November 28, 2020 

Early evaluations for the Big 12 freshmen

Kansas forward Ioanna Chatzileonti and Iowa State guard Emily Ryan showcase their talent in Wednesday's openers

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No. 11 Emily Ryan of Iowa State Women’s Basketball. (Photo Credit: Cyclone Basketball Twitter Account)

Incorporating freshmen during a pandemic was supposed to be a challenge. Don’t tell that to the Big 12 coaches.

On Nov. 25, 21 freshmen made their debuts in the Big 12, with nine of those players seeing at least 20 minutes on the court. That isn’t a massive figure, but it’s certainly significant. Last year, the Big 12 freshmen were utilized at a slightly heavier rate in their debuts (shown below), but the 2020 class held its own on Wednesday.

Oklahoma State and Kansas State don’t open until Nov. 29, and West Virginia’s Friday tipoff was too late to include below. But the sample size of the seven teams that did play is enough for us to analyze.

Unlike some mid-majors, most Big 12 schools had an early jump on practicing, and it showed right at tip-off. There were a handful of freshmen worth evaluating after the first day of basketball, with two early favorites to make the All-Freshman team at year’s end. After an eight-month hiatus, we got a glimpse into what this class can do and how they might be utilized moving forward.

Ioanna Chatzileonti, F, Kansas

Statline: 15 PTS, 2 AST, 2 BLK | 7-8 from the field
Standout Skill: Post offense
Recruiting Rank:
N/R

At this time last year, Kansas was scorching through its non-conference schedule, running up an 11-0 record by an average margin of 18 points. Then, when Jayhawks fans needed them most, they disappeared. Kansas finished the season 4-14 in conference play — in the basement of the conference for the second straight season.

The Jayhawks have long been a staple at the bottom of the Big 12, finishing at No. 9 or No. 10 in each of the past seven seasons. Last year, the biggest issue was a lack of experience across the roster and a thin frontcourt. That’s a tough recipe for success in this conference.

So when senior forward Mariane De Carvalho graduated at the end of last year, many expected this to be another rebuilding year in Lawrence. Once again, Kansas would have to call on some inexperienced first-year for significant minutes. That freshman was forward Ioanna Chatzileonti, and she did not disappoint in the opener.

In 26 minutes of action, Chatzileonti resuscitated the Kansas offense in front of a sparse and socially-distanced crowd, scoring 13 points in the team’s 78-62 win over Northern Colorado.

Everything starts on the block for the 6’2 freshman. Chatzileonti consistently established a spot in the post, showcasing her strength for several easy buckets.

“Ioanna is a player that we are really, really excited about,” head coach Brandon Schneider said. “We feel like we can run a lot of offense through her. We haven’t had that type of point production from our 5-spot. She’s going to allow us to run a lot of offense through the post.”

At worst, Kansas has another player to look for in late-game situations. Coach Schneider will probably veto a shot like the one below if there are 21 seconds left on the clock, but it’s nice for him to know Chatzileonti can make it.

The most impressive part of Chatzileonti’s game, though, is her versatility on both ends of the court. Chatzileonti is quick for her size and had no trouble hanging with Northern Colorado’s wings and guards in the opener. She might have trouble against an Ashley Joens or Lauren Heard once the conference games begin, but she slides her feet well enough to manage most switches thrown her way.

On offense, the Jayhawks often used Chatzileonti as a faux-screener. Setting up around the 3-point arc, Chatzileonti would screen for a half-second before darting to the basket, ultimately leading to a couple of nice looks inside. She also showed the ability to handle the ball in the halfcourt, using her size, strength, and fluidity to drive in for several easy buckets. Chatzileonti finished the game 7-8 from the floor.

Before the season started, Schneider said that Chatzileonti is one of the best passers on the team — if not the best. She proved it in the opener. Even when Northern Colorado began to double Chatzileonti in the post, she made a pair of quick reads to open teammates.

While Chatzileonti had three turnovers and a few more close calls, the season is early yet. Expect her to take the tertiary scoring role alongside sophomore guards Zakiyah Franklin and Holly Kersgieter.

