South Carolina is still the class of college hoops, and the Indiana Fever stand to benefit in the draft from the generational talent who’s propelling the Gamecocks in their bid for a repeat. It’s time for the first mailbag of the college season, with a heavy sprinkling of WNBA, because as we all know, there is no offseason.
Is there any movement in the WNBA for owners to follow Mark Davis’ model of investing money into the coach and team? If not, what’s holding these owners back? – Laura I.
There is nothing in the collective bargaining agreement stopping WNBA teams from spending money like Davis does on head-coaching salaries or dedicated WNBA practice facilities. There are some ownership groups that don’t have the money that Davis does, which limits what they can do, but there are owners with deep pockets who haven’t expressed the enthusiasm that Davis has for their WNBA squads.
A notable exception to that trend is Joe Tsai, who has tried to pour more money into the Liberty and circumvented the CBA a year ago by covertly chartering planes for his team during the second half of the season. For Sports Illustrated reporting, several owners in the league were irate at Tsai knowingly violating WNBA rules. That incident revealed a disconnect between newer ownership groups who would like to use their money to create competitive advantages and older (less wealthy) groups that are comfortable operating the way things always have. There’s some conservatism among the people who have been in the WNBA for a long time and have seen its down years, about spending too much.
The good news is that the WNBA has more and more new owners (Davis, Tsai, Marc Lore in Minnesota and Larry Gottsdiener in Atlanta, for example) trying to push the league forward. Multiple new ownership groups should be coming shortly with the Phoenix Mercury up for sale and expansion on the horizon. And sports leagues tend to feature copycats. With the success of Davis in Las Vegas, other teams will be trying to follow the Aces’ lead.
There have already been a lot of upsets in women’s college hoops. Which of the more unheralded teams should we be watching to make some noise like March? – Denise F.
There were a couple of questions about mid-majors to keep an eye on, which makes sense after this past week in college hoops and the success of non-power conferences in the early rounds of the 2022 NCAA Tournament. In her recent 12 Questions column, Lyndsey D’Arcangelo advocated for Drake. I’ve been impressed by Gonzaga, though Bulldogs head coach Lisa Fortier likes to say they’re a major team in a mid-major conference, so I’m not sure a team that has made 12 of the last 14 NCAA Tournaments counts.
South Dakota State, the reigning WNIT champs, has a couple of nice wins over Louisville and Mississippi State to start the season. Florida Gulf Coast was great last year with Kierstan Bell; she’s on the Las Vegas Aces now, but the Eagles are still undefeated. We’ll have a better idea about them after they play Stanford this week. Princeton is poised to be the class of the Ivy League yet again. And keep an eye on Stephen F. Austin. The Ladyjacks have been knocking down the door of a tournament win for a little while now. Maybe this is their year.
With five starters coming back, including one All-American (Caitlin Clark) and a potential All-American (Monika Czinano), something seems off with Iowa. Are teams learning to defend Clark on the perimeter and Czinano in the paint? With Czinano’s historically high shooting percentage shouldn’t she be shooting more? – CE S.
I think Iowa should be trying to diversify its offense a little more to start the season. Lisa Bluder knows what her stars are capable of (as a side note, The Law Firm of Clark & Czinano is one of my favorite nicknames in college hoops), and this is a chance for players like McKenna Warnock and Gabbie Marshall to stretch their wings. The Hawkeyes also need to learn what they have in Molly Davis, and maybe even Addison O’Grady, who has such tantalizing flashes of greatness. The last thing Iowa wants is to get too predictable with Clark and Czinano, which looked to be the case against Creighton last year.
But the real issue with the Hawkeyes is never offense. They’re still scoring as well as anyone in the country. Let’s see how their defense looks when Big 10 play starts.
What’s your gut feeling on where Breanna Stewart lands? – David H.
First, let’s start with a refresher: WNBA free agency begins in January when teams can start negotiating with their own free agents. Contracts can officially be signed on Feb. 1, though I do anticipate the news of deals leaking out before the start of February. The first year of WNBA prioritization is in 2023, meaning players will be fined for every day they miss during training camp and suspended for the year if they miss the start of the season.
The doomsday scenario for the league would be Stewart choosing to sit out the year if her season with Fenerbahçe — a women’s professional basketball team in Turkey competing in the EuroLeague — extends past the start of the WNBA season. Stewart has generally expressed a real fondness for the overseas experience, and the European trophies factor heavily in her collection. If a title is within reach for Fenerbahçe, it’s hard to see Stewart skipping out on that opportunity. Then again, losing in the WNBA playoffs earlier this year – the first time Stewart has ever lost a playoff series in the WNBA – probably stings as well, and the two-time Finals MVP wouldn’t want to miss out on an opportunity to avenge that defeat to Las Vegas. My gut is that Stewart stays in Seattle and runs it back with Jewell Loyd.
