ISO Spotlight: 24 Things to Watch for in Women's Basketball

The college basketball season is just around the corner, so it's time to take a look around the state and look at what we can expect from the teams around Texas.

There are — for one more season until Texas A&M Commerce joins the Southland — 24 Division I programs in the state of Texas, which means 24 women's basketball teams enter the year with varying degrees of hope. There's the national title hopes of Baylor. There's the excitement of the new-look WAC, led by SFA, one of the top mid-major programs in the country. There's the possibility for surprising conference championships from teams like Houston Baptist, North Texas, and UTEP.

Let's take a look at one key storyline for each team in the state.

Abilene Christian: ACU had a great start to last season. Heading into a January meeting with Sam Houston, the Wildcats were 9-2. But the team finished 14-13, with a 6-7 record in conference play and three losses in the WBI at the end of the year. There's talent on this team like Paige Emborsky and Kamryn Mraz, but how will that talent adjust to the WAC?

Baylor: It's a new era in Waco, as Kim Mulkey departed for LSU and former Atlanta Dream head coach Nicki Collen is now in charge. This remains the most talented team in the state, but it'll be interesting to see how Collen's system differs from Mulkey's. Expect a lot more shooting than you're used to seeing from Baylor. (And don't be shocked to see a longer exploration of this topic from me soon — the idea of a radically different Bears team is something I'm excited to dig deeper on.)

Houston: The Cougars have arguably the best second-year player in the state in Laila Blair, and Britney Onyeje is going to make a huge leap this year. This team has robbed of a NCAA Tournament spot last year, but look for UH to make it to the dance for the first time since the 2010-11 season.

Houston Baptist: The Huskies went 6-7 in conference play last year, but four of those losses were to teams that left for the WAC. The Huskies will be led by Timia Jefferson, who made the Southland's preseason first team, and uhh...look, I legitimately think Houston Baptist can with the Southland.

Incarnate Word: If a Texas team wins the Southland, it'll probably be Houston Baptist, but don't count UIW out. This team saw a lot of COVID-related cancelations last season, at one point playing just one game between a December 5th win over Sul Ross and a conference loss to SFA on January 16th, and then seeing the next three games after the SFA one canceled too. There were some decent wins and close losses on the team's schedule and a lot of young talent on this team.

Lamar: Lamar probably won't get out of the middle of the WAC this year, but the team will get some good play out of Michaela Wilson, who averaged 12.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.0 steals, and 0.5 blocks last year while posting a 94th percentile rebounding rate.

North Texas: The Mean Green have steadily improved under Jalie Mitchell and now are poised to possibly win Conference USA, thanks in large part to the anticipated play of Quincy Noble, the conference's Co-Preseason Player of the Year. Noble took a huge leap last year in her first season in Denton, averaging 17.9 points per game, shooting 37.5% from three, and adding in 1.9 assists and 1.1 steals per game. 

Prairie View A&M: Picked to finish 10th in the SWAC, Prairie View isn't likely going to win a ton of games this year. But the team had a pretty good defense last year and returns Diana Rosenthal, who averaged 12.3 points and 2.2 steals per game. It's worth watching the Panthers a few times just to see her play.

Rice: For the past few years, Conference USA has been Rice's to lose, but with the coach and the best player both now at Washington, it's a new era in Houston. Haylee Swayze is the team's best returning player, so don't expect the Owls to be contending for the conference title just yet.

Sam Houston: Last year's star, Amber Leggett, left to play for Troy, but the team brings in former UTSA guard Mikayla Woods, a 2019-20 member of the C-USA All-Freshman team who averaged 12.6 points and ranked 23rd in the country in steals per game last year. She's ranked top 30 in the country in steals in both of her seasons.

SMU: SMU played six games last year, losing all six and then ending the season. Not a lot to go on when it comes to figuring this team out, but it's worth noting that two very good Rice role players, Sydne Wiggins and Jasmine Smith, transferred to SMU. Plus, there's some local talent, like Zaria Rufus from Duncanville and senior Amber Bacon from South Grand Prairie. This team could be fun. It could also lose the majority of its games. We'll see.