Kansas will probably still struggle once Big 12 play starts, but last year they didn’t have a wing that can do what Chatzileonti does. Never has a freshman looked so little like a freshman. See if she can keep it up against Texas A&M Corpus Christi on Sunday.

Emily Ryan, G, Iowa State

Statline: 3 PTS, 6 REB, 7 AST, 2 STL, 2 BLK | 1-4 from the field
Standout Skill: Playmaking
Recruiting Rank:
70

Iowa State freshman guard Emily Ryan may have finished the game with just 3 points, but her performance in Wednesday’s 69-43 win over Omaha was nothing to scoff at. The young gunner was everywhere on the court, fighting for six boards and dishing out a team-high seven assists. Head coach Bill Fennelly, who missed the game due to quarantine protocol, spoke highly of Ryan heading into the season.

“She’s going to play,” Fennelly said on Nov. 19. “She’s a very smart, very cerebral kid and an extremely hard worker. She’s in the gym all the time and accepts hard coaching.”

While she’s listed at 5-11, Ryan’s wingspan does most of the work on the court, and she utilized those long arms in her debut. Length generally helps a player out on the defensive end, and Ryan was active enough on that side of the ball to warrant praise, blocking a 3-pointer and collecting two steals. She also used her length to shut out opposing forwards that tried to force her into the post.

But for all her defensive accolades, Ryan’s premium skill is still her playmaking, and she used that length on nearly all of her seven dimes. Whether dishing to the post or on a backdoor cut, most of her assists involved her wrapping passes around her defender’s arms and into tight windows.

While the shots weren’t connecting on Wednesday, she is more than willing to take them. The Claflin, Kansas native scored over 3,000 points in high school (on top of a state-record 599 steals), and her potential looks limitless in Fennelly’s offense.

Most importantly, even when the shots weren’t falling, Ryan never rushed passes or got down on herself. She also moved effortlessly off-ball, and when players get open, the shots usually fall. Ryan is certainly on the shortlist for Big 12 Freshman of the Year.

Other notes on Big 12 debuts

  • Each of the Iowa State freshmen played at least 17 minutes in the opener, combining for 20 points, 19 rebounds, 11 assists, and six blocks. That’s what happens when you have the nation’s seventh-ranked recruiting class, plus a few open spots in the rotation.

  • Aubrey Joens, an Iowa State freshman and the sister of Cyclones star Ashley Joens, shot just 1-6 from deep in the opener. The six attempts are more important than her one miss: it looks like she’ll have the green light.

  • Baylor freshmen Hannah Gusters and Sarah Andrews, who played together in high school, were phenomenal on Wednesday. Gusters had 13 points in the paint on 6-8 shooting, while Andrews added six assists, several of which went to Gusters. After just one contest, their chemistry is evident.

  • The Lady Bears will need Andrews to start taking some deep looks. Baylor shot just 2-11 from deep with cold starts from Dijonai Carrington (1-5) and NaLyssa Smith (0-3). It is odd to see Smith shoot since she attempted just four 3-pointers throughout all of last year (missing all four). Carrington’s shot will probably come around, but that’s slim pickings for head coach Kim Mulkey.

  • Texas forward Deyona Gaston was the nation’s top-ranked prospect in her freshman year of high school but dropped down to 90th following a string of injuries. That ranking looks silly after the freshman recorded a near double-double (10 points, nine rebounds) in the opener and added five blocks on defense. Head coach Schaefer may have found a diamond in the rough here.

  • Throughout the preseason, Schaefer praised freshman guard Ashley Chevalier’s motor. It’s probably why she led the Big 12 freshman in minutes played (28) despite shooting 0-1 from the floor with four personal fouls.

  • Texas Tech freshman forward Khyla Wade-Warren scored 10 points for the Lady Raiders, connecting on both her outside shots and grabbing six rebounds. At 6’2, her shot-making ability could do wonders for an otherwise-shallow frontcourt.

  • TCU and Oklahoma shied away from their freshmen in the openers. Four TCU freshmen combined for 2 points, while Oklahoma’s ‘24 class added seven.

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

Atlanta Dream and Big 12 reporter, breaking news and other things.

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