Other players have decisions to make, too. I would be surprised if any players skipped this upcoming season because of the new rule. Most international leagues should end in time for the start of the league year because the WNBA can afford to start later with no Olympics or World Cup in 2023. The one exception is the French league, where Gabby Williams, Marine Johannnès, Julie Allemand, and Emily Engstler are playing or are scheduled to play. Prioritization doesn’t apply to the latter three since they have two years or less service time in the WNBA, but Williams could face a suspension if the French women’s professional basketball team ASVEL makes it deep into the postseason. She spoke pretty bluntly about the possibility of missing the year during her exit interview — and she’s been suspended for a season before, nominally due to international commitments — so it wouldn’t be a complete shock. It is worth noting that Williams has yet to report to France, though she did sign with the club in June.
With NIL dollars that top college players are getting now, is the decision to go pro being affected? It seems entirely possible a player like Aliyah Boston could be making more money now than all but a few WNBA players. – Chris M.
The hope with NIL is that companies aren’t just interested in sponsoring a player because they’re at a certain school, but because the athlete herself is a draw. That may be wishful thinking — and there are certainly boosters who only care to invest in collegiate athletes — but ideally, the connections that a player makes during college stay with them through their professional careers. It’s hard to imagine JCPenney and Dick’s Sporting Goods not wanting to be in business with Hailey Van Lith, for example, once she leaves Louisville.
NIL isn’t the only reason for players to want to stay in college longer. There aren’t that many spots in the WNBA, and some collegiate programs have better perks than some pro teams. The current group of seniors all have an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19 rule changes, so if they’re unsure about being able to stick in the pros, it’s nice to have a fallback to stay in college, especially if they can still make money. Players will become pros eventually, and if they stay longer in college, they might even be more ready for the WNBA when they get there. It’s nice for these women to at least have more options.
If you are Cheryl Reeve, who do you select with the 2nd pick? – Nathan D.
Hope that Cameron Brink decides to go pro this year. Otherwise, sign Bri Jones in free agency, and think about trading the pick for a point guard who can help Napheesa Collier win now.
Do you think the Las Vegas Aces have a good chance to repeat as WNBA champs? Do you see Becky Hammon staying there for a couple more years? – Nathan D.
No WNBA team has repeated since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2002, but I would bet on the Aces as the favorites in 2023. They have the best player in the league (and A’ja Wilson is fresher at the end of the season because she doesn’t play overseas), the best point guard in the league, and the best coach in the league. Throw in a stone-cold scorer in Kelsey Plum, an ever-improving Jackie Young and a no-longer pregnant Dearica Hamby, and all the pieces are still in place for Las Vegas to win again. Nothing about 2022 felt fluky. Hammon immediately proved she is an outstanding head coach, and my expectation is nothing short of a dynasty.
Was Stanford impressive or disappointing vs. South Carolina? I see arguments for both. What are the keys for Stanford going forward (and to win the national championship)? – Brian Y.
Can South Carolina be dethroned? – Steven S.
Stanford did some good things against South Carolina – the defense and rebounding in particular impressed – but the overall effort was disappointing, especially because of the team’s lack of poise. If the Cardinal couldn’t take care of business in a game when Aliyah Boston sat on the bench for the entire second quarter, it’s hard to believe they’ll fare better against the defending champs when the preseason player of the year is on the court for 30-plus minutes.
Two things really stand out to me for Stanford moving forward. Brink has to be more careful with her fouls, and Tara VanDerveer has to be more willing to let Brink play through foul trouble. Brink will never learn to be more disciplined if she isn’t getting the minutes. The Cardinal have some nice frontcourt depth — Ashton Prechtel in particular did a wonderful job defensively on Boston — but they are so much better with Brink on the court. She provides versatility that none of their other bigs has with her shooting, off-the-dribble game, and post-ups.
The other note for Stanford is to work on its offensive execution. The team felt so stagnant down the stretch when the Gamecocks stopped allowing cutters. There was too much one-on-one play from Haley Jones and Brink, and though both are quite talented, it’s not a sustainable way to run an offense. The Cardinal need more movement, especially with Hannah Jump, who is far too good of a shooter to be parked in the corner for 15 minutes in a row.
On the South Carolina side of things, my thoughts haven’t changed much since my instant reaction. The Gamecocks are battle-tested and rock solid. Good luck to any challengers.
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(Top photo of Caitlin Clark (22) of the Iowa Hawkeyes: Greg Fiume / Getty Images)