big 12)
Team MVP: Lauren Heard (20.2 PPG)
Biggest addition: Okako Adika (13.8 PPG at Butler)
Biggest subtraction: Nobody, really
Big question: Will Lauren Heard have enough reinforcements this year?
Between 2020 and 2021, TCU lost seemingly every major scorer on its team, except for Lauren Heard. So the team deserved to catch a break ahead of 2022, and probably did. They’re running it back with everybody.
Though TCU was an above-average defensive team last season, its 92.8 offensive rating ranked last in the Big 12, even with the presence of Heard. In 2021-22, then, the Horned Frogs need to find multiple players to elevate their games on the offensive side of the ball.
TCU head coach Raegan Pebley did not mess around this season in her attempts to add them. Butler transfer Okako Adika should give Heard the second option she lacked all of last year, while freshmen guards Paige Bradley (ESPN’s 72nd-ranked recruit) and Mariah Roberts (Prepgirlshoop.com’s Top 100 recruit) are both known for their two-way play.
Among returners, junior Tavy Diggs (9.6 PPG) and sophomore shooter Aja Holmes (5.3 PPG, 1.6 3PM/G) seem like the two likeliest of the bunch to break out.
7. Oklahoma State Cowgirls (19-9, 13-5 Big 12)
Team MVP: Lauren Fields, maybe? (8.7 PPG)
Biggest addition: Macie James (ESPN’s 88th-ranked prospect)
Biggest subtraction: The Cowgirls two best players, Ja’Mee Asberry (17.0 PPG) and Natasha Mack (19.8 PPG, Defense)
Big question: Can the Cowgirls replicate elements of last year’s success after their two best players left the program?
The Cowgirls were a blast to watch in 2021, blossoming into the surprise of the season in the Big 12 and outperforming their eighth-place preseason rank to finish at 13-5 in the conference. It sucks betting against this team, and it doesn’t feel right to bet against this team. Even in the NCAA tournament the Cowgirls appeared under-seeded, which contributed toward a second-round matchup and 11-point loss to the eventual national champions, the Stanford Cardinal. That 11-point margin represents a smaller deficit than the two top-25 teams the Cardinal faced in the following two rounds.
But the two players who made the team so fun to watch, who were also the team’s best players, have departed. The anchor of Oklahoma State’s defense, Natasha Mack, is playing overseas. The initiator of its offense, Ja’Mee Asberry, is off to Baylor. Now junior guard Lauren Fields is the team’s top returning scorer. Fields was underappreciated last season, but she also averaged 8.7 points per game, a figure that will have to jump up for the Cowgirls to remain competitive. The team also has depth in the form of sophomores Lexy Keys and Taylen Collins. There’s a lot of scoring and interior defense to be made up, though.
With the coaching staff and most of the glue players returning from last season, there should be more reason to believe in this team. But as the season approaches, the lack of a go-to option (that we know of) holds this team back from a Tier 2 projection. It’s time to doubt the Cowgirls again. If they prove these predictions wrong again, there’s magic inside that program.
8. Kansas State Wildcats (9-18, 3-15 Big 12)
Team MVP: Ayoka Lee
Biggest addition: Whatever growth the team gets out of its guards.
Biggest subtraction: Christianna Carr (15.2 PPG)
Big question: Can Ayoka Lee really do it all alone?
Last year the Wildcats had a litany of problems. They turned the ball over more than anyone else. They missed a higher percentage of threes than anyone else. They had a worse net rating than anyone else. They lost their best guard. They didn’t really add anyone elite in the portal.
Where did these issues stem from? Certainly it was not Ayoka Lee.
So what does it say about Kansas State that they aren’t ranked last? It comes down to a few factors.
- Ayoka Lee is one of the best most dominant players in the country, and betting against her is a bad idea.
- The team can’t really get worse than it did in 2021. Even without Christianna Carr, the Wildcats’ backcourt should have developed with several younger players.
- Kansas State played Iowa State, Oklahoma and West Virginia close in the second half of the season. A few possessions go differently in those matchups, and the team looks better on paper.
- Rachel Ranke is back, and even a little bit more consistency on her end will go a long way for the program.
9. Texas Tech Lady Raiders (10-15, 5-13 Big 12)
Team MVP: Vivian Gray (19.8 PPG)
Biggest addition: Bre’Amber Scott (18.0 PPG at Little Rock)
Biggest subtraction: Lexi Gordon (15.8 PPG)
Big question: After most of the team transferred (again), can the Lady Raiders find an honest identity?
