October 27, 2021 

The Next presents: Teams knocking on the door of the Top 25

Depth of talent in NCAAW extends well beyond 25 teams

One of the most difficult things when crafting a pre-season Top 25 list is to have only 25 teams on it.  There are programs that have pre-season injuries which impact the trajectory of their season and others that ended last year strong but have just too many questions marks right now.  More parity in the women’s game means that we see better matchups and teams competing in November like it is March.  The 2021-22 season will showcase talent from coast to coast, in power five programs and mid-majors alike.  

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Here are some teams that are on our watch list at The Next that definitely should be on yours:

ARIZONA:  How is it that a team that appeared in the 2021 national championship game is sitting outside most Top 25 pre-season lists?  The best answer is that Arizona comes off last year’s smashing success with some questions entering the 2021-22 season.  Off the floor, Head Coach Adia Barnes was awarded a contract extension in Tucson but hired two new assistants and a new Director of Recruiting.  How does that impact the overall culture and continuity of the Wildcats?  On the floor, All-American guard Aari McDonald and forward Trinity Baptiste were both drafted into the WNBA.  Who fills their shoes?  A core group of returners are back, including 5’8 senior guard Shaina Pellington, 6’2 senior Cate Reese (10.9 points per game), senior forward Sam Thomas (All-Pac 12 selection) and 6’5 sophomore Lauren Ware, who gave her team good minutes in crucial times last year.  Barnes has also signed three transfers from the portal – Taylor Chavez (Oregon), Koi Love (Vanderbilt) and Ariya Copeland (Alabama).  Will this team mesh to finish higher than their pre-season pick of fifth in the Pac-12?  Most likely – but right now we wait and see.

Senior forward Sam Thomas was an All-Pac 12 selection a year ago for Arizona. (Photo credit: Mike Christy of Arizona Athletics)

VIRGINIA TECH:  The Hokies finished last season 15-10 and 8-8 in the ACC, securing a berth into the NCAA Tournament.  Head coach Kenny Brooks, now in his sixth season, will rely on a core group of veterans to balance out nine underclassmen on his roster.  6’6 junior Elizabeth Kitley averaged a double-double on the season last year (18.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game) and is a match up probably every time she steps on the floor. Aisha Shepard, the 5’9 all conference guard elected to return this year and brings her scoring power (17.7 points per game) and leadership back to the line-up.  Two talented transfers, Emily Lytle (Liberty) and Kayana Traylor (Purdue) should have an impact right away in Blacksburg.

BYU:  Consistency in a year of uncertainty was what you found with BYU in 2020-21 and this program looks to thrive in 2021-22.  Jeff Judkins, now in his 21st year at the helm in Provo, brings back a big roster full of depth and talent at every position.  They are the pre-season pick to win the WCC title this year coming off 19-6 overall record and a second-round appearance in the NCAA Tournament last season.  5’10 guard Shaylee Gonzales can fill a stat sheet every night out, leading the team in scoring, assists and steals a year ago.  6’1 sophomore Lauren Gustin was the sixth best rebounder in the nation last season with 12.6 rebounds per game.  On paper, BYU beating Rutgers in the first round of the 2021 NCAA tournament was an “upset”.  A little hint to all this year – do not overlook the Cougars.

6’1 Lauren Gustin returns along with a wealth of experience and talent for the BYU Cougars in 2021-22. (Photo credit: BYU Photo)

UCLA:  The Pac-12 is stacked again this year, but don’t be surprised when one of the contenders at the end is UCLA.  Cori Close enters her 11th season at the helm and looks to build off an impressive 17-6 record and 12-4 in league play.  6’4 post Emily Bessoir is lost for the year with a pre-season ACL injury which now leaves a big hole inside.  The Bruins lost a lot from last year but have veterans like 5’9 guard Charimsa Osborne (All Pac-12) and 6’1 guard Natalie Chou to lean on and two opt-outs back, Kiara Jefferson and Kayla Owens.  Four transfers join the roster that can have an impact – Gina Conti (Wake Forest), Jaelynn Penn (Indiana), Angela Dugalic’ (Oregon) and Ilmar’l Thomas (Cincinnati).  Thomas, the reigning AAC Player of the Year is a playmaker and can score at will; she can be the difference maker between a good and great year for UCLA.

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GEORGIA TECH:  Looking to shake things up again this season in the ACC are Nell Fortner’s Yellow Jackets.  Coming off back-to-back winning seasons, Fortner enters her third season as head coach with a team that finished 17-9 last year and a Sweet 16 berth in the NCAA tournament.  Is this program now set up for sustained success?  Senior Lotta-Maj Lahtinen led the team in scoring a year ago (15.2 points per game) and anchors a strong group of returners, including two “super seniors” – 6’4 Lorela Cubaj (All-ACC selection) and 5’9 guard Kierra Fletcher.  Georgia Tech will be tested early in the non-conference schedule before turning to the heart of the ACC slate.  Circle December 9 on your calendars – UConn comes to Atlanta, and that will tell us a lot about the state of the Yellow Jackets program.

The UCF Knights will be looking to celebrate more big victories during the 2021-22 season. (Photo credit: UCF Athletics)

CENTRAL FLORIDA:  The Knights are riding the wave of success coming off back-to-back NCAA berths and a 16-5 overall record in 2020-21.  Head Coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson’s squad is picked second in the AAC pre-season poll behind South Florida, whom they split with during the regular season last year.  6’1 guard Tay Sanders returns as the team’s leading scorer along with two other “super seniors”, 6’1 Jnaya Walker and 6’3 Masseny Kaba.  Two transfers also join a roster full of talent – Neila Luma from George Washington and Shania Meertens from Clemson.  UCF will be battle tested early because their non-conference schedule is packed with the likes of Tennessee, Arkansas and Iowa.  If they can stay healthy, it could be extra sunny in Orlando in March.

Written by Missy Heidrick

I am a retired Kansas State shooting guard and spent almost 20 years working in Higher Education and Division 1 athletics. I am currently a basketball analyst for television and radio, contributing correspondent at The Next, Locked on Women's Basketball podcast host, WBB Naismith Award board of selectors member and run my own consulting business. I am a proud mother of two and wife to a patient husband who is almost as big of a sports junkie as I am!

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