These squads have the right mix of talent and personnel to take the next step in 2022–23.
As the women’s college basketball season inches closer, plenty of talk surrounds who will take the crown in the spring. But beyond more than just a potential champion, Sports Illustrated is thinking about who has the chance to level up this year. The landscapes of these five teams have shifted from last year, and each has potential for a breakout tournament run come March.
Does a Hall of Fame coach guarantee a winning program? LSU is asking. Kim Mulkey enters her second season in Baton Rouge, having left Baylor with three NCAA titles and a multitude of Big 12 tournament wins. Her first season concluded with a 26–6 record, a number LSU hasn’t seen since 2007–08. The excitement was cut short by an SEC tournament quarterfinals loss and second-round NCAA tournament exit after losing to Ohio State. And this year will certainly look different with the graduation of four top-scoring starters.
Returning starter Alexis Morris learned under Mulkey during her freshman year in Waco and reunited with the coach at LSU. The fifth-year senior averaged 15 points per game before grappling with a knee injury near the end of the regular season. Fully recovered, Morris will conduct the reload alongside the highly anticipated transfer Angel Reese. The former Maryland star was the top transfer this offseason, and her decision could impact LSU basketball for years to come. Last season she averaged 17.8 points and 10.6 rebounds, and earned a player efficiency rating of 39.7. With three years of eligibility remaining, Reese has plenty of time to mold and solidify the front court. Reese will be joined by former five-star recruit LaDazhia Williams, the nation’s top juco player, Last-Tear Poa, as well as top-100 recruits Flau’jae Johnson (No. 26) and Sa’Myah Smith (No. 58). As the chemistry between veterans and newcomers develops, LSU could easily surpass last year’s record.
The last time UCLA had a star recruiting class, in 2014, the team eased to three NCAA regional semifinals and an Elite Eight appearance. It’s ’22 and the Bruins are looking to rebound from missing last year’s tournament with the country’s top freshman class. UCLA snags three top-100 recruits with No. 2 Kiki Rice, No. 22 Londynn Jones and No. 49 Christeen Iwuala. Rice’s résumé includes the ’22 Gatorade Female High School Athlete of the Year and a senior season with averages of 15.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.7 steals. The guard is UCLA’s highest-rated prospect to commit in more than 15 years. Her elite level of court awareness will pair well with other newcomers Lina Sontag, who ranked No. 4 in the Premier Basketball WorldWideHoops international rankings, and Gabriela Jaquez, who averaged 34.2 points,15.7 rebounds and 4.7 steals in her senior season.
Injuries prevented the team from reaching the Big Dance last year and could be a deciding factor this season. Forward Angela Dugalic will miss the season due to a torn ACL, but sophomore Emily Bessoir and senior Brynn Masikewich have fully recovered from last season’s injuries. Senior Charisma Osborne will also return to the court. She finished third in the Pac-12 for scoring last season with 16.4 points and a free throw percentage of .875. If the rookies meet expectations while being incorporated with returning players, the Bruins could be a contender in the Pac-12 against Stanford and Oregon.
Oklahoma exceeded expectations last year and has the potential to dominate the Big 12 before its move to the SEC. Under second-year coach Jennie Baranczyk, the Sooners are coming off their first tournament run since 2018. The team exited the tournament after falling to No. 5 seed Notre Dame in the second round. With five top scorers returning, the team will be missing just one player from last year’s roster. Unlike other teams on this list, Oklahoma returns with an established on-court connection. Madi Williams and Taylor Robertson have decided to stay another year, and Ana Llanusa is fully recovered from a knee surgery that benched her for all but 10 games last year. Big 12 record-holder Robertson is only 51 three-point shots away from snagging the NCAA record.
Williams, a fifth-year senior, will be a leader on and off the court. The interior defender capped last season with 249 rebounds and was the only Big 12 player under six feet tall to rebound more than 200 times. Freshman additions of 6’3″ Beatrice Culliton and 6’4″ Kiersten Johnson will add much-needed height to the roster. The Big 12 has multiple competitive programs, and knowing how to finish games strongly is essential. All eyes are on Texas and Iowa State in the league, but Oklahoma, whose offense averaged 83.3 points per game last year, may give them a run for their money.
Virginia Tech transitioned from a tournament team to ACC title contenders in less than two months. On March 18, the Hokies fell to Florida Gulf Coast in the first round, their second tournament appearance since 2006 and the team’s best season in ACC history. In April, the Hokies landed Maryland star Ashley Owusu, who’s a shifty ballhandler with excellent driving power in the paint. Owusu is one of the top shooting guards in the country and was awarded the ’21 Ann Meyers Drysdale Award. Her ability to navigate the frontcourt could push the VT from good to great. Thirteen days later, Boston College forward Taylor Soule, who’s recorded more than 1,500 career points, announced her move to Blacksburg.
Alongside the new additions to the team, returning players are ready to add to their résumés. Center Elizabeth Kitley, 6’6″, was named ACC Player of the Year, and Aisha Sheppard smashed the school’s scoring record and the ACC’s three-point record. The program earned its highest preseason ranking in program history at No. 13 in the AP poll. This squad may be what Virginia Tech needs to end its 23-year Sweet 16 drought.
Big Ten competition will be nothing less than a dogfight this season. Fronting the conference is Iowa. The Hawkeyes’ success is no secret, but this year’s team is capable of breaking through to a national title. Iowa trails closely behind South Carolina, Stanford and Texas with a No. 4 ranking in the preseason AP poll. Elite point guard Caitlin Clark commands the NCAA in both points (27.0 per game) and assists (8.0 per game), and her presence demands national attention as she heads the team with all five returning starters.
The Hawkeyes are an offensive powerhouse with the second-highest offensive score in the country last season but ranked 306th in league scoring defense. Defensive blunders in the backcourt hold the team back. On average, the team allowed 70.2 points per game. Defensive chemistry and winning the rebound battle on the boards are the team’s greatest priorities. Clark leads in rebounds, but upperclassmen Monika Czinano and McKenna Warnock also excel in gaining possession, each averaging more than six rebounds per game. Senior guard Gabbie Marshall contributes defensively by leading the team in steals for the last two seasons. With coach Lisa Bluder’s emphasis on strong defensive play, the Hawkeyes hope to finally cut down the net in March.
More College Basketball Coverage:
• 10 Games to Circle This Women’s College Basketball Season
• South Carolina, Stanford Top Preseason Women’s AP Top 25
• Five Breakthrough Men’s Team Candidates for 2022–23