The Lady Raiders underwent a rebuilding year in 2021 on the heels of Marlene Stollings’ abusive culture and eventual firing, notching a 5-13 in-conference record under first-year head coach Krista Gerlich. Though the team’s dynamic backcourt of Vivian Gray and Lexi Gordon carried the team as far as they could, two players weren’t enough. What makes this year different? It’ll probably be more difficult, because …
Almost everyone on the Texas Tech roster transferred, again.
Vivian Gray, one half of the team’s dynamic backcourt last season, is back. The odd part: seemingly everyone else is out, including her partner-in-crime Lexi Gordon, who departed for Duke in the offseason. Including Gray, just 30 points per game worth of production is returning to Lubbock. But Texas Tech brought in enough intriguing transfers to make a Tier 2 leap seem possible.
Junior guard Bre’Amber Scott joins the team after averaging 18.0 PPG at Little Rock in 2020-21, and already seems poised to become the sparkplug, score-first guard that the Lady Raiders need to boost an otherwise-lackluster offense. Alongside Scott comes Division II standout Lexy Hightower, who is as lights-out as they come with a career 44 percent 3-point shooter on almost five attempts per game.
Freshman Chante Embry (ESPN’s #67-ranked prospect) is the likeliest of the freshman to become a star, as she brings physicality and scoring upside out of the wing position à la Madi Williams. The entire gameflow will have to change, given that almost the entire roster reset.
10. Kansas Jayhawks (7-18, 3-15 Big 12)
Team MVP: Holly Kersgieter (17.7 PPG)
Biggest addition: Erica Haynes-Overton (16.8 PPG in last full season at Eastern Tennessee State, 2018-19)
Biggest subtraction: Tina Stephens (10.9 PPG)
Big question: Does Kansas have enough young talent to finally compete in the conference?
Kansas has been at the bottom of the barrel for a long time in the Big 12, and there aren’t any major indicators that they’re ready to reverse course under head coach Brandon Schneider. For what it’s worth, the Jayhawks did some things well last season, taking good care of the ball and operating with a number of floor-spacers on the perimeter.
There’s also some optimism among its core of junior guards Holly Kersgieter (17.7 PPG) and Zakiyah Franklin (9.9 PPG) as well as sophomore forward Ioanna Chatzileonti (8.1 PPG), though second-leading scorer Tina Stephens transferred to Troy in April
All that aside, the Jayhawks were among the worst offensive and defensive teams in the conference last year, and even with the rise of Kersgieter, the team hasn’t shown that it is deep or defensive enough to make a serious push toward Tier 2.
All information via the Big 12 Conference.
Preseason Player of the Year
NaLyssa Smith, Baylor, F, 6-2, Sr., Converse, Texas
Preseason Newcomer of the Year
Jordan Lewis, Baylor, G, 5-7, Gr., Windermere, Fla.
Preseason Freshman of the Year
Aaliyah Moore, Texas, F, 6-1, Fr., Moore, Okla.
Preseason All-Big 12 Team
*NaLyssa Smith, Baylor, F, 6-2, Sr., Converse, Texas
*Ashley Joens, Iowa State, G/F, 6-0 Sr., Iowa City, Iowa
*Ayoka Lee, K-State, C, 6-6, Jr., Byron, Minn.
*Madi Williams, Oklahoma, G/F, 5-11, Sr., Fort Worth, Texas
*Lauren Heard, TCU, G, 5-9, Gr., Denton, Texas
*Vivian Gray, Texas Tech, G, 6-1, Sr., Argyle, Texas
*Esmery Martinez, West Virginia, F, 6-2, Jr., Hato Mayor Del Rey, Dominican Republic
Queen Egbo, Baylor, C, 6-3, Sr., Houston, Texas
Joanne Allen Taylor, Texas, G, 5-8, Jr., Houston, Texas
Lexi Donarski, Iowa State, G, 6-0, So., LaCrosse, Wis.
Holly Kersgieter, Kansas, G, 5-10, Jr., Sand Springs, Okla.
Taylor Robertson, Oklahoma, G, 5-11, Sr., McPherson, Kan.
Honorable Mention (listed alphabetically by school):
Ja’Mee Asberry (Baylor), Jordan Lewis (Baylor), Emily Ryan (Iowa State), Taylen Collins (Oklahoma State), Rori Harmon (Texas), KK Deans (West Virginia), Kari Niblack (West Virginia)