Stephen F. Austin: SFA was one of the best teams in the country last year, ranking first in defensive rating, ninth in offensive rating, and second in net rating. The team lost three games: to Arizona State, Houston, and to Georgia Tech in the tournament. The latter two losses were by one possession. And yet, I'm not seeing a ton of talk about an SFA team that brings back Stephanie Visscher and Aiyana Johnson outside of the Dave Campbell's universe. The team didn't get any votes in the AP poll, for instance, and they were picked to finish second in the WAC to Cal Baptist. And yeah, CBU had an undefeated regular season last year, but *motions to the numbers for the Ladyjacks* come on, y'all. Is this going to be another year of fighting for recognition for SFA?

Tarleton: Tarleton's first year in Division I saw the team go 4-10 in WAC play. And sure, two of those wins were against Chicago State, but that means two weren't! The team played Cal Baptist close and it beat New Mexico State. There's a lot of winnable non-conference games this year, but also a tougher conference schedule. Look for incremental improvement and some strong play from Lucy Benson and Iyana Dorsey.

TCU: Lauren Heard is back. Reagan Pebley is a really good coach. I don't think those two things are going to coalesce into a ton of wins, but TCU will be a tough out every night.

Texas: Gone is Charli Collier, the No.1 pick in last year's WNBA Draft. In are a lot of talented freshmen, led by 6-1 forward Aaliyah Moore, the preseason Big 12 Freshman of the Year. The team also added Cy Creek teammates Rori Harmon and Kyndall Hunter, plus Canadian player Latasha Lattimore. Vic Schaefer has a lot of young talent to work with in Austin.

Texas A&M: There will be plenty of time to talk about the on-court stuff with A&M, but let's take a moment to appreciate the end of an era, as this will be Gary Blair's final season as a head coach. The 76-year-old took the reins in College Station in 2003 and led the Aggies to the 2011 championship. He also won seven Southland regular-season titles at SFA early in his career. How far can A&M go in a tough SEC in Blair's final season?

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi: It'll be fun to watch Alecia Westbrook this year, but the Islanders window closed after the 2019-20 season. Last year's team was 4-7 in conference play and while there were encouraging wins late in the year after UIW and Houston Baptist, this team doesn't feel quite ready to reach the heights they did a few years back.

Texas Southern: Cynthia Cooper-Dyke's team was picked to finish sixth in the conference preseason poll. There's some serious talent on this team like Jenay Bojorquez and Ataiya Bridges and Niya Mitchell appears on the team's roster again this year after playing just two games last year. Mitchell's last full season saw her finish eight in Division I in rebounds per game and 14th in steals per game while also ranking 28th in field goal percentage. This team is better than sixth in the SWAC.

Texas State: Have you watched Da'Nasia Hood play basketball before? If not, then you definitely should, especially with the Bobcats set to contend in the Sun Belt this year. It's been a few years since this team was challenging at the top of the conference standings, but with Hood plus Kennedy Taylor and Lauryn Thompson, there's a lot of talent in San Marcos. 

Texas Tech: Tech won't win the Big 12 in Krista Gerlich's second season, but a completely revamped roster — still led by Vivian Gray — will start to reveal what Gerlich's longterm plan is. Keep an eye on SMU transfer Rhyle McKinney.

UT-Arlington: Last season, Shereka Wright took over as UTA head coach in September after Krista Gerlich left for Tech. Wright's first year saw the team with an early run of COVID cancelations, but the Mavs managed to get most of the conference schedule in, going 11-4. With players like Claire Chastain, Terryn Milton, and Katie Ferrell, this team can win the Sun Belt. I won't go as far as picking them over Troy because Troy is just such an offensive juggernaut that pushes the pace so much that teams just can't catch up, but I am saying UTA has the talent to upset the Trojans.

UTEP: The Miners have the best pure point guard in Texas in Katia Gallegos. They added TCU transfer Adhel Tac, and there's just a ton of youth on this team. Some good players transferred out though, so I'm not totally sure what to think of UTEP. They should have the talent to win any night in conference play — it'll just depend on how quickly things come together.

UTRGV: The addition of other Texas schools to the WAC has dropped UTRGV further out of the discussion in the conference. I'm not sure what the longterm upside of this program is, but I can say that I'm genuinely excited to see Sara Bershers and Arianna Sturdivant this season and to see if that duo can turn the Vaqueros into contenders over the next few seasons.

UTSA: Former Texas coach Karen Aston takes over a Roadrunners team that went 2-18 last season and failed to win a conference game. UTSA has made some great hires across multiple sports over the past few years and Aston is definitely a great hire, but how fast can she get this program turned around? She'll have some solid players to help get this rebuild going, like freshman Texas transfer Elyssa Coleman and Lamar transfer Jadyn Pimentel.

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